Kathy Gong became a chess master at 13, and four years later she boarded a plane with a one-way ticket to New York City to attend Columbia University. She knew little English at the time but learned as she studied, and after graduation she returned to China, where she soon became a standout among a rising class of fearless young technology entrepreneurs. Gong has launched a series of companies in different industries. One is Law.ai, a machine-learning company that created both a robotic divorce lawyer called Lily and a robotic visa and immigration lawyer called Mike. Now Gong and her team have founded a new company called Wafa Games that’s aiming to test the Middle East market, which Gong says most other game companies are ignoring.
“Like many Somalis, I ended up fleeing my homeland because of the civil war, back in the late 1980s. At age five I moved to the U.K. because I had family there and was able to get asylum. I grew up in a fairly nice part of London and went on to get a PhD in computer science at University College London.
“At university I started becoming more aware of the world and realized I was quite fortunate to be where I am, to have had all the opportunities that I did. So, in 2012, I helped start an organization called Innovate Ventures to train and support Somali techies. The first program we ran was a two-week coding camp in Somalia for about 15 people. Though the impact was small at the time, for those individuals it meant something, and it was my first time going back to the continent; I hadn’t visited in more than two decades.
“I started to think how Innovate Ventures could have a much bigger impact. In 2015, we teamed up with two nonprofits that were running employment training for Somali youths, found some promising startups, and put them through a series of sessions on marketing, accounting, and product design. Five startups came out of that five-month incubator, and we awarded one winner around $2,500 in seed money to help kick-start its business.
“The next year saw us partner with Oxfam, VC4Africa [an online venture-capital community focused on Africa], and Telesom [the largest telco in Somaliland], and we ran a 10-week accelerator for startups. We were hoping to get 40 to 50 applicants, but we ended up getting around 180. We chose 12 startups for a two-week bootcamp and 10 to participate in the full 10-week training and mentoring program. The top four received a total of $15,000 in funding.
“This year, the accelerator will be 12 weeks long, and we’ve received almost 400 applicants. There are some large Somali companies that are interested in investing in startups and we want to bring them on board to help catalyze the startup scene. We also hope to persuade the Somali diaspora, including some of my colleagues at IBM, to donate their skills and invest in the local technology scene.
“Countries like Kenya and Rwanda have initiatives to become technology and innovation hubs in Africa. Somaliland and Somalia face fundamental challenges in health care, education, and agriculture, but innovation, technology, and startups have the potential to fast-track the country's development. I think we’ve started to take steps in that direction with the programs we’ve been running, and we’re slowly changing the impression people have when they view Somalia and Somaliland.”
—as told to Elizabeth Woyke
Tallis Gomes had spent four years as the CEO of EasyTaxi, the “Uber of Brazil,” when he decided in 2015 to aim the same concept in a new direction—the beauty industry.
His on-demand services platform, called Singu, allows customers to summon a masseuse, manicurist, or other beauty professional to their home or office. Scheduling is done by an algorithm factoring in data from Singu and third parties, including location and weather. The professionals see fewer customers than they would in a shop, but they make more money because they don’t have to cover the overhead. Gomes says the algorithm can get a manicurist as many as 110 customers in a month, and earnings of $2,000—comparable to what a lawyer or junior engineer might make.
Rachel Haurwitz quickly went from lab rat to CEO at the center of the frenzy over CRISPR, the breakthrough gene-editing technology. In 2012 she’d been working at Jennifer Doudna’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, when it made a breakthrough showing how to edit any DNA strand using CRISPR. Weeks later, Haurwitz traded the lab’s top-floor views of San Francisco Bay for a sub-basement office with no cell coverage and one desk. There she became CEO of Caribou Biosciences, a spinout that has licensed Berkeley’s CRISPR patents and has made deals with drug makers, research firms, and agricultural giants like DuPont. She now oversees a staff of 44 that spends its time improving the core gene-editing technology. One recent development: a tool called SITE-Seq to help spot when CRISPR makes mistakes.
Bill Liu thinks he can do something Samsung, LG, and Lenovo can’t: manufacture affordable, flexible electronics that can be bent, folded, or rolled up into a tube.
Other researchers and companies have had similar ideas, but Liu moved fast to commercialize his vision. In 2012, he founded a startup called Royole, and in 2014 the company—under his leadership as CEO—unveiled the world’s thinnest flexible display. Compared with rival technologies that can be curved into a fixed shape but aren’t completely pliable, Royole’s displays are as thin as an onion skin and can be rolled tightly around a pen. They can also be fabricated using simpler manufacturing processes, at lower temperatures, which allows Royole to make them at lower cost than competing versions. The company operates its own factory in Shenzhen, China, and is finishing construction on a 1.1-million-square-foot campus nearby. Once complete, the facility will produce 50 million flexible panels a year, says Royole.
Liu dreams of creating an all-in-one computing device that would combine the benefits of a watch, smartphone, tablet, and TV. “I think our flexible displays and sensors will eventually make that possible,” he says. For now, users will have to settle for a $799 headset that they can don like goggles to watch movies and video games in 3-D.
Jianxiong Xiao aims to make self-driving cars as widely accessible as computers are today. He’s the founder and CEO of AutoX, which recently demonstrated an autonomous car built not with expensive laser sensors but with ordinary webcams and some sophisticated computer-vision algorithms. Remarkably, the vehicle can navigate even at night and in bad weather.
AutoX hasn’t revealed details of its software, but Xiao is an expert at using deep learning, an AI technique that lets machines teach themselves to perform difficult tasks such as recognizing pedestrians from different angles and in different lighting.
Growing up without much money in Chaozhou, a city in eastern China, Xiao became mesmerized by books about computers—fantastic-sounding machines that could encode knowledge, logic, and reason. Without access to the real thing, he taught himself to touch-type on a keyboard drawn on paper.
The soft-spoken entrepreneur asks people to call him “Professor X” rather than struggle to pronounce his name. He’s published dozens of papers demonstrating clever ways of teaching machines to understand and interact with the world. Last year, Xiao showed how an autonomous car could learn about salient visual features of the real world by contrasting features shown in Google Maps with images from Google Street View.