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ChromaCode’s tech to boost COVID-19 testing gets Bill Gates’s backing

By Jonathan Shieber

Boasting a technology that can dramatically increase the capacity of existing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing used to identify people infected with COVID-19 and other illnesses, ChromaCode has attracted new funding from Bill Gates-backed Adjuvant Capital

“We want a good solution for a resource-limited environment,” says ChromaCode founder and executive chairman Alex Dickinson, a serial entrepreneur who has worked with Caltech researchers spinning out companies since the early 2000s.

The technology was based on research conducted by California Institute of Technology graduate student Aditya Rajagopal. A former researcher at Google[x] working on novel medical imaging methods, Rajagopal is the inventor of HDPCR, the tech at the heart of ChromaCode’s product.

With the help of Dickinson, Rajagopal spun out the technology he’d developed to form ChromaCode in 2012, according to Crunchbase, and raised its initial capital to develop a diagnostic tool that could use algorithms and new sensing technologies to increase the number of targets that can be analyzed by traditional PCR analysis.

The polymerase chain reaction tests were invented in 1985 by Kary Mullis, who was working as a chemist at the Cetus Corp., and use copies of very small amounts of DNA sequences that are amplified in a series of cycles of temperature changes. It’s one of the foundations of genetic analysis. 

While traditional PCR testing relies on differentiation of targets by color, the HDPCR technology developed by ChromaCode’s co-founder uses signal intensity to identify multiple different targets and signify them as curve signatures encoded into a single color channel. Think of the technology as using color gradients to identify multiple targets in a test instead of just one color.

“It’s like image compression,” Dickinson said.

For COVID-19 specifically, the use of ChromaCode’s technology could expand available testing capacity threefold, the company said.

“Right now the basic test looks at three different things,” said Dickinson. “These machines have wells and they can do 96 tests at a time. The challenge is that you would typically use three of those wells for each test. We let them do all of the test in one well, which would give you a three times multiple.”

That means instead of testing 32 individuals using existing PCR equipment, labs would be able to perform 96 tests at a time.

Even more significant is the ability for ChromaCode’s technology to identify other illnesses alongside COVID-19. “What we’re planning for is the fall when we will be taking the existing COVID test and layering in flu and other diseases,” says Dickinson.

The ability to test for multiple pathogens has important implications for the ability to adequately test, track and trace the spread of the disease in the low and medium income countries that are now undergoing their own outbreaks. “The problem in Africa is that someone has a fever and it might be COVID or that might be Dengue fever,” said Dickinson. Using ChromaCode’s technology, diagnosticians and physicians can tell the difference without having to use new machines.

It’s the ability to work on existing technology that sets ChromaCode apart from competitors like BioFire Diagnostics and Cepheid, according to Dickinson and his co-founder Greg Gosch.

“The supply chain on the tests will continue to be strained so people will be looking for more efficient mechanisms,” said Gosch.

Adjuvant Capital, the investment fund spun out from a collaboration between the Gates Foundation and JP Morgan Chase, had already identified ChromaCode as a potential investment target well before the pandemic hit, according to managing partner Jenny Yip.

The investment firm began speaking with ChromaCode in the summer of 2019, and was drawn to the company for its ability to expand testing capacity well before the COVID-19 outbreak brought the problems of adequate testing into stark relief.

From a global health perspective, ChromaCode’s technology ability to be installed in the existing technology base is very powerful,” said Yip. Given the low resource base in some of the countries where testing is needed the most, requiring the installation of an entirely new suite of hardware and software tools is untenable — let alone developing a supply chain that can service and maintain the technology.  

The lack of adequate testing in the United States remains the biggest obstacle to safely fully re-starting the country’s economy and ensuring that any future outbreaks of the disease can be managed successfully, according to experts.

“Testing is your first fundamental step in a plan to keep infected people from susceptible people,” Ashish Jha, the K. T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Atlantic.

“There’s a strong sense that the White House knows the amount of testing we need is far more than we have right now,” he said. “It is really stunning and disappointing.”

