The Economist magazine announced the winners of its 2012 Innovation Awards on Thursday evening. Selected from fields as diverse as bioscience, telecommunications, energy and aerospace, the winners were selected by a panel of judges, comprised largely of previous award winners. As diverse as they were, those awarded did share one particular trait: far from being pie-in-the-sky ideas, their innovations were all proven technologies. Gizmag attended the awards ceremony at BAFTA in London to get the lowdown on the event.
How are the innovations proven? There are a few criteria here. The first is how much revenue the nominee's innovation has made for its company. The second is the impact the innovation has had on a specific good cause, or on society in general. The third is the impact the innovation has made in a field of science or technology.
These criteria are taken seriously, if the list of previous winners is anything to go by, including as it does the surnames Gates, Wales, Jobs, Zuckerberg and Miyamoto. While we're name-dropping, "Father of Wi-Fi" Vic Hayes was among this year's judging panel. But enough of the preamble. Who won what and why?
Bioscience Award: Napoleone Ferrara (Genentech)
Napoleone Ferrara was awarded the bioscience award for his pioneering research at biotech company Genentech, which identified and cloned a gene for vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein pivotal to the formation of new blood vessels – a process known as angiogenesis.
The work directly led to the invention of angiogenesis inhibitor bevacizumab, perhaps more familiar under its trade name Avastin. This treatment for metastasized colorectal cancer is claimed to extend patient lives by an average of five months. His research also spawned the antibody fragment ranibizumab (or Lucentis), which curbs vision-loss for three eye conditions: wet age-related macular degeneration, retinal vein occlusion (RVO) and diabetic macular edema (DME).
Accepting the award, Ferrara praised schemes like Google's 20-percent time, which allows Google employees to spend that proportion of their working time on their own side projects. It was just such a scheme that allowed Ferrara to pursue a line of inquiry that others deemed uninteresting.
Computing and Telecommunications Award: Jack Dangermond (esri) and John Hanke (Google)
This award was shared between two men for their seminal work in the field of geographic information systems (GIS) which lies at the heart of modern mapping applications.
Some 42 years ago, Jack Dangermond founded the Environmental Systems Research Institute, or esri, which has gone on to become the big cheese in GIS software development, commanding over 40 percent of the market. Its ArcGIS software is used to create maps incorporating geographical data and now runs on everything from desktop computers (remember those?) to mobile devices.
You may not be familiar with John Hanke's work at Keyhole, a company he founded in 2001 to develop 3D computer imagery of the Earth's surface. Not surprisingly, the Department of Defense took an interest in 2003, but the company was acquired by Google in 2004. Hanke went on the lead the product management on both Google Maps and Google Earth, the latter being based directly on the Keyhole system. Maps now attracts a billion monthly users, which is rather a lot. That you have heard of.
Talking about the future, Hanke seemed most excited about the possibilities of Google Glass, though he also dropped intriguing hints about wristwatches that can communication information about the world around them through touch sensations.
Consumer Products Award: Gary Burrell and Min Kao (Garmin)
Staying in the world of the spatial, Gary Burrell and Min Kao picked up the Consumer Products Award for their leadership in the GPS market as founders of Garmin.
Since its formation in 1989, Garmin (named after the pair) has sold more than 100 million GPS navigators snapped up by locationally-curious runners, fishers, mountaineers, pilots and of course, motorists.
This was a case of the award going to the undisputed leaders in what has become an enormous market. If you live in the economic West, the odds of your knowing someone with a Garmin GPS device, or owning one yourself, are short.
Energy and the Environment Award: Yet-Ming Chiang (MIT)
Yet-Ming Chiang received the Energy and the Environment Award for his overhaul of the lithium ion battery: a development Chiang himself describes as "lithium ion 2.0" which hinged upon the development of nanoscale metal phosphate cathodes. The breakthrough led to the dramatic increase in lithium ion battery power and lifetime.
Granted leave from his tenured professorship at MIT, Chiang founded A123 Systems in 2001, which sold lithium ion batteries for applications rather larger and more ambitious than the cellphones to which they had been limited: you know, things like Black and Decker power tools and, uh, buses. Daimler-Orion VII hybrid city buses have gone on to trundle over 300 million miles. A123 technology has also cropped up in the Fisker Karma, the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 and 5 series and the forthcoming Chevy Spark.
