Nine Innovators to Watch in 2019

These big thinkers are set to make news this year with exciting developments in transportation, energy, health, food science and more

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Catt Small, Dandelion, Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, www.meowwolf.com, Sana Health, Mabel O. Wilson

There’s a lot of hot technology out there, maturing fields in drones, 3D printing, and virtual and augmented reality, as well as futuristic tech like quantum computing and nanotechnology. But it all needs to be incorporated into industries that are solving real problems. Here are nine innovators who are working to bring practical advances to 2019’s most exciting technology.

Vince Kadlubek, co-founder, Meow Wolf

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(www.meowwolf.com)

Originally an artists’ collective with a bent toward performance, Meow Wolf is now best known for a Victorian house they built in a bowling alley. After years creating intermittent art, the 10-member group from Santa Fe settled down—with an assist from New Mexican novelist George R.R. Martin (of “Game of Thrones” fame), who bought the bowling alley—to tell a nebulous, otherworldly story in the form of a built environment. The trippy house opens onto other dimensions, and visitors get to explore it and discover the story for themselves.

“At the heart of it, I’m inspired by the evolution of storytelling, and I’m excited for what Meow Wolf is doing because it really is on the brink of what I believe to be a new form of storytelling, 21st century storytelling,” says Vince Kadlubek, a co-founder of Meow Wolf.

Meow Wolf’s success is spawning new and bigger locations, starting with a 50,000-square-foot space in Las Vegas, opening in December 2019. It’ll be related to the original story, incorporating theater and digital storytelling while acting as social commentary on consumerism, says Kadlubek.

“We’re ushering in a new form of the way people experience story, and in a way that is so deep and so immersive that it actually, potentially, is ushering in a new way for people to experience reality as a whole, not just entertainment,” he says.

Further locations, in Denver and Washington, D.C., are not the group’s only outlet. Storytelling, as Kadlubek sees it, will include other avenues Meow Wolf has employed in the past, including episodic TV, feature film, animation, comic books, podcasts and more.

Catt Small, Creative Technologist

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(Catt Small)

In the game SweetXheart, players act out a coming-of-age narrative, trying to fit in based on decisions they make, about what to wear, for instance. Ultimately, players see how these decisions can affect how people view them. It’s an example of an empathy game, but with a focus on game mechanics and active participation, and the protagonist is a black woman, so it also addresses race and gender and microagressions.

SweetXheart is the culmination of five years of work by Catt Small, in between her other jobs and projects as a product designer and game developer. Small, who co-founded Brooklyn Gamery and helps organize the Game Devs of Color Expo, walks the line between art, code, design and ethics, constantly experimenting to see how these fields fit together.

“I feel like everyone has a friend who is still playing Pokemon Go,” says Small. “He’ll be at dinner and he’s tapping on the phone, not even thinking about it, just pressing these buttons so he can keep playing and catching stuff, but it’s not really providing any value for his life. I think a lot about how we can actually provide value to people with video games, and what the difference between a valuable experience is, and an attention-grabbing, useless, mindless experience.”

Small intends to release SweetXheart as soon as this month, as an HTML game for web browsers on itch.io, the indie gaming alternative to Steam. Raised on games since her first Sega Genesis, Small says she’s nostalgic for a web that enabled more personal expression.

“Technology is a huge part of our lives, and I personally don’t want to have everything that I create be something that requires Facebook or Instagram to exist,” she says. “I really like finding ways to express myself that I can do on my own, and separate from all these other entities.”

Raunaq Bose, CTO and co-founder, Humanising Autonomy

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(Raunaq Bose (left) with Humanising Autonomy co-founders Maya Pindeus and Leslie Nooteboom)

Autonomous vehicles are coming, no doubt. Computer scientists are throwing ingenuity and processing power at getting vehicles to recognize pedestrians and protect them, but Humanising Autonomy is doing it differently, adding psychology to the mix.

Human behavior is varied and complex, and changes from location to location, says Raunaq Bose, Humanising Autonomy’s CTO and co-founder. The way pedestrians behave in a small town is different from how they act in San Francisco, which itself is different from Mumbai, and all of them change from daytime to night. Distilling those behaviors, implementing them into AI, and eventually developing a global standard for how machines that use AI interact with people, is the company’s goal.

“Machines are very bad at understanding pedestrian intent, and we really think that to create the best models, we need to build the best solutions for mobility, to help autonomous systems such as automated vehicles or autonomous vehicles to understand the people around the world,” says Bose.

