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20 Small Businesses of the Future

  1. From Possible to Profitable

    From Possible to Profitable

    The most successful entrepreneurs are those who don't follow the herd but anticipate the needs of the market earlier than the competition. Of course, such anticipation is not without risk, but the payout can be considerable. After all, seminal inventions, such as the automobile, the Internet, and the smartphone, were all regarded with high degrees of skepticism when first introduced. Equally important, the impact is not only cultural but economic as well. The automobile gave rise to a global network of small businesses, such as parts makers, dealerships, and service centers. The Internet has spawned a host of online companies, many of which, such as and, have grown from small operations to very large ones indeed. So what are the small businesses of the future, and where will we find them? The fields of energy and cleantech seem to be among the ripest areas for growth, as do nanotechnology, entertainment, and the growing demands of adapting the planet to accommodate its burgeoning population--even if they might strike some of us now as being a bit far-fetched. In forming the jobs and businesses that might arise out of necessity, pleasure seeking, and technology, we generally followed the first of the late British author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke's three "laws" of prediction, which goes as follows: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong."

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  2. 3D Printing Shop

    3D Printing Shop

    The Idea: Fabricating items in low-cost printers

    Stage: Plenty of hype but 3D printers are still extremely expensive

    Need a new lens cap? Print it up. That's the way of the future. Instead of fabricating in a factory and shipping the item wherever it's needed, 3D printers are expected to produce everything from architect models to sinks to spare camera parts. "It's already happening at service bureaus," says Jackie Fenn, an analyst at Gartner. "It hasn't happened at a physical shop like Kinko's, but I think it's very possible."
    Maker Bot Industries
  3. Asteroid Mining

    Asteroid Mining

    The Idea: It's time to exploit space

    Stage: Slightly beyond sci-fi

    Since resources are running out here on Earth, the value of rare metals and minerals may someday be worth the cost of lunar or asteroid mining, especially when you consider that deep sea drilling requires investments of billions of dollars. "It's an area of personal passion," says Peter Diamandis, commercial space pioneer and founder of the X PRIZE Foundation. "If you realize that everything we hold of value on earth is in near-infinite quantities in space, you realize there will be vast wealth created on the space frontier." Diamandis is not concerned with the difficulties inherent in mining an asteroid; he's already convinced it's possible and lucrative. "It's really about taking the steps and clarifying the regulatory structure of who owns these resources."

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  4. Body Part Maker

    Body Part Maker

    The Idea: Use degrading polymers and stem cells to engineer tissue

    Stage: Early uses and testing

    This is not about growing a foot or an arm in a lab. It's about growing skin or tendon or muscle--in other words, single types of tissue. But the possibilities are immense. For instance, Soft Tissue Regeneration is a Connecticut company working to heal ACL tears without taking tendon from another part of the body to surgically repair it. The company uses a degrading polymer placed where a tear occurred and lets stem cells in the blood do the healing. "We use a device that looks like a high-tech shoelace," says Joseph Reilly, president and chief executive of Soft Tissue Regeneration. "It's braided. It looks like about a 5-inch shoelace from your sneaker made from very small fibers, like smaller than a human hair. After about 12 months it absorbs into the body, and you're left with a regrown ACL." The device is still years of clinical trials from market, but the idea is being tested by numerous companies for myriad applications. It's the oldest approach to healing: Let nature do what nature does best.
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  5. Bottled Air Company

    Bottled Air Company

    The Idea: Ubiquitous natural resource as product

    Stage: Still in the realm of Spaceballs

    If water can be bottled and sold, why not air? In 2009, bottled water was a $10.6 billion business that involved packaging 8.1 billion gallons in the U.S., according to Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York. But air is somewhat easier to find than a cold sip of water. Still, oxygen bars went through a mildly popular phase in the '90s, and seven or eight companies still market oxygen canisters to the action sports set. "It's pure oxygen," says Daniel Jungers, managing partner of Big Ox, a company in Springfield, Mo. "It increases the oxygen content in your blood and gives you a boost when you're tired or fatigued." Thus far there are no plans for pure mountain air in bottles, unless you're talking pure irony. A Hong Kong activist group protesting air quality in the city--reportedly three times as bad as New York City air--posted a video selling canned fresh air that instantly went viral this year. Click here to see the video.
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  6. Car Charging Station

