Innovation in the trillion-dollar-per-year construction industry has been pretty sluggish over the past century. The low-tech method for producing standard gypsum drywall, for instance, was invented in 1917. It has plenty of drawbacks—including the release of some 20 billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere annually—but is still in use.
Enter Serious Materials, a Sunnyvale (Calif.) company that is applying knowhow from the computer hardware and software industries to reengineer the basic building blocks of construction. It's no small feat, given that construction is responsible for 52% of CO2 emissions worldwide—more than transportation and all other industries combined. By giving a high-tech makeover to mundane construction materials such as drywall, Serious Materials thinks it could reduce world energy consumption as much as 75% by 2040.
Serious Materials is one of 26 companies named on Dec. 3 as 2010 "technology pioneers" by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. Every year since 2000, the WEF—with the help of a jury of experts, including this author—has chosen for the same honor anywhere from 25 to 50 companies that it judges to have a big potential impact on the world.
From 2000 to 2009, some 446 companies in all have been named tech pioneers. Some, such as Google (GOOG) and PayPal (EBAY), have gone on to become household names. Some 80 of the pioneers have been acquired by other companies, such as BT (BT), Microsoft (MSFT), IBM (IBM), and Yahoo (YHOO). Among the most recent acquisitions: In November, advertising platform company AdMob, a 2009 tech pioneer, was purchased by Google for $750 million, and Playfish, a social gaming company named as a 2010 pioneer, was acquired by Electronics Arts (ERTS) for $275 million in cash and $25 million in EA stock—even before its nomination as a tech pioneer became public.
This year's class looks set to make headlines of its own by using information technology to rewrite the future of other industries. Their innovations involve everything from a more efficient way to transform trapped grease into biofuels, to improving health care and helping the environment.
"Companies that are at the convergence of information technologies and health and clean tech have increased year on year," says Rodolfo Lara, head of the World Economic Forum's tech pioneers program. "Both this and last year we had eight such hybrid technology pioneers; in 2008 we had four."
Consider Kevin Surace, the chief executive of Serious Materials. Before joining the company in 2002, Surace, an electrical engineer by training, held positions at a wide variety of IT companies, including Perfect Commerce, General Magic, Air Communications, National Semiconductor (NSM), and Seiko-Epson.
A dedicated environmentalist, Surace says he figured the "slow and sleepy" construction industry could use some of the IT industry's energy. "When you throw tech people at something they bring with them a sense of speed and disruption," he says.
Serious Materials, which has 34 patents, aims to develop construction products that are not only greener to manufacture but also cut ongoing energy usage in buildings. In addition to its pioneering drywall, called EcoRock, the company makes energy-efficient windows and has other products in the pipeline.
The secret to EcoRock is that it uses a mixture of recycled materials instead of gypsum that dry and cure naturally to form wallboard. That eliminates the need for energy-intensive oven drying and cuts CO2 emissions by 80%. Serious Materials estimates that replacing gypsum drywall with EcoRock could save 200 trillion BTUs of natural gas per year in North America alone. What's more, EcoRock also offers direct benefits to consumers. It sells for the same price as other premium drywall but claims to be 50% more mold resistant, generate 60% less dust, and to be the first and only termite-resistant drywall.
eSolar, another of the 2010 tech pioneers, is also hoping to have a huge impact on the environment. The company's founder, Bill Gross, is one of the West Coast's best-known technology entrepreneurs. Gross' first company—which he formed at age 15—was based around a parabola-shaped dish he designed that used the sun's rays to cook hot dogs. Gross famously sold plans for the gizmo in the back of Popular Science for $4 each, making $40,000, enough to put himself through the California Institute of Technology.
By the time he was in his early twenties, Gross had sold two of the three companies he started, including GNP Development, the maker of a natural language product for Lotus 1-2-3 called Hal, which was acquired by Lotus. During the dot-com boom he created dozens of Internet companies, among them pay-per-click firm Overture, which he sold to Yahoo! in 2003 for $1.6 billion.