The company, which has grown to 10 people, plans to expand more in 2019, including partnerships with Airbus and Kyocera, as well as a pilot program in city buses in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For that project, Humanising Autonomy will be installing its tech into two bus lines. It should help drivers reduce accidents, but the ultimate goal will be to build a model for pedestrian behavior in Ann Arbor that could be used in vehicles there.

Janosch Amstutz, HoloMe

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(HoloMe)

Janosch Amstutz believes HoloMe could be the biggest advance in communications since Skype. The company, which he founded and runs, has developed a high-definition augmented reality platform that brings a perceived three-dimensional experience of human beings into your living room. So far, HoloMe has developed its platform for entertainment, fashion and education—imagine an AR fashion show, where you see yourself wearing the garments, or an interactive session with a famous footballer. But in 2019, HoloMe is going live.

HoloMe Live is a real-time telepresence system, where the person you’re communicating with appears in front of you, and you appear in front of them, not as video, but as a photorealistic body, there in their space. And it’ll be streamable over 4G. The technology uses a webcam or phone camera to capture the footage, which is processed in real time on the cloud, and presented in a viewing app on the other end.

“Augmented reality humans are really more immersive and emotive than any other technology that’s been out there with regards to delivering a message,” says Amstutz. “Having a human in your own space, communicating with you directly is much more powerful as a medium.”

HoloMe will be announcing partnerships with charitable organizations this month and next, as well as raising more money throughout 2019. It’s also working with Education First, a language provider, to produce an iPhone app that pairs language learners with local speakers in hologram form. Amstutz further envisions beaming doctors to regions where it’s not safe to go, like into an Ebola outbreak, or mental health experts into places where there is a shortage, like refugee camps.

“Our technology works in real time, and that’s something really exciting for the augmented reality market,” says Amstutz. “We’re really excited to see what and how our technology will be applied in the coming months.”

Kathy Hannun, CEO and co-founder, Dandelion

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(Dandelion)

Renewable power is booming, electric cars are coming on strong, so why, asks Kathy Hannun, are we still heating our homes with oil and gas furnaces? As a product manager at Google X, she noticed geothermal power was ripe for innovation at the household level, and founded Dandelion.

Geothermal power works by taking advantage of the temperature differential between the surface of the earth and some slightly warmer point (approximately 50 degrees F), hundreds of feet below. A pipe filled with non-freezing liquid absorbs heat from the earth and is pumped up to the house, where it uses a heat pump to transfer that heat to an air circulation system or a water heater, and then, cooled, returns back to the earth in a continual loop. But until now, the technology has been limited to luxury homes due to the high cost of installation.

“We’ve been able to create the technology that’s allowed us to price those systems so that they’re actually a lot less expensive for the homeowner than a normal fuel-oil system,” says Hannun.  “Not only does the homeowner get to upgrade to a better, cleaner, quieter, more luxurious system, but it saves them money.”

Dandelion has done this, says Hannun, by simplifying the system, building a single-unit heat pump that can be installed in any home, and implementing a software system that uses data science to precisely design specific systems. Their next step: start using a drilling system that requires less earth moving and doesn’t tear up anybody’s yard. Since Dandelion began installing systems in June, 2018, it has contracted with well drilling companies to install the underground loop, but well drillers take out far more dirt than necessary, and have to open up big parts of the yard to do so. Dandelion’s proprietary drilling system, which the company is scaling up in March uses a 4-inch diameter borer instead of a 6-inch or 8-inch version.

“[The drill] will be a big deal for customers and the company,” says Hannun. “I think it’ll make it so there’s a much lower barrier for adoption for [geothermal] technology.”

Already, Dandelion has installed around 150 systems, each offsetting approximately 200 tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, for a total impact equivalent to taking 300 average American cars off the road each year.

Richard Hanbury, Sana

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(Sana Health)

Twenty-five years ago, Richard Hanbury was in a devastating car crash, and was given five years to live, due to nerve damage that left him in so much pain it was overwhelming his endocrine system and leaving him in a perpetual state of adrenal excitation. He went through the standard treatment, including lots of opioids, but nothing seemed to work. So he started experimenting on himself, administering via headphones and video screens coordinated patterns of pulsed light and sound. He tracked his pain as it decreased, and used an EEG to measure his response to different patterns.

The device operates thanks to an action the brain undergoes called frequency following response. When it’s presented with stimulation—magnetic, electrical or audio-visual—the brain begins to mimic that action. “When you present the brain with a frequency it then adopts that frequency, and certain frequencies produce different effects within the brain,” says Hanbury.