Nigeria’s Okra raises $1M from TLcom connecting bank accounts to apps

By Jake Bright

A new Nigerian fintech venture, Okra, has racked up a unique mix of accomplishments in less than a year.

The Lagos based API developer created a product that generates revenues from both payment startups and established financial institutions.

Okra has raised $1 million in pre-seed funding from TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm that rarely invests in early-stage companies or fintech.

The startup is also poised to enter new markets and it’s hiring.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, Okra casts itself as a motherboard for the continent’s 21st century financial system.

“We’re building a super-connector API that…allows individuals to connect their bank accounts directly to third party applications. And that’s their African bank accounts starting in the largest market in Africa, Nigeria,” said Ashiru Jituboh.

As a sector, fintech has become the continent’s highest funded tech space, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to African startups in 2019. Those ventures, and a number of the continent’s established banks, are in a race to build market share through financial inclusion.

By several estimates — including The Global Findex Database — the continent is home to the largest percentage of the world’s unbanked population, with a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

With 54 countries, 1.2 billion people and thousands of relatively young startups, there are a lot of moving parts in Africa’s fintech space. Similar to U.S. company Plaid, Okra is shaping a platform that connects accounts and financial data to banking apps into a revenue generating product.

With Africa’s largest population of 200 million people, Nigeria serves as a major financial hub — but there’s still a disconnect between fintech apps and banks, according to Okra’s Ashiru Jituboh.

“Here in this market there’s no way to directly connect your bank account through an API or directly to an application,” she said.

Okra offers several paid packages for those types of integrations and opens up the code to its five product categories —  authorization, balance, transactions, identity and accounts — to developers.

Image Credits: Okra

Okra has already created a diverse client list that includes mobile payments startup PalmPay, insurer Axa Mansard and Nigerian digital lender Renmoney.

The startup generates revenues through product fees and earns each time a user connects a bank account to a customer, according to Ashiru Jituboh.

On how the Okra differs from other well-funded fintech companies in Nigeria, such as Flutterwave or Interswitch, “The answer is we’re not doing payments, but what we’re doing is making processes with [payment providers] even smoother,” she said.

Ashiru Jituboh comes to her CEO position with a software engineering background and a strong connection to the U.S. Born in Nigeria, she grew up in and studied computer science in North Carolina.

She did stints in finance — JP Morgan Chase and Fidelity Investments — and then in tech companies before making the leap to founder. “I went to work in startups, but I was always employee number two or three,” said Ashiru Jituboh.

She decided to go all in on Okra after returning to Nigeria and noting the need for linking together the country’s emerging digital financial infrastructure.

“When we knew that it was a big addressable market is when we realized that all these fintech CEOs and CTOs were struggling with this use case,” she said.

Shortly after its launch, Okra attracted the attention of TLcom Capital in second quarter 2019, according to VC Andreata Muforo.

With offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi, the group closed its $71 million Tide Africa fund this year. TLcom has focused primarily on Series A and later investments, including backing Kenyan agtech startup Twiga Foods and Nigerian trucking logistics company Kobo360.

In an interview last year, the fund’s managing partner, Maurizio Caio, explained that TLcom was steering more toward investments in infrastructure oriented tech companies and away from Africa’s more commoditized payments and lending startups.

The VC firm was attracted to Okra for its ability to serve the continent’s broader financial sector. “It’s a service that other fintechs can plug into and utilize, so it’s accelerating the growth of fintech across the continent…That to us was a big hook,” TLcom’s Andreata Muforo told TechCrunch on a call.

Founder Fara Ashiru Jituboh was also a factor in the fund making a $1 million pre-seed investment in Okra. “We found her to be very strong and also liked the fact that she’s a technical founder,” said Muforo. As part of the investments, she and TLcom Capital partner Ido Sum will join Okra’s board.

In addition to hiring fresh engineering talent, the startup aims to take its product offerings that connect bank accounts to apps to new African countries — though it would not disclose where or when.

