Eight Innovators to Watch in 2017

Meet original thinkers who are breaking ground in medicine, art, drone design, fighting climate change and more

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Clockwise from top left: Justin Kao; Rachel Rossin; Kendra Kuhl, Nicholas Flanders, Etosha Cave; Adam Bry

Innovation is almost always about collaboration. Rarely are breakthroughs the result of a genius working alone. And yet there are always some innovators who take the lead and help ensure that game-changing ideas become reality. Here are eight to keep your eyes on in 2017.

Kendra Kuhl, Nicholas Flanders, Etosha Cave: Turning Waste CO2 Into Useful Products

(Opus 12)

One of the bigger challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been making carbon capture feasible on a meaningful scale. That’s the process where waste carbon dioxide from fossil fuel power plants is “captured” and stored underground, instead of being released into the atmosphere. However, it largely remains an expensive and difficult undertaking.

But what if all that waste carbon dioxide could be converted into products that could be used?

That’s the focus of a Berkeley, California firm called Opus 12, co-founded by three scientists who met at Stanford—Kendra Kuhl, Nicholas Flanders and Etosha Cave. Together, they’ve created a small reactor that can recycle carbon dioxide into other carbon-based compounds that ultimately could be used to replace petroleum-based plastics or even converted to gasoline. In 2016, Opus 12 was chosen to receive funding from Breakout Labs, an organization that supports hard science research, and it was a winner at the Forbes Change the World competition. It also advanced to the semifinals of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition to develop breakthrough technologies that convert carbon dioxide emissions into useful products.

“In 2017,” says Kuhl, “we’ll be focusing on scaling up our device from something you can hold in your hand to something the size of a refrigerator that can take up to 500 pounds of carbon dioxide per day and convert it into higher value products.”

Wendell Lim: Programming Tiny “CellBots” to Fight Cancer

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(Image courtesy of Wendell Lim)

Immunotherapy—in which the body’s immune system is stimulated to attack tumor cells—is already seen as one of the more promising new approaches to fighting cancer. But Wendell Lim is taking this innovative treatment to another level. In September, a team led by Lim, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, published a study revealing that they were able to synthetically program T cells to function in more sophisticated, targeted ways. 

These “synNotch T cells” were engineered to zero in on tumor tissue and treat it with antibodies. They also are designed to kill tissue only when they recognize two different markers in cancer cells, a feature that greatly reduces the possibility of collateral damage to healthy tissue. Plus, they appear to have potential in battling diseases other than cancer. The T cells can be instructed to suppress an immune response, meaning they could be used to treat autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes.

So far, the synthetic T cells, which Lim describes as “microscopic robots,” have only been used in mice. But the company he co-founded, Cell Design Labs, will keep refining the tiny cellbots in the coming year, with a goal of starting human trials early in 2018.

Rachel Rossin: Blending Virtual Reality and Art

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(Image courtesy of Rachel Rossin)

No question that virtual reality took a leap into the mainstream in 2016, and that includes the world of art. That’s where New York artist Rachel Rossin is establishing herself as a pioneer when it comes to blending painting and programming. That amalgam is expressed by creating VR experiences built around scanned fragments from her paintings and photos, altered through gaming software. Then she produces abstract “still lifes”—oil paintings of the surreal digital scenes. In short, she uses the different mediums to shape each other.

Here’s how Rossin, selected as one of Artsy’s “Top Emerging Artists of 2016, has described her approach: “In both realms, there’s an interpretation in the virtual world of what reality is, and then there’s an interpretation by myself of what the virtual world is in a physical reality.”

In January, a new piece by Rossin titled “The Sky Is a Gap” will debut at the Sundance Film Festival, then move on to museums in Shanghai and Helsinski. Inspired by the explosion at the end of the 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, it allows the viewer to affect time by movement, through the use of a positionally-tracked headset.

Explains Rossin: “It entangles the views in something like a Schroödinger’s cat paradox—where the event has to happen and only happens because of the viewer’s participation.”

Adam Bry: Building a Drone That Dodges Trees

Adam Bry likes to say that the typical drone experience for a consumer is that “you take it out of the box and run it into a tree.” He knows drones can do better, mainly if they learn to fly themselves. And that’s the goal of Skydio, the California startup Bry co-founded and now heads as CEO—to make drones smart enough to fly autonomously with “agility, visual awareness, and intention beyond the capabilities of an expert pilot.”

Bry, who previously helped start Google’s Project Wing drone delivery system, is focused on building a drone that can use artificial intelligence and computer vision through cameras to make decisions as it flies. It will be able to identify trees and other objects and avoid them. Bry predicts that in five years, a drone crashing will be a “weird, foreign thing.” 

“Our mission is to make the magic and power of flight a part of everyday life through trusted and useful flying robots,” says Bry, who, in 2016, was named one of the top 35 Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review. “In 2017, we will launch our first product that uses deep learning and artificial intelligence to deliver on the promise of the autonomous flying camera.”

Justin Kao: An Online Store for DNA Analysis

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(Image courtesy of Justin Kao)

Now that it’s possible to get your DNA analyzed, why not have the equivalent of an apps store where you’re given a choice of what else you want to learn about your genes? That’s the premise behind Helix, a personal genomics company looking to become the online marketplace for genetic self-analysis. Justin Kao, one of the San Francisco firm’s co-founders and now its senior vice president of development and partnerships, sees a business with much potential. “There will come a time in our life when every single person is going to benefit from having his or her DNA sequence readily available,” he says.

Named one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of the Year, Helix has lined up partners ranging from National Geographic to the Mayo Clinic to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Once the company does a complete DNA analysis of a person’s saliva sample, it securely stores all the data. Then that complete genetic code can be used for any of the DNA analysis services offered by Helix’s partners, whether it’s to trace a person’s ancestry or determine if they’re likely to pass a particular health condition on to their children. National Geographic’s ancestry-tracing service became the first DNA product available in the Helix store in November; more will be added throughout 2017.

Says Kao: “Whether you want to know about your risk for cancer, what you could pass down to your kids or just want to find a bottle of wine that's better suited for your taste buds, Helix will have an app for that.”

Natasia Malaihollo: Making Surveys Fun and Fast

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(Image courtesy of Natasia Malaihollo)

It’s no secret that people don’t like to fill out surveys. They’re time-consuming and often boring, and most of us dismiss them as an annoyance of modern life. Not Natasia Malaihollo. She’s out to prove there’s a better way to get feedback, one that can actually feel like fun.

She’s the CEO and the co-founder of Wyzerr, a startup based in Covington, Kentucky that’s refining a new survey model, one that feels more like a mobile game or social media app than an exam. It’s built around a technology called Smartforms, which uses artificial intelligence to digest customer responses in real time and adapt the questions accordingly, making each survey feel personalized. They’re also designed to be over quickly. Smartforms, according to Malaihollo, can get answers to 25 questions in less than a minute—which helps explain why Wyzerr is able to claim that the average completion rate of its surveys if higher than 80 percent.

Wyzerr has worked with some big clients, including Wal-Mart, but Malaihollo is particularly excited about the technology’s potential as a research tool for companies or groups with more limited resources.

“We want to make enterprise-level market research available to everyone by harnessing artificial intelligence to perform some of the laborious—and very expensive—tasks that researchers currently perform manually,” she says. “Everything we love, from our iPhones to our computers to our cars, began with quality market research. Imagine if students, startups and small businesses had access to the same type of market research capabilities as Tesla, Apple and Microsoft. The playing field would be much more level, and the marketplace much more competitive.”