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Josef Prusa, Prusa Research

Breathe in a new breed of engineers

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We meet six young innovators who are leading the way in using their skills and talent to shape the future of technology.

America’s Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, as well as China’s Alibaba and Tencent, have touched the lives of countless millions. Hard on the heels of these titans of the tech world – which were virtually unheard of just three decades ago – are Uber, WeWork and Airbnb. These companies offer services from ride-hailing to office accommodation, and are growing fast thanks to cloud computing, smartphones, social media, low interest rates and huge customer bases.

The core technologies behind these giants range from information technology and the industrial Internet of Things to robotics, digitalisation, artificial intelligence and 3D printing. These have enabled a further wave of creative innovations in entirely new spheres, such as medicine, energy and agriculture.

There have also been step-change improvements in existing products – for example, from the simple ‘brick’ mobile phone to the sophisticated smartphone – which in turn have opened an avenue for the creation of countless apps and online streaming services and drawn in new customers. Faster services at lower cost have flowed from this, permeating society and meeting the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of innovation as “making changes to something established”.

Factor

A matter of age

The image of Silicon Valley innovators as young, T-shirt-wearing, college graduates or dropouts is more myth than fact. In reality, research has shown that entrepreneurs are more often to be found among older people, who are more creative and productive than the young. Today’s tech titans are the exception rather than the rule. A 2016 survey of over 900 tech innovators in the US, by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, found that the overall median age of innovators was 47.

Only 5.8 per cent of the samples were under 30 years of age, and innovation peaked between 46 and 50 years, particularly in information technology. Similarly, the average age of Nobel Prize winners, except for Einstein who was at his most productive in his 20s, has increased by 5-6 years in the last century. This is perhaps not surprising given the extension of the school leaving age and an exponential increase in the length of higher education embracing degrees, masters and PhDs.

What is striking about the pioneers behind all of this: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma to name just a few, is that they were young university dropouts or graduates when they conceived, germinated and implemented their big ideas. Apple Inc founder Steve Jobs famously attributed his early interest in electronics to his father, who encouraged his technical tinkering in the family garage.

Many books have been written about these innovators, but there is a common set of skills and attributes that mark the innovators of the past as well as the next generation.

With all these attributes in mind, the MIT Technology Review has drawn up regional lists of the leading innovators under the age of 35 who are shaping the future of technology. E&T introduces six of those young innovators and pioneers in Europe.

Innovations from 3D printing

A Czech hobbyist and graduate in applied computer science from the Prague University of Economics, Josef Pruša developed an interest in improving the design of open-source ‘self-replicating’ 3D printers and began posting his experiments on YouTube.

Then in 2010 he manufactured and launched a redesign of the standard RepRap Mendel printer that was notable for its ease of use, even by people without strong technical expertise. With fewer than half the parts of the original, Pruša’s printer was cheaper, worked better and could be put together in just two days, rather than weeks.

His company, Prusa Research, now employs 220 people and produces over 6,000 printers a month from 300 machines in its printing farm. Sales to over 135 countries bring an annual turnover of €70m (£60m).

In essence, Pruša has democratised the technology by price and ease of use. Sixto Arias, CEO of Made in Möbile and a member of the jury of Innovators Under 35 Europe 2018, comments that Pruša’s aim is “to be able to make 3D printers accessible to all”, and that, “being one of the world’s three best companies in the sector” makes him one of the best innovators.

Sustainable innovation

As part of The Netherlands’ demand for companies to use 50 per cent of secondary materials in their production processes by 2030, Leiden University social science graduate Maayke-Aimee Damen’s digital Excess Materials Exchange intends to help Dutch companies achieve this aim. The secure marketplace promotes the exchange of surplus material and waste, connecting companies selling leftover materials with others who could use that waste.

The platform uses artificial intelligence and blockchain to match supply and demand of waste materials. Its importance lies in its potential “to convert costs into benefits and move towards a circular economy” in line with government sustainability objectives.

For example, The Netherlands, home of the tulip bulb, sees millions of tulip heads wasted or turned into compost each year. However, EME found a company that can use tulip flowers to create pigments, with the potential to turn this waste into a yearly €88m (£75.5m) business.

Factor

Attributes of an innovator

The four key attributes of an innovator that have been identified are:

One: a questioning or inquisitive mindset, which considers “what can this do? How does it do it? Can I make it better?”, which includes tinkering in the proverbial family garage.

Two: observation, imagination and attention to detail, which leads to insights into markets and suppliers and sparks new ways of doing things.

Thirdly: patience, iterative experimentation to take things apart and test new ideas and fourthly: the ability to draw connections between questions, problems or ideas across a variety of fields.

