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Visions and visionaries: Who is leading the charge for change?


Visions and visionaries: Who is leading the charge for change?

Nov 29, 2021

In a fast-changing world, the challenges we face will require new ideas, new approaches and new technologies, leading to new opportunities. We meet some of the visionaries who are making a difference on a global stage.

It’s not hard to have a good idea. It’s executing that idea that’s the hard part.

And as the world changes, restless ambition, conviction and a long-term view will be necessary to confront existential threats such as climate change, resource scarcity and ageing populations.

We spoke with four individuals with cutting-edge ideas and a sense of purpose. Working across energy efficiency, infrastructure, healthcare technology and artificial intelligence, they each have set out to and, indeed, achieved. We learn about their ideas, their execution and their motivation.

Making cleaner energy affordable

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is perhaps the single biggest challenge that humanity faces. While alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind and nuclear will play a major role, they don’t offer all the answers. That’s why Seattle-based start-up Modern Electron has set out “to tackle some of the hardest-to-decarbonise challenges in the economy”, says co-founder and CEO Tony Pan. 

In particular, the firm currently focuses on heat, which accounts for around 50 per cent of final energy demand – according to International Energy Agency estimates – and is vital in everything from key industrial process to keeping homes warm. Heat is exceptionally difficult to decarbonise, not least because peak demand – such as residential heating in winter months in cold climates – is extremely high relative to the amount of electricity generated in most countries. And so the world continues to rely on oil- and gas-powered furnaces and boilers to meet these needs.  

“We are burning all this gas in our homes, and yet we only get the lowest-value product out of it, which is the heat. It’s a travesty,” says Pan. To solve this challenge, and in an effort to improve the energy efficiency of residential heating, Modern Electron is fitting a technology called a thermionic converter to boilers and furnaces. This uses waste heat to generate electricity, Pan explains; homeowners get their own on-site mini power plant, allowing them to save money and reduce combined carbon dioxide emissions.

Modern Electron is working in partnership with one of the largest furnace companies in the USA and one of the largest boiler firms in Europe to integrate its technology into their appliances, so when people replace their current heating system, they will get combined heat and power. The extra cost of a boiler with Modern Electron’s technology should pay for itself within five years through lower energy bills, says Pan. 

The second project involves the transition to clean fuels. “Hydrogen is the holy grail for a clean fuel; it burns without emitting carbon dioxide,” says Pan. “The elephant in the room is that hydrogen is the hardest fuel you can imagine to transport.” 

The company’s solution involves turning the natural gas already supplied to commercial users and homes into hydrogen on site, producing solid carbon as a by-product, which can be easily disposed of or even collected for industrial use.

Pan began working on ideas for improving energy technology while completing his PhD in physics at Harvard University in the US. “I initially came at this from almost a philanthropic angle, and then I decided that to make any difference in energy, you need to have a solution that is intrinsically competitive.” 

He and Modern Electron co-founder Max Mankin worked with Invention Science Fund, an incubator in Seattle, to set up, and Modern Electron has so far raised around USD40 million in funding from venture capital investors in energy and climate change. 

“Our mission is to make energy both cleaner and cheaper at the same time,” says Pan. “I think if we want wide adoption for any solution to climate change, we are going to have to be ruthlessly considerate of the economics.”

A better way to build bridges

Efficiency of a different kind is a force behind MX3D’s vision for the future of infrastructure: 3D metal printing. The firm’s flagship project, a 6,000kg stainless steel bridge across the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in the centre of Amsterdam, was entirely 3D-printed in a single piece using industrial welding robots controlled by MX3D’s software. 

There are three main benefits to bringing 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) into infrastructure projects of this type, says Gijs van der Velden, the co-founder and CEO of MX3D. One is that it requires radically less skilled labour.

The second is that you can reduce the amount of metal used. “With 3D printing, you only print what you need, so you can take away all the material that’s not needed." Lastly, because the process is digital – a file is sent to a robot to tell it what to print – the output can be exactly reproduced, checked or optimised.

The one-piece bridge has helped put MX3D’s ambitions on the map. “It was bigger and bolder than anything we’ve seen,” says van der Velden. However, it was an experimental project, and most infrastructure – including other bridges that the firm is already working on – is likely to be a hybrid form of manufacturing. 

“The way we see the future of this is that we don’t print an entire bridge, but we print connectors; the standard beams in between are produced in the traditional way. We use the best part of additive manufacturing to produce complex parts, and for the less complex parts we use standard elements.” 

MX3D was spun out of Joris Laarman Lab, a design studio that specialises in experimental ways of designing and manufacturing, and which explores how these fresh ideas can shape the future of the built environment (Laarman designed the bridge). 

“We started in 2013-2014 when large-scale 3D printing was non-existent,” says van der Velden. “The technology available was not offering a solution for bigger parts, so we ventured into the idea of radically scaling up the capabilities and getting out of box and allowing us to really print in the open air. We ended up connecting a welding machine to a robot.” 

For a company with roots in design and optimisation, the potential that metal 3D printing brings is exciting. As well as weight or cost reduction, there is the opportunity to improve the properties of the materials for greater strength or flexibility – for example, by fusing two metals together or printing different sides of a part at different temperatures – and freedom that it offers designers to experiment with new forms.  

Unlike many innovators, van der Velden doesn’t originally come from engineering or sciences – his background is in law – although he ran his own company making objects for creatives before joining Laarman and then setting up MX3D with him. 

“This is such a radical innovation in the way we deal with manufacturing of metals, and it’s fun to be part of such a shift,” he says. “When they first invented the use of steel, they used it in all kinds of creative ways. Eventually it moved into a more functional way of design, but in the beginning – and that’s where we are now with this technology – it’s a lot of experimentation, and that’s a very nice phase to be in.” 

