SU Ends 2nd Year With a Dozen More Ways to Help a Billion People

SU's students face a difficult final project: helping a billion people in the next decade.

Dreaming big is easy when you believe in the exponential growth of technology. Singularity University just wrapped up its second summer Graduates Studies Program. This year’s 80 students were challenged with positively affecting 1 billion people in the next decade. Drawing on what they had learned about accelerating technology in the past 10 weeks of study, the students laid the groundwork for more than a dozen new startups in five general areas of interest: Water, Food, Energy, Space, and UpCycle. The ideas they came up with were pretty interesting. I was able to attend SU’s closing ceremony last Friday, chat with the students about their projects, and get a sense of how the university is achieving its goal of preparing humanity for accelerating technological change. There’s a bunch of videos of the event for you to browse through below. Enjoy.

From what I could gather from talking with faculty, students, and staff, Singularity University GSP ’10 was held at a break neck pace. 90+ hours of lectures, 55+ hours of workshops, 35+ hours of on site visits, and the last three weeks saw students working during all hours of the day preparing for their team projects. So Friday’s Closing Ceremony had an air of much needed release, exhausted excitement, and joyful triumph. The evening was very festive as you can see in the video below.

Singularity University’s inaugural summer program in 2009 was a great success. They had 40 talented students taught by some of the biggest names in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and other emergent fields. Last year’s class produced several startups including Civiguard and Gettaround which we’ve covered before. Now, SU seems to have undergone a bit of exponential growth of its own. They’ve doubled to 80 students and we’re likely to see 10 to 15 startups emerge from GSP 10. Each of these prospective businesses is aimed at improving the world. The challenge of helping 1 billion people in 10 years was taken very seriously. Every project held the potential to affect the world if successful. The SU GSP ’10 Students dreamed big. Occasionally too big, perhaps. Some of the projects you’ll hear about in the videos below are completely reliant upon technologies that have yet to been developed in marketable ways.

Team projects for GSP ’10 were divided into five broad areas. The first of these was Energy, and contained just one group: Amunda. The project, which will almost certainly become a startup, is aimed towards bringing transparency to the world energy market. Through the open exchange of information, Amunda hopes to pair alternative energy entrepreneurs with emerging markets. The dream is to have an explosive growth in adoption as was seen in the last decade with mobile phones. Check out the presentation below:

The second area for team projects was Water. Three groups (Nishio, Sensoria, and H2020) aimed towards tackling three problems with the world’s water supply: availability, purity, and distribution. Nishio wants to use synthetic biology and nanotechnology filters to desalinate water along the coast and pump it using solar power. Sensoria believes that water purity can be tested by seeing how water samples interact with human cells from various parts of the body. H2020 wants to provide an online destination where people can report on water resources and find tested solutions to problems they may encounter.

In Food, there was just one project: Agropolis. The team’s general aim was to accelerate the adoption of small scale hydroponics and aeroponics. Homes could grow a large portion of their own groceries, restaurants could serve vegetables grown in the same building where you eat, and billions of people all over the world would have access to bountiful local food. As I mentioned when we discussed hydroponic fish farms in Wisconsin, the urban agricultural movement is already well underway all around the world. Agropolis’ real innovation would be in finding ways to incorporate accelerating technologies. For example, artificial intelligence attached to biosensors could lead to better regulation of environmental conditions to maximize how quickly crops grow. Abundant solar energy would let you have a 24 hour sun cycle with many vertical layers of crops so that a large amount of food could be grown in a small space. Agropolis was one of my favorite projects at SU this year, largely because I think it’s viable. Urban agriculture is already happening, Agropolis will simply leverage whatever technologies it can to accelerate that trend. Even if one of the technologies (like solar power) is late in arriving, the others may still be able to be implemented in ways that improve yield.

Space was the theme with by far had the most teams associated with it, fitting considering that Singularity University is nestled within the NASA Ames Research Center. While all of the space projects were interesting and had some long term potential, I’m not sure how many of these teams you’ll be hearing about in the next few years. As always, space-based concepts face a steep uphill challenge when it comes to adoption due to the tremendous costs and weight bureaucracy surrounding the field.

The final area for team projects was termed UpCycle, which basically covers sustainability. We can’t forget that the exponential growth of technology is likely to lead to an exponential growth in waste (at least in the short term). i2Cycle sought to pair up industries so that one company’s waste could be another’s supplies. Fre3dom is looking into how remote areas of the world could repair and maintain their expensive equipment through novel processes like 3D prinitng. Eventually such an endeavor could lead to the decentralization of manufacturing as a whole. My favorite, however, was Biomine. The project considered removing the valuable metals from electronic waste. The millions of computers and mobile phones thrown away every year contain tons of copper and other marketable metals. Modeling themselves on a technique already in use in a BHP Billiton mine in Chile, Biomine hopes to use dead microorganisms to extract metal from our ‘e-waste’. I like the idea of adapting proven mine technology to reclamation efforts, not simpy because it seems likely to work, but also because it is likely to have a humanitarian effect on many waste-processing towns around the world (see 3:00 in the video below):

I’m not sure if there’s a single measure for a university’s success, but the team projects at SU are probably a good indication that the institution is doing something right. While I don’t think ten weeks (no matter how intensive) is enough time to teach someone about the intricacies of accelerating technologies, it is clearly enough time to spark the imagination. Hopefully the lessons the GSP ’10 students have learned will not only guide them towards dreaming big about the future, but also discerning which new tech-based opportunities have a good chance of success. Singularity Hub will keep you up to date on how these team projects (and eventual startups) develop in the years ahead. Though, if all goes according to plan, you’ll be able to see their successes yourself when you look at the faces of the billions of people these students hope to help.

[image credit Singularity University]

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