2016 may have been a year of bad news for many, but last November proved to be a bright light at the end of the tunnel with the 2016 Rolex Awards for Enterprise recognizing those who took matters into their own hands and used their expertise to change the world. The 10 winners include an ophthalmologist whose smartphone app is revolutionizing eye care in sub-Saharan Africa, a biomedical engineer creating robotic suits to help physically impaired people walk without assistance, and even a 29-year-old creating an online platform to crowdsource a sign language database. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Since 1976, Rolex has honored five laureates who fall out of the typical mold and often have limited access to traditional funding. In 2010, Rolex added a series of awards for Young Laureates between the ages of 18 and 30 years old, to highlight and encourage the next generation of shakers and movers. “We are celebrating a very significant occasion in the history of the Awards and in the history of Rolex,” says Rebecca Irvin, head of philanthropy at Rolex.

“Forty years ago the company initiated the Rolex Awards to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Oyster in a manner that reflected the spirit of enterprise on which the company was founded,” she continues. “What better place to pay tribute to this enterprising spirit and the pioneering work of the 10 Rolex Awards winners than a city–Los Angeles–that embraces diversity and innovation?”

Conor Walsh

Presented every two years, the Rolex Awards focus on the following five areas: science and health, applied technology, exploration and discovery, the environment and cultural heritage. Winners are awarded grants of over $100,000 for Laureates and roughly $50,000 for Young Laureates, all aimed at helping the winners further and complete their projects. In addition, winners benefit from an international publicity campaign and, of course, receive a Rolex chronometer.

Among the 2,322 applicants from 144 different countries, the elite ten winners, chosen by an international jury of 12 experts, represent a unique snapshot of what diversity and ingenuity can deliver. From major life-improving smartphone apps tackling world hunger to research into the mysteries of Chile’s Patagonian fjords, each project, while different, has the same aim: to better our quality (and our understanding) of life. Here are just a few of the winners from the 2016 Awards and their particular projects tackling today’s problems:

Conor Walsh, an associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, heads the Harvard Biodesign Lab, where he and his team are developing soft robotic suits to help stroke sufferers with mobility problems. Equipped with tiny motors, pulleys, sensors and intelligent software, these “exosuits” are meant to be comfortable for the wearer, giving them greater stability, and even speeding up recovery. With the Rolex Award and grant money, Walsh will be able to establish relationships with patients and medical professionals for future clinical trials to, hopefully, make these exosuits a common reality for the millions of yearly stroke victims.

Conor Walsh
Conor Walsh

On the other side of the world in Ladakh, India, engineer Sonam Wangchuk, has managed to build artificial glaciers to supply irrigation water in the cold deserts between the Kunlun and Great Himalayan mountain ranges. For the area’s population of 280,000, many of whom are farmers, the ingenious glaciers have helped these farming communities deal with acute water shortages during crop-growing season. Called “ice stupas,” Wangchuk’s conical ice mounds behave like mini-glaciers, slowly melting throughout the season and releasing water to grow crops. While Wangchuk was able to crowdfund the beginnings of the project, the Rolex Award funds will be able to further support the project in the future and promote the ice stupas as a successful desert-greening technique.

Wangchuk

Out of the exceptional pool of Young Laureates comes Christine Keung, the daughter of Chinese immigrants in the United States, who is, at 24, the youngest recipient this year for the Rolex Awards. Admitted to Harvard Business School and winner of a National Science Foundation research grant at 19, Keung decided to give back to her homeland. After traveling to China and witnessing the country’s extensive rural pollution, Keung, along with her team, decided to provide training for women’s groups on safe methods of recycling agricultural, chemical and medical wastes and for village doctors and farm suppliers on waste treatment and recycling. The focus on women’s groups is also Keung’s way of empowering Chinese women, who disproportionately bear the cost of environmental degradation.

The Rolex Awards are more than standard corporate philanthropic outreach–they show that true ingenuity can breed life-saving solutions when properly supported. These 10 winners are out to save the world, one project at a time, and Rolex will be there every step of the way.

Christine Keung
Christine Keung

Also Read