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Forum Highlights Innovators Working in Global Public Interest

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Turning a valuable technology invention into a successful product is a lot like solving what public transit experts call the “last mile problem.” No matter how good your network of buses and trains, people won’t ride them if the bus stop or station isn’t a reasonable distance from their homes.

The same goes for information technology and life sciences innovations—sometimes a relatively small barrier keeps customers from adopting them for a certain use.

Thousands of entrepreneurs are now refining and recasting core 21st technologies such as DNA sequencing, solar energy, big data analysis and mobile communication to make them useable in a much wider range of settings and populations. You can sort of feel the pulse of that worldwide tinkerers’ community by looking at the sampling of innovative companies recently honored as Technology Pioneers for the year 2015 by the World Economic Forum, the Geneva, Switzerland-based foundation that promotes “entrepreneurship in the global public interest.” Past honorees include Airbnb in 2014, Dropbox in 2012, Twitter in 2010, and Google in 2002.

One of the 24 companies chosen this year is Bay Area silicon manufacturer Silicor Materials. The barrier it’s trying to break is simply the cost of solar energy compared with fossil fuels—solar’s persistent “last mile problem.” Silicor says it has developed a cheaper process to purify the silicon its customers use to make the photovoltaic (PV) cells used to capture the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity.

If the cost of purified silicon goes down for solar panel manufacturers, use of the alternate power source should go up, CEO Theresa Jester said in a statement after Silicor was named a World Economic Forum honoree.

“Improved industry margins will result in a healthier solar market, thus leading to the accelerated adoption of solar around the world,” Jester said.

Even if the cost barrier drops for solar energy, there’s another hitch. Power supplied from the sun or wind is an unpredictable source for energy utility companies. But another core technology, big data analysis, might help solar fit into the mix, says a second Bay Area company on the Technology Pioneers list. Redwood Shores, CA-based AutoGrid Systems says its software can help utilities to integrate intermittent streams of electricity from renewable sources into their power grids.

AutoGrid’s overall aim is to make sense of the huge flow of data now available to utilities, so they can forecast power needs and schedule electricity supplies from multiple sources. Drawing on data from smart meters and other devices that track energy use by consumers, utilities can also offer cost savings to customers who lower their power usage during peak demand hours. That could help utilities avoid paying for new generating capacity when it’s not needed, AutoGrid says.

Eleven of the 24 companies spotlighted by the World Economic Forum this year are based in California, and eight of those are in the Bay Area. The rest are scattered across the U.S. and other nations. (See the full list here.) Even within this group of only two dozen companies, some syngergies are apparent. Startups in one field are borrowing technology from other industries, or combining them to reach new customers.

San Diego’s two honorees illustrate the blending of engineering and biology. Organovo (NYSE: ONVO) uses 3-D printing to make artificial human tissues for use in drug testing. Genomatica uses microorganisms to manufacture industrial chemicals from biological feedstocks such as sugar rather than petroleum.

India’s award recipient, Mera Gao Power, combines solar technology and mobile devices to create electricity “micro-grids” for communities not served by electric utility networks. Mera Gao uses solar panels to charge batteries, and then distributes them to power the mobile phones and LED lights used by rural households in Uttar Pradesh.

Mera Gao might be able to extend its patchwork power network if some of the other Technology Pioneers succeed in lowering its technology costs. For example, Silicor’s work may help to bring down the global cost of solar panels. Its fellow honoree, Cambridge, MA-based Eta Devices, says it can extend the battery life of smartphones by 50 percent. The company says it can also reduce power consumption at the base stations that connect mobile phone calls to telephone networks. With lower power needs, a base station could be powered by solar panels in developing countries, Eta says.

Just as the potential of solar energy has not yet been fully realized through widespread use, DNA sequencing has yet to yield the transformation it’s expected to deliver in medical diagnostics and treatment. The cost of sequencing is still a barrier, but there are other challenges as well. Redwood City, CA-based diagnostics startup Guardant Health, which is among the World Economic Forum’s honorees this year, has been refining gene sequencing methods to create a sensitive blood test to detect the genetic quirks of cancer cells.

Certain genetic markers on the cells can indicate which drugs may be most effective for a particular patient. But cancer cells mutate over time, so a new drug is often needed.

Guardant is trying to make it easier for doctors to track the genetic changes in a patient’s cancer cell population over the course of the illness without subjecting the patient to repeated, invasive biopsies. The company’s test analyzes fragments of tumor DNA released into the blood from cancer cells.

While some of the award recipients this year are fairly well established, such as publicly traded Organovo, Guardant was founded only two years ago.

“It’s great to get such recognition so quickly,” says Guardant CEO Helmy Eltoukhy.