“We’re looking at three target markets that our clients are already in,” said Ashiru Jituboh. Okra investor Andreata Muforo named Kenya — with one of the highest mobile money penetration rates in the world — as a likely candidate for the startup’s product services.

If we let the US Postal Service die, we’ll be killing small businesses with it

By Walter Thompson
Laura Behrens Wu Contributor
Laura Behrens Wu is the co-founder and CEO of Shippo, which is building a shipping platform for 21st century e-commerce.

Since moving to the United States, I’ve come to appreciate and admire the United States Postal Service as a symbol of American ingenuity and resilience.

Like electricity, telephones and the freeway system, it’s part of our greater story and what binds the United States together. But it’s also something that’s easy to take for granted. USPS delivers 181.9 million pieces of First Class mail each day without charging an arm and a leg to do so. If you have an address, you are being served by the USPS — and no one’s asking you for cash up front.

As CEO of Shippo, an e-commerce technology platform that helps businesses optimize their shipping, I have a unique vantage point into the USPS and its impact on e-commerce. The USPS has been a key partner since the early days of Shippo in making shipping more accessible for growing businesses. As a result of our work with the USPS, along with several other emerging technologies (like site builders, e-commerce platforms and payment processing), e-commerce is more accessible than ever for small businesses.

And while my opinion on the importance of the USPS is not based on my company’s business relationship with the Postal Service, I want to be upfront about the fact that Shippo generates part of its revenue from the purchase of shipping labels through our platform from the USPS along with several other carriers. If the USPS were to stop operations, it would have an impact on Shippo’s revenue. That said, the negative impact would be far greater for many thousands of small businesses.

I know this because at Shippo, we see firsthand how over 35,000 online businesses operate and how they reach their customers. We see and support everything from what options merchants show their customers at checkout through how they handle returns — and everything in between. And while each and every business is unique with different products, customers operations and strategies, they all need to ship.

In the United States, the majority of this shipping is facilitated by the USPS, especially for small and medium businesses. For context, the USPS handles almost half of the world’s total mail and delivers more than the top private carriers do in aggregate, annually, in just 16 days. And, it does all of this without tax dollars, while offering healthcare and pension benefits to its employees.

As has been the case for many organizations, COVID-19 has significantly impacted the USPS. While e-commerce package shipments continue to rise (+30% since early March based on Shippo data), it has not been enough to overcome the drastic drop in letter mail. With this, I’ve heard opinions of supposed “inefficiency,” calls for privatization, pushes for significant pricing and structural changes, and even indifference to the possibility of the USPS shutting down.

Amid this crisis, we all need the USPS and its vital services now more than ever. In a world with a diminished or dismantled USPS, it won’t be Amazon, other major enterprises, or even Shippo that suffer. If we let the USPS die, we’ll be killing small businesses along with it.

Quite often, opinions on the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the USPS are very narrow in scope. Yes, the USPS could pivot to improve its balance sheet and turn operating losses into profits by axing cumbersome routes, increasing prices and being more selective in who they serve.

However, this omits the bigger picture and the true value of the USPS. What some have dubbed inefficient operations are actually key catalysts to small business growth in the United States. The USPS gives businesses across the country, regardless of size, location or financial resources, the ability to reach their customers.

We shouldn’t evaluate the USPS strictly on balance sheet efficiency, or even as a “public good” in the abstract. We should look at how many thousands of small businesses have been able to get started thanks to the USPS, how hundreds of billions of dollars of commerce is made possible by the USPS annually and how many millions of customers, who otherwise may not have access to goods, have been served by the USPS.

In the U.S., e-commerce accounts for over half a trillion dollars in sales annually, and is growing at double-digit rates each year. When I hear people talk about the growth of e-commerce, Amazon is often the first thing that comes up. What doesn’t shine through as often is the massive growth of small business — which is essential to the health of commerce in general (no one needs a monopoly!). In fact, the SMB segment has been growing steadily alongside Amazon. And with the challenges that traditional businesses face with COVID-19, more small businesses than ever are moving online.

