Class of 2020: Entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, artists, and public servants thinking differently about tomorrow

There’s no blueprint for a better future; it’s just ideas on the backs of napkins and tinkerers trying to manifest their best intentions. The resulting structure is imperfect, messy by design, and sometimes collapses under its own flaws. These failures force us to look at the problem from a changed perspective, and ask different questions.

What happens when a commodities trader decides to solve the global food shortage? Or when an artist starts investing in real estate? Or when a prodigy cancels death? We don’t know the answers to all of these questions — yet — but we’d like you to meet the people who asked them and imagine the world they are trying to build.

Jen Pahlka

U.S. Digital Response

In 2010, Jen Pahlka founded Code for America to close the technology gap between the private and public sectors. And just four months after announcing that she was stepping down as CEO of that organization, she established another organization: U.S. Digital Response.

“Knowing full well how fragile the systems that run our government are,” she tweeted on March 23, Pahlka joined forces with seasoned veterans working at the intersection of tech, open data, and government to answer the unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

From assisting overwhelmed unemployment offices to securing personal protective equipment for states nationwide, USDR connects experienced technology teams willing to donate their services to governments that request help. In little more than five weeks, the organization had enlisted more than 5,000 volunteers to support the state of New Jersey; Concord, Calif.; and others as they struggled to overcome the stresses placed on government during a global public-health crisis.

Whether USDR continues after the pandemic is unknown, but Pahlka is likely to remain involved in similar efforts. A long history in the tech industry and in civic endeavors — from 2013 to 2014, she served as the Obama Administration’s deputy chief technology officer and established the U.S. Digital Service, an elite technology unit modeled after the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service — gives her both the network and experience to lead successful civic-tech ventures. — Cielo Lutino

David Perry

Indigo Ag, The Terraton Initiative

It’s a classic entrepreneurship tale: Grow up on a rural Arkansas farm dreaming of technology’s potential, become a founder of multiple billion-dollar enterprises, then pivot to start a firm focused on high-tech farming, the ultimate disruption.

There’s nothing common about Indigo Ag founder David Perry’s circular path, especially the circular part. He believes innovation, integrity, and regenerative practices that restore the soil can save the world’s most important industry — and the planet.

Farmers are paid for a commodity, for volume. To Perry, Indigo is a systems innovator that brings quality back into the equation.

Indigo Ag’s core vision, using lab-tweaked microbes to raise better crops and create healthier farmland, has inspired wildly innovative ideas. The firm used satellite imagery to create a living map of the world’s food supply and now sells microbiologically enhanced rice to brewer Anheuser-Busch that uses less water and emits fewer greenhouse gases.

But Perry’s plans go much further. The company’s Terraton Initiative wants to pay farmers to adopt regenerative practices, aiming to put 1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide back in the ground. It just may be another circular, and climate, success story. — Patrick Sisson

Theaster Gates

Rebuild Foundation

Many speed up when they walk past abandoned buildings. Not only does Theaster Gates slow down, but his mind revs up. Through his non-profit Rebuild Foundation, Gates uses space theory and land development to make socially conscious art that is revitalizing Chicago neighborhoods.

“What does it mean for land to be vacant? What does it mean for land to be occupied?” he asked in a 2019 interview with TIME. “How can art take an abandoned building from being abandoned to being activated and escape some of the political stuff?”

The native Chicagoan, a renowned American installation artist and a visual-arts professor at University of Chicago, has “activated” and rehabilitated dozens of buildings in his hometown in the past two decades.

It is Rebuild’s mission to revitalize neighborhoods in a way that is, its website reads, “culture-based, artist-led, [and] neighborhood driven.” This process begins with the building itself.

When the City of Chicago sold Gates an abandoned bank for $1, he chopped the marble urinal dividers into pieces and sold them as “bonds” for $5,000 apiece. The proceeds were invested back into what became the Stony Island Arts Bank. It is now managed by Rebuild Foundation, as is Gates’ Black Cinema House, Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative, Archive House, and Listening House.

