Eight Innovators to Watch in 2020

From plastic recycling pioneers to landmine foes, these dreamers have big plans for the coming year

(Clockwise from left) Michela Puddu, Elias Sime, Richard Yim and Miranda Wang Michela Puddu, Brett Moen, Richard Yim, YouTube

Our New Year’s resolutions are likely to involve something prosaic like “eating more vegetables” or “not sleeping with my phone next to my pillow.” But we are mere mortals. These following eight innovators have goals like “get rid of landmines” and “invent an electric airplane.” We're going to keep our eyes on them in the coming year: we have a feeling their grand ambitions won’t be as easily abandoned as our healthy eating plans.

Ethical Production Watchdog Michela Puddu

(Michela Puddu)

Consumers are increasingly interested in sustainable, ethical products—diamonds whose mining didn’t involve or fund human rights abuses, textiles made by workers paid a living wage. But supply chains are long and opaque, and labels like “conflict free” or “fair trade” can be applied dishonestly. How can you know the truth about where your ring or sweater comes from?

DNA, says Michela Puddu. Puddu is co-founder and CEO of Haelixa, a company that uses DNA-based tracing technology to prove product origin and integrity claims. She developed the system while completing her PhD in chemical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich). Today the company focuses on precious materials and textiles. They can trace stones back to their exact mines of origin, and determine whether “sustainable” fabrics have been mixed with lower-quality threads. Puddu hopes to expand their offerings in the coming year. Her work earned her a 2019 Rising Innovator Prize from the European Union.

“[In] 2020 I will wake up every morning thinking how I can push the company forward,” Puddu says. “I am also committed to collaborate with today’s leaders and inspire future ones, particularly women, to achieve and accelerate [sustainable development goals].”

Engineering Wunderkind Krithik Ramesh

(Krithik Ramesh)

By far the youngest innovator on our list is Krithik Ramesh, a Colorado high schooler who took home a $75,000 top prize at 2019’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Ramesh’s winning invention was an augmented reality software program for use in spinal surgery. Surgeons would use a VR headset to predict spinal movements during surgery instead of relying on continuous x-rays, which bring the risks of radiation exposure.  

A true renaissance teen, Ramesh’s inventions aren’t limited to the biomedical. In 2018, he tied for first place in Intel’s mechanical engineering category for an invention involving airplane wings. He used his prize money to install solar panels on schools in rural India.

“To me innovation is a catalyst for creating accessible and quality products to solve the world's most intractable problems,” he says.

Mixed Media Maestro Elias Sime

Elias Sime's been weaving his hauntingly gorgeous mixed media works for several decades, stitching found objects like bottle caps and buttons together with electrical wires and other electronic debris as well as natural materials like mud and straw. But 2019 was a banner year for the Ethiopian artist, and 2020 promises to follow the same upward trajectory.

Sime had his first major museum survey at Hamilton College last year, an exhibit which will travel across the U.S. and Canada in 2020. The series of collages made from computer keyboards, motherboards and electrical wires is called "Tightrope." As Sime told Artforum, "My work reclaims these machines in a tender way, as I am not in opposition to technology. It's about how to balance it with 'real' life. We've become off-balance."

In October, Sime was awarded an African Art Award at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. His site-specific installation for the museum’s entry hall, "We Are All Green," uses reclaimed electrical components to create a panel that looks soft and almost garden-like. Sime was recently commissioned by Ethiopia's prime minister to create a landscape installation in the royal palace gardens, long off-limits to visitors; work is currently underway. 

Insect Impresario Bicky Nguyen

2019 may have been a turning point in our global love affair with meat. With the Amazon burning thanks in large part to cattle ranching, many of us feel primed to seek a more sustainable protein source.

Enter the humble cricket. A Vietnamese startup, Cricket One, aims to bring sustainable cricket powder to the masses. Its co-founder, Bicky Nguyen, has helped develop a cricket breeding technique that’s a double win, benefiting both the environment and small farmers in her native country. The company provides cricket breeding units to cassava farmers, who can use cassava leftovers as feed rather than burning them.