Finally, one must add, in the case of Silicon Valley innovators and entrepreneurs, support from mentors including friends and peers, academics and often venture capitalists.

However, such innovators demonstrate their proficiency in one or more core disciplines – computer science, mechanical engineering, physics and even design – or the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) at school or university.

Batteries in the fast lane

Croatian Mate Rimac – a childhood fan of electronics and cars who is inspired by his hero Nikola Tesla, pioneer of the electric AC motor – is revolutionising the car industry by creating the “fastest and most exciting electric hypercars in the world”.

At the age of 19 and using monetary prizes from a series of national competitions, he bought and turned an old BMW into an electric racing car in his parents’ garage. He launched his Concept One electric car in 2011, receiving orders for eight cars, one of which featured in the Grand Tour.

His company, Rimac Automobili, focuses on the technology of high-voltage batteries, electric power trains and digital interfaces for an industry under pressure to move towards sustainability.

The firm supplies advanced transmissions and battery systems to Jaguar, Aston Martin and Mercedes-Benz among others.

Biorhythms for health

London-based Dane Christina Friis Blach Petersen designed a wearable light monitor as part of a university project while studying innovation design engineering at Imperial College London.

Called LYS 1.0, the device contains light sensors that mimic the functions of the eye’s photoreceptors. The underlying thought is that pervasive urban lighting can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms, which govern sleep, alertness and mental well-being. The device measures the intensity and colour of the ambient light, sending the data to an app that uses algorithms to analyse it and give advice to users on how to  make their daily routines healthier.

Petersen’s company, LYS Technologies, has so far sold 2,000 units and sales have exceeded €100,000 (£85,500).

The data collected by LYS 1.0 “can be very useful for understanding the impact of urban lifestyles on sleep and, perhaps, could lead to corrective action in urban designs in the long term”, says jury member Emmanuelle Tognoli.

Faster, cheaper medicine

UK-based computer science graduate and artificial intelligence expert Noor Shaker is determined to reduce the time and cost of designing new drugs. To this end, her company GTN Ltd combines artificial intelligence, quantum computers and machine learning to simulate the behaviour of new molecules, analyse their  characteristics and select those that have the potential to be used as medications. This speeds up the design process and halves the cost of these processes.

Noor Shaker

Image credit: Mohamed Abou-Zleikha

GTN now works with research institutions in the UK and has raised €2.3m (£1.9m) from venture capital funds.

Commenting on Shaker’s invention, a panellist says, “automatic learning applied ... to the pharmaceutical field ... is a very promising research topic, which no doubt will favour the discovery of high-​performance products in the future”.

At the heart of innovation

French engineer Yann Fleureau markets his invention of a cloud-based AI platform that detects 14 cardiac arrhythmias from ECGs through his company Cardiologs. His AI platform can help doctors correctly diagnose a heart attack and his aim is to democratise access, improve diagnosis and, ultimately, predict cardiac problems before they occur, both in a hospital and at home. One of the MIT judges comments that Cardilogs “solves a real need both for patients and doctors”.

These innovators have imaginatively applied technology to solve practical problems, whether to produce new products more quickly and cheaply, to find new uses for existing materials, or to discover ways to conserve the planet’s resources, while simultaneously creating a real or potential money-making start-up.

Women in engineering

Wasted talent?

The waste of potential talent is being addressed by global organisations, national governments and educational bodies through schemes designed to boost female participation and prowess in STEM subjects. Educational initiatives in the UK include the STEM initiative for girls, Saturday science activity clubs and university outreach programmes in physics and maths. Forty per cent of STEM Ambassadors are female.

There is also funding for engineering in schools, which reaches 100,000 pupils a year, as well as support for maths and science teachers through the National Science Learning Network and a national network of maths hubs.

International Women in Engineering Day, an international awareness campaign, aims to raise the profile of women in engineering, while recent IET social media campaigns include ‘#9PerCentIsNotEnough’, the organisation’s most successful campaign to date, and ‘#IAmAnEngineer’, which features real-life engineers in a bid to highlight diversity and gender across engineering.  

The EU is also particularly active through the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), whose mission is to empower innovators and entrepreneurs to turn their best ideas into products and services by offering prizes for women innovators. Equally, EIT seeks to interest girls aged 12-18 in technology, innovation, digitalisation and entrepreneurship. EU action plans for gender equality that include demanding transparency in recruitment, effective training and education and achieving a work-life balance are designed to encourage, nurture and keep women in tech. Schemes to address proficiency in science and technology have yielded results.

Information analytics business Elsevier reports that 41 per cent of scientists in the EU are female, while 19 per cent of EU patent applications list a woman among the authors and 12 per cent of inventors are women.

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