America's Greatest Disruptors: Budding Disruptors

America's Greatest Disruptors: Budding Disruptors

Promising innovators on the verge of major breakthroughs.


FE Cover Disruptors GRID

Flexible Electronics That Could Someday Be Part of Your Body

FE_Disruptors_Budding_Jie Xu
Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

JIE XU — ASSISTANT SCIENTIST, ARGONNE NATIONAL LABORATORY

Just imagine the next generation of electronics," says Jie Xu. "It's not going to be rigid anymore. It's going to be soft, comfortable. It can even be biocompatible, like our tissue or skin."

From her base at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Xu is pioneering flexible, skin-like electronics that could someday transform people's lives. Implantable sensors or biochemical pumps, assist devices to increase mobility or support weakened limbs—all of these could work much better if not for the tough, sometimes brittle circuitry they need inside to function.

Think of the circuit boards in computers. Or the wiring for heart pacemakers, which have been lifesaving to many people, but also uncomfortable. They make electronics and biology seem like opposites. Xu and her colleagues are out to change that.

"The killer applications, in my mind," she says, "are technology like robotics or prosthetics with skin-like, electronic, functional coverings, and also soft medical sensors that we can put on our skin or implant into our bodies without any immune response. That's going to be the goal."

Xu, 33, was born in a small town in China, and says she became fascinated as a student with the chemistry of very small things. She says it was a disadvantage to be a girl, but she had the advantage of a very good education. After she got her Ph.D. in 2014 at Nanjing University, she moved to Stanford in California to be a postdoctoral researcher. There, in 2018, she and a team reported they'd figured out how to make flexible circuits from polymer semiconductors—sheets of electronics that kept working if they were bent, twisted or even stretched to twice their original size.

Polymers are materials made of long repeating chains of molecules, and they're often pliable. Wool, nylon and polyester are all polymers. So are rubber and many plastics. Scientists say there are myriad possible uses. How about fingertips for a prosthetic hand that give the wearer a sense of touch? Or a flexible smartphone that bends instead of breaking in one's back pocket and won't scare you half to death if you drop it? There are probably many uses that no one has thought of yet.

In 2019, Xu and her fellow scientists reported progress on the next step: finding a way to mass-produce them using a common manufacturing process.

Some flexible products are already on the market, or close to it—wearable biosensors to measure your vital signs, video screens that can be sewn into fabric, and the first attempts at folding phones. Xu hopes to improve manufacturing by using artificial intelligence to help determine the best compounds for a particular use, sorting through the properties of countless different electronic materials—which ones are softest, toughest, easiest to make, most affordable, best at conducting electricity and so forth. It's far more efficient than the trial-and-error process human scientists would have to go through on their own. Xu says AI-driven laboratories may even be able to speed the design of materials that are environmentally friendly, to cut down on electronic waste, and help map out the manufacturing process.

Xu insists on sharing credit for the work. "I would say I can be considered one of the disruptors, but I was not alone," she says. "There have been 40 years of development, of people making efforts in this field. I am just one of them." —Ned Potter


Powering Batteries With Sweat

FE_Disruptors_Budding_Amay Bandodkar
Courtesy of Amay Bandodkar

AMAY BANDODKAR — ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING PROFESSOR AT NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY

Tiny computers can do wonderful things when strapped to your body—think smartwatches, fitness trackers and other wearables—but how to comfortably, easily and consistently power these devices without a bulky battery and the need for constant recharging is a challenge. Bandodkar has come up with a novel idea: Use sweat.

Typically 90 percent of the size of a wearable device is taken up by the power source, usually a battery. Bandodkar got the idea to save space by using the wearer's own sweat as the battery's electrolyte—the solution that supplies the electrical current. He built a sensor that is four times smaller and 20 times lighter than other models that run on conventional batteries.

"By using a person's own sweat as the battery's electrolyte, I was able to develop a thin, flexible, battery cell which has an energy capacity similar to that of a coin cell battery [the kind used in watches] but without the latter's use of toxic chemicals and rigid, metallic housing," he says. Bandodkar has begun testing the sensor and battery but cautions that it will take several years to develop the technology for consumer products such as wearable devices. Eventually, he hopes the technology will prove useful for implantable medical devices, such as pacemakers or as heating patches on the skin that can increase blood flow and expedite healing. —Kerri Anne Renzulli


ENDING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE FOR LOW-INCOME NEIGHBORHOODS

FE_Disruptors_Budding_Brian Hall
Britt Spencer

BRIAN HALL — FOUNDER, NYC MESH

Forty-six percent of New York City households that live in poverty lack broadband internet access. Brian Hall wants to change that. His nonprofit NYC Mesh, a community WiFi initiative, offers an affordable way to circumvent internet service providers and bring high-speed internet access to underserved neighborhoods—without harvesting and reselling user data.

