Much as we recognize the necessity of getting our children vaccinated, few parents enjoy the ritual of holding their infants as a nurse jabs a needle into their arm. How much less stressful it would be if the needle were instead a 1cm-square patch, painlessly applied to the skin.
This could soon be a reality thanks to Vaxxas, one of the 24 companies named today by the World Economic Forum as its Technology Pioneers for 2015. The Australian firm’s Nanopatch consists of thousands of microprojectors – invisible to the naked eye – which deliver vaccine material just beneath the outer skin layer. The Nanopatch gets the same immune response as traditional needle-and-syringe vaccinations using as little as a hundredth of the dose. And because it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, it can easily be transported to remote areas.
The nanotechnology behind the Nanopatch is just one of a wide range of new technologies that are now converging to revolutionize healthcare, as demonstrated by this year’s crop of pioneers from the sector. Breakthroughs in DNA sequencing and data analytics are behind the ability of Guardant Health to monitor and inform cancer treatment using a simple blood test, rather than risky and expensive biopsies: tumours constantly shed DNA into the blood, and more sophisticated analysis of the data can pinpoint how the tumour is progressing and enable doctors to advise on the most effective treatment.
Yet another technology – 3D printing – is being used by Organovo. The company is working on printing functional, living human tissue, which promises to improve the process of testing drugs for toxicity and efficacy. Also helping the drug discovery and testing process is Labcyte, withits use of sound energy making it possible to transfer liquids with much greater accuracy – down to the billionth of a litre – than by using pipettes.
Around 600 companies have been named as Technology Pioneers since the programme began in 2000. During that time, the companies – selected by a committee of world-renowned experts – have proved to be a strong indicator of upcoming trends. And the ability to store and manipulate data in ever-greater quantities is one trend that looks set to have ever-deepening impact on many walks of life.
Completing our health sector pioneers, Health Catalyst has developed data warehousing architecture and analytics to help health systems improve the quality and efficiency of care. In the energy sector, AutoGrid Systems uses data from smart meters and other equipment to create a living picture of the energy grid and reduce wastage of energy; as the company puts it, effectively “big data becomes a new source of power”.
We assuredly need new sources of power, and new ways of using power more efficiently, given the growing pressures on our climate. Pioneers in this sector demonstrate cause for optimism by approaching the challenge from multiple angles. Cambrian Innovation generates energy by treating industrial wastewater, which can then be re-used, using bioelectric technology. Mera Gao Micro Grid Power is providing clean, low-cost energy to India’s off-grid poor by combining centrally located solar panels and batteries. Proterra is developing a new kind of zero-emission bus, making public transport an even more eco-friendly option.
Any technology that can reduce the need for oil is cause for excitement, and Genomatica completes our clean-tech sectorpioneers with its ability toproduce widely-used chemicals from feedstocks. For example, 1,4-Butanediol may not be a household name, but billions of dollars of it are used annually in everything from automotives to athletic apparel; usually derived from fossil fuels, it can now be made affordably and at commercial scale by fermenting sugars.
It’s not only from feedstocks that oil-based products can be derived – the carbon capture technology of Newlight Technologies converts greenhouse gases into plastics, which can out compete oil-based plastics on price and performance. Also in the business of materials transformation, Silicor Materials has developed a new way of making solar silicon for photovoltaic cells, halving the cost of traditional methods and using significantly less energy.
Every new crop of Tech Pioneers brings technologies that seem to have leapt straight from the screen of a science fiction movie, and this year is no exception. The amphibious snake-like robot made by Japan’s HiBot Corporation promises to save lives by reducing the need for humans to perform dangerous jobs such as pipe inspections. Meanwhile, the Avegant Corporation will start shipping itsGlyph headset in 2015; its virtual retinal display, which projects images directly onto the user’s retina, could have future applications for the functionally blind.
What future applications will be found for the Raspberry Pi is anybody’s guess. The UK-based not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation has built this low-cost microcomputer with the aim of encouraging kids around the world to experiment and learn. The size of a credit card, the Pi has been used for everything from streaming media to flying drones.
The Pi is based on the open-source Linux platform, as is the Ubuntu operating system, which runs on smartphones, PCs, servers and the cloud; Canonical Group is the company which develops Ubuntu and offers support that makes it a realistic option for governments and businesses. The open source theme is continued in the database technology of Couchbase, another of this year’s pioneers in the computing and digital platforms category.
This group of pioneers is rounded out by LearnUp, which offers online training to help match employers with jobseekers; and Ionic Security, which is developing a way for individuals and organizations to meet the challenge of keeping data secure in a world of mobile and cloud computing.
Our final category of pioneers is in the related field of connectivity and smart infrastructure. It includes Eta Devices, which enables mobile phones and base stations to consume less power; and Kakao Corporation, the company behind KakaoTalk, a mobile ecosystem covering 93% of South Korea’s population and connecting its diaspora around the world.
Two of our Technology Pioneers are at the cutting edge of a trend which promises to have far-reaching effects: the Internet of Things (IoT), which will see more and more everyday devices come online with the ability to collect and use data to improve their own performance. Jasper Technologies offers a global cloud software platform that enables enterprises to launch, manage and monetize IoT service businesses. SmartThings is an app which enables consumers to control a variety of connected devices in their home – from locks to light switches to thermostats – from a single mobile interface.
Our final Tech Pioneer for 2015 represents another trend that is overturning business models far and wide: the sharing economy. BlaBlaCar, which connects people who need to travel long distances with drivers who have empty seats, is set apart by its emphasis on sociability – users can rate how chatty they like to be, on a scale from Bla to BlaBlaBla – and its focus on cost-sharing rather than profit-making: there is a limit, based on calculating fuel use, on what drivers are allowed to charge.
Fundamental to BlaBlaCar, as throughout the sharing economy, is the building of trust through a mutual ratings system. Essentially, BlaBlaCar is making it possible to engage with confidence in an activity – hitch-hiking – which has traditionally been seen as useful in principle, but unacceptably risky in practice. It is using technology to unlock value: the very essence of a technology pioneer.
Author: Fulvia Montresor is Director, Head of Technology Pioneers for the World Economic Forum
Image: Graduate student Katie Bates studies a slice of rodent Parkinsonian brain tissue slices in the Nanomedicine Lab at UCL’s School of Pharmacy in London. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett