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Why the Future of Technology is Rooted in the Past

Life is an evolutionary process. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. And we owe those past generations a debt of gratitude, because they paved the way for us. It’s only by following in their footsteps that we’ve been able to innovate and upgrade our lives.

The same is true in business. As the old saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. Nevertheless, my experience shows there is always the opportunity to put a new spin on an old idea. Approaching things from a fresh perspective, outside the realm of their original intention, can be very useful in entirely unexpected ways.

In fact, I firmly believe in the power of reinventing old technologies to solve newer, more modern problems. The first piece of advice I give to every aspiring entrepreneur is that, when you spot a problem, don’t be afraid to step outside the box to formulate a solution. And don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel, because at least part of the solution already exists.

For instance, before I started my wireless charging company, I simply couldn’t understand why we were still relying on power cords. If emails could fall like rain from the sky to our laptops, then why, in the 21st century, did we still need power cords to charge our electronic devices?

I reasoned that it was time to get rid of cords. That’s how I came up with the idea of taking the work that Nikola Tesla pioneered over a century ago and applying it to a new problem: namely, the wireless charging of devices.

Tesla began experimenting with wireless power transfer in his lab at the turn of the century. His ideas were very much on my mind when I started to think about the potential for wireless charging. In the end, my company’s core technology is based on the groundbreaking work that Tesla began so many years ago.

I’ve been asked many times about innovation, and how one goes about implementing game-changing ideas. For me, the answer often boils down this: the ability to investigate mature technologies that have been used for years or even decades in one particular industry and applying them in new areas where they can have a much deeper impact.

Take nanotechnology, for example. Over the past several decades, companies like Sony have invested billions of dollars in nanotechnology, largely to no avail. But what if you could leverage those years of research and investment in nanotech to dramatically improve the medical industry? After all, up to this point, nanotech hadn’t really been applied to healthcare.

That’s the question I asked before starting my latest company. Today, we are applying more than 20 years of research and development in nanotechnology to create X-ray machines that feature increased imaging speed and quality, improved patient comfort and lower radiation doses.

Here’s another example. A few years ago, I started wondering if we could use the ultraviolet waves commonly found in fluorescent lighting to kill bacteria and other impurities in drinking water.

It’s well known that people in many parts of the world suffer from a lack of clean drinking water. In fact, one out of eight people around the globe doesn’t have access to clean water, according to WASHwatch, an information hub for water, sanitation and hygiene.

This reality struck me hard when I was traveling around Mexico City. I had never been there before and didn’t entirely know what to expect. One of the sights that moved me was people stretched out in the street in obvious distress—all because of a simple lack of access to clean water.

I was obsessed with finding a solution. That led me to the idea of using ultraviolet waves commonly found in fluorescent lighting to kill bacteria. Ultimately, we were able to create a low-cost device that has an LED bulb powered by a hand crank that emits a UV wavelength. The device eliminates the need for chemicals, electricity, filters and other expensive inputs. The best part is that it can produce drinkable water within 10 seconds of deployment, thus providing households with a cheap, effective, long-term solution.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu famously said that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. The good news is that, for much of that journey, the trail has already been blazed by those who came before. It’s simply a matter of knowing what to borrow from the past to create a brighter future.

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