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4. Azuri Technologies | U.K.
To glimpse the future of energy, head west across Kenya, past Lake Nakuru's million flamingos, until, near the Ugandan border, you reach the tin-and-grass-roofed houses of Kokete. Like thousands of other villages in Kenya, it is not on any grid. The result has been a classic poverty trap: villagers are unable to pay for power lines to their homes, and lack of power, in turn, keeps Kokete poor. Its residents are among the more than 1 billion people in the world with no access to electricity. To work, study or communicate productively, they have to buy paraffin for lamps or spend hours traveling to the closest mobile-charging station.
That's changing. In April, Kokete's villagers were the first in the world to install the solar-powered charging system designed by Azuri Technologies, a start-up spun out of Cambridge University. The compact 2.5-watt units, called Indigo, feed enough electricity to power two LED lights and a mobile-phone charger for eight hours. The transformation, says Gladys Nange, 39, was miraculous. "My children can study until they're exhausted," she says. "I can charge my phone at home. I'm saving money on what I used to spend on paraffin. I'm even planning to upgrade the system to power a radio, a television and a chicken hatchery."
Solar panels have been around for decades, but Azuri has made them accessible and affordable by adapting the prepaid-mobile-phone business model to power. To pay for the unit, a customer purchases scratch cards of credit and punches a code into a keypad on the Indigo junction box, just like recharging a mobile phone. After the equipment is paid off, customers own the Indigo pack outright and can either enjoy free power forever or upgrade to a system with more lights and power points. The key, says Azuri CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth, is to stop viewing the poor as needy and helpless but instead see them as consumers "with the same aspirations as customers anywhere and tailoring a product to suit them."
A Vision For the Future
5. Tobii Technology | Sweden
When John Elvesjo was a student at Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology, he built an experimental image-sensing system that could determine the denominations of rolling coins. One day, his gizmo misidentified his eye as a coin. Inspired by the accident, he turned his research to eye tracking and within six months had designed a sensor that could detect eye movements. "It was a eureka moment," he says. "I decided I'd start a company based on it."
Elvesjo founded Tobii Technology in 2001 with Marten Skogo and Henrik Eskilsson, both trained as engineers. All three are still with the company; Elvesjo is the chief technology officer. Tobii's products allow disabled people who may not be able to speak or use their limbs to communicate and control computers by moving their eyes. Tobii equipment also helps improve the usability of software and websites, as researchers use it to analyze where people in focus groups direct their attention while looking at the screen. Other applications are in the works, from medical research (eye tracking may help in the early diagnosis of autism) to automotive safety (it notices the fluttering eyelids of a sleepy driver).
Tobii's technology may one day be ubiquitous. In March, the microchip giant Intel made a $21 million investment, a boost that will bring the company closer to its goal "to put an eye tracker into every computer and every car."