When Inc. set out to find some of the biggest, mind-blowing business ideas, we knew what we didn't want. Those smartphone apps with crazy growth stats? Another slickly designed Web dashboard to manage your finances? The next Angry Birds? All perfectly valid start-up ideas--but they don't exactly make your head spin. We wanted boldness.
What we found were the kind of ideas that may not come to fruition this year--or even this decade. In fact, we're not even sure some of them will pan out at all. But they are ideas to watch, for sure, if only because of the audacity and ambition required to pursue them.
1. A Laser Printer for DNA
The idea: San Francisco-based Cambrian Genomics is creating the world’s first DNA laser printer. Instead of printing ink, this gadget will spit out genetic code. The traditional process of synthesizing DNA is tedious, costly, and error-prone. Cambrian's printer will produce accurate strands much faster and, theoretically, much cheaper once the technology comes to market. Cambrian, which is a product of the nonprofit academic institution Singularity University, is still in stealth mode so little is known about the actual mechanics of the printer. But the project has received funding from Founders Den managing partner Michael Levit and lists Singularity University as an advisor.
Mind-blowing factor: Because the printer may drastically decrease the time and cost required to produce synthetic DNA, researchers will be able to generate larger quantities of DNA. The end result could be more advancements in personalized medical treatments--and even new organisms. "People get upset about extinction of animals, which I think is pretty silly,” Cambrian CEO Austen Heinz said in an interview with TWiT Live. “We're going to make new ones and we're going to make more creatures."
2. Software That Thinks Like a Human Brain
The Idea: If you wanted to teach a computer to mimic the way the human brain works, where would you start? Union City, Calif.-based start-up Vicarious is starting with the eyes: It's building software that can “see” and make sense of the world. Its first product is called the Recursive Cortical Network, which is designed to recognize objects, people, and places just as the human brain can. The company claims it's training the Cortical Network to mimic the way the primary visual cortex works in humans. The company has raised $15 million in funding led by Good Ventures, Founders Fund, and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.
Mind-blowing factor: This isn’t just the same old facial recognition algorithm marketed by companies such as Like.com. Instead, Vicarious combines visual data with pixel recognition to create a mathematical understanding of an object similar to the way neurons in the human brain make the same visual connections. Co-founder Scott Phoenix said in a recent interview that “having a visual perception system that works well would be enormously transformative.” How transformative? Down the line, the system will be able to scan a dinner plate to report how many calories are in the meal or even recognize cancerous tumors in a patient’s body.
3. Medical Drones That Deliver on Demand
The Idea: When heroine Katniss Everdeen suffers a bee sting in The Hunger Games, a tiny parachute-like drone drops the medication she needs at her feet in the middle of the woods. The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it seems: Matternet is developing an unmanned drone that can carry between two and four pounds of medicine, vaccines, and blood samples. The Palo Alto-based start-up’s goal is to give patients that live in hard-to-reach areas access to much-needed medical supplies. Matternet plans to test in the drones in the Dominican Republic later this year.
Mind-blowing factor: According to the company, nearly 1 billion people are unable to get medical aid because of where they live. Currently, the size of Matternet's drones (the platform is just 3 feet across and carries four rotors) limits what it can deliver, but eventually the company plants to develop pilotless vehicles that can transport heavier supplies and even people.
4. X-Ray Vision
The Idea: The typical motion detector with infrared sensors has weaknesses: It must be cleaned, it’s sensitive to temperature changes and dust, and it doesn’t work if obstructed or deployed in large open spaces. Salt Lake City-based Xandem has developed a new kind of technology that not only solves these problems but also has a superhero-like power: It can “see” through walls to sense movement. Co-founders Joey Wilson and Neal Patwari have won a number of innovation awards in the state of Utah that have largely funded the company since its inception four years ago. Xandem launched its first product in April with help from Salt Lake City angel investor Ryan Smith.
Mind-blowing factor: Intruders can’t beat this system: There is no place to hide from these small, card-size nodes because they can be embedded in walls, beams, and furniture. The technology could be used in households and commercial buildings, but the company also claims that it’s sensitive enough to protect government buildings that require the highest level of security.
5. Digital Pills to Track Your Health
The Idea: How do you know if your medication is really working? One way to know is to look inside the body. Proteus has developed a small, swallowable sensor that lets you do exactly that. There are no wires or batteries--the sensor, which received FDA approval in July, is powered completely by your own stomach fluids. A disposable patch worn on the body captures data from the sensor and relays it to your--or your doctor’s--mobile device.
Mind-blowing factor: This is the only sensor of its kind to run solely on body fluids. Co-founder and CEO Andrew Thompson says the bigger idea behind Proteus is that it could help patients seek preventive treatment. "Right now we have a sickcare system,” Thompson says. "What we need is a healthcare system."