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These innovators are creating businesses that will upend markets or create new ones.

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    Alex Ljung

    SoundCloud is changing how music gets made.

    Q: How did you come to create a service that is like a YouTube for music, letting people upload and embed tracks, find new artists, and leave comments while listening to songs?

    A: After high school, I started working as a sound designer in a postproduction studio in Stockholm. I would do sound effects and music for movies and for TV. [When] I started studying engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, that’s where I met Eric [Wahlforss], my cofounder, who it turned out had a very similar background. We were both recording and creating music and sound, and we just didn’t have a good way of being able to share it with each other and then get some feedback on it. 

    Q: In the beginning, a small group of musicians used SoundCloud to share their songs. Now it reaches more than 250 million listeners per month. How are they using it?

    A: What’s really cool about it is that it affords a lot of different user experiences. We have somebody who might just open up their phone and say “Oh great, there’s a brand-new track from 50 Cent. I just want to listen to this one now and enjoy it.” And then on the other side of the spectrum, you have these more intense engagements. Snoop Dogg has used it to find a bunch of artists that he wants to work with. He found this artist Iza Lach from Poland and signed her to his record label.

    Q: How is this reshaping the music business?

    A: We have people who could be anywhere in the world at the moment, creating a completely new genre that hasn’t been known before, and within a very short amount of time, that may be the biggest thing in the world. I still think it’s amazing that not even two years ago Lorde was just a young artist in New Zealand that nobody knew of. And [after releasing her first songs through SoundCloud] all of a sudden she’s one of the largest stars in the world, topping all the charts. That kind of speed is something that is really interesting.

    —Kristin Majcher

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    Fadel Adib

    Here’s how you can use Wi-Fi to track people moving around in other rooms.

    “I was born in Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1989. At the time, there was much political violence. The Lebanese civil war ended a year later. Unfortunately, the postwar stability did not last long. When I went to the American University of Beirut, I remember we used to have assassinations or bombings almost every week. When I came to MIT as a PhD student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, the first thing that shocked me was that I could focus all the time on research. 

    “In one of our projects, we were just making our Wi-Fi faster by maximizing throughput between nodes. Every once in a while, the system would get messed up, and we would stop getting good results. We realized that there was some person walking in the hallway, and that person’s walking was basically changing the channel. 

    “If I shine a wireless signal at the wall, a huge amount of this signal is going to reflect off the wall. A tiny part of that signal will traverse the wall, reflect off anything that’s behind it, and then come back. We realized that we can sense motion using these wireless signals, and that’s how we started working on seeing through walls.

    “You can track people as they move. You can monitor multiple people’s heart rates and breathing. Retail stores that want to understand how people are moving in their stores can track when a person reaches out for a product, looks at it, and puts it back. The police could track if there’s a person behind a wall. One of the applications we’re thinking of: can you monitor the heart rate of a fetus in the mother’s womb without touching the body in any way? 

    “When I went home to Lebanon and I was talking to my grandmother about it, she was like, ‘So, for example, can I put it over here in my living room, and if I fall in the bedroom or in the bathroom, it’s going to going to detect my fall and send an SMS to one of my children? Please, make this a product and put it here.’” 

    —as told to Suzanne Jacobs

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    Miles Barr

    The CEO of a solar startup hopes you never see his product.

    Miles Barr shows me into a hot and sunny conference room. He opens a metal case and reveals neat rows of e-readers, smartphones, and tablets.

    Barr hands me two of the phones, each displaying the same colorful picture of a tree, and says one of them is getting electricity from a solar panel on its screen. I squint at them, trying to tell them apart, but I can’t. The same holds for device after device in his case. Even indoors, his e-reader, which requires much less power than the phones, is getting enough energy from the see-through photovoltaic coating to make plugging it in totally unnecessary.

    The see-through panels aren’t yet on the market, but it’s easy to tell that they’d be a hit. Although you can already buy phones with solar cells on the back, they generate power only if you leave them face down. These transparent solar cells work as you use the device normally.

    Barr’s solar cells can’t be seen because they are made of dye-like molecules that absorb wavelengths of light humans can’t see, letting visible light pass right through. In 2011, he cofounded a company called Ubiquitous Energy to develop the technology, starting with solar cells that could still be seen faintly on the screen. Since then, the startup has gotten them effectively invisible and made them efficient enough for low-power applications like e-readers and watches. Now it is trying to improve the reliability of the manufacturing process so the coatings can be integrated into existing assembly lines for electronic devices.