Through this inventive approach to building capital, he has brought millions of dollars into Chicago’s South Side to be used on buildings he currently owns or will purchase for reconceptualization. Rebuild also partners with organizations across the U.S. and abroad to use art as an agent for neighborhood empowerment.

Gates, who pushes back against what he calls the “narrowing effects of the art world” on the artist, does more than reimagine buildings. He also creates sculptures using clay, tar and symbols of the Civil Rights movement, such as fire hoses. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and abroad, including at the Venice Biennale, Tate Liverpool, and Palais de Tokyo. — Ayana Byrd

Laura Deming

The Longevity Fund

Laura Deming doesn’t mince words. Her personal website reads, in bold red letters, “I’m an investor interested in ways to make people live longer.” It is an interest Deming’s had since she was an 8-year-old in New Zealand who realized everyone was going to die — but with proper interventions, that inevitability could be postponed.

How, Deming wondered, could you halt aging?

At 12, she headed to the United States to answer her question, taking graduate-level courses on nematode longevity —and ranking in the top 10% of her class — at the University of California, San Francisco.

Two years later, the teenager was at MIT studying artificial organogenesis and bone aging. At 17, she was one of the youngest recipients of the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for being a “game-changing” entrepreneur. And at 18, in 2013, Deming gave a TEDMED talk entitled “How can science and business team up for the long (health) haul?”

It is this partnership of science and business that has brought Deming closest to figuring out the question she asked herself as a girl. The Longevity Fund, which she launched in 2011 and where today she is a full-time partner, is the first venture-capital firm dedicated to funding high-potential longevity companies. It has raised more than $37 million and backs pharmaceutical firms developing therapies for aging-associated pathology.

Longevity Fund companies have collected more than $500 million in follow-up funding, from investors including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Along with venture investing, Longevity Fund also hosts events and programs in support of biotech founders.

Unlike many of the whims of childhood, the 8-year-old Deming’s pursuit continues to literally save lives. — Ayana Byrd

Su Sanni

Dollaride

For Su Sanni, growing up on the outer edges of Brooklyn meant the nearest subway was a 25-minute walk from home. To shorten his commute to his Wall Street job in lower Manhattan, Sanni, a Nigerian-American, would hop on a dollar van.

In New York’s outer boroughs, so-called transit deserts leave many residents without easy access to public transit. To fill the gaps in service, an informal network of affordable “dollar vans” provides rides to bus or subway stops.

Sanni’s uncles drove and operated fleets of the rental vans, so Sanni had direct examples to draw from when establishing Dollaride, his latest venture. The startup more formally connects passengers with dollar-van drivers via an app that’s enjoyed greater success than the founder initially expected when it debuted in December 2019. Besides the company’s target audience of locals familiar with dollar vans, the startup has generated interest from employers looking to provide a benefit to workers, as well as business-improvement districts seeking to attract more visitors.

The business case for Dollaride is clear, but for Sanni, the motivation is more personal. “For low-income folks trying to emerge out of poverty, access to reliable, affordable transportation is the No. 1 driver for economic mobility,” he said, recalling the pivotal role dollar vans played in his own family’s history. — Cielo Lutino

Zhang Yongzhen

Virologist

“We know less about viruses than any other life form.”

Never has that warning, from Chinese virologist Zhang Yongzhen, seemed more prescient than in 2020, a year forever associated with one such deadly organism. As scientists race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, their work can be traced back to the pioneering efforts of Yongzhen, whose initial posting of the virus’s genetic sequence on Jan. 11, 2020, was akin to sharing an epidemiological Rosetta Stone.

Yongzhen has chronicled potential outbreaks his entire career; his voluminous research mentions a menagerie of animal and novel diseases. As the coronavirus outbreak was becoming a pandemic, Yongzhen’s belief in transparency and collaboration — and his desire to warn others — helped catalyze the global response.

The “harsh lesson” of COVID-19 is that “we are all connected,” he told a reporter. In traveling to Wuhan and then posting the virus’s gene sequence to an open-access site, his team jump-started research worldwide and nudged the Chinese government toward increased cooperation.

