Wall Street Journal Announces 2010 Technology Award Winners

Stephen DeAngelis

November 15, 2010

For the tenth straight year, the Wall Street Journal has empanelled a group of experts to judge the latest technologies. The three criteria for making awards are:

—Does the innovation break with conventional ideas or processes in its field?

—Does it go beyond marginal improvements on something that already exists?

—Will it have a wide impact on future technology in its field or in other fields?

According to the paper, it “received 597 applications from companies, organizations and individuals in 30 countries. Journal editors reviewed the entries and forwarded about 275 to a panel of judges from research institutions, venture-capital firms and other companies. From that pool, the judges chose 49 for awards.” [“The Wall Street Journal 2010 Technology Innovation Awards,” by John M. Leger, 27 September 2010]. According to Leger, the 49 awards “equal to the previous record in 2006.” Although most of the awards were given to U.S. companies, organizations, or individuals, “more than a quarter of them are from outside the U.S.,” including the winner of the Gold Award. That award was given to “Taiwan-based Industrial Technology Research Institute, or ITRI, … for a manufacturing technique that promises to clear the way for commercial development of high-quality displays on flexible materials. [“Paper-Thin Screens With a Twist,” by Michael Totty, Wall Street Journal, 26 September 2010]. This is ITRI’s second award in this competition. Last year it won an award “for its FleXpeaker, a paper-thin loudspeaker system.” Totty explains why flexible displays, like ITRI’s award-winning entry, are important:

“Flexible displays are attractive for several reasons: They’re lighter than glass displays, making it possible to build larger consumer devices, such as e-readers or tablet computers, that aren’t too heavy. They can also be used in some novel applications, such as interactive newspapers that can be bent or rolled and be as portable as the paper-based versions.”

Not all Journal award winners were newspaper related. As Leger writes, “Yes, there are some gadgets, as one might expect in a technology contest. But there are also innovations that will improve the quality of life for many people around the world, such as MIT Mobility Lab’s wheelchair that can travel on practically any terrain. Or the environmental innovations that promise cleaner air and water.” Winners were awarded in 17 categories. ITRI, the overall winner, was also the winner in the Consumer Electronics category. Below is a brief rundown of the other 16 winners [“The Winners, Category by Category,” by Michael Totty, Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2010].

Computing Systems

Lightfleet Corp., based in Camas, Wash., won in this category for a novel way of connecting computer processors, using beamed light instead of copper or fiber-optic wires. In big data centers, even the fastest servers get slowed by bottlenecks in the connections between microprocessors, or nodes. Lightfleet’s technology aims to eliminate the bottlenecks by replacing the wired switches typically used to manage these connections with a device that sends a data-carrying beam of light to all the nodes at once. The faster transmission of data promises to make it possible, for example, to run Wall Street’s high-speed trading operations more efficiently. The company, founded in 2003, delivered a prototype of its first product earlier this year to Microsoft Research, the R&D arm of the computer giant, which will test how it handles different applications. A Lightfleet spokesman says the company expects the first commercial sales by the middle of next year.”

Another company using light instead of wire or fiber-optics to help increase data transmission speeds is Glimmerglass. To read more about how it uses photonic optical signal management, read my post entitled Sharing Sensitive Information.

E-Commerce

New Orleans-based Receivables Exchange LLC won in the e-commerce category …for its online marketplace where small and midsize businesses can auction their receivables. Smaller companies don’t have the same access to financial markets that their larger counterparts do, so it’s especially difficult for them to raise short-term working capital. Taking out a loan backed by receivables—known as factoring—is common in some industries. But for most small and midsize businesses, a factoring deal can be costly and often takes a long time to arrange. Receivables Exchange aims to make it much easier for a company to tap the cash locked in its receivables. A company posts its unpaid invoices on the exchange, which screens the seller to make sure it has a certain minimum revenue and has been in business for at least two years. The screening can be completed within 24 hours and the invoices can be posted the next day. Bidders offer to buy some or all of the posted receivables, and the exchange takes commissions from the buyer and seller. The company was launched in 2007 by Justin Brownhill, a former investment banker who is now Receivables Exchange’s chief executive, and Nicolas Perkin, its president. The exchange hosts between $1 million and $5 million in trades each day, a spokeswoman says; it doesn’t reveal its revenue.”

This is a great idea, especially when credit remains a serious challenge for many small businesses.