“It allows them to earn an additional income from a resource that would otherwise be wasted,” Nguyen explained, in an interview.

Nguyen recognizes that success means overcoming the “ick factor” in non-insect-eating nations. The company is currently running trials of cricket-based products like mayonnaise and sausage. So move over, Impossible Burger. 2020 may be the year of the Cricket Quarter Pounder.  

Electric Aerospace Innovator Spencer Gore

Now that electric cars have dug a firm toehold in the market, the next frontier seems to be the sky. That’s where Spencer Gore comes in. The former Tesla battery engineer is the founder of Impossible Aerospace, which produces electric drones. It currently provides free drone aid to first responders near its California office, flying them to crime scenes or fires to show how drones could be useful in an emergency. But Gore’s sights are set on bigger aircraft: passenger planes.

“The real question is is not when will we have electric airplanes, but when we have electric airplanes that fly far enough to start replacing conventionally fueled air transport,” he told CNBC. “We’re not going to stop until until it’s possible to travel anywhere in the world emissions free. It has to be done.”

Gore has shown he’ll do what it takes to get a job done. He once spent six months living in an RV in the Tesla company parking lot to save money and commute time while finishing his college degree. So expect to see his “flying batteries” in the air sooner than later.

Landmine Fighter Richard Yim

(Richard Yim)

There are still more than 100 million landmines in the ground worldwide, many of them remnants of past wars, waiting to explode in the face of an innocent digging child or passing cyclist. Some 5,000 people are killed or maimed by these mines each year. When a landmine is detected, deminers don body armor and carefully dig them out of the ground using hand tools.

Richard Yim thinks there’s a better way: robots. His company, Demine Robotics, has developed a remote-controlled robot called Jevit to dig up unexploded landmines. Human controllers can then detonate the mines from a safe distance.

Born in Cambodia, one of the most heavily landmined countries on earth, Yim has a personal stake in the problem. His aunt was killed more than 10 years ago after stepping on a landmine. Though living in Canada since childhood, he returned to his native country to test Jevit, which means "life" in Khmer. He hopes to expand Demine to Cambodia’s neighboring countries in 2020.

“Our aim is to build solutions to clear indiscriminate weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions and improvised explosive devices,” Yim has said. “We want to save lives around the world."

Online College Champion Aaron Rasmussen

(Aaron Rasmussen)

Every year, a million U.S. students take college-level introductory calculus, paying an average of $2,500 per course. But 40 percent fail. 

Education innovator Aaron Rasmussen—co-founder of MasterClass, a site that brings celebrity-taught classes to the online public (think tennis tips from Serena Williams)—wants to make classes like calculus more accessible and cheaper. He recently founded a new education startup, Outlier.org, offering classes for real college credit at just $400 a pop. The first two offerings are Calculus I and Introduction to Psychology, which started this fall. More courses will arrive in 2020. 

"[O]ur goal is social impact," said Rasmussen of the for-profit company, quoted in TechCrunch. "I believe in market solutions to problems. Coming up with a market solution to education, rather just relying on people’s charity, is far more durable.”

Besides the price, Rasmussen hopes to set Outlier classes apart from traditional online classes by shooting lectures specifically for online consumption rather than just filming live lectures, offering one-on-one tutoring, and creating personal connections with small study groups. 

If you don't pass? You get your money back. 

Plastic Recycling Pioneer Miranda Wang

Miranda Wang was just 18 when she and her friend Jeanny Yao discovered a bacterium that could digest certain types of plastic. The Canadian scientists, now in their mid-20s, cofounded BioCellection, a startup dedicated to improving recycling through chemistry. They use a chemical process to break down film plastics, like plastic wrap and plastic bags, into precursors to consumer products like perfume, carpets and clothing. They’re currently partnering with the city of San Jose, California, on a pilot program to recycle film plastics into valuable chemical products. They’re planning to scale up in the coming year.

“The long-term goal is to be able to recycle all of the city of San Jose’s—and other cities’—polyethylene plastic,” Wang, currently the company’s CEO, told SiliconValley.com.

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