USPS Priority Mail gets packages almost anywhere in the U.S. in two to three days (average transit time is 2.5 days based on Shippo data) and starts at around $7 per shipment, with full service: tracking, insurance, free pickups and even free packaging that they will bring to you.

In a time when we as consumers have become accustomed to free and fast shipping on all of our online purchases, the USPS is essential for small businesses to keep up. As consumers we rarely see behind the curtain, so to speak, when we interact with e-commerce businesses. We don’t see the small business owner fulfilling orders out of their home or out of a small storefront, we just see an e-commerce website. Without the USPS’ support, it would be even harder, in some cases near impossible, for small business owners to live up to these sky-high expectations. For context, 89% of U.S.-based SMBs (under $10,000 in monthly volume) on the Shippo platform rely on the USPS.

I’ve seen a lot of talk about the USPS’s partnership with Amazon, how it is to blame for the current situation, and how under a private model, things would improve. While we have our own strong opinions on Amazon and its impact on the e-commerce market, Amazon is not the driver of USPS’s challenges. In fact, Amazon is a major contributor in the continued growth of the USPS’s most profitable revenue stream: package delivery.

While I don’t know the exact economics of the deal between the USPS and Amazon, significant discounting for volume and efficiency is common in e-commerce shipping. Part of Amazon’s pricing is a result of it actually being cheaper and easier for the USPS to fulfill Amazon orders, compared to the average shipper. For this process, Amazon delivers shipments to USPS distribution centers in bulk, which significantly cuts costs and logistical challenges for the USPS.

Without the USPS, Amazon would be able to negotiate similar processes and efficiencies with private carriers — small businesses would not. Given the drastic differences in daily operations and infrastructure between the USPS and private carriers, small businesses would see shipping costs increase significantly, in some cases by more than double. On top of this, small businesses would see a new operational burden when it comes to getting their packages into the carriers’ systems in the absence of daily routes by the USPS.

Overall, I would expect to see the level of entrepreneurship in e-commerce slow in the United States without the USPS or with a private version of the USPS that operates with a profit-first mindset. The barriers to entry would be higher, with greater costs and larger infrastructure investments required up-front for new businesses. For Shippo, I’d expect to see a much greater diversity of carriers used by our customers. Our technology that allows businesses to optimize across several carriers would become even more critical for businesses. Though, even with optimization, small businesses would still be the group that suffers the most.

Today, most SMB e-commerce brands, based on Shippo data, spend between 10-15% of their revenue on shipping, which is already a large expense. This could rise well north of 20%, especially when you take into account surcharges and pick-up fees, creating an additional burden for businesses in an already challenging space.

I urge our lawmakers and leaders to see the full picture: that the USPS is a critical service that enables small businesses to survive and thrive in tough times, and gives citizens access to essential services, no matter where they reside.

This also means providing government support — both financially and in spirit — as we all navigate the COVID-19 crisis. This will allow the USPS to continue to serve both small businesses and citizens while protecting and keeping their employees safe — which includes ensuring that they are equipped to handle their front-line duties with proper safety and protective gear.

In the end, if we continue to view the USPS as simply a balance sheet and optimize for profitability in a vacuum, we ultimately stand to lose far more than we gain.

Tech’s coveted internships are getting canceled due to COVID-19

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Victoria Stafford, a third-year student at UC Berkeley, was set to begin working at Yelp in June as a sales intern — the only internship she applied to. And then it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When I first read the cancellation email, I didn’t believe it. I refreshed my inbox; I rubbed my eyes as if I were waking up from a dream. It was clear that COVID-19 was becoming a mounting concern, but it never occurred to me that my internship was in jeopardy,” Stafford said.

Internship cancellations hurt more than just summer plans. The programs are often pipelines into future jobs and access to valuable work experience.

For Stafford, a business and domestic environmental major from a small town in rural Utah, there are very few business and policy-related opportunities.

“I ask that employers do everything they can to make their internship opportunities more accessible in these upcoming months, and come next year and the year after, show understanding and compassion for employment gaps,” she said.