Energy

InEnTec LLC, based in Bend, Ore., won in the energy category for a process that uses high-temperature plasma gasification to produce synthetic fuel from municipal and industrial waste. The technology offers a cleaner alternative to using incinerators to burn garbage. The company’s Plasma Enhanced Melter heats the waste in a super-hot plasma. This produces a synthetic gas that can be converted to ethanol, methanol, clean diesel and other transportation fuels. Ash from the process is captured in molten glass, producing an obsidian-like material that can be buried in landfills or used in construction materials. Metals are captured separately and can be recycled. Plasma gasification isn’t a new technology; companies have used it for more than a decade to break down industrial and medical waste. Other companies are planning plasma-gasification plants to convert municipal waste, and a pilot plant from U.K.-based Advanced Plasma Power has been in operation since 2007. But InEnTec says its technology is more energy efficient than other plasma-gasification systems. InEnTec was formed in 1995 by researchers who had studied and improved the technology in a collaborative effort between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Last year, the company created a joint venture with Houston-based Waste Management Inc. to build and operate plasma-gasification facilities using InEnTec’s technology. The first, planned for Arlington, Ore., is scheduled to open by the end of the year, with the capacity to handle 25 tons of waste a day.”

With landfills rapidly filling up, incinerating trash is rapidly becoming the preferred alternative for dealing with the mountains of trash created each day. Although InEnTec’s plasma gasification technology may prove to be the best technology (especially for recovering metals and producing energy), other innovative incineration alternatives are also in use or being considers. For more information read my posts entitled The Trouble with Trash and Updates on Alternative Energy Sources, Part 3: Biofuels.

Environment

NanoH2O Inc., based in El Segundo, Calif., was voted best in the environment category for a nanotechnology-based reverse-osmosis membrane that promises to reduce the cost of running a typical desalination plant by as much as 25%. Reverse osmosis, which separates salt and other impurities from salt water by forcing it through a membrane at high pressure, is increasingly favored as a desalination technology. But the pumps that push water through the membranes consume large amounts of energy, and traditional membranes easily are clogged by impurities, reducing their efficiency. NanoH2O, using technology based on research at the University of California, Los Angeles, weaves nanoparticles into its membranes. The nanoparticles are more permeable to water molecules than the material in traditional membranes, and they resist fouling by bacteria, salt and other contaminants. As a result, the company says, its membranes enable desalination plants to maintain the same levels of production while reducing energy consumption, or to produce 70% more fresh water at current energy levels. The company says it has begun producing membranes and complete reverse-osmosis modules, which incorporate the membranes and can replace the filters already used in existing desalination plants. It delivered the first products in August.”

To learn more about desalination, read a post I wrote a couple of years ago entitled The Future of Desalination. In the years ahead, more and more concerns are going to be raised about the availability of water and efforts by companies like NanoH2O are going to play a major role in helping solve water challenges.

Health-Care IT

“Software called Connect, developed by more than 20 federal agencies led by a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, won in this category for technology that enables health-care providers to exchange health information electronically. The health-care industry is moving, albeit slowly, to replace patients’ paper records with electronic files that can be easily shared among physicians, hospitals, health-care agencies and others. Two roadblocks stand in the way, though: The cost of electronic records systems and the need to ensure security and patient privacy. Connect addresses both problems. The software was devised to meet all requirements for maintaining the security and privacy of medical records, including rules for federal agencies that are stricter than those for private health-care companies. And the Federal Health Architecture program, which coordinates health IT activities for several federal agencies, distributes the open-source Connect software free to both government and private health organizations. In one of the first deployments, the Social Security Administration worked with the state of Virginia’s regional health-information network to streamline the process of determining eligibility for disability benefits. Instant access to patients’ records cut the time it takes to process disability applications to 46 days from 84. Though there is other software for exchanging medical records, the Innovation Awards judges praised Connect for its ability to put the technology in the hands of lots of medical providers. The developers ‘were one of the few people who could move the needle on adoption of these things,’ says Barry H. Jaruzelski, one of the judges and a partner at Booz & Co.”

Few people doubt that the electronic exchange of health information will become increasingly important. However, when I asked one data exchange expert about this particular system, he told, “It is interesting they received an award and recognition for their work. …They kept many … standards that are very dated. … [The] bottom line is that industry is not very pleased. …. Maybe Connect is their only success.” There are better methods for securely exchanging sensitive information.

