Silicon Valley lost a valiant soldier in 2017. Internet-connected juice maker Juicero, funded to the tune of $120m, drowned in schadenfreude after it was discovered that its pre-portioned $7 packets of fruit and veg could be squeezed just as effectively by hand.
Never before has a company so perfectly encapsulated the absurdity of much of the investment in “disruptive innovation” in the technology industry’s epicentre.
Other radical breakthroughs include Apple’s singing poop emoji and Bodega, a startup founded by ex-Googlers whose core innovation was a mid-century modern vending machine with a veneer of cultural insensitivity.
As an antidote, here’s a list of real innovations to look forward to in 2018.
Implantable artificial kidney
There are 2 million people in the world who require kidney dialysis every week to clean their blood. This is time-consuming and cumbersome process, without which the patient dies.
A team at the University of California, San Francisco, has developed the first implantable artificial kidney, a coffee-cup-sized box containing silicon filters and live kidney cells grown in a bioreactor that can be connected to the patient’s circulatory system and bladder to clean the blood 24 hours a day.
In addition to giving patients freedom to roam during dialysis, it would also address the shortfall of donated organs. Only one in six people waiting for a kidney received one in 2016.
After 20 years of development, The Kidney Project is due to start clinical trials in early 2018.
We’re running out of space and resources to produce enough food to feed the world’s growing population. Vertical farming allows for food production to take place using a tiny fraction of the water and land of conventional agriculture and without the use of pesticides or fertilisers.
San Francisco-headquartered Plenty, with funding from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is building enormous indoor farms to grow fresh produce – mainly greens at this point – close to or inside of the cities where they will be eaten, which cuts down on the CO2 required to transport food. Plenty has a 100,000 sq ft retrofitted former warehouse in San Francisco and a second facility just opened on the outskirts of Seattle.
Crowdfunding training for the homeless
Beam is a UK-based social business that crowdfunds employment training for homeless people. It works with homeless charities to identify individuals in a position to enter the workforce and creates online profiles for them. These provide some background about the individual along with an outline of the training and resources (which could be equipment or childcare) they need.
Among the current profiles are Tony, who needed £4,400 ($5,800) to complete his training to be an electrician, and Marilyn, who needed £3,000 ($4,000) to train as a taxi driver and gain her private hire driver license. These profiles act as individual crowdfunding campaigns that people can donate to and then follow the progress of the recipient. Beam provides professional support and mentorship for the homeless individuals as they transition into the workplace.
Airborne wind turbines
Makani’s enormous “energy kite” is a new type of turbine that generates electricity by flying against the wind in acrobatic loops while tethered to the ground. As the kite flies around, rotors on the wing spin as the wind moves through them. The power generated on board travels down the tether to the grid. The design allows for the system to be installed in parts of the world where regular wind turbines aren’t economically viable or physically possible. The latest prototype can generate enough energy to power up to 300 homes.
Makani, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, will start testing its energy kites in Hawaii next year.
Mining for bail bonds
Bail Bloc is software that uses idle processing power on your computer to mine for cryptocurrency, which is then used to to help people awaiting trial who can’t afford to post bail.
“Many people will elect to take plea bargains to stay out of jail rather than defend themselves in court because they can’t afford bail,” said Grayson Earle, co-creator of Bail Bloc. This means that people who might have been found innocent by a jury wind up with convictions.
Created by non-profit The New Enquiry, Bail Bloc mines for Monero and donates 100% of the proceeds to the Bronx Freedom Fund. People who download the software to a typical machine can expect to generate between $3 and $5 per month. Since it launched mid-November, Bail Bloc has mined more than $2,000 in the cryptocurrency.
Grief coaching app
Apart of Me is a mobile app designed to help children cope with the death of a family member. The app is designed as a safe virtual space featuring games and quests that teach self-care strategies at different stages of grief. One feature, for example, allows users to create a treasure chest with digital memories of the lost relative. They can also listen to audio recordings from other young people going through grief.
The not-for-profit project was developed by Bounce Works with the supervision of child bereavement and psychology experts. After testing a prototype in 2016, Bounce Works raised £30,000 in crowdfunding in 2017 to expand the app.
Crispr’s “DNA scissors” allow scientists to precisely target and edit pieces of genome and it’s already showing immense promise for tackling genetic diseases. Crispr is a game-changer for biomedical research because of the speed and accuracy with which it can be used to edit the genetic code.
The tool, which was first developed in 2003, has been heralded as one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in years and has the potential to reverse the effects of disease or even snip them out of the genome at the embryo stage.
2018 will bring the first human trials to use the gene-editing technology. A company called Crispr Therapeutics, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will use Crispr to fix a genetic defect in patients with an inherited blood disorder called beta thalassemia. Researchers at Stanford School of Medicine are also moving a Crispr treatment for sickle-cell disease to clinical trials.
E-reader for blind people
Learning braille helps blind people develop literacy skills including spelling and punctuation that correlate with higher rates of employment. However, there’s been a huge decline in the proportion of school-age children who are able to read it as text-to-speech software has taken over and the costs of producing braille have remained unaffordable for many.
Bristol Braille Technology has developed an affordable braille e-reader for blind people called Canute. The device, which can store thousands of braille e-book files, is the world’s first multiple line braille e-reader. Having the option of multiple lines in the display allows for true context to Braille maths, music, tabular data and science books.
The plan is to sell Canute for the price of an iPhone (under £800), which would make it 20 times cheaper than existing digital Braille devices. The device has been tested in the UK and the US and is designed to improve blind literacy, education and employment.
Social media for civic engagement
Facebook might talk the talk when it comes to building community, but Civ.works walks the walk. The ad-free social network was launched by Oracle executive George Polisner, who publicly resigned after the company’s co-CEO Safra Catz joined Trump’s transition team in December 2016. The platform, which launched in January 2017, is designed to collect civic actions at the local, state, national and international levels and distribute them to subscribers based on their issue preference and geography. The aim is to give the community tools to work together on societal outcomes important for everyone, regardless of the political “side”.
“We are creating a platform that’s something of a gateway drug to meaningful civic action,” said Polisner. “We are thinking of a social platform that’s a people’s utility as opposed to something where we have to maximise profit and sell people’s data.”
The priority for 2018 is to nurture respectful dialogue between people with different political ideologies, said Polisner.
The breast pump reinvented
Most electric breast-pumps feature external collection bottles and tubes that tether to loud, whirring machines. Mountain View-based startup Willow has developed a discreet, battery-powered alternative that follows the shape of the breast and is small enough it can be slipped into a bra. The milk is sucked into a freezer-safe bags that fit into the cups.
Because it’s so much quieter, it allows the wearer to continue with their day while pumping, whether that’s making work calls or heading out shopping. An accompanying smartphone app keeps track of milk volume, pumping time and past pumping sessions.
The device is currently in beta testing, but will be available to purchase in 2018.