A View from Jason Pontin
35 Innovators under 35
How and why we choose our young leaders.
Every year, Technology Review lauds 35 innovators under the age of 35. They are chosen because they are transforming technology.
Our process for selecting the innovators is rigorous–not to mention arduous for our editors. We seek nominations more than six months before we announce the winners. Candidates, who may come from either industry or the academy, are nominated through a form, open to all, on TechnologyReview.com, or through nomination by an editor.
An important source of the latter nominations are the editors of Technology Review’s editions in Germany, India, China, Italy, and Spain: we want our list to be as international as possible, because technological innovation is a global enterprise, and because we are particularly interested in innovations that will solve persistent problems in the developing and poor world. The nominees are screened for appropriateness, and we collect curricula vitae, personal statements, and at least three reference letters. Simultaneously, we convene a panel of judges who are experts in different technological fields and who may be past TR35 winners themselves. We ask each judge to assess about 10 candidates. The editors consider the final list, which may include several hundred names, weighing the judges’ comments and seeking a mixture that represents current trends in emerging technology and the diversity of innovation around the globe. The list is whittled down until 35 innovators remain.
The whole process, as well as the editing of the stories about the young innovators, is led by Stephen Cass, Technology Review’s knowledgeable, wise, and eloquent special-projects editor, who writes in the introduction to the TR35, “We strive to identify those individuals who are tackling problems in a way that is likely to benefit society and business. … We pay special attention to those solving some of the most intractable and critical problems in the developing world.” He notes that this approach can lead to the selection of a technologist who is developing new materials for new devices–and also to rewarding an entrepreneur who is creating new business models that will move technology from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Over the last decade, many of the young innovators we’ve selected have gone on to be spectacularly successful. Previous winners include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook; Helen Greiner, the cofounder of iRobot; Jonathan Ive, the chief designer at Apple; Max Levchin, the cofounder of PayPal and founder of Slide; David Berry, who cofounded and funded (as a venture capitalist at Flagship Ventures) the biofuel companies LS9 and Joule; and MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden, one of the inventors of the emerging field of optogenetics, which makes it possible to control neurons with light.
This year’s winners have created innovations over a wide variety of fields, including biomedicine, energy, materials, communications, and transport, as well as software, hardware, social technologies, and the Web.
And as we do every year, we have selected for special attention a Humanitarian of the Year, the TR35 winner who we believe is most likely to improve the condition of humanity. This year, the winner is David Kobia, a Kenyan expatriate who designed the open-source Web service Ushahidi (the name means “witness” in Swahili). Ushahidi collects citizen reports and pinpoints them in space and time on an interactive map so that election fraud or ethnic violence can be more easily reported. It also makes it possible for first responders to disasters to react more rapidly and effectively. Since Kobia created the service as a way to document the violence following the disputed Kenyan presidential election of late 2007, Ushahidi has become central to coördinating the response to crises around the world.
Although Kobia is especially concerned with the plight of the world’s dispossessed and unfortunate, he shares something with all the young innovators this year and in the past: they inspire and expand our sense of what is possible. The innovations of the TR35 allow human beings to do something difficult that they were not able to do before.
Please read this year’s list, and write to me and tell me what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.