PopTech Blog

Powering up at the Energy Innovation Summit, part II: Quick takes

In our ongoing conversation about the future of energy - and a follow-up to our post last week - we captured some great stories from energy disruptors on the ground at ARPA-E's Energy Innovation Summit.

OPX Biotechnologies, Inc.

Makani Power


Steve Blank


Energy shop talk: Johanna Wellington on clean energy technologies

Johanna Wellington was inspired to go into a technology career because she loves math like other people enjoy doing crossword puzzles. She started off at GE as an intern, went on to be a Combustion Design Engineer, and held several other positions before joining the Research Center in her current role as Advanced Technology Leader for Sustainable Energy where she is an expert in clean energy technologies. In our ongoing conversation about energy, here's our latest edition to our series of shorts on energy disruptors.

Bioremediation: Bacteria and fungi FTW

PopTech Science Fellow Shaily Mahendra’s first science experiment began at five years old when her parents commanded that she drink her milk. She negotiated by adding soda into the mix, gradually increasing the soda to milk proportions stopping just short of the point where the milk curdled. Fast forward through college at IIT, Delhi, graduate school at U.C. Berkeley to her present teaching post as an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UCLA.

These days her science experiments focus on bacteria that clean up pollution. Through a process called bioremediation, bacteria and fungi detoxify groundwater and soil contaminated with pollutants such as carcinogens. Ultimately, bioremediation gradually restores the environment to a state of pollution-free healthy regional biodiversity.

Mahendra considers herself equal parts scientist and engineer, asking tough questions and working to solve tough problems. Bioremediation brings together her interests and education in engineering, chemistry, math, biology and nanotechnology in support of her goal to help create clean water and clean energy. "I can be proud when I tell somebody, I discover bacteria that eats pollution. Every time I say those words I feel really good about it." Read more...

This week in PopTech: Cerebral matters, education toolkits and sports racers

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects, and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • Sports Racers rejoice! Ze Frank (PopTech 2004, 2005) of videoblogging fame is bringing back "The Show,” a webseries that's a continuation of an experiment with interactive storytelling he began six years ago. As he says, "...the core of the original show was never really about what I did. It was about what you did. And I have no idea what is going to happen there. It's risky, unknown and awesome." 
  • Graphic designer Nicholas Felton (PopTech 2009) is obsessed with data. He knows how many songs he’s listened to and how much it costs him per mile to fly. Felton visualized these numerous details in personal “Annual Reports.” This week Felton released The 2010/2011 Feltron Biennial Report.
  • At PopTech 2011, author Robert Neuwirth talked about life in the informal economy. Neuwirth contributed to the Mobility Issue of Makeshift, revealing the world of shadow goods, legal items that are sold around the world in quasi-legal ways. He described how these interactions can cause unexpected feedback loops. 
  • Adrian Owen (PopTech 2010) and his collaborators have utilized their own game-changing technology – previously developed for use with patients in a vegetative state – to assess a more prevalent group of brain-injured patients, those in the minimally conscious state (MCS). Their findings were released earlier this week in Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
  • Yasser Ansari’s (Social Innovation Fellow 2010) Project Noah (Networked Organisms and Habitats), strives to be what he calls “a field guide for every organism.” Today Project Noah released an education toolkit with tools and resources to help teachers and students harness the powert of Project Noah in the classroom. 

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Image: Ze Frank

New grocery cart Kinects shopper and purchases

Earlier this week at its Seattle headquarters, Microsoft debuted a new use of its popular gaming technology. A company called Chaotic Moon demoed a shopping cart that had been outfitted with Microsoft's Kinect sensor for Windows. The carts, which will be tested later this year by Whole Foods, follow shoppers around a store keeping track of grocery lists and tallying items along the way. The tricked-out carts will even let you know if you've selected the wrong item (say, pasta with gluten versus gluten-free), and check out your purchases when your list has been completed.

Microsoft says that over 300 companies are working on commercial applications for the Kinect technology. 

Video via and hat tip to Geekwire

Powering up at the Energy Innovation Summit

ARPA-E recently wrapped up its Energy Innovation Summit, which took place just outside Washington D.C. from February 27-29. The third conference brought together leaders from academia, business, and government in order to advance energy technology innovation. Heavy-hitters like Bill Gates and Nancy Pelosi presented along with ARPA-E award recipients who’re on the ground creating new technologies that are transforming the way we consume, generate, and store energy.

