Eight Innovators to Watch in 2016

These thinkers are making fascinating developments in medicine, economics, art, music and more

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Jeannette Garcia is pioneering recyclable plastics. IBM

We write about fascinating innovations all year round here at Smithsonian, which was why it was so hard to choose this select group of innovators to watch for 2016. But these scientists, musicians, artists and educators stood out even in a crowded field. Expect great things from them in the coming year. 

Grace Wardhana, educational app creator

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(Kiko Labs )

When Wardhana found herself the mother of a tablet-obsessed child, she wondered why there weren’t more quality game-based tablet learning opportunities. So she launched Kiko Labs, which creates learning games based on principles of neuroscience. Kiko Labs' product, Kiko’s Thinking Time, was developed in collaboration with Harvard and Berkeley neuroscientists and is aimed at helping children develop executive function—the skills of memory, focus and self-regulation necessary for success in school, work and beyond. In October, Kiko Labs announced that Kiko’s Thinking Time will be offered in schools as part of an effort to improve school readiness for preschoolers.

Jeannette Garcia, recyclable plastics pioneer

(IBM)

Garcia, a chemist at IBM, came upon her big discovery as the result of an accident. While mixing ingredients in the lab, she left a solution sitting in a test tube for too long and it solidified. Ever-curious, Garcia examined the solid mass and realized she’d hit on something big: a new class of polymer that’s tough, light and recyclable. Researchers had long been seeking a way to make thermoset plastics—plastics that harden when heated, used in everything from electronics to architecture—recyclable. But no one had figured out how to make thermoset plastics that could be melted down. That is, until Garcia. Her discovery earned her a spot on the prestigious MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators under 35 list this year. Chances are good we’ll be seeing her invention being utilized in phones, airplanes, buildings and more in the years to come. 

Ed Rex, composer and AI music software creator

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(Jukedeck )

This young, Cambridge-trained composer works in an ancient genre—choral music—updated for 21st-century causes and concerns. At first blush, his “On That Pale Blue Dot” could have been written a millennium ago. But the piece is actually an arrangement of Carl Sagan’s words on Earth and the universe that Rex created to be played on a smartphone sent into outer space on the Cambridge University Spaceflight. Rex’s name hit the tech media this month when his side project, Jukedeck, an AI music creation software, won TechCrunch Disrupt London. Jukedeck users pick the length, genre and mood of the song they want, and the software’s algorithm does the rest. The resulting songs start at just $7 a pop and are royalty-free, a boon for independent filmmakers and others.

Elizabeth Mormino, Alzheimer’s foe

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(Berkeley )

Researchers have long known that protein clumps called amyloids are involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. These amyloids, which are found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients at autopsy, are thought to destroy synapses and kill off cells. But what Massachusetts General Hospital neuroscientist Mormino discovered, using a novel new imaging technique, was that many healthy people actually have amyloids in their brains as well. This suggests that either the Alzheimer’s process begins long before symptoms manifest, and/or that certain people have protective factors that keep their amyloids from harming their brains. In the coming years, she’ll be using imaging technology to identify high-amyloid individuals to recruit participants for a study of whether anti-amyloid treatments given before the development of Alzheimer’s might stave off the disease. If it works, it could be a game changer for treatment of Alzheimer’s, a disease expected to affect more than 7 million Americans by 2025.

José Manuel Moller, hunger fighter

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(Algramo )

While working in a low-income area on the outskirts of Santiago, Chilean entrepreneur Moller realized that lack of access to affordable staple foods and household products was a major problem for residents. With little spending money, locals were forced to buy necessities in small quantities at a relatively high price. So Moller created Algramo—Spanish for “by the gram”—to make bulk purchasing more affordable. The program issues dispensary machines to local markets, stocked with items like lentils and detergent. The first purchase is free; after, users can bring a reusable container to fill. Residents benefit from the savings of bulk purchasing, and the lack of packaging means less waste. The machines are merely the first step towards establishing partnerships with local markets, which can then sell other Algramo bulk items. Moller’s concept earned him a spot on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list this year. He plans to take the Algramo concept across Latin America in 2016 and beyond. 

Dennis Lo, cancer hunter

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(Chinese University of Hong Kong )

In the near future, many cancers may be detectable through a simple blood test long before they cause symptoms. This is in large part thanks to the work of Dennis Lo, a chemical pathologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has pioneered the so-called “liquid biopsy.” Lo was one of the first researchers to see DNA analysis of blood as a potential cancer-screening tool. He is now in the middle of two large studies to see whether or not this actually works. One study looks at carriers of Hepatitis B, a known risk factor for liver cancer, to see if blood tests can spot cancers before ultrasound. Another uses blood tests to catch a type of throat cancer common among men in China. Early results have been promising—of the cancers detected, most were in an early, treatable stage. MIT Technology Review has named Lo’s work as one of the top 10 breakthrough technologies of 2015. Expect to read about more results in the coming year. 

Kapwani Kiwanga, futurescape artist

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(kapwanikiwanga.org )

Kiwanga, a Canadian-born, Paris-based artist, uses her anthropology background to put on immersive video, sound and performance shows about imaginary future worlds. Notable is her Afrogalactica trilogy, which gives a faux anthropological account of the “United States of Africa Space Agency” in the 22nd century, where hundreds of “Afronauts” colonize outer space. Kiwanga will be doing her first solo U.S. show in 2016, at New York’s enormous Armory show. For her methodical, science-inspired work, art website Artsy has named her one of their Emerging Artists to Watch for 2016. 

Kartik Chandran, clean water innovator

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(MacArthur Foundation )

An environmental engineer at Columbia University, Chandran is working to transform the pollution-heavy process of wastewater treatment into something that can be not just neutral, but environmentally positive. His work focuses on using microbes to clean water while also producing useful products like fertilizers and fuels. He’s figured out a way to use ammonia-oxidizing bacteria to turn harmful methane into methanol, a chemical useful to many industries. His reenvisioning of a dirty, traditionally unglamorous arena won him a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship, a $625,000 grant with no strings attached. He says he’ll be using the money to help “solve global societal and human challenges."