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Google's Solve for 'X' program goes into high gear

Solve for 'X' has become an annual Google initiative bringing innovators together to address global issues with breakthrough technology.

The ambitious Solve for <X> initiative brings together entrepreneurs and experts to help solve the world's most pressing problems. On the initiative's website, Google compares Solve for <X> projects with the moonshots of the 1960s and 1970s: "Each moonshot project addresses a big, global problem, with a radical new solution/perspective/approach and leverages a breakthrough in science or technology."

The global Solve for <X> project began in February 2012 with an event run by Google employees Astro Teller, Megan Smith and Eric Schmidt. The event lead to a collaborative website where innovators share ideas and get feedback to help move their ideas forward.

The second round of Google's Solve for <X> program began in 2013. In the program, entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world submit their ideas to experts, to Solve for <X> team members and to the public at large. In the end, approximately 50 of these innovators are designated as official Solve for <X> pioneers. Along with this designation comes formal recognition from Google. (The designation does not include any formal funding, but for pioneers who seek funding, recognition from Google can be very helpful.)

This year, for the first time, Google has commissioned 12 independent groups to organize regional Solve for <X> events. One of those groups, the Google Developer Group of North New Jersey, accepts innovators' submissions from the eastern half of North America. GDG North Jersey founder Todd Nakamura said he excited to bring Solve for <X> to the east coast for the first time.  He said, "There's a ton of innovative talent in New Jersey and the rest of the region, and this program can serve as a spotlight for these brilliant pioneers who are looking to change the world in positive ways."

GDG North Jersey is conducting four preliminary sessions, in which innovators present their ideas to panelists and other attendees. From these four preliminary sessions, Solve for <X> team members will select four pioneer finalists. Each pioneer finalist will present his or her moonshot at the official GDG North Jersey event to be held on Feb. 2, 2015, at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.

GDG North Jersey ran its first preliminary session on Dec. 11 at Montclair State University. The session featured five pioneers, each presenting an ambitious new idea:

Olive Lynch spoke about Green Waste Technologies Inc. With this company's moonshot, the species Hermetia illucens (the black soldier fly) will reduce food waste and help to increase the world's food supply. The black soldier fly is an interesting species. In approximately five weeks, the fly goes from egg to larva to pupa to adult fly. The adult fly has no mouth, which makes sense only because the adult fly lives for approximately five days.

For Lynch's project, the most important stage is the larval stage. This larval stage normally lasts for about two weeks. During this stage, the larva never sleeps or rests. The larva eats almost anything that's available, including meat, vegetables, coffee and even manure. Lynch's team feeds larvae the discarded food from homes and restaurants. After a few weeks, the team harvests the larvae for use as a biofuel and as an animal feed additive. Lynch's plan turns cost into profit because the expense of dumping food waste into landfills (about $100 per ton, not including pickup fees) goes away. What was formerly waste becomes a valuable product. Similar products are currently being sold to a dog food maker, to a hog feed manufacturer and to a large-scale fish meal producer.

Mark Annett's day job involves designing medical devices and helping clients to obtain patents. But his moonshot involves the most ambitious of goals: to solve the most perplexing problem of modern physics with a comprehensive "theory of everything." Since the discovery of anti-matter in the 1920s, physicists have speculated about the preponderance of ordinary matter in the universe around us. Where has all the anti-matter gone? Annett agrees with other physicists, such as Villata and Hajdukovic , that anti-gravity is the likely cause of the expansion of the universe. Both Annett and Hajdukovic postulate that the universe has a spherical shell. However, Annett proposes a novel concept that the spherical shell is composed of anti-particles surrounding our otherwise matter-laden universe. This shell postulate helps answer several nagging questions about the unification of quantum physics and gravity. For example, with an anti-particle shell, dark matter is no longer a necessary ingredient in cosmology. (That's a relief, because since its arrival as a useful concept in the 1930s, no one has been able to observe dark matter.)

