Steven Aquino Contributor Steven Aquino is a freelance tech writer and iOS accessibility expert. More posts by this contributor iPhone 11 Pro is the most accessible iPhone yet Apple puts accessibility features front and center…
Dyson said it will end its electric vehicle project after determining it could not make the car commercially viable or find a buyer. The company, known for its high-tech vacuum cleaners and fans, said in…
Are consumers ready for meat grown in a lab? Companies like Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms, Higher Steaks, Mosa Meat and Meatable are all trying to bring to supermarkets around the world meat made from cultivated…
Valued at $535 million, autonomous retail startup Standard Cognition has emerged as a soon-to-be tech giant and the best hope for merchants to compete with Amazon Go. Cashierless checkout is poised to transform brick-and-mortar commerce,…
It was a big day for startup Render, which participated in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield today. It also announced some upgrades to its managed cloud platform. First of all, it announced the ability to…
Chris Dixon, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, announced a new crypto-related startup school at TechCrunch Disrupt today in San Francisco. Dixon says that the firm is not looking for equity, but really wants to…
Clean drinking water is one of the most urgent needs in developing countries and disaster-stricken areas, but safety tests can take days — during which tainted water can infect thousands. OmniVis aims to make detection…
The demand for orbital launches is increasing steadily, and the industry is nowhere near keeping up. Leo Aerospace thinks it can help with a launch technique that’s more efficient and requires far less infrastructure than…
Say you’re a pharmaceutical company. You’ve figured out that a novel molecule could be effective in treating an illness — but that molecule only exists in a simulation. How do you actually make it, and…
Steven Aquino Contributor
Steven Aquino is a freelance tech writer and iOS accessibility expert.
Reviewing Apple Watch Series 5 is not hard. It is so largely similar to last year’s Series 4. It carries with it all the things that made its predecessor great — the large display, haptics-enhanced Digital Crown and fall detection — and marches forward with one defining feature: the always-on display. Back-to-back years of seminal moments for the Watch is an impressive feat.
From an accessibility perspective, everything that was (and remains) great about Series 4 is there in Series 5. It is the best Apple Watch to date, and it is certainly the most accessible smartwatch on the market, period. But there are a few caveats.
The longer I wear Apple Watch Series 5, a 44mm space-gray aluminum review unit from Apple, the more torn I feel about the device’s always-on display.
On one hand, I readily acknowledge the significance of the new display as it relates to the watch as a whole. On the other hand, however, I find the always-on display to be somewhat of a letdown in practice. It isn’t that the always-on display is bad; it’s not. It’s that the current implementation isn’t that conducive to my visual needs.
The issue is brightness. The always-on display right now isn’t bright enough for me to quickly glance down at my wrist to see the time. As someone who requires maximum brightness on all my devices in order to see well, this is problematic. Other reviewers have mentioned how nice it is to just casually look down at the watch to see the time, as you would on a mechanical watch. My peers must have substantially better eyesight than I do, because I literally cannot do that. In my usage, I have found I’m still flicking my wrist like I have any previous Apple Watch to see the time. When you do so, the Apple Watch’s screen fully illuminates (to max brightness, per my display settings), and that’s how I can tell time.
The whole point of buying Series 5 is for the always-on display. I could turn it off, but that defeats the purpose.
It makes no difference whether I’m using an analog or digital watch face. The exception is when using the new Numerals Duo face with the “filled” styling. The digits are so large that I have no trouble seeing the time. This face would be a good solution for my woes if not for the fact it doesn’t support complications. Otherwise, Numerals Duo is a great workaround for the always-on display’s lack of light.
At a technical level, I understand why watchOS dims the display. Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate there is no way to adjust the brightness while in “always on” mode. Perhaps Apple will add such a feature in the future; it would make sense as an accessibility setting. As it stands today, as good as the always-on display is in general, I can’t say it makes much sense for me. I’m effectively using Series 5 the same way I use my Series 4. Because of this, Series 5 loses some of its appeal. The whole point of buying Series 5 is for the always-on display. I could turn it off, but that defeats the purpose, and I may as well stick with last year’s model.
On the flip side, if and when the always-on display improves for me, another benefit is it will save me from having to raise my arm so often. I wear my watch on my right wrist, which is notable because the right side of my body is partially paralyzed due to cerebral palsy. As such, raising my wrist to tell time or check a notification can sometimes be painful and fatiguing. The always-on display mitigates this because, by virtue of its persistence, you don’t necessarily have to contort your arm to look at your watch — thereby alleviating pain and fatigue for me and others.
