The 6 Most Exciting STEM Companies Operating Today
It’s a common complaint that our innovations in STEM have stagnated.
No one’s walked on the Moon since 1972. Cancer, heart disease and malaria are still frequently fatal. The engineering marvels of the past look a lot grander than those of the present. And there are more think pieces about the failure of modern companies to innovate than you can shake a stick at.
The good news is, not much of this cynicism is justified.
Across medicine, engineering, computer science and other related fields, there are companies out there doing some hugely exciting and innovative work that’s due to radically change the way we live our lives. In this article, we take a look at 6 of them, and what their work could mean for us.
Any story about SpaceX has to start with its founder and CEO, Elon Musk. He became a multimillionaire after co-founding the company that ultimately became PayPal. Some people might have enjoyed a lifestyle of hanging around on luxury yachts and not doing much else at this point, but Musk had other ideas. He decided to use his wealth and business expertise on a series of projects intended to tackle what he saw as the biggest problems facing the human race.
One of these was climate change, so he founded an electric car company, Tesla, to encourage a move away from petrol cars. Similarly, he helped found SolarCity, a solar energy company. But perhaps the most exciting is SpaceX: founded on the principle that just as you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket, you shouldn’t pin all your hopes on the survival of one planet. Musk believes that the future survival of the human race depends on spreading out to other planets, so that one disaster facing the Earth – such as an asteroid impact – wouldn’t wipe us all out.
In other people, this kind of thinking would seem insane, but Musk had the determination and resources to start doing something about it. He observed that a key cost of space travel was that rockets were not reusable. It was akin to scrapping your car after every journey, or destroying a plane after every flight. It added an expense that was huge and – Musk believed – unnecessary.
After many false starts, SpaceX was successful in developing rockets that could be reused, which were landed back onto seaborne drone ships after launch. So far they’ve been used for reasonably straightforward tasks like restocking the International Space Station and launching satellites, but Musk has brought his dream of retiring on Mars a very significant step closer already.
Control of insect populations might not sound glamorous or exciting, but it’s a pressing issue for us to deal with. Nearly 700 million people fall ill from mosquito-borne diseases every year, and more than a million of those people die. Around half of those deaths are from malaria, but there’s also dengue fever, West Nile virus, various kinds of encephalitis, yellow fever and Zika. While we’re getting better at tackling these diseases through a mixture of low-tech measures like increased use of mosquito nets and high-tech measures like improved medical treatment and, where possible, programmes of vaccination, we’re also fighting an uphill battle: many of these diseases are only virulent in certain parts of the world, but climate change will cause them to spread further.
Controlling insect populations isn’t just a matter of saving human lives and health; it’s also vital for agriculture. 10-16% of global crop production is currently lost to pests including insects, and this is a problem that climate change is also likely to exacerbate. But traditional means of dealing with insects can have unintended consequences, whether that’s pesticides that kill off beneficial insects like bees, or those that build up in the food chain and threaten birds and other wild animal populations.
Oxitec is short for Oxford Insect Technologies, and their solution is to develop genetically modified insects that will breed with healthy insects and pass on genes that are damaging to the survival of the next generation – for instance, one modified mosquito was developed that produced a protein that negatively affects cell development. The genes for producing that protein would be passed on among mosquitoes, but couldn’t be passed on to any other species – avoiding the problem of pesticides that kill more than just their desired target. Field trials in the Cayman Islands showed an 80% reduction in the mosquito population eleven weeks after the genetically modified mosquitoes were released, and they’re now being used by Brazil and the Netherlands to fight Zika.
3. Moon Express
Their name might sound like the off-brand version of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but Moon Express has some pretty exciting plans.
The depressing statistic at the start of this article – that no one has walked on the Moon since 1972 – could become even more depressing soon. There are only six living people who have walked on the Moon, and all of them are in their 80s. Being an astronaut is known to be bad for your health, so it’s not unlikely that there will be a time when no one living has walked on the Moon before we next send someone there. But the reason for this isn’t that we’ve lost the ability to carry out this kind of mission. It’s just that Moon missions have only been carried out by superpowers, and the political will to spend the kind of money required to return to the Moon simply isn’t there, at least in the absence of the Cold War context that caused it in the first place (and we’d all better hope that doesn’t return).
But showing off your country’s rocket technology isn’t the only reason to go to the Moon. There’s a much simpler one: profit. In the words of the Moon Express website, “Like the Earth, the Moon has been enriched with vast resources through billions of years of asteroid bombardment. Unlike the Earth, these resources are largely on or near the lunar surface, relatively accessible. We are blazing a trail to the Moon to seek and harvest these resources to support a new space renaissance, where economic trade between countries will eventually become trade between worlds.” These ‘vast resources’ include elements like niobium (used in superconducting materials), yttrium (used in LEDs and phosphors) and dysprosium (used in nuclear reactors and data storage), all of which are rare on Earth but much more accessible on the Moon.
