Nine Innovators to Watch in 2018

Meet a group of trailblazers in medicine, education, art, transportation, artificial intelligence and more

Innovators
Dana Farber Cancer Institute; January Heuss; Suman Kanuganti; Cathy Carver

A lot of people have good ideas. But only a few have the tenacity, discipline and single-mindedness to bring them to fruition. Here are nine groundbreakers to keep your eyes on in 2018.

Catherine Wu: Closer to a Cancer Vaccine

For a while now, researchers have struggled to develop a cancer vaccine, with little success. They’ve been unable to create a treatment that makes a person’s immune system aggressively zero in on tumor cells.

But a study published in Nature this past summer suggests that quest may have turned a corner. Catherine Wu, a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Harvard Medical School, led a team that produced an effective vaccine personalized for individual patients.

It was a small study—only six melanoma patients. All had their tumors removed through surgery, but were considered high risk for recurrence. They were given a vaccine, and after two years, four of them showed no indication of cancer. The other two had some recurrence, but after treatment with a drug used in cancer immunotherapy, their tumors disappeared.

What made the difference is that the scientists were able to create a vaccine using neoantigens—molecules produced by DNA mutations in cancer cells—and that enabled the patients’ immune systems to recognize and destroy cancer cells displaying them.  

Wu says, in the study, the results provided “proof of principle” that a vaccine can be targeted to a person’s specific tumor. She and the other researchers plan to do more vaccine trials involving patients with advanced cancer with the goal of refining the tailor-made treatments.

“If successful in subsequent trials,” Wu adds, “a personal vaccine has the potential to be applied to any cancer that harbors a sufficient number of antigens for vaccination.”

Matthew Gross: Teaching Kids About "Fake News"

When he launched Newsela four years ago, Matthew Gross had a pretty straightforward mission—promote literacy and get students more engaged in reading by providing curated news articles to teachers. That’s still its primary goal, but the company, which now has more than 12 million registered users throughout the country, has more recently sharpened its focus on one of the more vexing issues in media today—so-called “fake news.”

It became a “red-hot topic” among teachers during the 2016 presidential campaign, many of whom were confused by just what the term meant, according to Gross. They also knew that the vast majority of their students got their news online, often from sites which didn’t follow the vetting process of more traditional media outlets.

So Newsela entered into a partnership with the American Press Institute and began to incorporate questions related to a story’s credibility, such as: What are the sources of the information and are they reliable? Is there a bias? Is the main point backed up by the evidence? and What’s missing? In addition, Newsela launched a section on its website featuring articles about “fake news.”

Earlier this year, the service also rolled out an initiative called “A Mile in Our Shoes,” which tries to promote students’ empathy for people different from themselves by presenting collections of news stories about various groups--from American Muslims to people with disabilities to families in rural communities.

It’s in line with Gross’ vision to offer content that resonates with today’s students. “We want,” he says in a press release, “to go beyond the textbook and help create an instructional content experience for the digital classroom era.” 

Valerie Lefler: Rides for Rural Americans

For all their success in urban areas, ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft haven’t made many inroads in rural communities. The model isn’t a good fit—demand is too limited and distances too great. Plus, many of those regions still have sketchy broadband and cell phone connections, making the mobile app at the heart of those services unreliable.

That’s unfortunate, because mobility has become a critical need in many rural communities where public transportation is limited, if not nonexistent, and aging residents—whose families have moved away—often have to scramble to find rides, not only to doctor’s appointments and food shopping, but particularly when emergencies arise.  

Valerie Lefler, as someone who grew up on a Nebraska dairy farm, understands how challenging this can be. So, a few years ago, she founded Liberty Mobility Now, with the goal of using digital technology and private-public partnerships to create systems that make it easier to stay mobile in rural America. For instance, it could involve coordinating an existing bus service with networks of Liberty’s own paid drivers and volunteer ones working for non-profit agencies.

Liberty also focuses on compiling data that enables a community to adapt more efficiently and effectively to its residents’ mobility needs and habits. “We have this amazing technology in the private sector, where everything can be managed down to the second,” Lefler says. “But with public transit in low density communities, they tend to schedule it, and then see what happens.”

The company began rolling out the service last spring and is now operating in seven states—Nebraska, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Texas, South Dakota and Colorado. Lefler says she expects to add at least nine more states in 2018. She adds that she wants Liberty to also start playing a role in addressing other rural problems, such as social isolation, opioid abuse and stress on caregivers.

“What is exciting is that due to our footprint in seven states, we can take those solutions and knowledge and propagate them in other communities facing the same issues,” she says. “It takes a lot of momentum and resources to break down issues that have existed for decades in a matter of months. But that is what we are doing, and we look forward to more of it in 2018.” 

Suman Kanuganti: Another Set of Eyes

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(Suman Kanuganti)

While Google Glass didn’t exactly take the world by storm, a variation of the device is  providing blind people with another set of eyes.

These smart glasses were developed by a startup called Aira to enable a sighted person to tell a blind one what the camera on the glasses is showing. When they want to “see” something, customers of the service can connect, within a matter of seconds, to Aira “agents” who let them know what’s in front of them.

The goal, says Suman Kanuganti, Aira’s CEO and co-founder, is to have the agents simply provide information, to “think like someone’s eyes, not their brain.” Most often the requests are pretty basic—checking the expiration dates on food or navigating a strange place. 

