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Letter from the Editor

35 Innovators Under the Age of 35

How the year’s most promising technologists are chosen, and why we insist on their youth.

  • This letter appeared in the September/October 2012 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • August 21, 2012

Since 1999, Technology Review has selected 35 exceptionally talented young innovators whose work we, their peers, and a distinguished panel of judges have agreed has the greatest potential to transform the world.

The list has become an important recognition among technologists at startups, in industry, and in the academy, and we take seriously the responsibility of choosing the winners. We seek nominations more than six months before we publish the final list. Candidates are nominated through a form on ­TechnologyReview.com or by an editor. The nominees are screened for easy rejections, and we collect curricula vitae, personal statements, and at least three reference letters for those we like. A panel of judges—experts in different fields, who may be past winners themselves—assess the candidates. The editors consider a final list of dozens of names, scrutinizing the judges’ comments and seeking a mixture of individuals that represents current trends in technology and the diversity of innovation around the globe. The list is whittled down until 35 remain.

Over the years, we’ve had some success in choosing women and men whose innovations and companies have been profoundly influential on the direction of human affairs. Previous winners include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook; Jonathan Ive, the chief designer of Apple; Helen Greiner, the cofounder of iRobot; Max Levchin, the cofounder of PayPal and founder of Slide; David Karp, the creator of Tumblr; and MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden, one of the inventors of the emerging field of optogenetics, which makes it possible to control thought and memory. Even our least famous winners have gone on to distinguished careers. We’re proud of our selections and the variety of achievements they celebrate.

This story is part of our September/October 2012 Issue
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But by far the most common question I hear about the young innovators is: why do you restrict nominees to technologists under the age of 35? What’s with the youth chauvinism? Don’t you think people 35 or older have the capacity to be truly innovative?

Of course I do. (If nothing else, I must if I am to come to work in the mornings: I turned 45 in May.) The history of technology is replete with examples of world-historical innovations by people in middle, late-middle, or even old age. Of Thomas Edison’s 1,093 U.S. patents, only about 300 were filed before he was 35 years old. Steve Jobs was 52 in 2007, when he first unveiled the iPhone.

The reasoning behind the age qualification is mainly journalistic. Our list of innovators is not primarily a list of the most innovative people in the world, because such a list would inevitably be composed of men and women well known to our audience. It is a list of young people, because we hope to introduce you to personalities of whom you’ve never heard and eventually claim credit for our prescience. In short, a list of young innovators is just more interesting.

I won’t tire you by listing some of 2012’s young innovators. Read the list yourself, and write to me and tell me what you think.

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