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Breaking Boundaries

Take five, world. The Bay Area is advancing a cutting-edge agenda across the globe with the latest in innovations and ideas.


FUTUREFORMS’ Project Lightswarm led the way at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 2014-16.

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Gantri founder and CEO Ian Yang and CTO Christianna Taylor enlighten us with the company’s sustainability practices.

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The future of self-driving vehicles could start with Uber or Lyft.

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Redwood City-based Impossible Foods’ new 2.0 vegan burger is popping up everywhere—from steakhouses to White Castle. Next up: Burger King will test-run an Impossible Whopper.

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Hailey Lott and father Ronnie promote mindfulness and meditation on their weekly podcast.

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The high-tech industry was born in a Palo Alto garage in 1939. North Beach spawned the anti-materialist beatniks in the ’50s. The first act of transgender resistance occurred in the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in the Tenderloin in 1966. The Summer of Love in 1967 spread personal expression and anti-government speech, while Alice Waters launched an organic food movement in Berkeley in the ’70s, and Silicon Valley industries began changing the way the world communicates in the ’80s. We don’t accept the status quo out here. We push for change—whatever the arena. No wonder recent events like the seven-hour Night of Ideas at San Francisco’s Main Library and The Battery social club’s Sparked, a conference about social and technological issues, are so popular. Ingenuity is in the Bay Area’s DNA. The companies and people profiled herein go beyond “what if?” They take the plunge into the future, saying, “Why not?” –Carolyne Zinko


1. Future Design
Redrawing the blueprint for building

San Francisco can only skate by on its gingerbread houses for so long. Pretty buildings just don’t cut it anymore. Soon, we’ll expect our architecture to perform for us, play with us and print itself. The birthplace of tech innovation and social movements, the Bay Area is a hub for boundary-pushing architectural firms that—using robotics, digital fabrication, 3D printing and other techniques—are reinventing what it means to be a building.

Hell-bent on 3D printing us out of this housing shortage is Emerging Objects, the studio and workshop from co-founders Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael. The MAKE-tank, which specializes in 3D printing architecture and building components, has constructed the Cabin of 3D Printed Curiosities—an inhabitable, weatherproof and watertight structure built almost entirely of organic 3D-printed materials—in a backyard lot in Oakland. From tiles made of Sonoma chardonnay grape skins to bioplastic interior cladding derived from corn to cups made of recycled coffee grounds, San Fratello and Rael’s experimentation with upcycling local materials for construction could have global implications.

Exploring the digital fabrication frontier is Andrew Kudless, an associate professor of architecture at the California College of the Arts and founder of Matsys, an Oakland-based design firm hyperfocused on digital fabrication. Matsys’ design for Confluence Park, an outdoor education center in San Antonio, took home the 2019 AIA award for architecture with partner Lake|Flato. Drawing inspiration from plants that funnel rainwater to their roots, the pavilion’s 28 petal-inspired concrete structures stand 26 feet high, provide shade from the Texas sun and collect rainwater for an underground cistern. In the project’s infancy, Matsys used small powder-based 3D printers for prototyping. Later, the firm partnered with pioneering fabrication company Kreysler & Associates—which you can thank for SFMOMA’s new facade—to make Fiberglas composite molds that were shipped to Texas to cast the pavilion’s “petals.” Producing the molds in California with Kreysler, Kudless notes, enabled his firm to “make the formwork at a much higher level of accuracy and lower cost than traditional wooden formwork.”

In addition to the open road of concrete fabrication, Kudless is also exploring “digital craft,” applying digital tools like 3D printing to traditional materials like clay. “It’s interesting combining one of the oldest materials humans have used with some of the newest technologies we have developed,” he says. “Digital fabrication allows me to explore materials in new ways and to create things that wouldn’t be possible without it.”

Nataly Gattegno of FUTUREFORMS says she and partner Jason Kelly Johnson’s work has been called “high-performance craft,” but we’re not convinced it’s not sheer sorcery. If you strolled by the lobby of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 2014-16, you may have noticed something following you: LED lights. Coupling sound and movement sensors with a swarming algorithm that directed LEDs to move and intensify, project Lightswarm seemed to flirt with its environment. For an early morning tai chi group, it dispatched smooth, relaxing auroras of light; for bike-riding passersby in the afternoon, it emitted more furtive signals.

At Milan’s Salone del Mobile design week last spring, FUTUREFORMS unveiled a LED-lit wall that harvested social media trends to inform its tempo, color and, even, texture. Recently installed to a railway underpass in D.C. is project Lightweave, a 400-foot-long outdoor interactive chandelier, which is triggered by vibration and motion above and below it. The San Francisco firm is also researching kinetic surfaces that shape-shift, as well as 3D printing “spider robots” that could enable printing buildings like spinning a web. Hello supernatural, so long brick-and-mortar. –Julia Millay Walsh

2. Revolutionizing Reusables
Bay Area brands rethink waste with planet-first products.

Long before San Francisco pioneered California’s statewide plastic bag ban in 2016 and became one of the few cities to ban plastic straws—a win for oceans and marine life in 2018—Bay Area businesses were leading the way to reduce manufacturing, production and packaging waste ahead of government regulation.

“We estimate that we’ve kept 74 million plastic straws out of the waste stream,” says Chance Claxton, co-founder of U-Konserve, a Sausalito-based company that has sold reusable alternatives to single-use products, such as straws, cups and takeout containers, since 2008. In fact, the term “single-use” has only recently hit the mainstream vernacular, earning Collins Dictionary’s word of the year honors in 2018. “We were very ahead of our time, I would say, speaking of people’s understanding about reuse today,” Claxton adds.

Stainless steel waste-free lunch kits for kids, U-Konserve’s first product line, was well-received in the Bay Area, “but a harder sell in other areas of the country, where recycling and reusing practices were not prevalent,” admits Claxton. “We just saw the Bay Area being more environmentally savvy and aware,” she says. Rising awareness among consumers—especially the coveted millennial buyer—of their impact on climate change has paved the way for other planet-friendly brands to pop up in the Bay Area, attracting a following far beyond it.

San Francisco-based Rothy’s, which opened its first brick-and-mortar in Pacific Heights last year, took social media by storm with its colorful commuter-loving flats made from recycled water bottles (making fans of Meghan Markle and millions of other women). Other startups like Àplat, which designs waste-free culinary totes in an origami-style good enough for discerning Heath Ceramics shoppers, as well as San Francisco-based 3D-printed lighting company Gantri, are proving that mission-based businesses are no longer the exception but the rule—at least in the Bay Area. “Our mission is to empower designers,” says Gantri founder and CEO Ian Yang, a graduate of the London School of Economics who also completed several courses at prestigious Central Saint Martins. “Everything we touch, everything we sit on—there’s a designer behind them, but no one knows who they are.” The Gantri platform features more than 100 designs from close to 30 international designers who put their stamp on the brand’s look—minimal, ultramodern products made from biodegradable corn-based plastics. “Because our materials are biodegradable, we actually recycle all of the waste materials that we use, so we can be as efficient as we can,” Yang adds.

The monochromatic, sculptural table lamps are produced “just-in-time” via industrial-grade 3D printers in the company’s San Leandro factory to help minimize the time and waste it takes to manufacture products. “It’s one of those ‘if you can dream it, you can model it,’ and, in theory, you can actually 3D-print it,” says Gantri Chief Technology Officer Christianna Taylor, a former NASA engineer. “It’s not this wasteful process of making millions of the same things and throwing them away if you can’t sell them. That’s just really unsustainable.” Lamps run $98 to $188, which is a steal relative to lighting prices outside of IKEA and big box stores. “If we can reduce the amount of time products sit on container ships across the ocean,” Yang says—citing that greenhouse gas emissions from shipping pollution worldwide every year is equivalent to 25 million cars (though latest stats go much higher)—“we can reduce pollution as well.” –Theresa Gonzalez

3. Taking on Transit
Transportation is on the move—in the right direction.

A host of Bay Area public transportation projects costing billions of dollars will transform the nature and means of getting around. And lurking around the corner—and a fair distance down the street—is the self-driving vehicle, which could change everything.

In San Francisco, the Central Subway light rail system is on a roll. Projected to open late this year, the nearly $1.6 billion project will move passengers 1.7 miles, from the Caltrain Station at Fourth and King streets, through downtown and Union Square, to Chinatown. It is expected to carry more than 43,000 passengers a day, and planners are talking about extending the line completely across the city to the Marina. At Caltrain, the regional commuter rail line’s $2 billion electrification program is under construction. Expected to be in service by 2022, the project means more frequent service to more stations. The result is a whopper: an expected 21 percent increase in its daily ridership of 65,000.

The 16-mile extension of BART from Fremont to Milpitas, San Jose and Santa Clara is also well under way. The first 10-mile phase to north San Jose with a station in Milpitas, a $2.3 billion project, is in testing and expected to be open by the end of this year. This means a daily ridership projection of 23,000—on the first day. Expect completion of the next phase—a $4.7 billion project connecting to the downtown Diridon Caltrain station (and where Google has plans for a massive office and housing development)—in 2026.

Numerous other transportation projects are either in progress or under discussion. In March, officials broke ground on a carpool lane project connecting San Francisco to Santa Clara County’s carpool lanes. The project is a funding partnership of public transit agencies and Google and Facebook, which is also a funding partner in an effort to revive the Dumbarton Rail Bridge at the south end of San Francisco Bay and build a cross-bay rail service. BART is in early discussions about building a second transbay tube that would serve both that rail system and others, such as Capitol Corridor or Caltrain. Behind all these changes is a movement toward an all-in-one transit/transportation application or card that would integrate transit into the smart-card network. And several agencies and companies are dabbling in “microtransit,” on-demand shuttle bus service—public transit emulating Uber or Lyft.

The most intriguing new idea is the self-driving vehicle, but it “won’t be available for individual usage for a long time,” perhaps 10 years, says Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. He predicts the first market will likely be Uber or Lyft, and that’s what Google’s Waymo is betting. Right now, small automated electric buses are being tested in an office park in San Ramon, where the entire route can be geofenced, and automated self-driving cars are being tested in similar kinds of locations including Arizona, “where it’s flat; the weather is good, no snow or fog; and not many cars or people or bicycles,” notes Sperling. “On the other hand, not many people, either.” The first self-driving vehicles will be small buses, which are being tested in Davis and other places, he notes. “We’re already seeing little robots running around delivering food,” Sperling says. “They’ll get bigger.” –Mark Simon

4. Shifting Plates
Companies call for a completely sustainable table.

There’s no doubt that Alice Waters’ slow-food movement of the 1970s is alive and well, but something tells us her claim to fame is about to be eclipsed by René Magritte. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is the name of the food game in San Francisco this year, a time when veggie burgers moo; bean-based “eggs” scramble like the real thing; and dairy-free cheese is cheaper, lower in calories and may be more delicious than our beloved burrata.

The vegan stigma is waning thanks to a new cadre of Bay Area-bred substitutions on the national CPG food scene. Redwood City-based Impossible Foods is on a mission to eliminate the need for animals in the food system by 2035 with delectable meat, fish and dairy made directly from plants. Often topped with a little white surrender-inducing flag, its debut product, the Impossible Burger, targets meat lovers head on with a formula that tastes, cooks, sizzles and smells like ground round. “Taking a molecular approach to understanding the full experience of eating meat,” the company has, says its vice president of communications, Jessica Appelgren, “secured patents around the use of the same exact molecules and proteins that generate meaty flavor in meat from animals.”

Impossible’s “not-so-secret ingredient” is heme, a protein found in both plants and animals, which makes the burger pink on the inside, “bleed” when it cooks and generate that pairs-well-with-frites flavor tour taste buds crave. The company has just introduced a more versatile Impossible 2.0, which swaps wheat protein for soy—eliminating gluten. The new recipe also has 30 percent less sodium and 40 percent less saturated fat than the original, with as much protein as 80-20 ground beef from cows.

