These 10 Innovators Are Changing the World, From Oceans to Eye Care

The newest Rolex Laureates are helming projects on the leading edge of science and innovation.

Innovators working to protect sea life, combat climate change, and empower women are among the ten winners of this year’s Rolex Awards for Enterprise and will be honored Tuesday night a Los Angeles event marking the 40th anniversary of the international philanthropic program.

Since 1976, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise have identified and supported 130 outstanding innovators who work to improve lives, protect the planet, and advance human knowledge. National Geographic is partnering with the program to tell the stories of these scientists and explorers in a series called Explorer Moments.

This year’s class was selected by a 12-person jury from a pool of 2,322 applicants representing 144 nationalities. Five Rolex Laureates will receive 100,000 Swiss francs ($104,000) and five Young Laureates will receive 50,000 Swiss francs ($52,000) to advance their project.

The awards were launched in observance of a half-century of the iconic Rolex Oyster chronometer, the world’s first waterproof wristwatch.

This year’s Rolex Laureates are:

Ophthalmologist Andrew Bastawrous, United Kingdom

Bastawrous’ smartphone-based portable eye examination system, Peek Vision, is radically changing eye care in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. By establishing partnerships and training teachers and community volunteers, patients can be screened for vision problems and eye diseases, enabling accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Bastawrous, 36, and his team will set up a Peek training center in Kitale, Kenya.

Kerstin Forsberg, Peru

Biologist Forsberg, 32, is protecting giant manta rays by helping fishermen pursue ecotourism as an alternate income source. She’s training them to collect data on the species and will also work with local communities to raise awareness of the mantas through outreach programs that combine science and education.

Vreni Häussermann, Chile/Germany

Häusserman, 46, is exploring Chile’s Patagonia fjords to document sea life in three remote areas, combining exploration and science to create support for conservation through public outreach.

She’s also raising awareness about the damaging effects of human activities on marine ecosystems.

Conor Walsh, Ireland

Harvard University-based mechanical and biomedical engineer Walsh is tackling the mobility problems of stroke sufferers and others by developing a soft robotic suit that can be worn under clothes and will enable physically impaired people to walk without assistance. Walsh, 35, expects the “exosuit” will be ready in about three years, after clinical trials and regulatory approval. The suit will analyze and gradually train muscles, limbs, and joints back into healthy patterns of movement.

Sonam Wangchuk, India

The Ladakhi engineer is addressing the lack of water for agriculture in the western Himalayan desert by building “ice stupas.” Named after Buddhist monuments, these conical ice mounds behave like artificial mini-glaciers, slowly releasing water in the growing season.

Wangchuk, 50, plans to build up to 20 ice stupas, each capable of supplying millions of gallons of water.

Young Laureates

Joseph Cook, United Kingdom

Microbiologist Cook is exploring polar ice microbes through his Ice Alive mission in the vast “frozen rain forest” of Greenland’s ice sheet. Cook is determining how microbes influence climate, nutrients, carbon cycles, and other aspects of our world and its systems.

Oscar Ekponimo, Nigeria

Ekponimo, 30, is addressing food poverty through Chowberry, a cloud-based application that automates the monitoring of food products that are approaching the end of their shelf-life. The app generates notifications to food retailers, allowing them to offer discounts to charities, ultimately helping to alleviate hunger in Nigeria.

Christine Keung, United States

Keung, 24, is using her education to empower women in northwestern China, where her family originated, to work with doctors and industry to reduce water and soil pollution and act as environmental stewards.

Junto Ohki, Japan

Ohki is improving communication among hearing-impaired people worldwide by expanding SLinto, a crowdsourced, online sign-language database dictionary. Ohki, 29, hopes SLinto will bridge the gap between the 126 extant sign languages, becoming a global platform for all existing and new signs.

Sarah Toumi, France/Tunisia

Toumi, 28, is spearheading Acacias for All, a grassroots initiative in Tunisia designed to fight the country’s desertification caused by climate change. She hopes to reduce poverty among farmers through reforestation and crops more suited to a lower rainfall.

Toumi also runs a nongovernmental organization to help women and youth realize their potential.

Several Rolex Laureates from past years will be featured on the Rolex Awards for Enterprise 40th Anniversary program airing on the National Geographic Channel on Friday, November 18, at 7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 CT.

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