Area 120–Google’s in-house incubator for hatching new ideas with the potential to become big businesses–has only been around for a couple of years. But it attempts to capture the entrepreneurial spirit that’s helped define Google since the start. Here are five efforts that came to be because a passionate Googler or two believed in them.
1. Gmail, 2004: This groundbreaking email service–with a then-implausible-sounding 1GB of storage–began as a one-man project by Paul Buchheit, Google’s 23rd employee.
2. Cardboard, 2014: David Coz and Damien Henry democratized virtual reality by inventing a VR headset made out of, well, cardboard–with a smartphone you already owned providing the screen and processing power.
3. Google News, 2002: The attacks of September 11, 2001, prompted Krishna Bharat to create a site for real-time news coverage, in an era when Google’s search engine was sometimes a month out of date.
4. Google Earth Outreach, 2005: When Google Earth was new, Rebecca Moore used it to fight a plan to log redwood trees near her home. Her crusade became an ongoing effort to use Google Earth’s mapping visualizations to “create positive change for people and the planet.”
5. Diabetic Research, 2014: AI researcher Lily Peng used her 20% time to tune Google’s machine-vision algorithms to scan photos of eyes for diabetic retinopathy, which when untreated, can lead to blindness. It’s now undergoing clinical testing at eye hospitals in India.