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Ray Kurzweil Kurzweil Technologies and other companies

because he is Edison's rightful heir

At age 17, Ray Kurzweil appeared on TV's I've Got A Secret with Steve Allen. His secret? The piece of music he played had been composed entirely by a computer he invented. That early acclaim only hinted at the remarkable body of invention that Kurzweil would establish over the next four decades."I'm excited by the link between dry formulas on a blackboard and people's lives," he says.

Starting in 1974, Kurzweil invented in rapid succession a device that recognized printed text; the flatbed scanner; and then a way for machines to connect text to a recorded voice. Combining all three technologies, he developed the Kurzweil Reading Machine to assist the blind. His first customer was Stevie Wonder, who called the reading machine "a breakthrough that changed my life."

Kurzweil sold that business to Xerox in 1980, and then he and Wonder collaborated on a music synthesizer (the partners and the product are shown, above, in 1986) that could replicate the rich tonality of a grand piano and other orchestral instruments. He sold that business in 1990. Now Kurzweil, 57, is working on technology to help hedge funds execute trades based on instantaneous readings of the market.

Though they may seem wildly eclectic, Kurzweil's businesses rely on one basic theme: pattern recognition. "I gather as much data as I can to develop patterns at every different level," he says. Kurzweil's ability to channel that notion into great businesses, time and time again, is itself a pretty remarkable pattern.

Adam Hanft

26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs

  1. Martha Stewart, Martha Stewart Omnimedia
    because she took one for the team
  2. Richard Branson, Virgin Group
    because he's game for anything. In fact, everything.
  3. Michael Dell, Dell Computer
    for being brilliantly straightforward
  4. Jim Sinegal, Costco
    because who knew a big-box chain could have a generous soul?
  5. Diane von Furstenberg, Diane von Furstenberg Studio
    for staging an elegant comeback
  6. Julie Azuma, Different Roads to Learning
    for offering hope and help to the parents of autistic children
  7. Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing
    for setting limits
  8. Ray Kurzweil, Kurzweil Technologies and other companies
    because he is Edison's rightful heir
  9. Craig Newmark, Craigslist
    for putting the free in free markets
  10. Jack Mitchell, Mitchells/Richards
    because his family business makes an art of customer service
  11. Frank Robinson, Robinson Helicopter
    for whipping an entire industry into shape
  12. Mark Melton, Melton Franchise Systems
    for giving immigrants their shot at the American Dream
  13. Michelle Cardinal & Tim O'Leary, Cmedia and Respond2
    for rewriting the rules for husband-and-wife teams
  14. Mike Lazaridis, Research in Motion
    because someone had to stand up for all those frustrated engineers
  15. Trip Hawkins, Electronics Arts and Digital Chocolate
    for still scrapping
  16. Warren Brown, Cake Love and Love Cafe
    because only in America will someone quit a secure job as a lawyer to start a bakery
  17. Muriel Siebert, Muriel Siebert & Co.
    for being a notable first with a worthy second act
  18. Chuck Porter, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky
    for verging on reckless
  19. Katrina Markoff, Vosges Haut
    for setting a completely unreasonable goal for her business
  20. Barry Steinberg & Craig Sumerel, Direct Tire and Auto Service
    for showing the power of the peer group
  21. Victoria Parham, Virtual Support Services
    for serving as a mentor to military spouses
  22. Tom LaTour, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants
    for staying at fleabag hotels so that we don't have to
  23. Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams, Mitchell Gold
    for creating a true comfort zone
  24. Izzy & Coco Tihanyi, Surf Diva
    for kicking sand in the face of conventional wisdom
  25. Tony Lee, Ring Masters
    for saving 16 jobs, including his own
  26. Rueben Martinez, Libreria Martinez Books and Art Galleries
    for simultaneously building a business and nurturing Latino culture