Earlier this summer technology commentators collectively rolled their eyes at the news that a smartphone app called Yo had raised $1.5 million. The app does one thing: it sends the message “Yo” to people who follow you. And it’s valued at between $5 million and $10 million. That such a seemingly trivial app was so highly valued plunged some into despair and revived fears that we are in the midst of a “tech bubble”.
Whether or not Yo is the new Pets.com, it is true that the headline-friendly face of technology can sometimes be a little embarrassing. As with any industry, some products are silly and trivial. But there is also great work being done in technology and that’s something that the Technology Pioneers programme aims to celebrate and nurture.
Established in 2000, the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers programme recognizes innovative companies that are working with new technologies and could potentially have a significant impact on business and society. Pioneers are usually in the start-up phase and must demonstrate visionary leadership and a proven technology.
Just reading through a list of previous Tech Pioneers is inspiring. You’ll find companies that are tackling important problems in health, the environment and society. Look back over the years and you will find some that have succeeded spectacularly and others that have changed course or, in a few cases, disappeared entirely. I was tempted to describe that last group as having “failed” but it’s hard to say that any of these companies have failed because their work might well become the foundation of somebody else’s efforts.
Last year’s list is a good example of the variety that the Technology Pioneers programme brings together. Perhaps the most high profile company on that list was Nest, the maker of smart thermostats and smoke detectors. In January this year Nest was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion. Another Tech Pioneer that saw its public profile rise over the last year was Airbnb, the online marketplace for holiday rentals.
But the lower profile companies were just as fascinating. It might take years, for example, for bluebird bio’s gene therapy technology to reach its full potential, but once it has it could transform our approach to diseases such as adrenoleukodystrophy and thalassemia. It might one day be applied to certain cancers.
Meanwhile, Rethink Robotics is changing workplaces across the world with Baxter, a two-handed manufacturing robot that can be taught new tasks quickly and easily by its human colleagues.
These companies join an impressive list of past Tech Pioneers, such as Akustica (2003), which made the world’s first digital microphone and was acquired by Bosch in 2009, social media giant Twitter (2002) and, of course, Google itself, which was a Tech Pioneer back in 2002.
The 2015 list is still cloaked in secrecy but when it is published on 26 August it will highlight some of the groundbreaking work being done in cybernetics, materials transformation and other cutting-edge technological fields.
Author: Shane Richmond is a specialist in digital media, who writes about technology for the Forum.
Image: Visitors stand in front of QR-codes information panels during a ceremony to open an information showroom in central Moscow April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov