Creative destruction: it's what drives the economy and remakes the world in unpredictable ways. Often it's the result of a technological breakthrough, such as the telegraph. Sometimes it's a more subtle development, involving the bringing together of disparate elements in new ways, such as the assembly line. What they have in common is entrepreneurial talent, grit, and hard work that get new ways of doing things across the finish line.
Here are five technologies that are remaking the world right now.
Shale gas fracking
Fracking's contribution to the natural gas boom in the U.S. is a perfect example of how disruption can sometimes be as simple as putting old ingredients together in new ways. Shale gas production has gone from nearly nothing in 2000 to around 25 billion cubic feet per day according to the Energy Information Agency. Fracking now accounts for around 40% of all gas output, helping replace fading production from older fields. In fact, according to some estimates, the U.S. now has access to enough natural gas that energy independence for North America is a real possibility, something that would remake the global geopolitical landscape.
George P. Mitchell, known as the “father of fracking,” put together a number of existing techniques in the ‘90s to unlock natural gas that was previously was considered not commercially viable. While the horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and seismic mapping techniques now used to extract the gas have been around for years, what was missing was the right cocktail for the fracking liquid—and determination.
In 1997, the team devised a relatively simple mixture of sand, water, and a gelling agent extracted from the guar bean, which boosted yields to commercially viable levels and unlocked the current energy revolution. Now gas fracking rigs are operational in at least 21 states, and the technique is now also being used to extract what's called tight oil, as well.
For much of the past century, the promise of robots seemed trapped in movies. But after nearly a half century of technological slog by legions of researchers and private companies, robots are close to stepping across a threshold, thanks to the rapidly increasing computing horsepower and innovative approaches to movement and control. Robots stand to affect almost every sector of the economy, with huge changes in store in the transport, communications, and healthcare sectors.
A likely next step in the broader rollout of new generation robotics will be augmentative systems, such as Iron Man-like exoskeletons that amplify their users' strength. It's a small step to semi-autonomous units such as Mars rovers and Boston Dynamics’ Atlas, which make some decisions on their own and are invaluable in situations where humans can't easily go, such as other planets.
Google may have scored the headlines with its driverless cars (yes, they're robots too), but BMW and other auto makers have jumped in and are busy rolling out their own prototypes. While the prospect of reading a book on the way to Thanksgiving dinner is attractive, the real payoff will be economic, such as in logistics where labor costs could be slashed.
The communications industry is ripe for disruption, as well. In fact, companies such as Titan Aerospace are already raising money for a new crop of solar-powered drones that could replace satellites, potentially reducing the cost of data and voice services around the world.
Ground-shaking changes in medical imaging are also afoot. Technology has moved so quickly in recent years that the CAT Scan machines released half a decade ago that could record movies of a beating heart are now almost passé.
New techniques that leverage water-diffusion sensing to yield previously unavailable images of nerves and muscle fibers are opening the way to transformative changes and new medical advances. The hazy gray-scale MRIs common today will be replaced by 3-D, false-color images that will revolutionize diagnosis by letting doctors perform virtual exploratory surgery. Doctors are giddy at the prospect of being able see exactly how blocked a heart patient's arteries are, the condition of nerves in MS patients, or the condition of a tumor.
And if doctors must cut, they will be able to use the new imaging techniques to construct personalized computer simulations that will let them effectively practice on the patient as many times as needed even before booking the operating room. The potential improvement for all surgical outcomes is breathtaking, but is especially clear in joint-replacement procedures, where patients must endure expensive additional surgery if new hips and knees don’t fit perfectly.
Mobile computing and communications
After a decade of rapid development, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the tablet and smartphone wave has peaked. But faster cellular connections, ever more ubiquitous wifi, and raw computing horsepower mean the smartphone and its cousin — the wearable computer such as Google glass or the rumored iWatch — will weave the Internet ever more tightly into daily life.
There'll be plenty of devices to go around. The networking firm Cisco predicts that there will be more than 8 billion mobile devices in operation by 2016, or more than the UN's prediction of 7.4 billion global population for the same year — with another 2 billion mobile machine-machine connections (think medical device or GPS units).
Nearly every area of human endeavor is ripe for disruption, from first responders to the military. The U.S. is already training soldiers with mobile devices so that they can access the latest intelligence. Meanwhile, police departments including New York City's, the largest in the country, are rolling out plans to equip patrolmen with tablets.
The technology holds even greater promise for developing nations. Countries in Africa and elsewhere are leapfrogging older telecommunications infrastructure and are moving directly to cellular technologies. Cisco predicts that mobile data traffic in Africa and the Middle East will jump some 70% by 2018, far higher than elsewhere in the world. And with smartphones now rapidly becoming available at all price points, the impact on industries such as financial services, medicine, and commerce are likely to be even greater than in the West. Already, Chinese Internet firms are giving old-line banks a run for their money, while mobile banking is taking off in parts of Africa.
Luminescent goldfish may be a cool party trick, but modern genetic manipulation techniques are set to unleash the power of genetic engineering. The most interesting recent development uses a common bacteria to accurately edit DNA. Where older techniques might have taken weeks or months, the Crispr system can cut the work to just days. And by actually rewriting the target's own DNA, it sidesteps a key concern about GMOs.
Scientists caution that there are some further hurdles ahead, but the technique's development in 2012 set of a gold rush among startups, such as Crispr Therapeutics in London and Caribou Biosciences in the Bay Area. It shouldn't be hard to find additional investors, given the possibilities for targeted disease treatments, vaccine and compound creation through “pharming” and manipulation of foodstuffs.
Already, GMO corn has helped bring U.S. yields to record highs, and the efforts there have been limited to implementing pesticide resistance. Easier techniques promise additional gains by improving yield and resistance to disease without having to use pesticides at all.
The new techniques could also help boost the potential of biofuels such as ethanol from cellulosic materials, though the natural gas boom has effectively bought the U.S. another generation before it must rely on these types of energy resources.
In the movie The Monuments Men, a Hollywood “A List” of actors including George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray don the roles of soldiers racing across Europe searching for art stolen by the Nazis.
This little-known story would’ve remained hidden to the general public if it wasn’t for the work of Robert Edsel, author of three books on the subject: Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe’s Great Art; The Monuments Men; and Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures From the Nazis.
But before telling this story, Edsel ran an energy company. His Gemini Exploration pioneered the use of horizontal drilling, as Leah Churner at the Texas Observer wrote:
In the early 1980s he entered the oil and gas business with his brother, Jim, who had studied petroleum land management at the University of Texas. Together, the Edsel brothers founded the Gemini Exploration Company (a pun on “Jim and I”), one of the first Texas upstarts to successfully exploit newly developed horizontal-drilling technologies in the notoriously unproductive “Austin chalk” oilfields of Bastrop, Giddings and La Grange. At its peak, Gemini had 100 employees.
On Forbes.com, David Blackmon explains that this technological innovation "can replace the need to drill a dozen or even more vertical wells to access a similar level" of oil and natural gas. For the environment, "this means far less air emissions, far less water usage and disposal needs, and far less land impacted."
In the late 1990s, George Mitchell combined horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing to successfully develop shale formations, leading to the shale energy boom we’re seeing across the country.
Edsel sold Gemini Exploration to Union Pacific Resources in 1995, moved to Europe, discovered a taste for art, and the rest is history.
Many people are lucky to make one significant contribution to society. Edsel was fortunate enough to make two: One by starting a successful and innovative energy company, then another by using the fortune he earned to help us learn how courageous men saved our cultural heritage.
Thanks to surging production in the country’s oil and gas shale regions, the U.S. is importing significantly less oil and bolstering its energy independence. The Energy Information Agency expects U.S. crude imports this year to average 6.7 million barrels a day, down by nearly a million barrels a day from 2013 averages. The decline comes amid a boom in oil and gas production in places such as North Dakota, where monthly output has nearly quadrupled over the past four years.
Renewables are also pulling more weight. Last year, wind generated more than 168,000 thousand megawatthours of electricity, and solar power currently generates almost 9,000 thousand megawatthours of electricity to power our economy annually. All of this new domestic generation is strengthening the country’s energy security, prompting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy to lower its Index of U.S. Energy Security Risk to 95.3 last year, down from 102 the year before.
From Texas — which takes top honors as the country’s top oil, natural gas, and wind producer — to hydropower leader Washington state, our infographic showcases America’s resilient energy industry by highlighting the top energy-producing states for each energy source.
The Texas sun is dipping below the horizon, setting the 16th floor of this Austin skyscraper ablaze.
Twenty-eight startups from all over the region have been working on their quick-draw one-minute pitches all day.
Now, in the moments before the Challenge Cup pitch competition begins, the startups are circling each other warily—a process made easier by the circular layout of Austin-based incubator and Challenge Cup host, Capital Factory.
The sound of boot heels ring out across the concrete floors, echoing off the corrugated tin accent walls. In the kitchen area, nervous competitors grab handfuls of M&Ms from the open glass jars—candy courage is the order of the evening.
Produced by Washington, D.C.-based incubator 1776, the Challenge Cup is a global competition to identify and celebrate the most promising startups tackling the biggest challenges in education, energy, health care, and smart cities industries.
When the dust settled in Austin that night, only four pitch-slingers were left standing while their cowpoke competitors were left clutching their hats and strolling off into the sunset. The four Austin startups will join their fellow city finalists in Washington, D.C. for a final showdown May 12-17.
Here are the Austin winners:
Aceable Founder and CEO Blake Garrett had the unenviable task of being the first startup to pitch. But being first proved lucky for this education category winner, which seeks to revolutionize online driver’s education courses by gamifying the course and creating a reward system. Aceable also plans to let students take courses from their mobile devices. Aceable, which is one of the approximately 40 companies participating in Capital Factory’s accelerator program, has submitted its first course to the state of Texas for approval and has raised $75,000 in funding to date.
Health care winner Spot on Sciences has been around for four years and has already received a two-year, $1 million Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The company’s HemaSpot technology allows anyone to take a blood sample in any location and ship or store the samples at room temperature for downstream analysis or point-of-care diagnostic testing. Jeanette Hill, founder and CEO of Spot On, explained how dried blood spot technology such as HemaSpot can replace traditional blood sampling. “You have to travel to the lab, and it's really a big burden for people who are elderly or sick, or live in a rural or remote area."
Keith Cole, CEO of Houston-based startup Titralyte, describes his Water Lens oilfield kit as “a product that turns roughnecks into chemists.” The Water Lens provides detailed analysis of water and other fluids used during the fracking process at oil and gas drilling sites. By placing a water sample into a tray filled with Water Lens’ specialized chemical formula, and then placing the tray in a machine equipped with software, anyone on the site can analyze the contents of the water, saving oil and gas companies millions of testing dollars. Cole says the company has already been engaged in pilot programs with leaders in the water testing space, including Omni Water Solutions Inc. and has had interest from major Texas oil companies. The company has raised over $2 million in funding from angel investors and venture capital.
The last pitch of the night came from smart cities winner Reaction. Founder and CEO Michael McDaniel builds the Reaction Housing System, a rapid response, short-term emergency housing system that is flexible enough to meet any housing challenge. It is a kit of parts that primarily consists of housing units called Exos, accessories, and supporting infrastructure. The interior and exterior skins are made from a composite called Tegris, aka “poor man’s carbon fiber.” It is a super lightweight material that’s actually being used to armor vehicles for the military now and as air dams for NASCAR. The Reaction system offers a low-cost ($5,000 per unit), rapid response housing solution whether it is responding to the aftermath of an earthquake, wildfire, hurricane or manmade event. The company has seen huge demand—$400 million of inbound sales—before even bringing the product to market. “Reaction is so disruptive that has not only gotten the attention of FEMA, NASA, and Apple but we have visited all of them by invitation,” says McDaniel.
Adding gigawatts to the power grid sounds like something out of Back to the Future. But it’s happening—now. Gas up the DeLorean. The future of clean energy is here.
Wind power became the number one source of new electricity generation in the U.S. in 2012, accounting for over 43% of new additions with over 13 gigawatts added to the grid. The Energy Information Administration’s most recent market outlook forecasts consumption of solar and other renewables will grow by 3.6% through 2013. And on the supply side, ongoing debates about the prices of renewables and their inability to compete in the marketplace void of subsidies, hasn't stalled solar or wind developers from growing their footprint. Solar is also scaling up with the industry adding 930 megawatts of new photovoltaic capacity through the third quarter of 2013. Solar now generates over 10,250 megawatts of electricity.
Leading the way in the development of large-scale renewable power sources are ambitious startups churning out outlier technologies that could revolutionize the country's power industry. From cutting-edge solar panels to energy efficient software powered by “green algorithms,” here are five startups developing some of the more promising innovations in cleantech:
Stion — Cheaper than Silicon
The San Jose, CA-based company manufactures photovoltaic (PV) solar panels from sandwiched layers of copper, indium, gallium, selenium and sulfur (CIGS) at a state-of-the-art plant in Mississippi. While CIGS panels are typically less expensive than traditional silicon-based PVs they also don't convert as much solar power into electricity. But Stion's panels and their 13% efficiency rates are nearing those recorded by traditional silicon PVs. Cheaper more efficient solar panels will cut the price of solar and could potentially turn it into a subsidy-free, competitively priced source of renewable power tapped by both residential and industrial customers.
GlassPoint Solar — Solar-powered Oil Production
A clean energy venture working with some of the world's largest oil and gas companies is an odd pairing. However, that's exactly what GlassPoint Solar is doing. The Fremont, CA-based company, which counts Royal Dutch Shell as an investor, deploys large mirrors that capture solar energy which is then used to generate steam that's injected in reservoirs to enhance oil recovery. The company's technology is currently pumping out oil from fields in California and Oman.
C3 Energy — Analytics for the Smartgrid
Launched in 2009 by former Oracle executive and Siebel Systems founder Tom Siebel, C3 Energy harnesses the power of big data to help utilities better manage their smart grid networks. The San Mateo, CA-based company recently developed an analytics tool for Pacific Gas and Electric that crunched 28 billion rows of data by loading up the equivalent of 500 million records an hour. The end result is an energy audit platform that will help PG&E more efficiently manage their smart grid network.
Ambri — Low-cost Power Storage
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff, Ambri counts a roster of A-list investors including Vinod Khosla's Khosla Ventures, French oil and gas company Total, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The Cambridge, MA-based company develops low-cost batteries using cheap materials including molten salt and liquid metal, which can efficiently store power tapped from the grid or generated by renewables. Ambri has an operating factory and plans to deploy its first prototype batteries in 2015.
LanzaTech — Developing Microbial Magic
Using proprietary microorganisms, LanzaTech turns carbon-laden industrial waste gases into biofuels and other chemical products. Headquartered in Roselle, IL, the company has deployed its technology at two steel mills in China and is looking to apply its conversion process to produce sustainable specialty plastics.