Materials and Other Base Technologies

“Cement production pumps a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. U.K.-based Novacem Ltd. was recognized in this category for a new cement-making process that takes in more CO2 than it emits. The secret is using magnesium oxides instead of calcium carbonates, the main ingredient in Portland cement, the most common type. Magnesium-oxide cements have been around for a long time, but their quality wasn’t as good as that of Portland cement, and their manufacture still emitted a lot of CO2. Novacem, spun out of Imperial College London in 2007, says its cement is as durable as traditional materials and the production process can absorb 100 kilograms of CO2 for each metric ton of cement produced—compared with the roughly 800 kilograms of CO2 emitted in the production of each metric ton of traditional cement. Novacem plans to begin construction next year of a plant to produce up to 25,000 metric tons of cement a year using the new technology, and to open the first commercial-scale plant by 2015.”

The Wall Street Journal is not the only organization to recognize Novacem. This spring I published a post in which I discussed technologies praised by MIT. Novacem’s cement was one of the technologies recognized [MIT Technology Review’s Ten Technologies Predicted to Change the World]. Novacem is not the only technologically-advanced cement on the market. In April 2009, I published a post that discussed, among other things, a cement called TX Active cement produced by Italy’s Italcementi [Go Green, Save Lives]. TX Active cement used titanium dioxide that becomes chemically active in sunlight and can help neutralize air pollutants such as benzene, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and others. In another post [The Future of Building Materials], I noted that a University of Rhode Island engineering student had developed a self-healing concrete.

Medical Devices

Zoom Focus Eyewear LLC, winner of the overall Silver award, won in this category.” “For many people past the age of 40, focusing on close objects—restaurant menus, for instance—just gets harder and harder. Most people with this condition, called presbyopia, eventually give in and get reading glasses, bifocals or glasses with progressive lenses. But what if there were another alternative that didn’t require people to carry an extra set of glasses or have only part of their field of vision in focus at any one time? Zoom Focus Eyewear LLC, of Van Nuys, Calif., has just such an option, and with it won this year’s Silver Innovation Award. The solution: eyeglasses, called TruFocals, that the wearer can manually adjust to give clear, undistorted vision whether reading a book, working on a computer or looking into the distance. The judges praised the potential large-scale benefit of TruFocals. Richard S. Lang, one of the judges and a physician at the Cleveland Clinic, called the technology a paradigm shift in the way it addresses a problem ‘that has been handled the same way for many years.'” [“A Different Kind of Eyeglasses,” by Michael Totty, Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2010].

Back in 2009, I reported on a similar pair of eyeglasses developed to help impoverished people with vision problems [The Gift of Sight]. Joshua Silver, a British physicist, developed self-adjusting lenses that can be put in a pair of glasses and sold for less than $20 a pair. Silver admits they are ugly, but not seeing correctly is even uglier.

Network/Internet Technologies/Broadband

Vidyo Inc., based in Hackensack, N.J., won in this category with its technology for delivering high-quality videoconferencing over the Internet or cellular networks at a fraction of the cost of dedicated ‘telepresence’ systems. Internet videoconferencing has been around for a few years, but the calls typically are characterized by jerky, low-resolution video. More-realistic, high-resolution videoconferencing systems generally require dedicated communications lines and expensive equipment, limiting their use. Vidyo uses a new video-compression standard to produce a high-definition videoconferencing product that can work on desktop or laptop computers, tablets and smart phones and travel over the Internet or 3G and 4G cellular networks. The company introduced its systems, which can include routers and other hardware in addition to software, in 2007. This summer, it licensed software to Hewlett-Packard Co., which will use the technology to extend its Halo telepresence service to desktop computers and to conference rooms not already set up with dedicated systems.”

As companies become more global, I suspect that videoconferencing will play an increasingly important role in helping integrate global enterprises. I must admit, however, that I still believe that face-to-face meetings trump videoconferencing when time and cost permits.

Network Security

“The Internet is thick with malware—viruses, worms, spyware, Trojan horses. The judges awarded Symantec Corp., based in Mountain View, Calif., the top prize in the network-security category for a new way to head off these threats: ‘reputation-based’ technology that examines the usage patterns of millions of computers to spot dangers that traditional security products typically miss. In general, security software identifies malicious software by looking for distinguishing patterns of code or watching for bad behavior—a computer’s inexplicably connecting to an unknown server, for example. The problem is that there are so many new malware variants constantly appearing, some of them targeting only a small number of computers, that those techniques can’t always spot them before they do mischief. Symantec’s new technology examines the software running on the computers of millions of volunteers, who remain anonymous, to spot possible threats. Based on what these patterns show about a program’s source, age, prevalence and other characteristics, the technology assigns a “reputation rating” to every piece of software that it comes across. The technology had been known initially as Quorum but will soon be renamed. Symantec says that the technology, first incorporated in the company’s Norton 2010 security suite that was released in late 2009, is detecting about 10 million new threats a month that are invisible to traditional security methods.”