    Barr pairs his inventiveness with a flair for salesmanship. In grad school he showed off solar cells printed on paper by folding the sheet into a paper airplane and attaching electrical leads to demonstrate that it could generate electricity. His demos have helped raise $8 million for Ubiquitous Energy, which recently left the Cambridge Innovation Center near MIT to set up shop in Silicon Valley.

    Barr thinks he can go well beyond powering portable electronics. In his demonstration he holds up two sheets of window glass, one equipped with his invisible solar cells. By absorbing infrared and ultraviolet light, windows with this technology could help keep a room cool and generate power.

    Kevin Bullis

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    Ayah Bdeir

    Electronic blocks that link with one another also connect art and engineering.

    Growing up in Beirut, Ayah Bdeir was taught that art and engineering occupied separate realms. “In Lebanon, as in most of the world, there is little blurring of the boundaries between the professions: doctor, teacher, scientist, and designer exist in separate silos,” she says. The company she founded in 2011, called LittleBits Electronics, goes against that idea by making technology accessible across all disciplines and ages. It sells a library of modular electronic units that can be easily connected for projects as diverse as a sound machine, a night light, or a lifelike robotic hand.

    LittleBits makes roughly 50 different modules, which cost up to $40 each or come in kits of $99 and up. Each module is a thin rectangle measuring between one and four inches in length and containing complex hidden circuitry. Blue modules provide power. Pink ones allow for inputs, like switches, microphones, and motion sensors. Green ones are for outputs like lights, motors, and speakers. Orange ones provide wires or logic functions. Bdeir designed all the modules so they fit together magnetically, ensuring that users join circuits correctly.

    Her New York–based company has sold hundreds of thousands of units in about 80 countries, and Bdeir takes pride in the fact that the product appeals to girls and boys, children and adults, designers and engineers. “A screwdriver is a screwdriver for everybody,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who you are or how you use it. Every person will find what they want.”

    Amanda Schaffer

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    Rand Hindi

    Guiding your life using the power of big data.

    Rand Hindi once put on more than 70 pounds just to see if data could help him take the weight off. He tracked every aspect of his life—what he ate and drank, how long he slept—and fed the results into software that determined which behaviors were bad for him. Sure enough, after heeding the software’s advice, he lost the weight.

    Now what Hindi wants to reduce is the “friction” of urban life. In 2012 he founded a Paris-based company called Snips, which analyzes data in hopes of making city living more efficient. For example, Snips partnered with France’s national railway to create an app that predicts up to three days in advance how crowded different trains will be. By mining such sources as weather information, historical passenger counts, and real-time check-ins from users of the app, it can advise people to stay away from particular stations or guide them to trains with more seats available. Now Snips is developing ways to use an urbanite’s context—location, weather, interests—and deliver useful information before he or she even asks for it.

    Suzanne Jacobs

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    Aaron Levie

    The founder of Box wants to reconfigure the way we work.

    He has come a long way since the fifth grade, when he sold cloth bags filled with rice as heating pads to soothe sore muscles—only to recall the product when the twist ties used to seal the bags burst into flames in customers’ microwaves. Today, Aaron Levie is CEO of Box, a company that he founded in 2005; it is now on the verge of an IPO.

    Box is often described as being like Dropbox for businesses: it makes it easy to store files in the cloud. But Levie envisions something bigger than mere file sharing. Because Box offers features such as electronic signatures and tools that aid regulatory compliance, he views it as a platform for connecting people not just inside companies but also across entire industries—suppliers, partners, customers, contractors, and so on. “Maybe we can save 10 percent of an employee’s time, but the organization as a whole is moving 20 percent faster, and it’s working with a new network of partners,” he says. “At each level the change becomes more ­transformative.”

    High-profile clients such as General Electric validate the power of this idea. The sprawling company is using Box to keep employees in 170 countries on the same page. 

    —Ted Greenwald

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    Palmer Luckey

    If you can make virtual reality affordable for consumers, things fall into place.

    Palmer Luckey grew up mesmerized by the transcendent virtual reality depicted in Star Trek and The Matrix. But when his video screen faded to black, he was back in the real world, where virtual technology remained trapped in niche ­applications.