On Tuesday, Arun Majumdar (Energy Salon 2011), director of ARPA-E, framed the conversation by showing the audience a punch card from the 1970s used to input data into computers and an iPhone. In the information revolution that’s taken place over the last 40 years, “we didn’t make better punch cards,” explained Majumdar. “We enabled the future and built a better world.”

Looking across U.S. history from Norman Borlaug, who initiated the Green Revolution, to Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, to Nikola Tesla, who created the AC electricity grid, begs the question - who will be this century’s greatest scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs? And the area that’s ripe for innovation is the energy space. “Energy offers the biggest challenges and opportunities,” Majumdar stated. And when we’re spending one billion dollars per day to import oil into the United States, it’s a massive drain on our economy and a national security challenge, but also it’s a huge economic opportunity to develop affordable and sustainable energy.


Reflections on impact from Beijing

Contribution by Arvind Subramanian

As I write this from Beijing, the vista from my hotel is dominated by the monstrously imposing modernist monument that headquarters CCTV, China’s official TV channel.  I’m here to speak at the launch of a new report (CHINA 2030) about the country’s future, which was jointly written by the World Bank and the Chinese government. This report has been receiving a lot of attention because it is like a blueprint for China’s reform process going forward. All the very senior Chinese officials present at the event are very aware of, almost obsessed with, the problems looming ahead for China—inequality, corruption, environmental degradation, prospects of instability, etc. 

These problems notwithstanding, China is a testament to the possibility of rapid progress out of poverty and under-development. And China’s future development is of earth-shaking consequence for the rest of the world. I discussed some of the related issues during my presentation at PopTech last year, and in the latest issue of WIRED magazine I develop these ideas further, notably how to ensure that China’s growing economic dominance is harnessed for the good of the world. How China shapes its internal future as well as how it crafts its international role is going to be fascinating to watch. 


Stop, calibrate and listen: Leap Day's back with an extra day given

Today is February 29, that special day that rolls around every four years, with a few exceptions. Why do some years have an extra leap day and what is it for? 

Once every four years, we tack on an extra day at the end of February to calibrate our human-made calendar to the natural world — the Earth does not orbit the sun in an even 365 days, but rather in 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds.

This extra day has given rise to several traditions and superstitions over the years, especially in the Middle Ages. In many European countries, women were allowed to propose to men on Leap Day. In Greece, it's bad luck to marry in a Leap Year at all, let alone on Leap Day itself. In Scotland, it's considered unlucky to be born on Leap Day, and it was once believed that Leap Day babies, or "leaplings," as they were called, were sickly and hard to raise. If you are born on February 29, you're eligible to join the Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies. 

- The Writers Almanac

Video: cgpgrey

Our bodies are remote controls: Desney Tan and Scott Saponas explain

Imagine if you could turn up the volume on your stereo, answer an email, or find directions - all by tapping your arm or moving your body. It's really not all that far off. On the PopTech stage, Desney Tan and Scott Saponas demoed Skinput, their technology that creates an interface using bio-acoustics on touch-sensitive surfaces of our body. Beyond the novelty of using your forearm to change the channel on your television, there's a real benefit from this technology.

Tan lays the foundation of their talk by explaining that the iPads and Androids we depend upon daily aren't purely functional. Instead, if they're designed right, they should provide an experience for the user, change culture, and shape the way we live. But these devices, which we've become tethered to, can be limiting. What if we didn't always need to pull something out of our pocket and close off the world around us while staring into a small screen and tapping away on an ever-shrinking device? What if we could continue to interact with our environment while getting the information we need?

"We've made cool technologies that profoundly shape how we live. The bottleneck is in the interface. The challenge is to create richer ways for humans and computers to communicate," described Tan. He suggests that we turn our bodies, or what he deems "playground[s] of technology interface," into sensors so that we can then become our own controllers wherever we go, whenever we want.

This week: Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects, and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • Tuberville is an organization dedicated to reducing hunger within our communities by focusing on engaging farmers to set aside a few acres of land to harvest and donate the crops to local food banks. The Tuberville web series, whose first episde was released last week, was inspired by a desire to find an innovative and entertaining approach to raising awareness and grow the Tuberville organization. PopTech has worked with a number of folks on this film crew and we're proud to call them our friends. 

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Image: Brent Harrewyn for Tuberville