The aim of Moon Express is first to use robotic explorers to mine these minerals, enabling new markets to arise so that the cost of lunar exploration falls dramatically. They hope that a new era of exploration will come about, with the Moon open to everyone from scientists to tourists. They are also one of five teams still in contention for the Google Lunar X Prize, which requires them to be the first to land a privately funded robotic spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high-definition video and image. To win the prize, the launch must take place by December 2017 – so it’s worth keeping an eye on them.
The Earth has been completely reshaped by two sets of beings in its 4.5 billion year history. The first reshaping happened 2.5 billion years ago, when cyanobacteria first evolved. They were a type of bacteria that photosynthesised, producing oxygen as a waste product. Before they evolved, Earth’s atmosphere didn’t contain free oxygen, but their oxygen production saturated the planet, killing off most of the anaerobic bacteria that had flourished until then, and combining with the methane in the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide. Methane was keeping the planet warm; once replaced by carbon dioxide, global temperatures cooled dramatically. There was a mass extinction of the lifeforms that were either poisoned by the oxygen in the atmosphere, or frozen to death, or both. But it set the stage for the evolution of leafy plants, animals, insects, and ultimately, us.
The second reshaping is still ongoing. Between two and eight million years ago, human beings evolved from great apes. While cyanobacteria were different because they could photosynthesise, humans were different because they were intelligent. You know the rest of the story; it’s how you come to be reading this today.
Some people argue that what DeepMind is working on will – if successful – amount to the creation of the third set of beings that will reshape the Earth. DeepMind is London-based artificial intelligence company, bought by Google in 2014, and their one-line mission is “Solve intelligence, use it to make the world a better place.” They’ve already reached the milestone of creating a program that could beat top human Go players for the first time ever. Their system differs from competitors in that it’s not pre-programmed, instead learning from experience, which means its applicability to general tasks is increased. If DeepMind one day succeeds in building software more intelligent than the human brain – and that is a big if – it’s likely to make the changes caused by the Industrial Revolution seem minor.
5. Oxford Nanopore
Some scientific advances are noisy; they force the world to sit up and take notice. Things involving explosions – whether that’s nuclear fission or advances in rocket technology – tend to fall into that category.
One of the quieter areas where we have made incredible progress within the last twenty years is genome sequencing. In 1977, DNA was first sequenced. In 1995, the full genome of the bacterium haemophilus influenzae (which despite the name, doesn’t cause the flu) was sequenced; it consisted of a single chromosome containing 1,760 genes. In 1998, the genome of the nematode worm was sequenced; in 2000, the fruit fly; in 2002, the mosquito; and in 2006, in an incredible jump of progress, the human genome. The process had taken 13 years and cost $2.7bn.
The products produced by companies including Oxford Nanopore now allow the sequencing of single molecules of DNA and RNA, with a starting cost of $1,000 for their portable protein nanopore sequencing USB device, MinION. Products allow for whole genome sequencing or for targeting sequencing as required. The range of applications is huge – let’s say you were a biologist researching the spread of a particular pathogen, such as the Zika virus. On the go, you could sample the virus and see how much it has mutated from place to place. Or if you were a cancer researcher, you could investigate more quickly and in greater detail than ever before how genetic variations impact cancer risk. These are things that used to take years of lab work, and now they can be carried out with a pocket-sized, USB-powered device.
Is there anything that sounds more ridiculously like science fiction than the word ‘cyborg’? How about ‘cyborg dragonfly’?
Research and design company Draper do many things that aren’t making dragonflies into cyborgs – their remit covers defence, national security, energy, healthcare and space exploration – but the dragonflies are undoubtedly the most exciting thing. Modifying insects is a goal for many organisations with different purposes in mind; Draper have suggested that their dragonfly could be used for “guided pollination, payload delivery, reconnaissance and even precision medicine and diagnostics”. But there are challenges. Most competitors have either created a drive within the insect to perform a particular action, which can be ignored by the insect, or they have tapped into the insect’s muscles or neural interfaces to control them directly, which leads to an insect moving not with natural grace but like a badly manipulated puppet.
Draper’s solution combined the two. They can send light signals to the dragonfly’s brain to control what it sees, and signals to its wings to make it fly, but the precise details of how the dragonfly moves its muscles to flap its wings are left up to nature – which results in a smooth flight where the dragonfly nonetheless follows the instructions it’s been given. The dragonfly then gets a tiny solar-powered backpack that contains the navigation system to instruct it where to go.
We may not be walking on the Moon right now, but we have created solar-powered mind-controlled cyborg dragonflies, and that’s pretty exciting too.
Images: spacex rocket; mosquito; moon express rover; dna sequencing; dragonfly; robot; future fest; petri dish