“With disruptive technologies, it’s often the case that the killer app turns out to be one that’s not even conceived of when the technology is first developed.” That’s a quote from Gerald E. Loeb, chief executive officer of SynTouch, one of the 36 innovative technology start-ups named today by the World Economic Forum as Technology Pioneers. SynTouch has invented robot fingers with the sensitivity of human touch. What impact might this technology have in 5, 10 or 20 years?
For the other 35 Tech Pioneers, too – chosen for their potential to generate new opportunities and solutions – this is a question to tease the imagination.
Imagine, for example, programming your immune system not to be set off by pollen, or peanuts, or a transplanted organ. Imagine there being no incentive to clear rainforests for tropical hardwood, because renewable softwood – treated with biowaste – is as beautiful, durable and affordable.
Imagine being on a hiking vacation and never having to worry about your smartphone running out of battery, because you have not one but two ways to keep it powered: its touchscreen contains transparent photovoltaic cells, and your t-shirt can generate electricity from your body heat.
Imagine an online world populated by websites that instantaneously construct themselves in response to what they know about you. For example, your phone knows that you’ve just passed security in the airport, and for which flight you just scanned a boarding pass, so the airline’s website shows you a personalized map to your gate.
Growing personalization is one of the trends represented by this year’s 36 Technology Pioneer companies, and the much larger pool of nominees from which they were selected by a committee comprising top technology and innovation experts, academics and venture capitalists.
Other trends include tools to make collaboration easier; a revolution in education; breakthroughs in robotics and smarter products and services – such as tiny, edible tags that act like barcodes woven into the fabric of products.
This year’s Technology Pioneers include no-brainer solutions that are both greener and cheaper – such as a more efficient way for air conditioning systems to dehumidify air.
They include companies focused on bringing products and services to developing and emerging markets, from affordable prosthetic knees to solar-powered electricity and financial services using credit ratings based on social media connections.
In the health sector, a range of Technology Pioneers are promising breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Imagine being able to screen for cancer with a routine blood test, and receive a report on the precise genetic profile of your cancer which points you towards targeted therapies.
Imagine cancer treatment that is more effective and with fewer side-effects – because it involves directly rewiring the cancer cells’ DNA, or starving them of an enzyme they need to survive, or using nanoparticles to deliver drugs directly to the tumour.
With many of these technologies, we are not there yet. But the Technology Pioneers report has historically been a fertile hunting ground for solutions that can also have an impact in other fields. Technology Pioneers from previous years include the likes of Google and Twitter, long before they were household names.
From my point of view managing the Technology Pioneers programme, I’ve been delighted with the rising importance of these companies. It’s clear that the impact of technology continues to increase in all aspects of society. Everyone now recognises the transformational impact of technology; including the fact that new players can quickly and dramatically disrupt long-established business models.
The Technology Pioneers awards will take place in a ceremony on 12 September at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2013 in Dalian, People’s Republic of China. In alphabetical order, they are: Adtelligence, Advantix Systems, Agios Pharmaceuticals, Airbnb, Alphabet Energy, AppNexus, BIND Therapeutics, bluebird bio, Bug Agentes Biologicos, Codecademy, Coursera, Cyberdyne, Data4, Dnevnik.ru, D-Rev: Design Revolution , EcoNation, Foundation Medicine, GitHub, Jana, Kaggle, Kebony, Koemei, Lenddo, LiveU, Natera, Nest Labs, Oasys Water, OMC Power, Rethink Robotics, Second Sight Medical Products, Selecta Biosciences, SunPartner, SynTouch, TruTag Technologies, Viki and Witricity Corporation
Meet the new Technology Pioneers 2014.
Image: A man is seen in front of a projection of binary code REUTERS/Kacper Pempel.