“Their rapid and rigorous work was an urgent warning to the world,” said the editor of the medical journal The Lancet. “We owe those scientists enormous thanks.” — Patrick Sisson

Sara Menker

Gro Intelligence

In 2012, Sara Menker walked away from a lucrative career as a commodities trader at Morgan Stanley to found Gro Intelligence, a venture designed to foster global food security.

With customers that span a range of industries and occupations — from asset managers and investment banks to procurement teams and beverage companies — the software-as-a-service company uses agricultural data gleaned from government, trade organizations, weather stations, and other sources to build predictive models that guide decision makers and policies.

A single issue drove its creation: repeated warnings of a global food-security crisis by 2050. Indeed, the crisis could occur much sooner, Menker cautioned during her 2017 TED Talk: We could face food shortages as early as 2027.

While changing the consumption patterns and reducing the food waste of calorie-rich regions like the United States and Europe are possible solutions, Menker argued that those options have been available for some time and have yet to move the needle.

Increasing agricultural yields offers a bolder path forward, she claimed, and by gathering and analyzing data — and offering that information to small and large farmers alike — companies like Gro Intelligence can play a critical role in boosting food production.

The Ethiopian-born, U.S.-educated Menker appears poised to lead the effort, with the company increasing its headcount to nearly 100 since its founding in 2014 and Menker gaining recognition from the likes of the World Economic Forum, Bloomberg TV, and Fortune magazine. — Cielo Lutino

Patrick Collison

Stripe, Fast Grants

“Why aren’t things getting better faster?”

It’s a fitting question for 31-year-old Irish internet billionaire Patrick Collison to pose; he’s been on the fast track since he invented a programming language as a teenager and co-founded the online payment company Stripe with his brother John in college.

But speed is nothing without focus. Collison spent two years fine-tuning Stripe’s initial software, just 10 elegant lines of code that made online transactions seamless. It’s since become essential internet infrastructure. At a time when we’re all online more than ever, Slack, Zoom, Amazon, and Shopify all swear by it.

As Stripe grows — it’s now valued at more than $36 billion — Collison has turned some of his and the company’s focus to accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship.

Stripe Capital will distribute loans to small businesses, providing flexible capital in a little as a day. The firm’s annual million-dollar pledge to the Negative Emissions Commitment will back promising ideas to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And the new Fast Grants initiative will back researchers and businesses focused on combating COVID-19, approving applications in less than a fortnight.

Growing up in rural Ireland, Collison recognized early on the internet’s power to connect the world; now he’s finding ways to make it run better, too. — Patrick Sisson

Carolyn Witte & Felicity Yost

Tia

As a team leader at Google’s Creative Lab, Carolyn Witte had excellent medical insurance. But for three years, she was unable to get a proper diagnosis for a medical condition that plagued her. Witte eventually learned she had polycystic ovary syndrome, an endocrine disorder that affects one in 10 women — and which may have been diagnosed sooner had her doctors been in communication with one another.

It led Witte to partner in 2017 with her best friend, Felicity Yost, to create Tia, an app that initially tracked menstrual cycles but expanded to collect more comprehensive data that could be shared with doctors.

Stories rushed in from users — more than 200,000 within months of launching — and confirmed what Witte had suspected: She was far from the only woman who had faced such challenges getting care.

“Despite the rise of femtech, women’s healthcare remains fundamentally broken in the [United States], for everyone,” she said.

Tia expanded from an app to a real-world integrative care clinic in Manhattan that houses OB/GYNs, mental-health providers, primary-care physicians, and acupuncturists. Most major insurance is accepted, a collaborative care model reduces patient cost by 40% per service, and it takes no longer than 14 days to get an appointment. After a $24 million round of fundraising, there are plans to open clinics in other cities.

Yost believes that aside from its comprehensive medical approach, Tia’s success comes from having a “care philosophy all unified under a big, bold, sex-positive, ethically female brand.”

Yost is also confident it will save lives. “I believe that women, when empowered to be body literate, can improve their health today and over the long term,” she said. — Ayana Byrd

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