Call it the millennial mindset. From talking to many of the inspirational – and often youthful – founders of the 49 companies named today by the World Economic Forum as the 2015 class of Technology Pioneers, what emerges again and again is the impression that these entrepreneurs are motivated more by a sense of mission than a desire for profit.
From the laboratories of Epibone, where researchers are perfecting “grow your own bone” techniques to help patients who need bone reconstruction surgery, to Hampton Creek where scientists are cataloguing the properties of every known plant in a bid to reinvent the global food system – there is unmistakable drive to improve the state of the world.
That applies as much to the virtual world as to the real world. Crowdstrike, which recently snagged a $100 million investment from Google – itself a former Tech Pioneer – is making the web safer, by improving the ability of systems to detect attacks; Wickr wants to make the web more private, enabling users to send one another encrypted files and set them to self-destruct after a specified time; OpenGov is out to improve how governments serve their citizens through its tools to make public budget information transparently shareable online.
This year’s class of 49 splits broadly into three categories. The largest is information technology, which features 21 companies and is dominated by digital security.
Aside from those already mentioned, security-focused Tech Pioneers include Darktrace, which is improving the detection of “unknown unknown” threats by equipping online systems with a kind of immune system; Data Theorem, which constantly scans its clients’ mobile apps for gaps in security or data privacy, locking down problems before others can exploit them; and Sedicii, which has come up with an ingenious way to verify a user’s identify without the user needing to send a password, with the risk of it being intercepted. Meanwhile, Axcient mirrors entire businesses in the cloud, so that when problems do occur, applications keep running and no data is lost.
With a digital currency designed to make international payments more secure and affordable, Ripple Labs bridges the theme of security and another common feature in this category – the growing relevance of technology to the financial world. Small business owners looking for more affordable ways to accept card payments can use the free chip-and-pin reader from iZettle, which works with a smartphone. TransferWise is making foreign currency exchange cheaper by matching people who want to make transfers in opposite directions, eliminating the need for either to pay broker charges. Xulu has introduced an automated investment manager, bringing bespoke financial advice from the world of millionaires to more modest investors.
Data analysis continues to be a hot topic. Ayasdi has pioneered a new mathematical technique to simplify the extraction of knowledge from complex data sets, while Alation is focusing on making life easier for businesses that have data scattered across different departments, databases and formats. Dataminr is seeking to be the first to identify breaking news by continuously analysing data from sources such as Twitter. Analysed data needs to be translated into formats non-tech-minded humans can understand, as Domo is focusing on with its business-management platform.
Amid the excitement about the increasing possibilities of connectivity, it is easy to forget that much of the world’s population is not yet online. Mimosa Networks is putting that right with a new take on wireless technology that promises super-fast connections for areas too remote to make fibre connections viable. 1 Mainstream, meanwhile, is democratizing the ability to get video content on to platforms such as Apple TV, Samsung, Roku and Chromecast. Also aimed at video content providers, Neon Labs is using models of how the human brain processes images to choose the still image that is most likely to get users to click on a video.
Still more ambitiously inspired by the human brain, artificial intelligence company Vicarious is making waves with its new approach to drawing inspiration from neuroscience. Also pushing the envelope on information technology is 1QBit, building applications for quantum processors which promise to perform certain kinds of operations much more quickly than conventional computers. Last but not least in the technology section comes Matternet, which produces drones that can safely and autonomously deliver small parcels.
Our next category is life sciences and health, with 14 companies – although it can be difficult to decide where the information technology category ends and the health one begins. HealthTap is aiming to improve the efficiency of healthcare by pioneering online doctor-patient consultations. Ginger.io uses smartphone activity to track mental health, alerting patients’ care providers if unusual patterns of activity are detected.
Wearables continue to command attention, with AliveCor producing a device that enables anyone with a smartphone to take and analyse an ECG. It helps in early warning, in this case of heart-related conditions such as stroke.
Our understanding of disease at the genetic level continues to inspire new diagnostics and treatments. EDITAS Medicine is pioneering the ability to edit DNA using CRISPR/Cas9 and TALENs technologies, effectively turning off disease-causing genes. Two of our Tech Pioneers are focused on the eye: Avalanche Biotechnologies is developing gene therapy for wet age-related macular degeneration, while Avellino Lab offers DNA tests for risk of granular corneal dystrophy, both conditions that can lead to vision loss.
Cancer treatment continues to attract new entrants. Kite Pharma is pressing the body’s own immune system into service, by genetically redirecting T-cells to attack tumours. The novel approach of NovoCure is to treat solid tumours with electric fields, which attack the cancerous growth by interfering with its process of cell division.
Two of this year’s Tech Pioneers are taking forward our understanding of the brain – ElMindA through a sensor-filled helmet that detects patterns of brain activity, and Inscopix through a miniaturized microscope system that monitors large groups of neurons at single-cell resolution.
Rounding out the health and life-sciences category are a three Tech Pioneers working on portable, affordable diagnostic devices: Butterfly Network is out to democratize access to ultrasound technology; Holomic enables diseases such as malaria to be tested for using a smartphone; and Consumer Physics has developed a scanner that detects the molecular content of substances, with applications including checking the content of medication or the nutritional value of food.
Our third and final category, with 14 companies, encompasses energy, the environment and infrastructure. Three Tech Pioneers focus on clean electricity: Heliatek makes solar-power cells that are thin, light and flexible enough to be used on a wide range of vehicles and buildings; Plant-e has figured out how to generate electricity by harvesting waste electrons from the roots of living plants, without damaging the plants’ growth; and Tokamak Energy believes fusion power is finally ready to deliver on its promise of becoming a feasible option for large-scale energy generation.
Moving from producing to using electricity, Stem has created a system that combines predictive software with battery hardware to increase the energy efficiency of businesses, and thereby grids. Also mitigating climate change, Carbon Clean Solutions is pioneering a new way of capturing carbon dioxide from energy-generation plants and other industrial processes.
Two of our Tech Pioneers are improving the environment through recycling. BlueOak Resources is working to make the technology value chain circular by building a network of refineries that produce high-value metals from electronic waste; and Miniwiz is combining plastic waste with agricultural waste to produce a new range of materials that are suitable for applications from high-end consumer goods to the construction industry. Also focused on construction, CoeLux produces artificial light fixtures that look and act like apertures on to a clean and sunny sky.
Agriculture is the focus for two more of our companies. Protix Biosystems has worked out how to farm insects on a mass scale, efficiently producing fertilizers and animal feed rich in fats and protein. Blue River Technology is using robotics to improve crop yields by analysing each individual plant in a field and caring for it appropriately.
Providing information that can improve agriculture is just one of the applications for data produced by the hundred-plus nanosatellites Spire Global has collecting data from space. Also in the data-sensor business is Sensity Systems, which is using the conversion of high-wattage street lights to efficient LEDs as an opportunity to embed sensing and networking technology that can make cities smarter.
Rounding out this year’s crop of 49 Tech Pioneers is Carbon3D, which has a new approach to 3D printing – it works by solidifying liquid resin, with results that are both stronger and produced more quickly than the traditional approach of adding material in layers. We welcome all these companies to the community of Tech Pioneers and look forward to seeing their innovations develop, roll out and improve people’s lives over the years.
Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here.
Author: Fulvia Montresor, Director, Head of Technology Pioneers, World Economic Forum.
Image: An employee conducts tests at an antenna near field, at a factory of FiberHome Technologies Group, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, July 27, 2015. REUTERS/China Daily