Whereas most WiFi services rely on a few access points, or hotspots, mesh networks use hundreds of smaller nodes, which collaborate to pass data along. Joining NYC Mesh is free, but members are encouraged to donate $20 to $60 per month, if they can. The initiative is still small—about 600 buildings are hooked up—but Hall says it's the largest community-owned network in the Americas and hopes it will inspire others to "take back control of their internet connection." This year the city awarded NYC Mesh a contract to outfit housing developments in the Bronx and Crown Heights, Brooklyn with mesh routers, to bring the city a step further in closing its digital divide. —Meghan Gunn


Creating Empathetic Technology

FE_Disruptors_Budding_Rana El Kaliouby
Steve Jennings/Getty

RANA EL KALIOUBY - CO-FOUNDER, CEO, AFFECTIVA; DEPUTY CEO, SMART EYE

Computers are smart but fall short when it comes to understanding human emotions. El Kaliouby's work entails teaching computers to understand complex emotions and cognitive states. This new and fast-moving field, dubbed Emotion AI, promises to transform the way we interact with technology.

El Kaliouby, a computer scientist by training, first became interested in the field after moving from Cairo to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for her Ph.D. and feeling isolated from her family back home. "All the nuances and richness of my feelings were disappearing in cyberspace," she says. "Then came the 'aha' moment: What would it take to get our technologies and our devices to understand us in the same way that we understand one another?" Her company Affectiva leverages a database of nearly 10 million faces from 75 countries, helping computers identify users' feelings behind their smirks, frowns and smiles. Among its applications: Affectiva's tech was used by neuroscience augmented-reality company Brain Power for smart glasses that help children with autism read facial expressions.

In May, Affectiva was acquired by Smart Eye, a Swedish-based eye tracking technology company. The two companies are developing consumer technology, such as automotive safety tools, using AI to detect driver distraction and drowsiness or flagging if a child is left behind in a car. El Kaliouby says she is "on a mission to humanize technology before it dehumanizes us." —M.G.


Using Diamonds for Internet Access

FE Disruptors Budding Felix Ejeckam
Courtesy of Felix Ejeckam

FELIX EJECKAM - FOUNDER AND CEO, AKASH SYSTEMS

Before launching his start-up Akash Systems in 2016, Ejeckam was head of Defense and Aerospace at Element Six. There he made and sold gallium nitride-on-diamond wafers, a semiconductor material used in automotives and power supplies for wind and solar farms. Beyond its use as expensive jewelry, diamond is nature's most thermally conductive material. At Akash Systems, Ejeckam grows synthetic diamonds in a lab to use the same gallium nitride-on-diamond technology for a new purpose: internet connection.

Ejeckam says the company's satellite radios can deliver ubiquitous internet access for less than $5 a month, compared to the $100 to $150 typical for high-internet access on mobile phones now. The first diamond-powered satellites are scheduled to launch next year; Ejeckam says the first users will be those living in rural areas, sea travelers and people flying over international waters. Backstage Capital founder and Akash investor, Arlan Hamilton, says, "There's a lot of talk about billionaires shooting things out into space, but Felix is doing the work." —M.G.


3D-PRINTED HOUSING

FE_Disruptors_Budding_Jason Ballard
Philip Cheung

JASON BALLARD - CO-FOUNDER AND CEO, ICON

Back in 2018, ICON built the first permitted 3D-printed home in the U.S., a 350-square foot house that took just 47 hours to construct. Since then, the company and its Vulcan 3D printer, which extrudes thin layers of a high-strength concrete in programmed patterns to essentially build the walls of a building from the ground up, have created more than two dozen structures. Among them: the largest 3D-printed structure in North America: a 3,800 square-foot military barracks in Bastrop, Texas.

Now ICON plans to break ground next year on a community of 100 3D-printed houses, the largest neighborhood of its kind in the world. Since printable homes can be made twice as fast as traditional methods and cost up to 30 percent less, bringing them into the mainstream could potentially improve home affordability, accessibility and sustainability. "The U.S. faces a deficit of 5 million new homes and worldwide there are 1.2 billion humans that lack adequate shelter. There is a profound need to swiftly increase supply without compromising quality, beauty, or sustainability," says Ballard. "Homebuilding has seen no significant changes since the Middle Ages. It's time for a paradigm shift." —K.R.

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