Although it is absolutely critical that companies continue to provide software solutions to the growing malware problem, the greatest security gap will always be the individual that uses information technology. I’m not sure that IT security companies will ever be able to develop an idiot-proof technology.

Physical Security

“Surveillance cameras generate a prodigious amount of video; unfortunately there’s not enough time and manpower to watch it all. The winner in this category, Israel-based BriefCam Ltd., has developed a fresh solution to the problem: Video Synopsis, which enables a viewer to browse a day’s worth of recording in just a few minutes by creating a summary of all the activities captured by a camera. Other video-surveillance technologies address the too-much-information problem by fast forwarding through recordings or capturing images only when something happens—using motion detectors, for instance. BriefCam takes a different approach. Its patented technology pulls out activities recorded over the course of a day—vehicles driving through a security gate, people walking in and out of a building—and compiles the images into a highlight reel in which each vehicle, for instance, follows immediately the one that preceded it through the gate, regardless of how much time actually elapsed between their arrivals. Each vehicle’s image carries a time stamp to show when it was recorded, and the user can click on the time stamp to call up that section of the video. ‘Five hours of video is not five hours any more,’ says Shmuel Peleg, developer of the technology and the company’s chief scientist. ‘It’s five minutes.’ Video Synopsis, licensed from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where Mr. Peleg is a faculty member, was launched in 2009.”

One of the major challenges (and source of complaints) that arrived with the age of electronics is information overload. Any technology that can help sort through mountains of data in a useful way gets my vote as a breakthrough technology.

Robotics

Liquid Robotics Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif., is the winner in this category for developing an unmanned seagoing craft propelled by the power of ocean waves. Most unmanned ocean craft can remain at sea for only a short time, relying on batteries to power propellers or pumps. The heavier their payload, the less time they have. Thanks to its propulsion system, Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider avoids those limits. The craft, which consists of a surface buoy and a submerged glider with wing-shaped panels, converts the up-and-down motion of waves into forward thrust, making it possible to propel the buoy indefinitely without relying on batteries or other power sources. The craft can be controlled remotely via satellite over an Internet connection. Instruments are powered by a solar panel on the surface of the floating buoy. Innovation Awards judge William Webb says the technology is ‘simple, novel and very workable.’ The vehicle originally was designed by co-inventor Roger Hine, a Silicon Valley engineer and now the company’s chief executive, to monitor the activities of humpback whales. It can also be used for tsunami warnings, observing weather and ocean conditions, and national-defense applications. The first craft was sold in 2009. This summer, BP PLC deployed two Wave Gliders to the Gulf of Mexico to monitor water quality near the site of the well that exploded in April and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.”

My suspicion is that Liquid Robotics starting developing its craft national-defense applications (that’s where the money is) and then touted its ability to observe weather and ocean conditions. Because Liquid Robotics’ technology uses wave power, it must sit on or near the surface of the ocean. Perhaps the company will next tackle the challenge for which the Navy is desperately looking for a solution. “Admiral Gary Roughead, the Navy’s top officer, came to the Office of Naval Research’s science and technology conference [earlier this month] with one major item on his wish list. Can some engineer out there please get a power source in place for drone submarines?” [“Navy Chief Presses Nerds To Power Up Undersea Drones,” Wired, 8 November 2010].

Semiconductors

InVisage Technologies Inc., based in Menlo Park, Calif., took the prize in the semiconductors category with QuantumFilm, an image sensor for digital cameras that uses semiconducting nanocrystals to capture far more light than traditional sensors. Inexpensive digital cameras rely on sensors made from silicon that are limited in the amount of light they can capture. This is especially an issue in the smaller sensors used in cellphone cameras. InVisage replaced silicon in the sensor with quantum dots, semiconducting crystals that are nanometers in size. The product, InVisage says, captures more than 90% of the available light, compared with 25% for a silicon-based sensor. The technology taps research from the University of Toronto by Ted Sargent, a nanotechnology researcher and InVisage’s founder and chief technology officer. The first QuantumFilm prototypes were unveiled in March, and the company says it will deliver sample chips to smart-phone makers by the end of the year; these chips will be used to build prototype devices. The chips could be available in consumer products as early as the end of next year.”