    Car Charging Station

    The Idea: Electric vehicles hitting the U.S. market

    Stage: Hundreds of charging stations have been built, thousands to go

    The all-electric Nissan Leaf completely sold out before the car even arrived in U.S. showrooms, according to Agence France-Presse. With that kind of demand, the charging stations to get those cars running are also going to be in high demand. "Our mission is to insure that people don't hesitate to buy electric because they're worried about fueling," says Richard Lowenthal, CEO of Coulomb Technologies, a Campbell (Calif.) company that builds charging stations. "The key is that they fuel a little differently." In general, the cars take hours to charge, so stations are needed where cars are parked. Although garages are often referred to as the perfect place, Lowenthal says there are better spots. "In the U.S. there are 250 million cars and only 50 million garages. We're busy putting them elsewhere, like the workplace."

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  7. DNA Design Firm

    DNA Design Firm

    The Idea: Reading DNA gives clues to disease

    Stage: DNA reveals some diseases, much more to come

    In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put the whammy on a genetics company, San Diego's Pathway Genomics, which was trying to put DNA testing kits on shelves at Walgreens. The company pulled the kits. But testing DNA for patterns that correlate with diseases won't disappear so easily. BioNanomatrix, a Philadelphia company that provides technology solutions for reading DNA, is working on a grant to get DNA sequencing under $100 by 2015. The long-term possibilities of cheap DNA testing, says Edward Erickson, BioNanomatrix's president and CEO, involve a better understanding of aging and endless possibilities for new ways to cure and treat disease. "The great dream is that you take a person's DNA when they are a baby and you profile it in a very thorough way," Erickson said. "You say look, this baby is healthy in most ways, but this baby's DNA shows us the baby is at extreme risk." In one example, if the risk were for heart disease, therapies could start at a young age rather than waiting decades before early symptoms show up. "We are already capable of looking at the total amount of DNA that one sees in the human genome."

  8. Greenhouse Gas Auditors

    Greenhouse Gas Auditors

    The Idea: Private companies audit polluters

    Stage: Dependent on policy

    Doing a greenhouse gas audit is endlessly complicated, because so much of our daily lives, from heating to transportation to food, involve contributing to climate change. As policy shifts to stop impending environmental degradation, the jobs will follow. Michael Gillenwater is an expert in greenhouse gas measurement and co-founder of the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute. "There are going to be a more roles related to greenhouse gas management," he says. "Auditors are one role that a lot of people focused on initially. It has been the most clearly defined role in these early days of carbon markets. But there will be a whole population of carbon specialists." In the end, the objective is to make the information that has been collected useful. And that depends in large part on policy. "It will have to develop," says Gillenwater, "assuming we take the problem of [climate change] seriously and start to implement policy to mitigate it."
  9. Holographic Theater

    Holographic Theater

    <strong>The Idea:</strong> Beyond 3D<br> <br> <strong>Stage:</strong> Princess Leia has arrived<br> <br> The hologram of today is a clever version of an old illusion called Pepper's Ghost. In the mid-19th century, the trick was done with thick glass between the audience and image that could make a figure appear to be floating in the air. Current illusionists use highly reflective polymer, invisible to the audience, to create life-size images. "People walk into the room and say, 'now that's a hologram,'" says Ian O'Connell, director of Musion Systems in London. A top application for the technology is using holograms for real-time telepresence for meetings. The capacity already exists for numerous people in different cities to appear on stage on another continent, in real time. Of course, hologram theaters could replace 3D, as well. In Las Vegas this summer, Musion provided the technology for the first U.S. nightclub with holographic entertainment. That way they can go from comedy to mariachi with the push of a button.<br> <br>
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  10. Jet-pack Dealership