    So Luckey, a self-taught engineer who had been exploring technology journalism in college, began tinkering. In 2009 he hacked together his first prototypes of a virtual-reality headset in his parents’ basement. He eventually called it the Oculus Rift and posted designs to Internet forums. In 2012, John Carmack, the creator of the Doom and Quake video-game franchises, took notice, and the two began an online dialogue. Luckey sent Carmack a prototype, which Carmack demonstrated at the E3 video-gaming conference. Then things really heated up. Luckey tried raising $250,000 for Oculus Rift on Kickstarter and got $2.5 million. A year later Oculus, based in Irvine, California, received $91 million in venture capital. Software developers began producing games for the Rift, which is expected to hit the market by 2016 for about $300. And in March, Luckey sold his startup to Facebook for $2 billion.

    The Rift, shown here in a rendering, has inspired Sony to make a rival device.

    For Luckey, it’s just a matter of reality finally catching up with the imagined possibilities. “The sale might have been mind-boggling two years ago,” he says. “It’s less so now after we’ve shipped about 70,000 development kits. It’s very clear that virtual reality is going to take off. I think people are going to look back and actually think it was a very low price to get a foot in the door on that VR future.

    “We’re going to get to the point where virtual reality is indistinguishable from reality itself. And much sooner than that, we’re going to have the visual side indistinguishable from reality. It’s going to take longer to get all of the other senses working, but it’s a clear path. What we say around the office is: virtual reality isn’t the next platform, it’s the final platform. Once it’s perfect, you won’t need to perfect any other platform. That’s going to change the way artists work with content and how they create.

    “This is beyond gaming. You can have education. You can put people anywhere in the world, not just as it exists today, but as it existed in the past. You can put people in a concert, you can put people courtside at any sports game, you can hover above the playing field. Things are a long way off in terms of being perfect, but we have a road map.”

    Adam Popescu

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    Michael Schmidt

    There aren’t enough data scientists to go around—unless you automate them.

    Demand for statisticians and data experts outstrips supply. The shortfall in the U.S. alone could reach 190,000 workers by 2018, according to estimates by McKinsey & Company

    Michael Schmidt has created an automated data scientist that can take in observations about the world and spit out theories to explain them. 

    Schmidt showed it could be done in 2009. He then wrote software that could examine raw data and derive laws of physics, like the one that describes the swinging of a pendulum. 

    Since then Schmidt has refined the software, named Eureqa, so that it can handle more than just physics questions: astronomers have used it to characterize galaxies, and doctors have used it to predict which children will have acute appendicitis. Since 2011, Schmidt has been running a startup, Nutonian, that offers the software to business users who aren’t math experts. It hopes to win over businesses like the retailer Lowe’s, which has piles of sales data and yearns to uncover equations that might help it sell more gas grills or two-by-fours. “The people with the skills are going to Google or SpaceX or to Wall Street, not to home-improvement chains,” says Schmidt. “Our mission is to help with that, and show that you don’t need to be a data scientist to make useful discoveries.” 

    —Antonio Regalado

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    Bret Taylor

    The former CTO of Facebook is reimagining the word processor.

    At 34, Bret ­Taylor already has one of the most impressive résumés in Silicon Valley. He has been a creator of Google Maps; a cofounder of FriendFeed, one of Facebook’s earliest acquisitions; a creator of Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” button; and Facebook’s chief technology officer. He is one of those rare engineers who are equally comfortable writing code and taking a stage to tell people about it.

    Yet even the best engineers and entrepreneurs mess up, and that’s where my mind went when I learned of Quip, his latest venture. Quip is rethinking the word processor and other aspects of the “productivity software” that Microsoft has dominated for a generation. Apple and Google have made small inroads into Microsoft’s Office empire during the past half-decade, but their marketing and software development budgets are effectively unlimited. Why would a startup try it?

    Taylor understands—even embraces—the skepticism. But what gives Quip a chance against the likes of Microsoft, Apple, and Google is that the rapid shift from desktop and laptop PCs to tablets and smartphones is changing what consumers want from their software, and Quip wasn’t conceived for a desktop- or laptop-dominated world. It is meant for people who often collaborate on documents while away from a desk in a traditional office, possibly on many separate devices over the course of a day (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies: Mobile Collaboration,” May/June). Today, we might use a combination of e-mail, file attachments, and instant-messaging streams to deal with this. Quip puts all those functions in one place, keeping track of who changed what in a document and who said what about those changes. It makes it possible to have quick back-and-forths with a group of people without dragging them into a meeting room or setting up a conference call.

    Many people thought Taylor was being irrational when he left Facebook. Though he’d made millions in its IPO, he left more on the table by leaving. But ­Taylor knew exactly what he wanted next on his résumé. “I had influence at Facebook,” he says, “but at the end of the day I was executing someone else’s strategy.”

     —Fred Vogelstein

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