From the original Apple Watch (colloquially known as “Series 0”) through Series 3, Apple packaged the watch as an “all-in-one” product. Which is to say, the band was fastened to the watch. You could grab it and go — take the watch out of the box and immediately see how it looks on you, even before pairing it with your iPhone.
With last year’s Series 4, Apple changed how they package Apple Watch, whereby the band and watch were separate entities. In order to wear it, you first need to attach the band to the watch. In my review, I called out this change as regressive despite recognizing why it made sense operationally. The revised layout continues in Series 5, which is disappointing.
Everything should be as accessible as possible.
The issues this setup raises are the same ones I expounded upon last year. To wit, it’s easy to see how some people could get flustered with the watch and band being piecemeal; it can be challenging in terms of cognitive load and fine-motor skills. Even as a seasoned product reviewer, I freely admit to again feeling a tad disjointed as I was piecing together my review unit.
Like the always-on display’s dimmed state, I totally get why Apple chose to overhaul how they package Apple Watch. It makes complete sense in context of the new Apple Watch Studio, where you can mix and match finishes and bands. This is a prime example of why reporting on accessibility and assistive technology matters so much: esoteric details like how a product is packaged can really matter to a person with disabilities. Part of the reason Apple products are so revered is precisely because of the elegant simplicity of its packaging. The unboxing is supposed to be one of the best parts of a new Apple Watch or iPhone or iMac — especially for disabled people, the initial experience leaves a lasting impression if you have to fiddle as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. I can manage, but many cannot. And it’s important to bear in mind. Everything should be as accessible as possible.
The bottom line
There is no doubt Apple Watch Series 5 is great. It retains the title of Best, Most Accessible Apple Watch Yet, but with an asterisk. I don’t have a burning desire to upgrade — although admittedly, the titanium’s siren song has been calling me ever since last month’s event. The problem I have with the display can be easily remedied with a software update; if Apple shipped a brightness slider tomorrow, I’d order one pronto. Today, though, always-on isn’t always bright — and that sucks.
In the end, I still heartily recommend Apple Watch Series 5 to everyone. My low vision makes the always-on display difficult to see as-is, and I surely can’t be the only one. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the watch is still the best, most accessible smartwatch by a country mile. I’m confident the always-on display will be iterated and refined over time. In the meantime, Series 4 and watchOS 6 is a pretty bad-ass combination for me.
Dyson said it will end its electric vehicle project after determining it could not make the car commercially viable or find a buyer.
The company, known for its high-tech vacuum cleaners and fans, said in a statement Thursday that its automotive team had developed a fantastic car, but decided to close the project. Dyson also sought a buyer for the project, but has been unsuccessful so far, the company said in the statement.
Dyson announced in September 2017 that it was working on a battery electric vehicle with an all-electric drivetrain that would be launched by 2020. The company’s board approved in October 2018 a decision to construct its first advanced automotive manufacturing facility in Singapore. The two-story manufacturing facility was scheduled for completion in 2020.
Dyson isn’t totally abandoning technology related to electric cars, and says it’s still committed to Singapore. The company will continue its £2.5 billion ($3.1 billion) investment program into new technology and plans to focus on manufacturing solid-state batteries and developing sensing technologies, vision systems, robotics, machine learning and AI, company founder James Dyson wrote in the statement.
“Our battery will benefit Dyson in a profound way and take us in exciting new directions,” he wrote, adding that the company’s investment appetite is undiminished and it will continue to deepen its roots in both the U.K. and Singapore.
Dyson said the closure was not a product failure, or a failure of the team. The company is looking to find alternative roles for employees who worked on the project and has enough vacancies in its home business to absorb most of these people, according to Dyson.
“Since day one we have taken risks and dared to challenge the status quo with new products and technologies,” Dyson wrote in the statement. “Such an approach drives progress, but has never been an easy journey — the route to success is never linear. This is not the first project which has changed direction and it will not be the last. I remain as excited about the future of Dyson as I have always been; our ambitions have never been higher, our ability to invest has never been greater, and the team has never been stronger.”
Are consumers ready for meat grown in a lab?
Companies like Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms, Higher Steaks, Mosa Meat and Meatable are all trying to bring to supermarkets around the world meat made from cultivated animal cells, but the problem has always been the cost.
Now, Future Meat Technologies has raised $14 million in new financing to build its first pilot manufacturing facilities to bring the cost of production of a cell-made steak down to $10 per pound — or $4 if the meat is combined with plant-based meat substitutes.
The $10 price tag is a whole lot lower than the $50 target that experts from the Good Food Institute were talking about back in April of this year — and represents a significant cost reduction that makes lab-grown meat a potentially commercially viable option much sooner than anyone expected.
“With this investment, we’re thrilled to bring cultured meat from the lab to the factory floor and begin working with our industrial partners to bring our product to market,” said Rom Kshuk, the chief executive officer of Future Meat Technologies, in a statement. “We’re not only developing a global network of investors and advisors with expertise across the meat and ingredient supply chains, but also providing the company with sufficient runway to achieve commercially viable production costs within the next two years.”
Unlike its other competitors, Future Meat Technologies doesn’t have any interest in selling its products directly to consumers. Rather, the company wants to be the supplier of the hardware and cell lines that anyone would need to become a manufacturer of lab-grown meat.
In a way, it’s not much different to the approach that Tyson Foods — an investor in Future Meat through its venture capital arm — has taken with farmers. Tyson contracts with poultry farmers to raise the chickens that the company slaughters and processes, and provides them with the means to raise the chickens for slaughter.
Future Meat production tanks for meat and fat
The secret to Future Meat’s success is its use of undifferentiated fibroblast cells that can be triggered with small molecules to turn into either fat cells or muscle cells. Once the fat and muscle starts growing, they’re placed in a culture with a specific resin that removes waste materials that have been an impediment to growth at large scales, according to chief science officer and founder Yaakov Nahmias.
While Future Meat doesn’t rely on fetal bovine serum to grow its meat products, it does use small molecules derived from CHO cells (Chinese hamster ovaries), which are used in new medical research and drug manufacturing.
“We have a specific resin to remove the toxins from the media and that allows the cells to continue to grow,” says Nahmias. “It is essentially a new bioreactor design… you can increase the yield to 80%.. For every liter of medium you don’t get 100 grams of biomass you can get 800 grams of biomass… [and] you don’t talk about mega $100 million factories.”
Nahmias says using a refrigerator-sized bioreactor, a manufacturer could get about half a ton of meat and fat in about 14 days. In about one month, growers can make an amount of meat equivalent of two cows’ worth of meat (a cow takes about 12 to 18 months to raise for slaughter).
The former Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor first began thinking about the lab-grown meat business while on sabbatical. “It was at a Peet’s Coffee right next to the Charles River in Cambridge,” Nahmias recalled. “Somebody asked me what I thought about cultured meat… They asked me what I thought about it and I told them it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard in my entire life.”
Growing cells is expensive, Nahmias said at the time, and the fact that the organisms basically grow in their own excrement means that they can’t reproduce effectively to reach any kind of large scale. That’s when Nahmias had his “Eureka” moment. “You need cells that grow without any growth factor at all,” says Nahmias. “The only cells that can do that are the least differentiated cells, which are fibroblasts.”
With the new financing from investors — including S2G Ventures, a Chicago-based venture firm (and an early investor in Beyond Meat); Emerald Technology Ventures, a Swiss investment firm; Tyson Ventures (one of the most active strategic investors); and Bits x Bites (a Chinese investor in food and agriculture startups) — Future Meat can now test its business model and manufacturing capabilities at scale.
Future Meat leadership, Dr. Moria Shimoni, EVP of R&D; Yaakov Nahmias, CTO and founder; and Rom Kshuk, CEO
“You’re either growing fat or you’re growing muscle of a specific species,” says Nahmias. “Imagine a large truck going to that facility. [It’s] replacing the meat packing plant. From there the biomass goes through a process like extrusion. You can have thousands of these mass producing units. [It’s] going to a central facility where the meat comes out at the end. What we are doing is looking for parity and cost.”
For Nahmias, the fat’s the thing that brings the flavor for everything. “The fat gives you the aroma and the distinct flavor of meat,” says Nahmias. “This is the missing ingredient in Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat .”
Nahmias envisions products that are made using a combination of Future Meat’s lab-grown products and plant proteins that can approximate the full flavors of beef, chicken or lamb (all meats that the company says it is working with).
All Nahmias wants is for Future Meat to get to market; the founder doesn’t care whether that’s under Tyson’s brand or anyone else’s. “I want to be the largest company you’ve never heard of,” says Nahmias. “I want to make a product that is more sustainable and more cost-efficient, and is better for everybody.”
Like all of the other companies pursuing alternatives to animal husbandry, Future Meat, which was only founded last year, has a mission to reduce the environmental impact of meat eating. The company argues that its manufacturing model will reduce land use by 99% and emit 80% less greenhouse gas than traditional meat production.
“This continues our investment in Future Meat Technologies, which is focused on disruptive technologies related to our core business,” said Amy Tu, president of Tyson Ventures, in a statement. “We are broadening our exposure to alternative ways of producing protein to feed a growing world population.”
Ultimately the goal is getting to cost parity with regular beef. The company thinks a hybrid product could be $3 to $4, while the 100% biomass product would be roughly $10.
“We’re taking a yes and ‘Yes and’ as opposed to an either-or approach to the space,” says Matthew Walker, a managing director at S2G Ventures. “You will have animal-based meat, plant-based meat and you will have hybrid products. It’s more about the supply chain and the technological products that would bring this product to market. We think there’s room in the market for somebody to play that role.”
Nahmias and Kshuk think that’s the role Future Meat Technologies was born to play.
Valued at $535 million, autonomous retail startup Standard Cognition has emerged as a soon-to-be tech giant and the best hope for merchants to compete with Amazon Go. Cashierless checkout is poised to transform brick-and-mortar commerce, and shop owners fear having to battle Amazon’s technology alone or partner with it, exposing data it could use against them.
The $86 million-funded Standard Cognition is racing to equip storefronts with an independent alternative using cameras to track what customers grab and charge them. But Amazon’s early start in the space poses a risk that it could patent troll the startup. So today, Standard Cognition announced it has acquired DeepMagic, a pioneer in autonomous retail kiosks.
“We’re not an aggressive company by any means. My personal stance on patents is that maybe they’re not the way the world should work,” says Standard Cognition CEO Jordan Fisher. “But given the larger player in the space, I think it’s the right thing to do so we have coverage and can protect ourselves.”
DeepMagic lets customers swipe a payment card when entering a smaller kiosk or store, pick up items that are detected by cameras and simply walk out while having their card charged. The idea is that businesses could operate satellite micro-storefronts in malls, apartment buildings and more without staff. DeepMagic was easier to deploy since the kiosks were built from the ground up to eliminate annoying checkout lines.
Standard Cognition CEO and co-founder Jordan Fisher
Standard Cognition, meanwhile, focuses on retrofitting full-sized grocers and other stores, like the one in minor league baseball’s The Worcester Red Sox’s upcoming stadium, as well as others it hasn’t announced. It currently has one experimental shop of its own in San Francisco. Rollouts with partners are more challenging because the startup doesn’t design the building form factor or inventory, but is addressing a much bigger market of existing storefronts. It claims it can grow profit margins for shops by up to 100%.
Standard Cognition sees the smaller footprint spots outfitted by DeepMagic as a crucial piece of the autonomous retail landscape. So it’s acquiring DeepMagic’s technology, and bringing on co-founder and CEO Bernd Schoner as a consultant. Standard Cognition won’t pick up DeepMagic’s staffers or pilot contracts, but it’s considering how to integrate the technology as it ramps up its own deployments. “We were both tackling this problem with a strong focus on the power of computer vision, so it made sense to align ourselves with Standard,” Schoner tells TechCrunch. “We think Standard is in the best position to win this race.”
DeepMagic was mostly founder-funded, but the five-employee company had raised $150,000 from angel investors since starting in New York in 2017. Yet Standard Cognition, which was founded a few months later, raised a $35 million Series B in July from EQT Ventures and Initialized. It has become a center of gravity in cashierless tech, having pulled in half the total $118 million invested in the space in 2018. Now it’s consolidating the space with the DeepMagic buy and its acquisition of retail mapping startup Explorer.ai in January.
The purpose of the buying spree is getting to market first. “Every day, the thing is speed. I think this is going to be a very fast market. Every day counts. One of my biggest jobs is to keep everybody as motivated today as they will be in five years,” says Fisher. “Six months today will translate to 20% market share in five years. That’s crazy and it’s a huge motivating factor. Moving fast enough that we can get the lion’s share of the market is what keeps me up at night.”
The company also has to outpace fellow startups like direct competitors Zippin, Trigo and Grabango. Along the way, Standard Cognition has been focused on developing unbiased anti-theft technology that doesn’t care what a person looks like, just what items disappear from shelves. Fisher says it’s also looking into how it can make sure it doesn’t unabashedly grow unemployment. “We’re creating more jobs than we’re displacing right now,” Fisher claims, saying it needs people for data labeling to train its artificial intelligence.
Standard Cognition’s co-founder and CEO hopes Amazon will find it just as challenging if it tries to move from running its own 18 or so Go stores to equipping other businesses. The startup also hopes to capitalize on fears about how Amazon might use partners’ data the way it does in e-commerce. “I don’t think that’s minor at all. Do they get the insights? Can they leverage that to have a better offering on Amazon.com and in their brick-and-mortar stores?,” Fisher asks. “Our product offering has none of those strings attached. There’s no ulterior motives.”
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From the looks of it, the Calm Booth by Room is little more than a standard Room booth, with frosted glass, softer lighting and “a soothing misty forest interior.” But it’s a pretty smart partnership between two white-hot startups.
Marantz has in recent years trained his attention on the tech world and its contribution to social unrest in the United States and beyond. And he has just published a new book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.” (Extra Crunch membership required.)
First of all, it announced the ability to spin up object storage in the cloud, while greatly simplifying the tasks associated with adding storage. CEO and founder Anurag Goel says that the storage option is something customers have been requesting, and as with their other services, they handle a lot of the heavy lifting for them.
“One of the things that our users want us to do next is to build out object storage. Even though they can use things like Amazon S3 and other cloud storage options, they know that Render is going to be easier for them to use. So they really want object storage, and they want everything in one place,” Goel explained.
If you want to do that today without Render, you would have to spin up a virtual machine in the cloud, attach the storage, set up backup schedules and take care of all of these other associated tasks, and what Render is doing with Render Disk is stripping that all away and managing the process for them.
While the startup was at it, it also developed a concept called infrastructure as code. This allows developers to define their infrastructure requirements in a YAML file. When the developer sends the file to GitHub, Render can build the infrastructure for the customer on the fly based on the contents of this file.
Finally, they are offering a one-click launch to customers. This could come in handy for companies that are offering free trials or open-source tools to enable users to launch their applications with a single click from GitHub and it will load all of the required files.
Dixon says that the firm is not looking for equity, but really wants to provide a way to teach some best practices in the emerging field of crypto currency. “We are going to run a startup school for crypto-specific startups and what we’ve learned over the last 7 years as best practices in this category,” Dixon told TechCrunch’s Josh Constine on stage today.
The company doesn’t intend to charge any money, nor will it take any equity in the companies that participate. In Dixon’s words, they are doing this to push the category forward and help crypto startups get going. He hopes that based on the good will of offering this education for free, that startups who participate may end up having a conversation with a16z about possibly getting an investment, but he made clear that this absolutely was not a requirement.
Last year, the firm made its commitment to crypto clear when it established a crypto fund run by Katie Haun. Dixon told TechCrunch at the time of that announcement that his firm had already invested in 20 crypto companies over the previous five years, including Ripple and Coinbase way back in 2013, prior to establishing a fund devoted to crypto.
The company has set up a page on the company website for companies interested in signing up for the crypto startup school.
Clean drinking water is one of the most urgent needs in developing countries and disaster-stricken areas, but safety tests can take days — during which tainted water can infect thousands. OmniVis aims to make detection of cholera and other pathogens as quick, simple, and cheap as a pregnancy test. Its smartphone-powered detection platform could save thousands of lives.
OmniVis, which presented on stage at Disrupt SF’s Startup Battlefield today, emerged from research conducted at Purdue University, where CEO and co-founder Katherine Clayton completed her doctorate. She and her advisors were working on the question of using microfluidics, basically very close inspection of the behavior of fluids, to detect cholera bacteria in water.
In case you forgot your Infectious Diseases 101, cholera is a bacterium that thrives in water polluted by fecal matter. When ingested it multiplies and causes severe diarrhea and dehydration — which as you might imagine can become a life-threatening problem if a community is short on clean water.
While normally uncommon, there was a huge cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010 following a major earthquake there; 665,000 people were infected and more than 8,000 people died. It was this humanitarian disaster that prompted Clayton to look into how such an event might have been prevented. She’s been working on what would become the OmniVis platform since 2013.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she told me.
That’s not uncommon for academic spin-offs with valuable IP but zero product experience. Moving from lab bench to field-ready hardware has taken years of hard work. But the resulting device could upend a costly and slow water testing process that leaves communities at risk in crucial moments.
Existing water testing is generally done at a central location, a lab run by a university, utility, or the local government. It depends on the region — and of course if there has been a disaster, it may not even be functional. Going from sample collection to results may take several days, and it isn’t cheap, either. Clayton estimated it at $100 per sample.