    Jet-pack Dealership

    The Idea: Personal flight

    Stage: Finally, commercially available

    A New Zealand company, Martin Aircraft, is taking orders for the first commercially available jetpack. It's recreational, so you'd need to go fly in a field somewhere, rather than to work. It's also expensive, with the Martin website stating a price of $100,000. If that price comes down, however, it's not hard to imagine that folks might want to fly to work instead of drive. That is, until air traffic looks like the freeways of today.
    Martin Aircraft
  11. Lunar Tour Guide

    Lunar Tour Guide

    The Idea: Pay-to-play lunar travel

    Stage: Lunar mission in the next few years

    "Accessing space used to only be the province of governments or large aerospace giants," says commercial space pioneer Peter Diamandis. That is no longer the case, with numerous companies sending paying customers into the heavens. That may go a step further, with lunar missions, in the next five or 10 years. Ever since Eugene Cernan stepped off the moon on Dec. 14, 1972, the moon has been devoid of human contact. The next person to return may well pay for the right to do so. Diamandis is co-founder of Space Adventures, a company planning a lunar mission for tourists in the next three to four years. The expected mission has two seats. Price: $100 million each.

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  12. Marijuana Cigarette Maker

    Marijuana Cigarette Maker

    The Idea: Legalization of drugs

    Stage: Still officially black market

    California's legalization measure didn't pass on Nov. 2, but California and a number of other states are already well into a gray area of legalization. Further, legalization advocates say the vote itself was as step forward. "It elevated and legitimized the discourse about marijuana legalization like nothing ever had before," says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network in New York. "It shifted the debate from whether marijuana should be legalized to how." For the small pot farmers and joint rollers, business is good, and few are looking forward to the Phillip Morris of weed. That doesn't stop the push for legalization. Nadelmann says it will happen with states first. "When will we see a repeal of the federal prohibition? It's impossible to say."
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  13. Meat Grower

    Meat Grower

    The Idea: Grow meat in a lab

    Stage: The tech works but the taste may be off

    Using techniques that come out of stem cell technology, numerous groups of scientists have grown meat in the lab. Stem cells are placed on scaffolding and soaked in nutrients to grow. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are behind the push for lab meat. In 2008, the group offered a $1 million prize to the first group that can grow commercially viable amounts of chicken meat in a lab. New Harvest is a nonprofit founded by Jason Matheny in 2004 to do just that. In May he told Bloomberg Businessweek, "It's a way to satisfy the growing global demand for meat in a way that's healthier, more energy efficient, and sustainable." See Bloomberg Businessweek's profile of New Harvest founder Jason Matheny.
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  14. Nanomedic


    The Idea: Use nanotechnology to repair cells

    Stage: Very small and very, very small

    A report commissioned by the British Government earlier this year, "The Shape of Jobs to Come," flubbed in suggesting that nanotechnology would lead to subatomic medical treatments and hence, nanomedics. We're on board with nanotechnology providing advances in medicine, but this was a problem of size. Bruce Donald, a computer science professor at Duke University, has been creating microrobots that could possibly insert electrons into neurons in the brain. The world's smallest untethered, controllable robots, Donald's nanobots are about 60 microns wide (200 could fit on an M&M). It's not hard to imagine medical applications for the robots. But subatomic is a whole different scale. An atom is just a few femtometers across. That's less than one billionth the size of the robots. Hence, femtomedics aren't going to be making an appearance soon.
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  15. Nanosatellite


    The Idea: Smaller is better

    Stage: Getting cheaper all the time

    As satellites get smaller, the costs of launching them get lower. That's the major limiting factor. Nanosatellites and the even-smaller picosatellites can be packed with all sorts of useful equipment that have business applications. "The types of nanosatellites and microsatellites that can be built by small companies and universities will become more robust," says Peter H. Diamandis, a pioneer in the field of commerical space flight. "We're heading in a direction where small teams and small companies will be able to do far more in smaller packages."
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  16. Privacy Protection Firm