Still, proliferation has been hampered by the slower than projected growth of the EV market, though there is still cause for optimism. Roland Berger Strategy Consultants predicts that the global automotive lithium ion market will be worth US$10 billion by 2015, up from $1.5 billion today.
Chiang has founded a new company, 24M Technologies, where his intention is to develop "lithium ion 3.0."
No Boundaries Award: Elon Musk (Space X)
The No Boundaries Award is named purely for its miscellaneous nature: a place to file nominations that do not fall neatly into other categories. This year, however, the award could not have been more aptly named.
When not selling his startups-turned-behemoths, Zip2 and PayPal, for obscene amounts of money, and when not running and designing cars for his electric car company, Tesla, Elon Musk makes rocket ships. Profitable rocket ships.
If you're a regular reader of Gizmag you will certainly be aware of his commercial rocket company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp, better known as SpaceX. At the center of SpaceX is a very simple idea: to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of space transportation tenfold.
The so-far brief history of SpaceX is a history of firsts, most notably becoming the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station to deliver supplies and collect the trash. It has been awarded a NASA contract for at least a dozen more such supply missions, and it's developing an adapted version of its reusable Dragon spacecraft to take astronauts to the ISS too. As if that wasn't enough, SpaceX is also developing Heavy Falcon, the largest rocket since Saturn V, which is designed to lift 53 metric tonnes into orbit.
Talking at the awards ceremony, Musk said that humanity was the unifying factor in his work. Sustainable energy, space exploration and the internet were the three areas he identified as key to humanity's future.
He also revealed a few more thoughts as to his theoretical Hyperloop transportation system that would transport commuters between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 30 minutes (see our separate Hyperloop story for details). He also admitted it was his ambition to die on Mars, though "not," he explained "on impact."
Process and Service Award: Marc Benioff (salesforce.com)
Marc Benioff of salesforce.com took the Process and Service award for contributing to a dramatic shake-up of the software industry by providing cloud-based, software as a service (SaaS) as opposed to traditional software shipped in a box or downloaded from the internet, and subsequently installed.
Benioff's vision for cloud-based services was inspired by Amazon's success, prompting the question of why enterprise software couldn't also be provided via a web portal. In the year ending January 31, 2012, salesforce.com posted revenues of $2.3 billion from over 100,000 clients. Its now turning its gaze towards social networking in the workplace.
Though Benioff was not in attendance, in a video presentation he likened the CEOs of companies like Dropbox and Twitter as the modern equivalent of renaissance artists and sculptors.
Social and Economic Award: Philip Souter and Greg Allgood (Procter & Gamble)
This year the emphasis on the Social and Economic award was firmly on the Social, though doubtless if there was an award for "best powder," Proctor & Gamble's Philip Souter and Greg Allgood would have won that too.
Dr. Souter, a research scientist, developed a powder which has been verified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as removing 98 percent of arsenic, and 99.99 percent of dangerous viruses and bacteria from water. That's bad news for Vibrio cholerae bacteria, which cause cholera, but good news for everyone else. Eventually, that is.
Initially, Proctor & Gamble tried to sell the powder commercially, but the venture failed due to the poverty in the communities that needed the powder most desperately. It was the company's Dr. Allgood that persuaded the company to distribute the powder as a non-profit venture, Proctor & Gamble's Children's Safe Drinking Water Program. It's though that since launching in 2004, the program has saved over 26,000 lives.
Corporate Innovation Award: Google
John Hanke returned to the stage to pick up the Corporate Innovation Award on behalf of Google. The award was for no one individual innovation or product, but for … well, being Google, basically. The Economist singled out Chrome, YouTube and the central search engine which know receives 100 billion requests per month.
Hanke revealed that when his company, Keyhole, was acquired by Google, he didn't expect to stick around for very long. But he has been pleasantly surprised to find that Google is a company still willing to take risks in bleeding-edge technology such as self-driving cars, despite being the size it is today.
On to 2013...
Though our focus is on emerging technology, The Economist's Innovation Awards are a welcome opportunity to take stock of the emerging technology of yesterday that has become the predominant technology of today. It's likely, then, that at least some of the 2013 winners will already be big players in their respective fields. Hopefully we'll see women among the winners again next year as there were none this time around.
More at The Economist