“But that’s just supplies and labor,” she said. “Not the cost of the lab, the PCR machines — which are tens of thousands of dollars — the pipettes, the dyes, the disposables and consumables, the training… not to mention in a lot of areas you’re not just going to walk by a nice central laboratory. Some countries may only have one or two testing facilities.”
Another option is disposable rapid diagnostic tests, more like pregnancy tests than anything, meant for use with stool samples — but their accuracy is low even then, and with cholera diluted in a water source you may as well be flipping a coin.
Such was the state of testing when Haiti had its outbreak and Clayton began looking into it. In 2013 they began investigating microfluidics as a method for detection. It works by exposing a set of chemical reagents, or “primers,” to a water sample. These primers are engineered to bind to bits of cholera’s DNA and then when heated, replicate it — a process called DNA amplification.
The more cholera is present, the more DNA will be available to amplify, and it multiplies to the point where it affects the viscosity of the water — a factor that can be tested by the device. Interestingly, the device in no way “analyzes” the DNA or identifies it; all it does is measure how viscous the water is, which is a highly reliable proxy for how much cholera was present in it to begin with.
It turns out this method is both quick and accurate: In 30 minutes it gives as good or better results as central testing.
“The worst thing we could ever do is say there’s no cholera in the water when there is,” Clayton said. So they’re focused on robust test results over all else. But ultimately the device still had to go from the lab to the real world. To that end the team conducted pilot tests in Haiti, where they worked with local NGOs and communities to get some direct feedback.
What they found was promising — but also resulted in major changes to the product. For one thing, they had to switch from iPhone to Android.
“People feel safer with Android than iPhone, which is considered a luxury item,” Clayton said. They also found that men and women operated the system equally well — the team is 84 percent women, she noted, and their design choices may have crept into the product the same as can happen on what is much more common, a male-dominated team. English and Svengali users likewise did fine. Interestingly, locals were baffled by roman numerals. “That was surprising,” she said, but illustrative of how even the smallest assumptions need to be questioned.
“I love user-centered design,” Clayton said. “I think it’s the only way to get engineering to work. UX and graphic design is not my or my colleagues’ specialty, so we had to get some outside contractors for that.”
The production device, which OmniVis hopes to ship in about six months, should cost around a thousand dollars — but at about $10 per test it will pay for itself quickly, especially considering how much easily it can be deployed and used. A half-hour turnaround on a test that can be performed by an aid worker with an hour’s training is an invaluable tool in a disaster-stricken area where infrastructure like mail and roads may be in disorder.
These devices, by the way, are not bought and paid for by the people who drink the water. Like the water-testing labs, they’ll be owned and operated by NGOs, governments and others with budgets for this kind of thing.
Cholera is the first pathogen the company is aiming to detect, but the system can just as easily detect several others simply by using different disposable tests equipped with different primers. E. Coli could be next — with the proper testing, Clayton said. And others would follow. It’s not hard to imagine an OmniVis device being a must-have for any relief work where water needs to be tested.
The demand for orbital launches is increasing steadily, and the industry is nowhere near keeping up. Leo Aerospace thinks it can help with a launch technique that’s more efficient and requires far less infrastructure than an ordinary rocket: a hot air balloon. With a rocket attached to it, of course. It sounds wacky at first, but it could prove to be an economical and flexible way of getting to orbit.
Leo is originally out of Purdue, one of two such teams on stage this week at Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield. Co-founder and CEO Dane Rudy said they were looking into new and better ways to achieve orbit besides the traditional surface-based rocket approach.
“We found this really elegant solution that was actually tested in a rudimentary way in the 50s by the Air Force, which is launching rockets from an aerostat — a balloon,” he said.
Perhaps used to countering narrowed eyes and barely disguised incredulity at this point, he hastened to follow up.
“It actually worked really well for what it was designed for. The issue they ran into was that the U.S. shifted toward sending people to the Moon — so there just wasn’t a need for that technology in the Apollo program. But the rise in small satellites has created a huge demand tailored to these capabilities,” he said.
It turns out using a balloon has big benefits. A large amount of a rocket’s fuel and engineering is dedicated to pushing it from the ground, where the atmosphere is heaviest, to the thinner upper atmosphere, where drag and other issues are much less of a worry. By going the first few miles straight up in a balloon, much less rocket is needed to get into orbit, since you’re skipping one of the hardest parts.
The technique is more or less exactly what you’d imagine: A large balloon inflates and lifts the payload, a small rocket, to a designated altitude. Once there it aligns itself and… well, lifts off is perhaps the wrong term. But it ignites and exits the atmosphere at a planned trajectory and inserts the payload into orbit.
