Eight Innovators to Watch in 2015

From food science and robotics to solar tech and sustainable architecture, these folks are poised to do big things

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(Clockwise from top left) Katrin Macmillan, Ashutosh Saxena, Richard Lunt and Horace Luke are hard at work on exciting new projects.

2014 was all about wearable technology, drones, 3D printing and smart home devices. If you want, you can now control your thermostat, lighting, security cameras, sprinkler system and more with a touch of your smartphone or tablet.

But what is in store for 2015? And who are the brains working on the next best things?

Meet eight innovators on the cusp of major breakthroughs.

David Benjamin

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(The Creators Project, YouTube)

This past summer, David Benjamin was recognized as emerging talent when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) named his firm, The Living, winner of its 2014 Young Architects Program. From late June into early September, his installation, a tower called Hy-Fi made entirely of organic bricks, graced the courtyard at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. Benjamin harnessed a living mushroom root called mycelium to form, along with chopped up cornstalks, the building blocks for the structure. Each brick took about five days to grow.

The project, he hopes, is a new model for sustainable architecture. The manufacturing of the bricks requires zero energy and emits almost no carbon dioxide, while making good use of agricultural waste. The designer is also commited to this idea of local architecture, having sourced all his materials within 150 miles from the installation site. After Hy-Fi's run, he composted the structure and scattered the remains in community gardens.

Horace Luke

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(Gogoro)

Horace Luke, a veteran of HTC and Microsoft, where he led the team that designed the Xbox, founded Gogoro in 2011. This January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the startup is set to unveil its first products, having raised upwards of $50 million in capital in the last three years.

According to the company, its mission is "to deliver consumer innovations that will improve how the world's most populated cities distribute and utilize energy," but the team has been mum about details. Chris Ziegler at the Verge found some patents Gogoro filed for motors, scooters and hybrid vehicles, hinting that the forthcoming products have something to do with transportation. The air is thick with anticipation. "The last time a well-known consumer product exec focused on energy management, the world got the Nest thermostat," wrote Katie Fehrenbacher of Gigaom.

Megan McCain

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(Photo by Michelle Henry)

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and the total costs of health care services and medications to treat the buildup of plaque in coronary arteries is about $109 billion each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Megan McCain, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California, is creating a "heart on a chip"—essentially, a quarter-sized testing ground for drugs. She takes a patient's skin cells and transforms them into stem cells and then heart cells. The chip could allow doctors, in the future, to watch a medicine react with a person's heart cells before even administering it in his or her body.

“(With organs-on-chip) you can fail fast and fail cheap,” McCain told USC. “If something’s going to interact poorly in the human heart, you want to be able catch it early.”

MIT Technology Review included the engineer on its list of "35 Innovators Under 35" this year.

Ashutosh Saxena

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(Cornell University)

Ashutosh Saxena envisions a world where robots can heed commands, such as "pour me a coffee" or "load the dishwasher," without step-by-step instructions. But unlike the novelists and screenwriters who have also dreamt this, he is actually making it happen.

The Cornell roboticist and his team are building RoboBrain, a massive online search engine of sorts for robots to use to acquire the knowledge needed to understand and then perform a task. When posed a question, RoboBrain will crawl the Internet and word, image and knowledge databases for relevant information that the robot can digest.

Richard Lunt

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(G. L. Kohuth)

What if instead of solar panels on rooftops, photovoltaics were built into the windows in high-rises? Richard Lunt, an engineer at Michigan State University, and a team of researchers have actually developed a transparent solar material that can be added to glass without even tinting the view.

Lunt and his colleagues described the groundbreaking technology in the journal Advanced Optical Materials in July and continue to work to improve its efficiency. As of now, 1 percent of incoming ultraviolet and near-infrared light is converted into electricity. The group founded Ubiquitous Energy to bring the solar material to market in the coming years. The company thinks that it will add the solar collectors to phones and tablet screens first, in hopes of eliminating the need for batteries in mobile devices, and then move on the buildings.

Carolina Osorio

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(MIT)

"The Holy Grail of signal planning is a light that stems congestion before it even starts," writes Keith Barry for CityLab. "Carolina Osorio is working toward that goal."

An assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, Osorio has developed new software for timing traffic lights that has proven to cut the duration of commutes by 22 percent, and fuel consumption too. Her system, recently described in the journal Transportation Science, takes into account observed traffic patterns as well as predictions of how drivers might behave in certain scenarios.

"If the travel times increase on an arterial [road], then people might divert," Osorio told Smithsonian.com. “Most signal-timing software looks at current or historical traffic patterns. It doesn’t take into account how travel might change."

The engineer is helping the New York City Department of Transportation mitigate traffic in Manhattan. She is also working on an application for car-sharing companies that will determine optimal locations for their vehicles.

Charles Spence

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(Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University)

The restaurant consulting firm Baum + Whiteman releases an annual list of the hottest trends in dining for the coming year. Neurogastronomy made the group's 2015 forecast. "It's all about how our senses cumulatively react to food, and how to profitably manipulate those senses," says the release.

Charles Spence, arguably the father of neurogastronomy, is a professor of experimental psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. He studies how things like lighting, the color of our dinnerware and music affect the way we taste food. In fact, this Christmas, Spence suggested listening to specific songs—Celine Dion's "The Christmas Song," Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Rod Stewart and Dave Koz's "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and Dean Martin's "Baby, It's Cold Outside"—to sweeten a holiday meal.

While Spence has worked with chefs and large corporations, the Guardian argued this fall that he is poised to change the way we eat at home, with the release of his new book, The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining.

Katrin Macmillan

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(Projects for All)

Katrin Macmillan is the founder of Projects for All, a nonprofit that is assembling outdoor, solar-powered computer kiosks in remote villages. Called Hello Hubs, the Internet stations, with games, software, video and still cameras, are meant to provide a digital education to adults and children who aren't being taught by teachers in schools. The first hub is in Suleja, Nigeria, and the group intends to build others, with help from locals, in areas of Africa, South America, Asia and the Caribbean.