    Privacy Protection Firm

    The Idea: Your private info at risk

    Stage: The need for data protection and reputation management growing rapidly

    From credit-card numbers to photos from the latest kegger, more private information is online than ever before. Businesses need to protect that information, and individuals need to be careful with it. Mike Spinney, a privacy expert in Townsend, Mass., says states are only now beginning to pass laws that require companies to have written security plans to prevent data breach. Beyond data, a cottage industry is developing in the field of reputation management. "The bad things we do online can be seen by just about anybody," says Spinney. "The good things you do online can be your social media résumé, as it were. But you don't want an impertinent comment on Facebook to be the difference between landing, or not landing, a job."
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  17. Robot Mechanic

    Robot Mechanic

    The Idea: Personal robotics expected to expand

    Stage: Vacuuming floors but not doing dishes

    Thousands of robots have been blown up or damaged by improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. So robot mechanics already exist. But we're talking about something as ubiquitous as a computer repair shop. The world robot population is growing rapidly, with an estimated 13 million robots by the end of next year, according to IFR World Robotics. Many are industrial robots, but personal robotics is growing rapidly, with research robots doing dishes and ironing. "People have play dates with their Roombas," says Ryan Cato, director of the Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society. "Soldiers risk their lives trying to save bots on the battlefields. It will accelerate massively."
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  18. Space Hotel

    Space Hotel

    The Idea: Space tourism

    Stage: Only for the very, very rich

    "The punchline is that we are now seeing the birth of the Googles and Apples of the space business," says Peter H. Diamandis, a pioneer in the commercial space industry. "There are a number of companies working on space hotels." At the forefront is Bigelow Aerospace, which launched two prototypes of space hotels and currently plans a commercial space complex by 2014. Called Sundancer, the hotel is expected to have space for up to six people on a short-term basis. A Russian company called Orbital Technologies is also racing to have the first commercial space station. A vision of the station is in the photo above.
    Orbital Technologies
  19. Stem Cell Pharmacy

    Stem Cell Pharmacy

    The Idea: Healing with cells moves medicine away from drugs

    Stage: Promising but politically charged

    Stem cells are already used to model diseases and test new drugs, but as the technology advances, stems cells may actually push drugs aside. Even now, stem cells are showing promise for degenerative diseases and regrowing cells after surgeries. Pharmacies full of drugs, however, could well be replaced with pharmacies of cells that are more natural and work better. "Using stem cells will shift medical practice away from the pharmaceutical or chemical approach," says Robert Margolin, associate director of the Genetics Police Institute. "This is the first time we're actually using living cells to help treat or mitigate disease."
  20. Vertical Farming

    Vertical Farming

    The Idea: Local food in growing cities

    Stage: Buzz words and pretty drawings

    Single-story, high-tech greenhouses save significant amounts of water and increase productivity. So why not stack them up and makes cities self-sufficient? The idea for vertical farms came from an infectious disease ecologist, Dickson Despommier, who turned his knowledge of parasites into a way of looking at cities. "Instead of the city behaving like a parasite, it should be a symbiant," Despommier says. "The future city has to take a big lesson from nature and start behaving like an ecosystem." By that, he means zero-waste cities: Even the idea of waste is anathema to a working ecosystem. So Despommier envisions skyscrapers of the future producing the majority of food consumed by citizens, with brown water and food compost used for farming. "City life," says Despommier, "demands city food."
    Oliver Foster
  21. Water Trader

    Water Trader

    The Idea: Water becoming scarce

    Stage: Bottled water already a billion-dollar business

    It has been said that water is the oil of the 21st century. But humans don't need to drink a liter or two of oil every day. Early signs of coming conflicts over water are already apparent around the world and in the U.S., where the Southwest is ever-thirsty. Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University, says water issues are a coming tidal wave, especially considering the amount of water needed for agriculture. "People will actually make a choice: I could drink this water, or I could let my plants drink this water," Despommier says. "It's going to be the subject of conflicts and wars."

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