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October 18, 2019

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Ninja innovators: Who they are, and why CES is the place to find them

This week, the world’s most influential technology companies will gather in Las Vegas to showcase the next generation of innovative products and consumer technologies that will change the way we live, work, sleep, communicate, entertain and more. Every year at CES, for more than 50 years, the Consumer Technology Association has celebrated the world’s pioneering business leaders, engineers, inventors and thinkers — people I call “ninja innovators.”

When my sons were younger, we signed up for taekwondo as a family. Over many years, we honed our discipline and self-confidence, and learned a way of thinking that relied on strategy, surprise and adaptability. I realized that “thinking like a ninja” was not just something I needed to learn in class; I could use these skills in my professional life, too.

Ninja innovators do the unexpected. They take risks, think outside the box and set goals that seem insurmountable. Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, such a feat was considered impossible — until someone decided it wasn’t. Before Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, a mainstream, accessible personal computer in your home wasn’t even thought of. And Amazon’s Jeff Bezos transformed an online bookstore into a multibillion-dollar global corporation that has revolutionized the retail, video, grocery and shipping industries.

Not all ninja innovators are household names — yet. After a college professor tasked her with creating something that helps people in developing countries, Jessica Matthews co-created SOCCKET, a soccer ball that uses kinetic energy to power lights and charge devices. Later, she turned that ninja spark into Uncharted Power, a renewable energy company that has earned investments now backed by Disney.

Every day, ninja innovators are breaking barriers by developing creative solutions to problems in medicine, science, business, government, education, the arts and communication. Many of these innovators are using technology in unexpected ways to achieve these solutions. As the head of CTA, I see ninja innovators challenging the status quo every day. And this year at CES 2019, the biggest technology event in the world, I will have the privilege of seeing over 4,500 of them from more than 155 countries.

Up-and-coming ninjas get their start at Eureka Park, the buzzworthy startup arena that provides a unique opportunity to launch a new product, service or idea. More than 1,200 startups will use CES as a platform to showcase their products this year, making it the largest startup event on the planet. Since 2012, startups featured at CES have received more than $1.5 billion in funding. And many startups — including PicoBrew, a homebrewing system for beginners and professionals alike; Igloohome, a smart lockbox for short-term rentals; and FoldiMate, a machine that takes the work out of folding clothes — have graduated from Eureka Park and now exhibit on the larger show floor.

Ninja storytellers, creators and marketers come together at C Space, an immersive experience featuring conferences, keynotes and exhibits from companies such as Google, Hulu, NBCUniversal, NeuLion, Nielsen, Pandora, Univision, WWE and more. It’s an area of the show that highlights trends that are changing the future of marketing and entertainment. We will see sports innovators who have developed products that are affecting athletic performance and fan engagement in unexpected ways, and smart city innovators who are designing ways to improve sustainability, mobility and livability for people around the globe.

Ninja technologies that keep our world safe, warm, powered, fed and secure is a key theme for CES 2019. Building resilience into our networks and spaces — from smart grids to nimble business operations to cities — is top of mind for business and government leaders around the world. And CES will bring together an international audience to exchange ideas, participate in discussion and innovate the new technologies of the future.

CES participants will hear from established ninja innovators from LG, IBM, AMD and Verizon, whose research and development teams are pioneering advances in artificial intelligence, quantum technology, virtual reality and real-life applications of 5G.

These fields are the future of the technology industry, so much so that Virginia Tech recently announced its plan to open an Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Va. — two miles from Amazon’s new location in Arlington — focusing on computer science, computer engineering and software engineering. This announcement in a metropolitan area already recognized as a top producer of highly skilled talent shows that the need for more tech graduates will only continue to increase across the country.

The future can be daunting, and every day we face new threats — from disease and political conflicts to natural disasters and social upheaval. Successfully navigating these complexities will require all citizens and companies to become ninja innovators.

The future is ripe for disruption, and disruption creates progress. Those who are resilient and forward-thinking, who never settle, who use obstacles to fuel their own growth — these are the ninja innovators, and the future belongs to them.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. His newest book, “Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation,” was released Dec. 31.