One characteristic of successful startups is their ability to offer innovative solutions to age-old problems. Health. Education. Communication. Comfort. Why depend on old-fashioned ways to meet these old-fashioned needs? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right?
Fortunately for the rest of us, the men and women who work to bring world-changing ideas to market don’t see things that way. They look around and see opportunity. Where others are happy with the status quo, they look for a better way.
Four innovative companies are changing the way people meet their basic needs, how they interact with one another, and how they improve their lives. Each of them is (or was, in the beginning), a startup—an idea held together with little more than faith and sweat equity.
# 1. Diagnostics for All
Quality medical care depends on accurate diagnoses. But how do doctors get a diagnosis when the patient lives nowhere near the infrastructure of modern healthcare?
One nonprofit company, Diagnostics for All, seeks to answer that question with its plan to save lives in the developing world. The plan looks great on paper—patterned paper, to be specific. Inexpensive and easy to produce and deliver, this paper can be embedded with electric circuits or stacked to perform complex diagnostic operations. A drop of blood placed on a square the size of a postage stamp can test for liver damage—a massive problem in third-world areas where antiretroviral drugs are administered to counter HIV and tuberculosis.
Without lab equipment or even electricity, quality healthcare is simply not feasible in communities beyond the reach of modern medicine. The wait, combined with the distance the patients often have to travel to get help, can mean a diagnosis comes too late, if at all. These paper-based tests don’t have to be sent to a lab for analysis. They give an accurate reading in minutes, telling health workers if a patient is suffering liver toxicity due to medications.
The Massachusetts company began in 2007 with a team of scientists and entrepreneurs. In 2008, the team’s business plan was the first nonprofit plan to win the MIT $100,000 Entrepreneurship Competition. Today the company is a full-fledged success story led by veteran biotech executive Una Ryan, with financial backers that include the Gates Foundation. The company is developing other paper-based diagnostics to detect antigens for malaria and dengue fever, as well as foodborne toxins in farm crops.
# 2. Coursera
Access and affordability continue to be fundamental problems facing modern education. The free online education site Coursera aims to help people overcome these barriers with ‘net-based college courses. Coursera doesn’t produce its own courses or administer degrees; instead, it works with colleges to offer video lessons in subjects ranging from medicine to business to social sciences. Students submit assignments online, take interactive tests, and grade one another’s work.
From its beginning (way back in 2012), Coursera has partnered with elite universities. In May of 2013, 10 public university systems announced partnerships with the company. Hobbled by decreased public funding, these schools hope Coursera’s interactive, online education model will facilitate courses for their existing students, in addition to aiding efforts to reach out to new learners.
# 3. WordPress
The most popular blogging platform in the world was conceived about in the early years of the 21st century, when then-18-year-old Web developer Matt Mullenweg said:
“It would be nice to have the flexibility of MovableType, the parsing of TextPattern, the hackability of b2, and the ease of setup of Blogger. Someday, right?”
The personal publishing platform that became WordPress now powers some 60 million websites. As an open source project, it has hundreds of developers all over the world continually improving it. It’s the open nature and customization capability that make WordPress a fantastic content management system for personal and business use. WordPress specialist Fantasktic (a startup getting a lot of attention in its own right) helps WordPress users migrate their sites, fix problems with site architecture, and update themes and plug-ins. This integrated multi-application approach lets businesses build an effective Web presence, from a blog to a storefront to a landing page.
# 4. Nest
Keeping people comfortable, saving money and helping the environment? What’s not to like?
Syncing a home’s or business’ temperature with the schedules of the people who live and work there means saving energy costs. This simple fact has meant exciting growth for one California enterprise. In true startup fashion, Nest was born in a Palo Alto garage in 2010. Its founders are former Apple executives, so maybe they saw the whole “garage thing” as a rite of passage. The fledgeling enterprise makes a $250 thermostat that can be controlled remotely using mobile technology.
After a venture capital infusion of $80 million, in May of 2013 Nest acquired MyEnergy, a company whose product tracks water, electricity and gas usage online. The Nest thermostat is already the most popular programmable thermostat sold on Amazon; as more investors, homeowners and building managers warm up to the concept, the company will no doubt get hotter and hotter.
Exciting start-ups keep changing the world, meeting one old-fashioned need at a time. Technology is making it possible, so the companies and the ideas behind them are distinctly modern. But the energy and innovation that make them grow have been creating great companies from upstart business since, well, the first time a person had a need and another person found a way to meet it.
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