For the last few years Gross has been setting his sights on reinventing energy. One company he formed, called Energy Innovations, aims to bring the cost of solar energy below that of utility-supplied electricity. It makes a rooftop photovoltaic-tracking concentrator system called the Sunflower and was named a World Economic Forum tech pioneer in 2006.
Now Gross is back with eSolar, which is bucking solar industry trends towards larger systems by using modular designs, small mirrors, and software and computing power to lower the costs of solar energy. The company has global ambitions: It has already struck deals with South Africa's Clean Energy Solutions to sell its solar thermal power plants in sub-Saharan Africa and has awarded exclusive rights to sell the technology in India to local alternative energy firm Acme Energy Solutions.
eSolar also recently hired engineering group Fluor (FLR) to optimize designs for 46-megawatt solar thermal plants, with an eye to licensing the blueprints to developers around the world. Gross says he is confident that by obtaining 5% price reductions across six different issues—ranging from the design of solar systems to more efficient operations—the company can reach parity with fossil fuels by 2015 and some day power all of Africa and Europe.
Such grand ambitions extend to many other green technology winners this year. Christina Lampe-Onnerud, a former director and senior scientist at Bell Communications Research, the research laboratory for regional telephone companies in the U.S., is aiming for global impact by using lithium-ion and other materials to create better batteries that could power everything from portable electronic devices to electric vehicles.
Lampe-Onnerud is the founder and CEO of 2010 Tech Pioneer Boston-Power, based in Westborough, Mass. Sonata, Boston-Power's first lithium-ion battery product, is already being used in some Hewlett Packard (HPQ) laptops to prolong the time between charges. Its second product, Swing, is designed to power electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid cars. The company is also talking with potential partners in the energy storage field to apply its technology to smart grids and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
Steve Perricone, another IT industry veteran, is looking to literally grease the wheels of the transportation industry. Perricone, who started his career in IT working for three computer networking companies, including Internet security company SonicWALL (SNWL), is the co-founder of BioFuelBox. The San Jose (Calif.) 2010 tech pioneer builds modular biofineries that convert waste fats, oils, and trapped grease into premium biodiesel for use in vehicles.
The health-care sector also is benefiting from the integration of cutting-edge IT. Though Stephen Turner, the founder of 2010 tech pioneer Pacific Biosciences, has never worked for an IT firm per se, he is an electrical engineer and physicist. His firm, a spin-off of research done at Cornell University, uses semiconductor processing and advanced photonics from the telecommunications industry, combined with biotechnology, to revolutionize DNA sequencing.
Founded by Turner in 2004, Pacific Biosciences has developed an ultra-fast system that can read the individual bases of DNA as they are synthesized using a microscope that is a thousand times more sensitive than existing technology. This is expected to help scientists see, for the first time, a greater number of sources of genetic variation involved in disease—thus helping doctors do a better job prescribing personalized medicine. It also has the potential to improve biofuels and food crops.
The company has raised more than $260 million in venture capital from investors such as Intel Capital (INTC), Morgan Stanley (MS), and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. The commercial release of its system is expected in the second half of 2010.
The IT industry also served as an inspiration to the founders of MicroCHIPS, a 2010 tech pioneer that sprang from a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers there were investigating how to make devices that would deliver drugs to the right place in the body at the right time when they happened to see a documentary on how Intel mass-produces microprocessors. That got them thinking about using tiny semiconductors and micro-electronic designs for drug delivery.
MicroCHIPS has developed implantable devices containing miniscule reservoir arrays that store and protect potent drugs within the body for extended periods. The goal is to improve the health of millions of people with chronic conditions who require careful monitoring and precise therapy.
Two other 2010 tech pioneers also are cutting across sectors: India's Vihaan Networks Ltd is using solar power to bring mobile service to people in remote places, and the U.S.'s Corventis is using wireless technology to monitor heart patients.
Stay tuned for a Dec. 4 special report about all 26 of this year's 2010 technology pioneers.
For a look back at last year's winners, see our special report.
And for the 2008 honorees, see our special report.