By Ben Bowers
on 1.27.12
Photo by GP

Here’s a quick mental exercise for you. Imagine you were faced with a fight, in which you knew your opponent was bigger, stronger, more experienced, and had access to the best facilities, trainers, and coaches money could buy. Would you step into the ring?

It’s a terrible analogy, but those kind of Rocky odds are what nearly every new independent brand faces today. Amazingly, despite having the deck stacked against them, plenty of small, passion-fueled companies are creating incredibly innovative products with one goal in mind; revolutionizing their respective industries. While we make it a point to highlight brands like this on a regular basis, in the list below we’ve compiled 20 of our favorites to date in no particular order.

Read on about them all after the break and remember their names, because we don’t expect them to stay small for long.

We’d like to extend a special hat tip to our partners at Intel for making this GP x Smart Life series possible. Sharing our passion for discovery, Intel’s relentless pursuit of innovation not only makes our lives better today, but tomorrow’s as well. Now that’s smart.

Additional contributing by Eric Yang

Liquipel:

Water has always been the arch-enemy of electronics, but Liquipel’s revolutionary coating seems poised to change that. Demo videos have shown how Liquipel can protect precious gadgets like the iPhone in the event of a water splash or even outright submersion, without altering the device in any tangible way for users. In fact, the company’s videos have made such an impact, that they’ve had to turn down customers demand for their $50+ waterproofing treatments until they can meet demand. That may be bad news for butter finger electronics owners looking for immediate “oops” insurance, but it’s good news for consumers at large, since this initial traction hints that H20 and circuitry may soon get along forever.

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FreeMotion:

The rigidity v. support tradeoff of ski boots is something any fan of the sport is keenly aware of after a day on the slopes. Austrian brand FreeMotion seems to have finally cracked the code with their new self-named boots, which offer users the ankle flexibility and comfort of a snowboarding boot with the same precision downhill performance of a traditional ski boot. They’re also easier to get into and tighten compared to the traditional plastic foot coffins, thanks to a front zipper gaiter, and specialized one-handed lacing system. Talk about putting your best foot forward…

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Nest Labs:

After years of leading the iPod to global music domination, Apple alums Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers decided to tackle a different product in need of a serious makeover — the thermostat. The result is the uber-slick Nest Learning thermostat, which combines excellent product and user interface design with Wifi and a bevy of sensors to make regulating home temperature intelligent, easy to use, and energy efficient. As if those features weren’t attractive enough, the company says installing a Nest will quickly pay for itself, since research shows it can reduce home energy bills by 20 to 30% compared to traditional thermostats.

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Hella Bitter

The bitters market has been traditionally dominated by a small collection of established brands selling their concoctions directly to bars and restaurants. After years of experimenting with making home brewed Bitters, Hella’s founders decided to raise some money via Kickstarter to sell a limited run of their concoctions to other home enthusiasts inspired by the resurgence of cocktail culture. The positive reaction from the first run was overwhelming and soon after, they decided to go full time on the project. While they certainly aren’t shying away from competing with the big boys for shelf space at venues and adoption by talented mixologists, Hella’s main goal is to help sophisticate the American palate by educating people at home about how these unique herbal concoctions can turn everything from a Manhattan to a plain glass of soda water into a new taste experience.

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Vitality GlowCap

Outside of setting yourself a bevy of reminders, remembering to take your prescription meds can not only be a hassle, but downright dangerous for those requiring regular regimens. When you consider that nearly half of America is on some type of prescription med, then the socio-economic effects quickly add up. The GlowCap works by replacing the typical prescription bottle cap with a device that reminds you when it’s time to take a pill with a visible and audible alert. When a bottle has been opened (or not opened) at a prescribed time information, that information is wirelessly transmitted to a secure network, which then places a telephone call as a reminder. GlowCaps can even place refill orders from the pharmacy, create monthly regimen reports for doctors, and inform family members or caregivers through weekly email updates. A smarter prescription bottle is something we could all use.

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SmithsonMartin

Touch screens have revolutionized the way we interact with a variety of gadget categories — and created some new ones along the way. Veteran DJ’s Alan Smithson and Pablo Martin saw the same potential for disruption in the DJ world, and founded SmithsonMartin to help direct the future of the art form on multi-touch screens. While their incredibly customizable emulator software and companion touchscreen hardware are aimed squarely at the pro market, it’s just a matter of time before seemingly sci-fi tech like this trickles down to bedroom mixing enthusiasts. Digital music was already ushering the term “Disc Jockey” toward obsolescence, but SmithsonMartin is putting the nail in the coffin.