A hospital in your pocket

The pressing challenges that society needs to overcome go beyond the environment or dealing with labour or resource scarcity. Most wealthy countries already spend between 10% and 20% of GDP on healthcare, and that is likely to rise significantly in the years ahead as the ageing global population combines with the rising cost of new treatments.

This means a growing need for more efficient healthcare systems that deliver both cost savings and better outcomes for patients.

Huma Therapeutics is a pioneer in digital-first delivery of care and research. Its technology allows data to be collected remotely from patients and trial participants using our smartphones. Users can securely share real-time vital signs, images and patient reported outcomes with their clinicians and health professionals. This reduces hospital admissions and readmissions by monitoring patients in the real world and enables much quicker data collection and intervention in clinical trials. It also opens up trials to participants from a much broader geography as they do not need to give up their days travelling into a clinic anymore.

Related: Meet the change-maker – Dan Vahdat of Huma Therapeutics

Doctors and triallists can use the information to manage and prioritise their patients, conduct secure audio and video consultations, schedule in-person appointments, and even support patients with relevant educational content to empower them to manage their own health. Life science companies and hospitals use the platform to carry out clinical trials of new treatments and conduct real-world data studies.

“Our journey started to some extent as a hobby project,” says Dan Vahdat, founder and chief executive of Huma. Vahdat grew up in a family of medics, but initially didn’t want to go into healthcare himself. Then mobile devices came along and spurred him to do “something really innovative” in the field, all based around the idea that users should be able to access all the data they might need through a convenient mobile screen.

“We showed it to a lot of clinicians and doctors in different hospitals, and they loved it. And suddenly that little hobby project became our life for the past 10 years.”

The coronavirus crisis brought to light the opportunities that Huma’s technology can offer and has seen it attract financing to further expand.

“The pandemic really forced everybody, from governments to providers of healthcare and life sciences players, to look into delivering care and research differently,” Vahdat says. “The technology was there in a scalable way. The availability of connected devices and sensors means you can convert your home into a sort of hospital.”

The benefits for healthcare systems quickly became clear. “Last year, we partnered with governments to win national deals across the country,” says Vahdat. “It would have been unimaginable for us two years ago – to be able to partner with a country like the UK, Germany and the UAE.”

Since then, the business has expanded, moving into India. This reflects a crucial part of Vahdat’s vision: bringing personalised medical care to patients everywhere.

“Suddenly you have a technology that can be scaled. It works for developing countries, rich countries and anything in between.”

For now, this focus is typically on monitoring immediate needs, such as whether a patient has Covid-19 and their likelihood of needing hospital care. Longer term, Huma wants to deliver preventative care, such as spotting early signs of Parkinson’s disease from changes in a person’s walk or identifying whether their risk of a heart attack is rising in order to provide advice on lifestyle changes to reduce those risks.

“That is our dream: a 24/7 hospital in your pocket.”

Applying AI to the climate crisis 

Many of the problems we face don’t have a single easy solution. There may be many small steps – some of them not very glamorous – that can collectively have a positive impact. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (an approach to AI in which a system automatically learns from past data) can play a role in some of these, such as finding ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

“There are four main themes for how AI and machine learning can be relevant in helping tackle climate change,” says David Rolnick, assistant professor in computer science at McGill University in Montreal and an influential figure in bringing AI techniques to bear on the climate crisis. These include distilling large amounts of unstructured data into usable insights for making decisions; optimising complex systems to improve efficiency; making forecasts and predictions; and accelerating scientific modelling and discovery. 

Some applications are important in shaping and guiding government policy. For example, AI might be used to evaluate large amounts of satellite data to monitor deforestation or spot areas vulnerable to coastal flooding. People can do this manually, but AI speeds it up, Rolnick notes. Or machine learning approaches can be used to help climate science modelling by making fast approximations for the slow parts of complex models.

AI can also be put to work by individual sectors, companies and start-ups. One fast-growing area is materials science, where AI techniques are used by specialist firms to speed up research that can accelerate the electrification of the economy. “AI is already being used in battery development for electric cars in several parts of the pipeline,” says Rolnick. “Charging protocols and the design of the batteries themselves are both things that AI has shaped already.”

Companies don’t need to be innovating in materials science or technology to benefit from this kind of approach. “It can also be optimising the process of an existing synthesis mechanism so that you require less energy or require less raw materials.” Fero Labs, which develops industrial machine learning software, has helped clients in the steel industry reduce the amount of new metal required when recycling steel, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 450,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.  

Despite the hype around machine learning, it’s important to remember that it is only part of the solution, says Rolnick. “AI is not a silver bullet. It’s not going to solve climate change by itself.” In some cases, technology could create its own problems. For example, self-driving cars – one of the most-hyped areas of AI research as far as the media is concerned – could even make this worse if it encourages people to drive more (although it may also have other benefits such as reducing accidents). 

“Watch out for being too enticed by the flashy applications of AI, because there are a lot of less-flashy applications that are impactful,” Rolnick says. For example, Deutsche Bahn in Germany is using AI to identify potential faults for pre-emptive maintenance and to optimise scheduling for its trains. That’s an example of “low-hanging fruit” in the transport sector that could have a positive environmental impact and be profitable for companies, but lacks the glamour that would get it into the headlines. 

“AI is not the only tool for working on climate change,” cautions Rolnick. Just throwing machine learning at a problem doesn’t work – it can be very useful where there is an existing bottleneck or shortcoming that needs to be addressed, but sometimes the problem or the algorithm isn’t suited to AI-based solutions. 

“However, it is one tool and it is a powerful one” – hence Rolnick’s own efforts to shape a vision of how it can help. “I personally felt an obligation and an opportunity to use my skills for working as part of society’s global efforts on climate change. But it’ll need all hands on deck.”

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