2018’s game-changing companies

New advancements trickle onto our devices, into our lives and over our heads daily. And while more often than not they’re just the tip of the great creative scramble, occasionally they signal the start of something seismic, as companies search for the next big thing.

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New advancements trickle onto our devices, into our lives and over our heads daily. And while more often than not they’re just the tip of the great creative scramble, occasionally they signal the start of something seismic, as companies search for the next big thing.

The data avalanche

Here’s a fact for you. Around 90% of all data created was generated in the past few years– more than we could ever sift through manually. Yet how we process this is stoking a revolution, as businesses use it to redefine the world in ever more ingenious ways.  From increasingly personalised and tailored services to making sense of the world and environment around us, the ability to analyse vast amounts of data has the power to unlock powerful insights to drive meaningful change globally.

Information is the modern gold rush for companies like geospatial big data giant Orbital Insight, which uses machine learning algorithms to interpret satellite imagery. Whether counting trees to plot areas of deforestation or totting up telltale signs of poverty to direct NGOs, its applications are limited only by what it sees. And there’s no shortage of data.

“In a few years we will have so much daily satellite imagery that it would [take] about 8m people24 hours, seven days a week to look at each photo, never mind analyse them,” writes Mike Kim, Orbital Insight’s Director of Business Development.

Until recently, accessing this data has been problematic. But last October a partnership with satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe saw 100 petrabytes of images, taken over 17 years, uploaded onto the Amazon Cloud for Orbital Digital’s computers to scour. For an AI that learns through exposure it’s a feast, but it’s the potential insight from this data that truly whetted the appetite in 2018.

Rise of the machines

One of the bigger predictions most experts agreed on is that 2018 was the year AI wnet mainstream, and it will change our lives.

Analysts Gartner recently predicted that within two years, chatbots (talking computer assistants) will power 85% of customer interactions. And the tipping point is now here, believes Alex Terry, CEO of leading US conversational AI company Conversica.

“People have been using AI increasingly  without knowing, whether getting recommendations from Amazon or talking with Siri, so there’s been cultural adoption. But it also needs to be helpful. People in business want to make money, save money or provide better service; they want results.”

His company is working at just that, specialising in ever more lifelike “AI assistants” for use in sales and marketing teams.

“She or he has a name, a title, an email address, a phone number,” explains Alex. “It then contacts, engages, qualifies and follows up on leads, able to converse back and forth.”

Supplying over 1,000 companies, Terry says Conversica’s “assistants” have held over 40m conversations and booked some 5m meetings, changing how workplaces function. Its reach is also expanding, having acquired a Chilean conversational AI firm to move into South America, with plans to open offices in Europe and Asia, too.

The company’s growth is a fascinating testing ground for how far people are prepared to accept this kind of digital interaction in their lives and the workplace. How it fares this year may tell us a lot about our future, as well as change it.

The whole package

Often, the first step to disrupting any industry isn’t an idea but identifying a problem.

“Four billion people in the world don’t have an address,” says Idriss Al Rifai, founder and CEO of UAE delivery company Fetchr. “Yet the whole delivery industry still works on an address-based system, one that will soon be obsolete.”

Today, more people have access to a mobile phone (4.77bn) than a recognised address, and therein lies the solution. Using your phone’s GPS tracker, Fetchr delivers packages direct to your location, giving many businesses and people access to a vital service. No longer limited by an address-based system and harnessing the power of mobile devices, GPS delivery services, such as Fetchr, have the potential to make delivery services work around our own lives, giving us more choices and freedom.

And its appeal also goes beyond regional necessity. “Because we use GPS, it’s scalable just about anywhere,” says Al Rifai. “And even in the West consumers don’t want to be pinned down; they want to be able to receive stuff whether they’re at Starbucks or their friends’.”

In solving a local problem (much of the UAE lacked addresses until 2015), Fetchr created a universal solution. That’s its greatest success, and the key behind an expansion the last year that takes it beyond the Middle East and into Central Asia and Africa. And it all came from one simple solution.

Are friends electric?

Not all answers are so clear cut, though. In the battle to reduce global pollution, few would deny cars hold the key. But while some see electric as the future (sales of which reached record highs in 2017), others disagree.

“Just making an electric car with nothing coming out of the tailpipe is not solving the problem because you still have to get the energy from a power station,” argues Hugo Spowers, chief engineer and founder of hydrogen fuel cell car company Riversimple. He has another answer.

Back in 2016 his Wales-based business unveiled its first prototype vehicle: the Rasa. It runs on natural gas and emits only water, but that’s only part of the solution.

“We need to make sure cars have not only zero emissions but are efficient,” continues Spowers. “Efficiency depends on weight, and batteries are very heavy.”

They can also cause pollution. A recent study shows battery electric cars produce more particulates than even diesel, as much of these come from wear on tyres and brakes. A lighter car means less wear, and at just 580kg (“Less than a battery in a Tesla”), the Rasa has a range of 300 miles, does 0-60 in 10 seconds and is the most efficient road-going hydrogen vehicle on the planet, using three times less fuel over the same range than, say, Toyota’s rival hydrogen car.

It’s a remarkable achievement for an independent car company. And while mass production is a couple of years off, 2018 sees its first 20 vehicles take to the road as a test, challenging everything we think we know about green cars.

The potential for these green cars to change the way we live is huge.  Reduced emissions may change the way we design our urban centres, the manner in which the built environment interacts with open spaces, altering the need for sealed buildings and totally changing the urban landscape as we know it.

Cream of the crop

But not every big idea has to be rooted in technology, the natural world is just as fruitful. Back in 2011, Charlie and Harry Thuiller, two brothers with a love of wild fruit and comfort food, had an idea while travelling in South America: healthy ice cream made from natural ingredients.

“Our salted caramel flavour doesn’t use cooked sugar,” says Charlie, “but lucuma, a fruit from Peru that tastes somewhere between caramel and maple. We import it, dry it, mill it and let it macerate in the ice cream base, leeching its flavour and nutrients. No sugar, no chemicals.”

Their natural substitutes are ingenious, using stevia leaf for sweetness, baobab fruit for its pectin (thickener). By 2013, and aided by £2,000 from winning the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship competition, they were ready. Today, Oppo is the only ice cream in Europe legally allowed to use the word “healthy” – and it’s just 39 calories a scoop.

The future is looking bright. Having been taken up by Asda and Sainsbury’s (on top of Waitrose and Ocado), there are plans this year to double the eight countries Oppo already operates in. Proof, like all the companies above, that no matter your industry, sometimes all you need is a good idea and the time to change people’s minds, one scoop at a time.   

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