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Espro Press

The French Press has made an enormous impact on the gourmet coffee scene ever since being patented in 1929. While the classic design is certainly effective compared to other brewing methods, Bruce Constantine and Chris McLean still felt the cafetiere (its other common name) was far from perfect, because its filter placement above the grounds allows fine coffee particles to stay in the coffee, resulting in a gritty and muddy cup. So, they decided to revisit the concept and after years of tinkering, the Espro Press was born. Their version uses two nested micro filters to keep grounds separate from the coffee, while still allowing for aromatic oil flow through. The result is a great tasting and cleaner cup of coffee.

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In2Technologies

Everyone acknowledges that immersion surround sound systems provide a better home entertainment experience compared to your average TV speakers. The trouble is, most aren’t willing to deal with the setup and research required to install one in their home. Former Apple Audio Lab head Tod Beauchamp and Sony engineering exec Mike Fidler saw this as a missed opportunity on the part of major electronic brands and decided to solve the issue themselves. Their Unity Home Theater system is designed to eliminate consumer headaches, by combining a left, right, center speaker, with dual subwoofers, a DVD/Blu-ray player and an iPad/iPhone dock, into one beautifully designed TV stand. Thanks to that tight integration, consumers just need one cable to connect the entire setup to their TV. In short, it takes the notion of plug and play to an entirely different level.

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Basis

Most people know the steps they need to take in order to live healthier lives. The tricky part is convincing them to do it. The team behind Basis thinks game dynamics, social media, and data collection can go a long way to help people monitor and improve their health. Their upcoming Basis Band is essentially a health tracking watch that features sensors for tracking your heart rate, movement, skin temperature and even perspiration levels. All of the personal information the watch records is then neatly displayed via a web portal, that users can take advantage of when setting and meeting health goals.

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110% Play Harder

Muscle compression has plenty of benefits that sports medicine experts have honed for years to help athletes perform their best and stay healthy. The same thing goes for icing. 110% Play Harder’s (yes, that’s their name) “Compression +” line of athletic gear builds off both techniques, combining an advanced, zoned and gradient compression design with an integrated reusable ice therapy pocket system. Together, compression+ helps athletes increase blood flow and muscle stability, while reducing muscle fatigue and recovery times.

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GORUCK

When Jason McCarthy took his accumulated knowledge from the Special Forces and combined it to with a passion to create the best ruck (a bag in civilian parlance) imaginable, GORUCK was born. The flagship bag, the GR1 balances extraordinary attention to detail, over-engineering and simplicity. Those happen to also be core axioms of the GORUCK brand, which continues to innovate their lineup with everything from handy field cases, a brick bag, and even somewhere you might not expect there to be room left to innovate, a hat. But GORUCK is more than a company with products. Just ask its scores of enthusiasts who have aligned themselves with the GORUCK Challenge, a P.R.-free event that asks its participants to partake in brutal endurance races that build camaraderie, achievement and yes, further love for GORUCK.

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KUAT

KUAT (pronounced “koo-at”) was founded from the start out of a desire to make innovative roof racks, and their URL, kuatinnovations.com, reminds web visitors just in case they forget it. Despite competing directly with 800 pound gorillas in the industry like Yakima and Thule, Kuat’s special mix of revolutionary thinking and high-engineering serves as a blueprint for how small brands can achieve massive recognition with enthusiasts, given the right approach. Their NV and SHERPA racks released last year are not only thoughtfully conceived and crafted, but also stunning in design. Both showcase beauty through engineering and have won accolades for the brand. Expanding on their line of bike racks, KUAT now also offers a clever bottle lock and a downright sexy roof rack.

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Lytro

The problem with cameras? Focusing. Since the first camera, engineers have thrown countless hours and dollars trying to solve the problem of ultrafast, accurate focusing. Lytro has taken a totally different approach by eliminating the need to focus. As a drill sergeant might say, “shoot now, focus later”. By capturing how a scene “appears” the Lytro creates photos which can literally be refocused later — at any point. The process is called light field capture and it may sound like the work of Star Trek, but the company’s first camera isn’t just for NASA or early adopters. The Lytro Camera rethinks the traditional camera design and wields a fast f/2 lens and 8x optical zoom, but more importantly, it offers all this innovative technology at a consumer-friendly price of $400.

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Olivier Watches

To most in the watch community, the terms “affordable” and “mechanical dive watch” might as well be oil and water. Olivier Watches breaks this mold, offering an affordable mechanical dive watch that amazingly goes head-to-head with some of the best brands in terms of design. Founded by Roland Olivier Tetenbaum, the brand’s first watch, the aptly named Olivier, features an increasingly popular bronze treatment (a nod to Jules Verne) as well as all the prerequisites of a good dive watch including a 500M depth rating, helium escape valve and sapphire crystal. If the Swiss ETA movement is still too rich for you blood, there’s also the option to purchase a version with the quite excellent Japanese Miyota 8215 automatic movement an even lower price-point.