There are already air-launch systems out there that use planes rather than balloons, presenting their own challenges and advantages. Leo Aerospace’s main draws are flexibility and cost.
“Our system is fully mobile — it doesn’t require any ground infrastructure,” said Rudy. “The whole thing fits into a regular shipping container.”
That means it can take off wherever and, perhaps more importantly, whenever the client chooses.
Right now the launch industry is expanding like crazy, both because of an increase in total launches and the rise of “ride-sharing,” where dozens of payloads share the cost of a single rocket. The cost goes down, but there are serious inconveniences.
“They don’t have much choice in when they launch or what orbit they’re going to. There’s also the complexity of having to ride with a bunch of other payloads on board — you have to compromise on timing and so on,” Rudy said.
While ride-sharing means many payloads will get to space that might not have a few years ago, it also means they might wait for years while the rest of the seats fill up and get ready to roll. With Leo it’s practically Domino’s for orbit.
That’s all great in theory, but the fact is no one has made a balloon-based commercial launch system. When the Air Force did it, it was pretty crude: The rocket was carried in a vertical position and shot right through the balloon when it went up. That kind of rules out reusing the balloon, but Leo’s entire business is founded on reusability, since that brings costs down immensely.
“That was one of the big problems we had to solve — the expense of the balloon itself; helium is expensive, and the envelope [i.e. the balloon material] is expensive and fragile,” said Rudy. “How do we make that zero stage, as we call it, reusable?”
Amazingly, they determined that tough, ripstop nylon and hot air were actually the best solution. It’s remarkably close in principle to an ordinary recreational hot-air balloon, but with the slight difference that it has to fly up to 18 kilometers of altitude and carry a rocket with it.
“The difference is how do you control and command this sort of vehicle, integrate it into airspace, suspend the rocket beneath it and all that,” Rudy said. “All the stuff you have at Vandenberg Air Base for a launch — we have to make all that mobile.”
A bit like going from an ordinary car to a self-driving one, Leo’s balloon may be similar to the recreational type in its basic form, but the technical advances are in how it is controlled and tracked. They can adjust for wind, control the yaw and rotation, rise to a very precise altitude, and so on — naturally, all remotely and with partial autonomy.
The rocket doesn’t shoot through its balloon as before, but fires off at a mission-determined angle. 18 km closer to space, with far less air resistance to worry about, the three-stage rocket (two solid, then one non-cryo liquid) can be much smaller and have far less mass — requiring less than half the fuel to lift a given mass to orbit. To be specific, the system is specced to send 33 gross kilograms, 25 kg of payload, to a 550 kilometer orbit — or about twice that to 300 kilometers.
December saw the company performing reduced-scale tests at altitude, an important stepping stone to regulatory approval. The plan is to make their first full-scale suborbital launch next year with their first customer’s payload on board. Orbital launches are planned for 2022.
Leo has gotten through December’s tests on a quite barebones budget for a space startup of about $520,000, through TechStars and a grant from the National Science Foundation. That’s great for a foundation, Rudy said, but full-scale tests and an eventual transition to commercial operations will take more than six figures.
An Air Force Small Business Innovation Research grant has opened the door to other government sources, and there’s been interest from that quarter in the non-orbital potential of the system, for instance high-altitude testing, mobile communications infrastructure, and so on. So already there are multiple eggs in multiple baskets — an attractive quality for investors.
“We’ve done all the foundational work,” said Rudy. “Now it’s just about scaling up.”
Say you’re a pharmaceutical company. You’ve figured out that a novel molecule could be effective in treating an illness — but that molecule only exists in a simulation. How do you actually make it, and enough of it, to test in the real world? Molecule.one is a computational chemistry platform that helps bring theoretical substances to life, and it is debuting its product onstage at Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield.
Computational chemistry is, believe it or not, something of a hot ticket right now. The explosion in computing resources over the last decade has made it possible for the extremely complex systems of molecular biology to be simulated in high enough fidelity to produce new drugs and other important substances.
For example, say a company knows that a condition is caused by overproduction of a given protein. By simulating that protein in the soup of the cell environment, computational chemists can also introduce and virtually observe the behavior of thousands or millions of molecules that don’t occur naturally but might, say, lock down those excess proteins and tag them for removal by the cell.
This process of drug discovery has been productive, but unlike in the real world, in a simulation you don’t actually have to make that magical molecule. It’s just a bunch of numbers interacting with other numbers. How can a pharmaceutical company, which may have paid a lot of money for those numbers, turn them into actual molecules? That’s where Molecule.one steps in.