Located in the Mission, Just is fighting chronic disease and climate change with a technology platform called Blackbird, which translates raw ingredients into data to fuel the discovery of new plant-based food technologies. Powered by an incredibly diverse plant library, Blackbird deciphers plants at the molecular level and uses algorithms to rank them for behavioral properties like emulsification, chewiness, foaming. Aided by this technology, the company’s chefs and food scientists have created Just-branded mayonnaise, eggs, salad dressings and cookie dough. Whether in French toast or fried rice, Just Eggs—made with gelatinous mung bean and golden-yellow turmeric—scrambles, tastes and looks like egg. The mission-driven company intends to eventually leverage its tech to allow other companies to increase their impact on the food system.

A burger and an omelet would be nothing without cheese, so it’s a good thing Sonoma-based chef Miyoko Schinner started tinkering with vegan cheese. Her eponymous company, Miyoko’s, is taking on the $120 billion cheese industry with cashew-based cheeses and cheeses derived from vegetables. “Since tree nuts are an allergen and expensive, we decided to try our hand at making cheese from domestically grown produce, like organic potatoes and legumes,” she says. A boon to moms and kids, the products rival fine European cheeses (due in part to traditional cheesemaking techniques like fermentation and aging), but they are “half the calories and school-safe.”

Rounding out this little league of big-potential CPG brands is San Francisco-based RightRice, the brainchild of Popchips co-founder Keith Belling, which launched its vegetable-based rice substitute exclusively at Whole Foods nationwide and on Amazon in February. The not-so-starchy, low-carb, high-fiber, high-protein product tastes, looks and cooks like conventional rice—in 10 minutes. This is not une pipe. Or rice. Or eggs. But it’s coming to a store near you. –JMW

5. Empowering Performance
Playing a more mindful mental game—with Hailey and Ronnie Lott

San Francisco has brought the world technological and social advances through software and social media that have connected citizens around the globe, making billions of people ever more productive—and ever more distracted. The speed of life and addiction to social media are leading some therapists (in Silicon Valley, anyway) to ask: “If we go any faster, will we ever get there?” The stress and illness created by life at warp speed are bad for us. The remedy? Slowing down with millenia-old yoga and meditation.

These practices are increasingly promoted by the Bay Area’s biggest names, from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff (who built meditation rooms into each floor of the Salesforce tower) to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to Google co-founder Sergey Brin—all of whom reportedly meditate. Mindfulness apps abound, from Calm to Buddhify to Lucid, the latter developed by former Twitter Engineering Manager and Medium People Operations Manager Jason Stirman and Wisdom 2.0 conference creator Soren Gordhamer to help young athletes with mental training. Former San Francisco 49er and Super Bowl veteran Ronnie Lott and his daughter, Hailey Lott, a meditation and yoga teacher, are the latest to promote the benefits of mindfulness and meditation with a new weekly series, The Mind Games Podcast With Hailey and Ronnie Lott (free on iTunes).

The Lotts’ discussions about mental health go beyond applications for sport and delve deeply into the ways that highly successful people have overcome mental obstacles and moved forward in life. (Ronnie’s wife, Karen, led family meditation sessions when their three children were growing up.) The podcast’s guests, who talk about moving forward in the face of fear and discrimination and mental health issues, include former 49ers and Super Bowl champs Jerry Rice, Steve Young and Charles Haley. Rice openly talks about crying in the locker room after dropping catches on the field (on televised games) during his first season. Young reveals he grew up with severe separation anxiety that was only diagnosed at age 35. “Naming it, knowing what it was made the difference. … It gave me power; the rest of my life changed because of that one moment,” Young says in the podcast. For Ronnie, “The best part about all of it has been the fact that we are letting people know it’s OK to share, and it’s OK that we struggle,” he says. “Playing in sports, there is the superior thought of thinking that you can go out and beat someone mentally, not physically. I’ve always felt that is your secret weapon in life.” Hailey notes that, interestingly, “Almost every single person we’ve interviewed has brought up the importance of connection and community. I guess I just wasn’t expecting for Jerry Rice, for Charles Haley, for my yoga mentor to talk about the importance of having a group of people around them that were always supporting them and calling them up to a bigger game—not allowing them to play small, but seeing their potential. We can’t do things alone.” –CZ


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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