President Obama wants the country to get back to its innovative roots.
"How do we reignite [the] spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?" he asked Tuesday night, in his final State of the Union speech.
"That spirit of discovery is in our DNA," Obama said. "We're Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. We're Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. We're every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world. And over the past seven years, we've nurtured that spirit."
He added: "But we can do so much more."
Obama pointed to a few fields in particular that are begging for new breakthroughs. The good news is, a number of companies are already on it. Here's a look at the progress they've made so far.
1. Curing Cancer
"Let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all," Obama said Tuesday. Doctors and hospitals spend more than $90 million each year on cancer-fighting drugs. So far, an actual cure has been elusive, but new research is making large strides in testing. New startup Grail is in the midst of developing a blood test that can detect cancer before its symptoms manifest, which drastically improves the chances of successful treatment. The test, known as a "liquid biopsy," searches for mutations that wouldn't even be visible by an MRI. Grail says the tests will cost less than $1,000 and should be available to the public by 2019. The company, which is a spinoff of Illumina, the world's largest DNA sequencing company, has funding from Bill Gates and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Grail didn't invent the tests--they were first developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins and in Hong Kong, and controversial company Pathway Genomics offers a similar liquid biopsy. But with great minds on board and over $100 million in backing, Grail might present the best chance at getting closer to a cure.
2. Space Travel
Obama referenced America's race to one-up the Russians in space exploration during the 50s and 60s: "We built a space program almost overnight," he said, "and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon." In the years since NASA shuttered its space shuttle program in 2011, a handful of private companies have emerged in the quest to explore to the skies above.
Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic are among the big players competing to commercialize space travel. Elon Musk's SpaceX recently became the first to launch a rocket at orbital speed and return it safely to earth, which significantly reduces the cost of space exploration. Silicon Valley-based Made in Space creates 3-D printers that can be used at zero gravity. One of its printers produced a wrench for astronauts at the International Space Station, the first such tool to be printed--and an advancement that could open the doors for what's known as deep space travel, or longer trips from the Earth, such as Mars.
3. Clean Energy
"Even if the planet wasn't at stake," Obama asked, "why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?" It's a business opportunity open for the taking.
For much of the last decade, startups like Sungevity have been focusing on renewable energy. The Oakland-based startup offers homeowners the chance to seamlessly switch to solar and slash their reliance on "dirty" energy sources. The company's Remote Solar Design tool provides an installation cost estimate with no home visit required. After installation, a handy app lets you track the energy you've saved today, this week, and over the course of your system's lifetime. And then there's Musk's Tesla, which hopes to pull everyone off the power grid with its home batteries. The batteries provide enough energy to power homes, and clusters of its larger Powercells can replace power plants entirely. As an added bonus, the batteries can store energy from solar panels--a perfect fit with another Musk venture, SolarCity.
The President called for a "sustainable ... planet for our kids," which requires even more than cleaning up our energy resources. The way manufacturers produce goods and materials has a huge impact on the environment. For example, about eight percent of all global carbon emissions comes from brick manufacturing. North Carolina-based startup BioMason has found a way to create bricks and masonry without using heat. Founder Ginger Krieg Dosier speeds up a natural process by injecting sand with microorganisms, forming bricks sturdy enough for use in building construction. The company hopes to have its products in customer's hands--and homes--by 2017.
And finding alternatives to animal-based products, like food research company Hampton Creek has done, can help make the planet more sustainable. Sales of the startup's eggless mayo boomed during 2015's avian bird flu epidemic--an incident that revealed much about the fragile nature of Earth's reliance on animals for food.