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SketchChair by Diatom Studio

SketchChair is an open-source software under development that aims to make digitally fabricated furniture available to the masses. Think of it like your very own IKEA engineer — limited only by your imagination. On a user-friendly 2D canvas, you can sketch, test and ultimately export the chair design of your dreams to turn into easily-assemble components. Born from academia and written in Java, SketchChair has a significant amount of potential for the DIY community, especially since its open-source foundation inspires designers to share their work. The time to finally replace the tired Poang chair with your own creation is nigh!

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Uber

Just ask any New Yorker and they’ll readily admit that hailing taxis or hiring car service is a broken experience. Uber’s fixes that through the power of the smartphone. Using a convenient app Uber’s dispatch software locates the nearest driver to service your transportation needs within minutes. Cumbersome, time-wasting payments are also totally frictionless as all charges and tips are handled electronically, complete with a detailed receipt emailed to you instantly. For now, it’s only available in major U.S. cities and Paris, and the prices are a bit higher than manual bookings, but the last time we checked being late for a flight or an appointment cost much more.

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Biscotti

Biscotti instantly transforms the center of many homes, the TV, into a high-definition videophone — just add wi-fi. The unobtrusive device (which conveniently comes in the shape of its cookie namesake) costs just $200 and requires no monthly fee thanks to its reliance on Google video chat service. And because it doesn’t require a computer or software, and features an ultra-simple setup even Grandma will be calling the entire family in a matter of minutes. Couch potatoes will also appreciate the always-on configuration and ability to receive calls even when you’re watching TV. Now we’re just counting down the days before TVs offer Biscotti as a built-in feature.

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EcoMotors

Rethinking the internal combustion engine, which humans have been relying on and advancing since the 19th century, is a gargantuan undertaking. But ask any of the engineers and designers at EcoMotors — or investors Kohsla Ventures and Bill Gates — and you’ll quickly realize there’s a fervent desire to change the way we move. Following their mission statement “Clean, Efficient and Lightweight Propulsion Systems for a Better World”, EcoMotors is poised to do just that with their turbo-diesel, opposed-piston, opposed-cylinder motor: OPOC. Not just an incremental improvement, but rather a true breakthrough the OPOC achieves the Holy Grail in motoring: power density. That means an engine that’s not only smaller, lighter, cheaper but also more powerful, more efficient and cleaner. How much less and more? 50% better better fuel economy and 30% lighter and only a quarter of the size of its equivalent.

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First Energy

First Energy provides clean, cheap, and powerful cooking through their ingenious Oorja Stove. Designed for those without easy access to energy resources — they’re initial focus is the rural areas of India — the Oorja relies on biomass gasification technology, which uses a pellet-based fuel made from widely available agri-residue, to provide an ultra powerful cooking stove that’s over 300% more potent than traditional counterparts. But the benefits don’t just stop there. The stove is also smokeless and ultra-efficient to operate, providing enough energy to prepare a meal for a family of five at the mere cost of 12 cents. Already in 450,000 homes, the Oorja oven is estimated to have saved 32,000 tons of fuel already.

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MTN Approach System

Snowboard industry veteran Cory Smith’s was frustrated with the lack of high-performance splitboards — essentially a snowboard that can be separated into parts and used like skis for traversing multi-terrain terrain. So he relied on 20+ years of experience and the help of designers and engineers, to create the MTN Approach system as an attainable solution for snowboarders looking for a backcountry experience. At a total weight of 8 lbs with no removable parts — translating to less fatigue and frustration — riders can spend more time touring and carving powder. And true to snowboarding’s roots, all of MTN Approach’s components are designed and built in the USA.

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MakerBot

3D printing technology has been around for quite some time in technical fields such as architecture, but it’s had trouble catching on in the consumer market. One of the biggest reasons is that most systems are far too expensive for individuals to fiddle with, and even those who could afford it really wouldn’t know what to do with it. That didn’t dissuade MakerBot founders Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, and Zach Smith from seeing the broader possibilities for consumer 3D printing. So they set out to make the technology affordable and accessible to home users. True to form, their original Thing-O-Matic fostered a new community of home tinkerers sharing open-sourced plans for a dizzying-array of 3D printed objects. More recently, their larger scale Replicator is the first 3-D printer to sell for under $2,000. Things are still very early on, but the company’s potential to reinvent how products are developed, produced, and sold is truly enormous.

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Photo Credits | Lead Image: Shutterstock, Illustrations by GP

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