“But sometimes it blows our minds how people use it,” he says. “Once you have the technology in the hands of users, they are the most creative. They take it to the next level.”

He tells of how one user connects through the Aira app most nights to have bedtime stories read to his children. Another had an agent tell him what was happening at his father’s funeral.

Kanuganti says that in 2018 the company will ramp up its use of artificial intelligence and start testing a digital assistant named Chloe. Eventually, Aira customers will have a choice of having Chloe help them or be transferred to a human agent.

Meredith Whittaker and Kate Crawford: Bringing Ethics to AI

There’s little question that artificial intelligence is now at the heart of most technological innovations—whether it’s through the growing use of robots or the expanding ability of machines to learn and make decisions.

But, as is often the case, the technology is outpacing any serious research of its ethical, legal and social implications. For instance, one study has found that data used to develop AI can contain implicit biases against women and minorities.

Now, however, two women who work for tech giants—Kate Crawford, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and Meredith Whittaker, founder of Open Research at Google—are leading an effort to tackle those thorny issues. In November, they announced the launch of the AI Now Institute, a research organization at New York University that will focus on AI's impact on many layers of society.

“The amount of money and industrial energy that has been put into accelerating AI code has meant there hasn’t been as much energy put into thinking about social, economic and ethical frameworks for these systems,” Crawford said during a recent interview. “We think there’s a very urgent need for this to happen faster.”    

Among the themes AI Now researchers are expected to focus on are biases in data, how AI affects hiring and healthcare decisions, and how it can impact individual rights and liberties. 

Mark Bradford: Layered History

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(Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Cathy Carver.)

Mark Bradford has been building his reputation as one of America’s leading abstract artists for more than a decade, but in 2017, his standing took an impressive leap.

First, he was chosen to represent the United States at the prestigious Venice Biennale, where his exhibition, “Tomorrow Is Another Day” was critically acclaimed. Then, in November, his solo show titled “Pickett’s Charge” opened at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

The latter was inspired by the 19th century panoramic painting, “The Battle of Gettysburg,” which is still on display at Gettysburg National Military Park. Bradford’s work, which refers to the pivotal moment when the Confederates lost the battle, is huge—eight abstract paintings each 12 feet high and more than 45 feet long. The complete work stretches more than 400 feet around the circular gallery.

Combining layers of cut and torn colored paper and reproductions of the original piece, the Los Angeles artist created textured abstractions that largely cover the battlefield image, but in some places allow details to show through. The inference is that much messy history is hidden beneath the surface.

It’s a timely perspective. “Politically and socially, we are at the edge of another precipice,” Bradford said. “I’m standing in the middle of a question about where we are as a nation.”

“Pickett’s Charge” will be on view at the Hirshhorn through next November. 

Adam Arrigo: The Dawn of Virtual Concerts

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(TheWaveVR)

For all its perceived potential, virtual reality remains a largely untapped technology—the percentage of Americans with any kind of VR headset is still estimated to be in single digits. But Adam Arrigo thinks it’s only a matter of time before it changes how people create and listen to music.

Arrigo is CEO of TheWaveVR, a startup he co-founded with musician and VR developer Aaron Lemke in 2016. The company’s centerpiece is a platform that enables artists to create virtual shows, complete with live music and customized visuals, for fans experiencing them through VR headsets. And, throughout a performance, those fans, while conceivably thousands of miles apart, can interact with each other.

“It’s the world’s first social media platform for virtual reality concerts,” Arrigo says in a promotional video. “So, no matter where you are, or what kind of music you like, you can put on a headset and be transported to a different place and experience music like you never have before. We’re empowering a new generation of creators to express themselves with the medium of virtual reality.”

So far, TheWaveVR has featured shows by DJs, who not only mix music, but also can dramatically change what viewers see—they can create a light show with gestures or perhaps make audience members—connected through headsets—feel as if they’re traveling through outer space. Eventually, though, the plan is for all kinds of musicians to do virtual shows for people around the world.

“We don’t want to replace the live concert,” says Arrigo, “but rather just use virtual reality to create new types of experiences that can only happen in VR.”  

Rachel Benyola: A Stylish, Foldable Bike Helmet

(AnneeLondon)

For all the evidence that bike helmets save lives—they’ve been found to reduce serious head injuries by 70 percent—most cyclists still don’t wear them all the time. One estimate puts the figure as high as 70 percent. 

That bothered Rachel Benyola, particularly since a close friend of hers became permanently blind in one eye as a result of a bike crash when she wasn’t wearing a helmet. So, a few years ago she committed herself to creating a helmet that bikers would want to wear.

That led to the launch of a company, AnneeLondon—named after Annie Londonderry Cohen, the first woman to ride a bike around the world—and ultimately, the unique design of a helmet called “The London.”

What makes The London distinctive is both how it looks—it’s made up of blackish triangular sections—and what it does—it folds like origami into the size of an iPad Mini.

Through the evolution of prototypes, Benyola says she talked to a lot of cyclists about why they didn’t like their helmets. They told her they were too bulky and unattractive, not to mention, hard to carry around and pack away.

“My vision was to offer cyclists a life-saving comfortable option,” she says. “The triangle was both a style and a structural choice. It’s a shape that will never go out of style. And it helps it fold down more.”

Benyola, who’s 29 and lives in Philadelphia, was recently named to Forbes 2018 “30 Under 30” list in the Manufacturing and Industry category.

She says “The London,” which can be pre-ordered at a cost of $189.99, will likely go on the market in the spring.