Since then, Hanbury has amassed a great deal of anecdotal evidence as to the device’s efficacy, participated in a tech accelerator and raised $6 million in seed funding. In 2018, a 75-person study run with the help of Stanford University and the United States Special Operations Command showed doubled relaxation rate and triple the reduction in pain (self reported) compared to a sham device. But in 2019, Hanbury’s company, Sana, will be outsourcing a severe pain study and seeking FDA approval for medical use of the device.

Pending FDA approval for pain treatment, Sana will bring the device to market, but Hanbury plans to eventually apply the device to other disorders, including opiate addiction. “Something like our device, and some of the other things that are being developed, like virtual reality, should help in lowering the number of people who have issues with opioids,” says Hanbury. “The aim is to create less suffering and a better status of care.”

Giuseppe Scionti, NovaMeat

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(NovaMeat)

The quest for the perfect meat substitute has a new contender in Spain, in Giuseppe Scionti and his company, NovaMeat. Scionti, a former bioengineering professor, figured he could adapt the 3D printer he was using for bioprinting artificial human tissue (in this case, an ear that was so real it was, he says, “gross”) to lay down plant protein in such a way that it could mimic not just the taste, but also the texture of fibrous meat.

“It has lots of potential value to change the food supply system that right now is unsustainable because of the livestock system that is now in place,” says Scionti. “It’s not only unsustainable environmentally, because of greenhouse gas emissions, but also it’s not efficient, so many companies … are investing very heavily in this field. Also the market demand is increasing very much.”

To accomplish his goal, Scionti designed an extruder—the part of a 3D printer that the material comes out of—that can lay down vegetable proteins at very fine, nano and micrometer scale, in an assembly similar to how they exist in animal meat. There are no cells, this is not lab grown meat. Instead, nanoscale proteins are contained within the microfilament, and the user can dial in, within limits, the desired amount of fat and protein.

For NovaMeat, which was founded in November 2018, the next year will see a focus on designing an effective business plan, scaling up production and partnering with restaurants and supermarkets to get a product on the market. Scionti expects a second prototype of the “meat” as early as February.

Mabel O. Wilson, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation

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(Mabel O. Wilson)

What does architecture have to do with race? Well, plenty. Though it’s originally a European construct—people build everywhere, but architecture as a practice is Western, according to Mabel O. Wilson, a professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation—the field has come to encompass far more than just buildings. That means the built environment, land, property value, wealth accumulation, redlining, even segregation.

“Architecture does a lot in our world, and people kind of don’t see the power that it has over our lives on a daily basis,” says Wilson. “When I invite people to engage in questions around architecture and racial identity, people will often say, well, I don’t know anything about architecture. Or they see it from a very utilitarian stance—square footage, or it’s a tall building. They don’t really think about where architecture comes from.”

Wilson writes frequently on the topic, including a work in progress about pre-Civil War American architecture, and is currently helping design the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which will break ground in the spring. “I think it’s a really ambitious and courageous undertaking to say there were aspects of the university’s history that were buried deliberately, and what is it that we need to understand and know about the fact that enslaved Africans, men, women, and probably children, were used to build the University of Virginia,” she says.

Salvador Rueda, Barcelona Superblocks

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(Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona (BCNecologia))

Barcelona’s superblocks have been a long time in the works. And Salvador Rueda, Barcelona’s director of urban ecology, has been advocating for them for even longer. But Rueda has done much more than advocate; he’s designing the city’s 2015 urban mobility plan that pairs the existing five superblocks with another three in the works for 2019—and much much more beyond that.

“I want to change the public space for citizens,” says Rueda. “Not only for movement … it’s important to include the citizens’ rights in the uses of public space. It means entertainment, the kids, the children playing in the public space, the interchange, the culture, the knowledge and the art, in the public space, even the expression and manifestation.”

A superblock is a grid of city blocks that are closed to traffic, requiring cars to travel and park on thoroughfares around the outside of a neighborhood, while the interior streets are reserved for pedestrians, community centers and green space.

The results are clear: economic activity and accessibility have gone up while noise and pollution have gone down. In El Born, Barcelona, for example, economic activity went up more than 50 percent. Others experienced more modest growth, but every superblock there saw 75 percent reduction in noise levels. 

In 2019, Rueda is revising the 2015 plan to make it more palatable to residents, many of whom aren’t inclined to change their habits. To do so, the blocks will be implemented gradually, slowing down the interior blocks rather than cutting them off completely. That will be followed by streets that are on the same platform as the sidewalk, rather than distinct levels, and eventually adding plans for deliveries and car sharing services. In the end, Rueda expects the superblocks to usher in a new urbanism model focused on public space, with a network of green space across the city and reduced heat and pollution. And he’s working with other cities—notably the Basque capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz, to implement superblocks across the whole city.