John Adler was frustrated. The vice-chairman for innovation and technology in the Neurosurgery Dept. at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Adler has authored more than 180 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters during his career. Yet like many equally accomplished researchers, he was forced to endure long delays when trying to publish papers in medical journals.
What Adler wanted was a way to make his findings available to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. That wish inspired his son Trip and a fellow recent graduate from Harvard named Jared Friedman to create Scribd, an online document-sharing site that makes it easy for anyone to publish original work on the Web and reach a global readership.
Scribd is one of the 31 companies named Sept. 1 as 2011 Technology Pioneers by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF). The award recognizes startups whose innovative products or services could have a big impact on the world. Scribd, for instance, didn't just provide an outlet for Trip Adler's father (who was himself a 2008 Tech Pioneer, making the Adlers the first father-son honorees): Some 50 million people per month now browse its contents, which include research papers, short stories, sheet music, recipes, books, magazines, comics, and architectural diagrams. The company earns money from advertising and premium services—and by taking a cut of sales of content sold through the site.
Every year since 2000, the WEF—with the help of a panel of 68 experts (the author of this article served as one of the judges)—has chosen for the same honor anywhere from 25 to 50 startups. All told, some 472 companies have been recognized as Tech Pioneers over the past decade, including some that went on to huge success, such as Google (GOOG) and PayPal (EBAY). To be selected, companies must be developing life-changing innovations and have the potential to bring about long-term changes to business and society. They must also demonstrate visionary management, show signs of becoming enduring market leaders, and offer proven technology.
Startups From Five Continents
The class of 2011—chosen from a pool of 300 nominees—is changing the world in all sorts of ways: creating more effective medicines and medical treatments, improving how businesses communicate, reducing pollution, and making cars and building materials more energy efficient. "This year's class is particularly fascinating," says Rodolfo Lara, who has run the Technology Pioneers program at the World Economic Forum for the past three years. "For the first time, we have startups from five continents selected for the award, underlining the global need for innovation and entrepreneurship."
While the WEF grants the prizes to companies, rather than individuals, the people behind these companies clearly have an impact on the world. While their innovations are sometime esoteric, the entrepreneurs often have very down-to-earth motivations, including solving basic human problems or even answering dilemmas posed by their families. Most also share a common thirst for new challenges and a passion for creating new enterprises.
Take Jonathan Rothberg, the 47-year-old founder of Ion Torrent Systems, another 2011 Tech Pioneer, which promises to put gene sequencing technology within reach of any lab or clinic. The result could be faster introduction of personalized medicine and even nonmedical products, such as better biofuels. Ion Torrent is the third company founded by Rothberg to be named a WEF Technology Pioneer in the past six years—and the second, he says, inspired by his son Noah.
Sequencing a Genome
The first time Noah played muse was when, as an infant, he fell ill and had to be rushed to intensive care. Rothberg, who has spent his career working on high-speed DNA sequencing, suddenly realized in a personal way how vital understanding the human genome is to human health. He launched a company called 454 Life Sciences, which was named a 2007 Tech Pioneer and led the effort to sequence the first complete human genome—that of James D. Watson, the co-discover of DNA.
Noah, now 12, also prompted Rothberg to start Ion Torrent, when the son asked whether his father could invent a device that would read minds. Rothberg was provoked to consider how it would be possible to "see" biological and chemical information and transfer it quickly into the digital world of computers. The result is the Torrent chip, a semiconductor device that analyses genomes. It has the potential to greatly accelerate and democratize gene sequencing. "This is the century of biology," Rothberg says. "The decoding of DNA will affect all aspects of our lives, not just human health care."
The 21st century is also likely to be focused on energy and carbon dioxide emissions. More than a third of the 2001 Tech Pioneers are engaged in those issues, including two companies whose founders are two-time honorees. One of them, Stuart Evans, was recognized this year for his new startup Novacem, which has developed a "green" cement that actually absorbs CO2 during its production. Conventional cement, by contrast, releases enormous amounts of CO2 and is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Evans was previously honored as a 2004 Tech Pioneer for Plastic Logic, a maker of flexible displays for lightweight e-readers.
Fistfuls of Patents
Then there is Mike Cheiky, who is rethinking batteries, fuel injectors, and fuel. He was behind ZPower, a 2009 Tech Pioneer that specializes in rechargeable silver-zinc batteries for mobile applications. His new company, honored as a 2011 Tech Pioneer, is Transconic Combustion. It has designed a fuel injection system that can improve the efficiency and economy of cars and trucks to help meet stringent emissions regulations.
Cheiky has started six companies with his wife Charity and has been awarded 35 patents in four major areas of technology, with another 10 pending. Although he still serves on Transonic's board, Cheiky has since moved on to yet another new venture, called CoolPlanet BioFuels. The Silicon Valley startup is developing what it says are carbon-negative fuels, based on plant photosynthesis, that absorb CO2 from the air and could someday replace gasoline.
Creating new companies is in the blood of WEF Tech Pioneers, so it's not surprising that a significant number of the winners are serial entrepreneurs. Among them: Dartmouth's Tillman Gerngross and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Dane Wittrup, two of the world's leading yeast biotechnologists. The two have teamed up to create 2011 Tech Pioneer Adimab, which has developed a yeast-based antibody discovery platform that can be used throughout the pharmaceutical industry. The technology promises to speed the development of new treatments for a whole range of diseases.
Gerngross, an Austrian native now living in the U.S., says he and Wittrup aren't looking to sell Adimab to a drug company. Current pharmaceutical and venture capital models often result in the best technologies ending up in the hands of a few pharma giants that are able to pay top dollar for the technology, limiting the impact on human health as a whole, Gerngross says. Adimab aims to change the face of antibody discovery for the entire industry, not just a single player, he says.
That's the kind of vision and ambition that causes dozens of entrepreneurs to rise every year into the ranks of Tech Pioneers. For a look at all this year's winners, see our slide show.