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7 Ways Entrepreneurs Could Change the World This Year

Inc. asked experts in education, health care, biotech, and clean tech innovation for the biggest, most audacious startup opportunities in 2014. Here are their predictions.

To be a great entrepreneur, you have to be a bit of a fortune teller, able to read the proverbial tea leaves and predict what your customers will want before they know they want it. Steve Jobs had that skill. Elon Musk has it, too. And yet sometimes, it takes a little guidance to figure out which way the winds of change are blowing. 

I spoke with experts in the fields of education, health, biotech, and clean tech to find out what major changes are afoot this year in the world of innovation and how you can get in on the action. Here's what they said:

1. Third Grade Will Get Disrupted

Transforming higher education is so 2013. This year, the innovation battle will be won and lost in the K-12 classroom. That's because the Common Core Standards, a new national standard of math and language arts education, are set to go into effect during the 2014-2015 school year. That means schools across the country will, for the first time, be giving students a uniform education and uniform assessments, which Muhammed Chaudhry, CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, says is a major opportunity for entrepreneurs to get a foot in the door.

"In the past, new tech companies had to create something very specific for each state, and they weren't able to compete with larger companies," says Chaudhry. "This will make purchasing power of a standardized product easier." 

Not only will they have an easier time getting into the classroom, but ed tech businesses will also have more to work with. Under the new standards, students will take their assessments online, which, Chaudhry says, means schools are investing more in technology infrastructure and providing one-to-one devices for students. That opens up a world of opportunity for entrepreneurs with ideas for how to make the classroom experience better. Chaudhry expects to see a fleet of new applications that assess, in real time, a student's understanding of subject matter and adapt the lesson on the basis of the student's comprehension level. It's a trend called adaptive learning. Apps that give teachers real-time feedback on student understanding will also become the norm, Chaudhry says, solving a major flaw in our education system. 

"I don't think these tools will replace the teacher quite yet," says Chaudhry, "but they'll provide the teacher with better information on which to make decisions."

2. Apple Will Release a Medical Device

OK, so Apple hasn't quite announced it yet, but there are aleady some pretty telling signs that the company might be working some mobile health technology into a forthcoming product. From its recent hires in the medical-device field to a heart-rate-monitor patent application, it looks as if the tech giant may be gearing up to release a product that's outside its traditional wheelhouse. Scary as that might sound for medical-device entrepreneurs, Halle Tecco, CEO of the health tech incubator Rock Health, says it's also an opportunity.

"Apple opens doors for new industries," she says. "They create industries and new marketplaces as well. The App Store is a great example. Mobile startups use the App Store for distribution, so hopefully whatever new product they release will increase the demand for a marketplace." 

3. In Health Care, Transparency Will Be King

The rollout of the Affordable Care Act will change the health care system in ways we've yet to even imagine, but Tecco says one immediate need consumers will have is a way to adequately manage what are probably going to be high deductibles. Under the Obamacare bronze plan, people will have to pay out of pocket until they clear a deductible of more than $5,000, meaning when they do seek medical attention, they'll want to know what it costs them in advance.

"Health care is the only thing you buy where you don't know how much it costs until you get the bill," Tecco says, adding that startups that can aggregate provider data and supply transparent prices to consumers with high deductibles will be crucial.

4. Medicine Will Get Personal

Just last month, the genomic sequencing company Illumina announced it had developed a genome sequencer that can map the human genome for just $1,000. That's about a tenth of the cost of current genome sequencing technology. What that means is biotech startups will be able to afford this high-tech equipment, and with it, they'll be able to pinpoint the genetic mutations that cause certain diseases. And what that means, says Joe Panetta, CEO of the biotech association Biocom, is that those same startups will be able to develop diagnostic tools and therapeutic drugs that target those specific mutations.

"It will enable them to better target products they move into clinical testing, so they have better chances of success," he says. Successful trials mean faster commercialization. 

5. Smart Homes Will Give Way to Smart Offices and Cities

Google's latest high-profile buy is going to have all kinds of ripple effects in the connected-device industry. "Google's acquisition of Nest will be seen as a turning point for when the smart home went from the margin to the mainstream," predicts Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of Green Biz Group. "Smoke detectors and thermostats that can talk to us are finally moving from sci-fi to reality."

And it won't stop at your front door. Though Makower warns it's a longer process, he says smart offices and even smart cities are beginning to take shape as well. "There are buildings now that get millions of bits of data a day," he says. That presents an opportunity for startups to develop technology that can monitor that data in real time, so the building optimizes its energy use and even predicts what its energy needs are going to be. "From mobile apps to dashboards, that's a field that's going to be disrupted soon, because there's no single solution," Makower says.

6. Data Will Replace the Doctor

Well, maybe not entirely. But now that Obamacare is ensuring health care providers get paid for better outcomes rather than the number of visits a patient makes to the doctor, you can be sure hospitals will be using data to make sure they're delivering the best treatment they can. "Similar to how Netflix tells you the movies you would like, data can tell you what outcomes would look like for someone like you," Tecco says.

Startups can connect health care providers, insurers, and patients themselves, with that data. One interesting application of this concept, Tecco says, is Cancer IQ, a startup that has aggregated clinical and genomic data about cancer patient outcomes from hospitals around the country. It uses that data to determine the best treatment options for a patient with a certain genetic makeup.

7. MOOCs Will Get Sticky

Massively open online courses, or MOOCs, were all anyone wanted to talk about in 2012. In 2013, they faced the inevitable backlash, with critics condemning their low completion rates and some pioneers of the model, like Sebastian Thrun, denouncing it altogether. In 2014, Chaudhry says, MOOCs will come of age, thanks to new entrants who have learned from their predecessors' mistakes and figured out how to make students stick with a course.

For starters, they won't be so massive. Chaudhry envisions MOOCs as the new job training method for large employers, a trend that's already taking root at companies like Google.

But the age of MOOCs as a higher-education alternative isn't over. "Students want on-demand education, and I think MOOCs are going to get them there," he says. "It's more of a credentialing problem. How do you certify it? The organizations that figure that out are going to grow this market."

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