Digital photography (including video) has dramatically changed how we view the world. Every mobile phone user is a potential reporter. I’m sure the networks are thrilled that they may soon get their hands on higher quality photographs and video submitted by viewers.

Software

San Francisco-based Unity Technologies won in this category for a set of game-development tools that make it cheap and easy to create three-dimensional interactive content, including games, training simulations and medical visualizations, for a range of devices from cellphones to game systems. The software for creating 3D online universes typically requires teams of engineers who spend years creating and refining these tools. As a result, they’re often too complex and expensive for small-scale or amateur game developers. Unity’s software simplifies the process of building 3D games and other programs. It includes an easy-to-use editor that can take prefabricated components—rain or falling crates, for example—and combine them with other features to create full game environments. The software also makes it possible to deploy games on a range of computer systems: Macs or PCs, game consoles from Sony Corp., Nintendo Co. or Microsoft Corp., and Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad. The tools are simple enough for hobbyists or start-up developers; two developers used it to make the popular Zombieville USA app for the iPhone. They also are powerful enough for the largest game developers. Electronic Arts Inc., for example, used Unity to create its Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online game. ‘What you can create in a short time frame with a low learning curve is pretty revolutionary,’ says Robert Drost, a computer architect and one of the Innovation Awards judges. The first version of the software was introduced in 2005, and it currently is being used by more than 200,000 developers. In October 2009, the company began offering at no cost its entry-level version, normally priced at $200 and intended mainly for hobbyists and small, independent game developers.”

In a future post, I will be looking at some predictions about what is going to happen across the spectrum of science in the coming year. One of the predictions has to do with gaming and how it will foster everything from better medicine to women’s rights.

Technology Design

“The efficient and compact storage of cookware may not be one of the world’s great problems, but for anyone who has tried to put away a stack of awkwardly shaped pans with their lids and protruding handles, it’s definitely an unmet need. Gavin Thomson Design Ltd., based in the U.K., won this category with an elegant solution to this daily annoyance. Mr. Thomson designed a set of three saucepans that nest one inside the other. The largest pan snugly holds the next smaller pan, which holds the smallest one; each permanently attached handle rests inside the hollowed-out grip of the next larger pan, and the lids all fit on top. The patented design was licensed to Stellar brands, a unit of Portugal-based Silampos SA, and the first products, called Eazistore, were introduced in March in the U.K. Mr. Thomson’s firm is negotiating with housewares brands in North America and Asia to distribute the pans in those regions.”

Not everybody can afford a fancy rack on which to hang their cookware. This is a very clever design to help make more room in your pot drawer.

Wireless

Ubiquisys Ltd., based in the U.K., won in the wireless category for a low-priced femtocell—a small cellular base station for use indoors. Femtocells are designed to address two big, related problems: the poor cellphone coverage typically found inside a house, apartment or office building, and the growing congestion on cellular networks, aggravated by the explosion of data use on the latest smart phones. While femtocells have been around for a few years, their adoption has been limited by their high cost. The company’s G3-mini, introduced in December, is the first femtocell to be sold at a wholesale price under $100—a price that makes it possible for carriers to provide them to customers free of charge. Ubiquisys keeps the cost down by providing software that’s already proven to work on the leading carrier networks and delivering hardware blueprints to consumer-electronics makers, which can take advantage of their high-volume manufacturing lines to turn out lower-priced gear. Tokyo-based Softbank Mobile Corp. began offering free G3-mini devices to consumers, retailers and small-office customers in the spring, and the first units were shipped in August.”

I know that some of my employees who suffer from poor cell coverage in the areas where they work and live would welcome any breakthrough that could help them get better reception.

You can learn about companies, organizations, or individuals given runner-up rewards by reading the entire article. In an interesting companion piece, Willa Plank provides an update on some of the past technology innovation award winners [“They Won. And Then What?“, Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2010]. Another complementary article discusses possible technologies/categories that could win future award competitions, including: Space Travel and Habitation; Heavy-Lift Launching; Space-Based Solar Power; Nano-Scale Medical Devices; New Treatments for Blindness; Breakthrough Fuel Technologies; and Adaptive Learning. [“And Tomorrow’s Winners Will Be…,” by Chris Gay, Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2010]. Advances in technology continue to make the world a fascinating place.