Essentially, the company has created a software platform that automates the process of getting from chemicals A, B, and C to chemical Z, with the many steps in between accounted for and documented. It’s based on a machine learning system that has ingested millions of patents and known chemical processes, allowing it to connect the dots and propose a method for creating pretty much any complex organic molecule. In other words, once a drug company has the “what” — a molecule or compound that may fight Alzheimer’s — Molecule.one provides the “how.”
Piotr Byrski met co-founder Paweł Włodarczyk-Pruszyński (who goes by Maxus to avoid confusion with COO Paweł Łaskarzewski) while in college, where they studied and did research together, eventually both earning MDs. They discovered a shared aversion to the grunt work of chemistry — beakers, distillates, titration, and so on.
“We found out we shared a similar analytical approach to chemistry. A lot of chemists really like the cooking process involved with organic synthesis,” Byrski told me. “I have to say… I never liked it very much. That made me think that there are many things in the everyday life of a chemist that can be automated, and need to be automated.”
“Automating organic synthesis seems like just another difficult automation problem, but it’s one with real effects. Real people are suffering because drugs are coming to the market,” he said. “We thought we could help. So we did some research, and we found that the field is so under-developed — the direction research is going is completely unsatisfactory. We began market research — we were both first timers so it was pretty new to us at the time — and we found out there was a big market need for this. It wasn’t a scientific discovery that would sit on a shelf, it could be applied today to help multiple industries.”
By the time they were working on this, companies were already applying simulation, and statistical techniques (machine learning is essentially weapon-grade statistical analysis) were already popping up. BenevolentAI started in 2013, Recursion in 2014, Atomwise in 2015; clearly the field was growing, and is still adding new companies, like ReviveMed. But these are mainly focused on the question of new drugs based on simulations.
“They provide a list of maybe tens of thousands of structures to a pharmaceutical company, but the company then needs to actually verify whether the predictions have any real-life backing. For that you need physical access to these molecules — just knowing the structure doesn’t cut it,” said Byrski.
Molecule.one’s system tells them how to manifest these structures.
“We are making the whole synthesis pathway, so going from compounds that are available to ones that you want,” said Włodarczyk-Pruszyński. “Along the way we need to solve many problems — there are many reasons why a reaction could fail. We want to tell users how to make compounds with the process with the highest chance of success.”
And succeed they have: “Our system works for structures that have never been seen before by any chemist,” Byrski said.
The obvious question is why these huge pharma companies, with their bottomless pockets and technical expertise, don’t put together their own synthesis platforms. It comes down to people.
“The most important factor is that it’s hard for a pharmaceutical company to hire machine learning specialists who have a deep background in chemistry. Over 90 percent of the people I know that work on this in the pharmaceutical business are chemists who have some training in machine learning. This is a difficult problem that requires coming at it from the opposite direction,” Byrski explained. “Our head of machine learning [Stanislaw Jastrzębski] is a PhD from the computational side, who would normally go to Google, Facebook or Microsoft. We’ve built a team that is unique in how it bridges the computational technology and chemistry.”
The databases used by Molecule.one’s systems, surprisingly, are mostly public. The U.S. Patent office has tons of patents involving chemical processes — some important, some small, some obscure, some obvious, but all verified and presented formally. This was a gold mine sitting in plain sight, Byrski said. Or perhaps a box full of Lego pieces just waiting to be assembled into the right machine.
The main “proprietary” information they used was a private listing of commercially available chemicals and their prices. A molecule may have more than one pathway to reach it, after all, or perhaps thousands, and one might be cheaper than the others or involve fewer toxic reagents.
With strong results from public databases, they have a better chance of getting pharma companies to share their internal databases when signing up for the service.
The actual business is conducted SaaS-wise, naturally, and all the work takes place in the cloud. There’s also an enterprise tier that allows for on-premises operation, for companies that would rather not have their trade secrets anywhere but on company-owned infrastructure.
So far the company has bootstrapped, and currently has about $400K in the bank, which Byrski said should last them well into next year. “The biggest cost is people,” he said. “Developers, designers, chemists. We’re a software business so we don’t have a lot of other costs — we don’t have to hire a lab, for example.” So they are looking for funding to help hire and scale.
It’s not common in Poland to segue directly from medical school into a startup, Byrski admitted. But he and Włodarczyk-Pruszyński felt that this was too significant an opportunity to do good to pass up. With luck their platform will prove as popular as the drug discovery startups that helped make it necessary to invent.