Starting with the notion of an anti-particle shell, Annett can explain black body radiation as the shell's uniform pull on all things in the universe. (Historically, the first breakthrough on black body radiation came from patent office worker Albert Einstein in 1905.) Through his work, Annett hopes to inspire others to become involved as "philosophers" in the evolution of modern science.

Richard Morris is CEO of PharmaSeq Inc. The company produces the p-Chip, a microtransponder that emits its ID number when illuminated with laser light. (At present, a p-Chip's 30-bit memory allows for over 1.1 billion unique ID numbers.) The p-Chip is about half a millimeter long and half a millimeter wide, but future versions of the chip will be 1/1000th of that size. A p-Chip can withstand temperatures between -196 and +520 degrees Celsius. (That's a lot.)

A chip of this kind has enormous potential for the growing Internet of Things, and has special applications in genetics. A particular chip can be home to a sequence of about 120 nucleic acids (a row of 120 A, T, G and C components). So to create a genome consisting of a billion letters, a system must create about 10 million p-Chips. With such large numbers involved, the task of synthesizing a genome is as much a computational problem as it is a physical problem. PharmaSeq's equipment reads the IDs of a huge number of p-Chips and sorts the chips into bins. (For example, a chip whose sequence is ATCCG needs its next nucleic acid to be T. Along with many other chips, PharmaSeq's equipment sorts this chip into the T bin.) After one round of sorting, the system adds the required nucleic acid to the chips in each bin. Then all the chips go back into the sorter for the next round. And so the process continues.

Michael Ehrlich is an associate professor in the School of Management at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Ehrlich remarked on the abundance of high-capacity fiber optic cable in Newark, N.J. Until recently, this cable has remained largely unused. Currently, the cable is used mainly for conventional, one-way Internet traffic.

Along with Newark's Chief Information Officer Seth Wainer, Ehrlich envisions Smart City Newark. This endeavor "... would be the first attempt to transform an existing US city into a fully instrumented, vendor agnostic test-bed for the insertion of IT into every imaginable aspect of urban life." In the proposed plan, Newark will nourish the use of its cable for freely-available city-wide services. Residents will tap into the network to find transportation, schedule appointments, make purchases and add new information to the system. All this happens while people are out and about thanks to the addition of new Wi-Fi towers. A key feature of the plan is the system's fully open architecture. Unlike the public networks in other cities, Newark's network infrastructure will not be managed by an independent, private company. Newark's system will have no proprietary components, so anyone wanting to "plug-in" and add services will be able to do so.

Finally, Lou Elwell of Bio Soil Enhancers Inc. spoke about SumaGrow, a replacement for fertilizer that uses microbes instead of chemicals. As far back as the 1880s, scientists have known about Rhizobia bacteria, living inside the root nodules of legumes, and helping to regulate the amount of nitrogen available to the plant. In the last 50 years (and particularly in the last 10) our understanding of the beneficial interactions between plants and microbes has grown considerably. Microbes help plants to acquire nutrients. They also help plants to resist pathogens and natural predators. Certain fungi stimulate root growth and increase a plant's efficiency in absorbing water from soil. Some microbes prevent undesirable absorption of heavy metals, salt and other natural pollutants.

During his presentation, Elwell showed pictures of the crops from fields treated with SumaGrow. For example, one picture showed a sweet potato next to a football. (The potato was bigger!) SumaGrow costs about $50 a gallon, which treats about one acre. None of the microbes in SumaGrow are genetically modified.

GDG North Jersey will host three more preliminary sessions before holding its main event at Rutgers University. The upcoming preliminary events are in New York City, in the Boston-metro area, and at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. These preliminary events are open to the public. (The main event at Rutgers is for invited guests. GDG North Jersey will have online events and contests during which members of the public can request invitations to the event. For details, keep an eye on GDG North Jersey's Solve for <X> website.)

GDG North Jersey welcomes innovators within its eastern North America region to submit ideas for consideration in the program. To do so, visit GDG North Jersey's Solve for <X> website and look for the site's online application form.

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