Dozens of other students from across the country flooded my inbox, sharing stories about the impact on internship cancellations on their paths toward employment.

One student turned down offers and interviews from Google, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs to pursue a software engineering position. The offer they accepted was yanked weeks later. Another student lost their chance at a post-graduate job at their dream company because their offer was revoked. One only had an offer in their hands for three weeks before it was rescinded.

A number of companies across the country, including Glassdoor, StubHub, Funding Circle, Yelp, Checkr and even the National Institutes of Health, have canceled their internship programs due to COVID-19, TechCrunch has learned. The cancellations, which will likely increase in the days and weeks to come, are unsurprising, due to the uncertainty the pandemic has caused. Still, fewer internships jeopardize the postgraduate job prospects for thousands of college students, and, beyond that, limit the talent pipeline on which tech companies so often are dependent

There’s even a Twitter account that tracks the status of 2020 internships.

We have been receiving numerous DMs asking for status of individual companies. If you would like to receive notifications for a particular company you are interested in, please fill this form.https://t.co/7heMiOEGDo

— Summer Internships 2020 (@hiring2020) March 25, 2020

From Denver to San Francisco

Like the concerts, conferences, universities and schools, these cancellations are because of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world right now. While some companies cited health concerns, others pointed to the uncertain economic landscape. 

In a statement, job search and review platform Glassdoor said the rapid spread of COVID-19 has grown “beyond a health concern into an economic one.” As a result, it has “decided to pause hiring and reprioritize some initiatives internally to ensure we are well positioned for both the downturn and recovery.” 

A Funding Circle spokesperson confirmed that the company halted its internship program, “given the travel and relocation” for the upcoming intern cohort to San Francisco. In an email obtained by TechCrunch, the National Institute of Health canceled its prestigious internship — which has a 20% acceptance rate — to “stop community spread of Sars-Cov-2 through social distancing.”

“Therefore, hosting 1000+ early career scientists who deserve close supervision and intense mentoring is not appropriate at this time,” the email reads. “The cancellation of the NIH SIP applies to all students, whether you were planning to volunteer or were offered a fellowship position. It also applies, even if you were planning to do computational work that could be done remotely.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, NIH said its program has been reduced to “maintenance-only and mission critical (including research on COVID-19) operation due to spread of the novel coronavirus.”

“Regrettably, as part of this effort to keep people safe and limit the spread through social/physical distancing, it has been necessary to cancel the Summer Internship Program for young trainees at NIH for 2020, but those students already selected for the program will be given priority for summer internship positions in 2021.”

Checkr, based in Denver and San Francisco, put its summer internship program on hold due to “the challenges of onboarding interns while everyone is remote.”

Google has rescinded some internship offers for its UX design internship, per a LinkedIn post. After the publication of this article, Google announced that it is making its internship program virtual this year, but it is unclear whether or not that impacts interns who have already had their internships rescinded. 

“If you log on to a laptop, you can access an opportunity”

While a number of tech companies have put their internship programs on hold, others are piecing together experimental remote internship programs for their students. 

Quizlet is preparing for its annual internship program and is preparing a “contingency plan for an internship that will be virtual if necessary.” Uber has formed a dedicated team to start working on an online internship program “should the situation remain unchanged.” Lyft and Twitter, depending on the state of the pandemic, plan to onboard San Francisco interns virtually.

The pandemic has certainly put remote internship management services in high demand. That said, a handful of startups have been working on the sector for years. 

San Francisco-based Symba, which helps companies offer virtual internship programs, was founded in 2017. Co-founder Ahva Sadeghi said that last week more than 100 companies and 1,000 students reached out to Symba in regards to internship cancellations because of COVID-19.

“The companies we reached out to in the beginning who said, ‘This is great but not top of mind for us,’ are now calling us back asking us to jump on the phone today or tomorrow to get something implemented,” Sadeghi said in a phone call. “We thought we didn’t have product-market fit and now the conversation has completely changed.”

Sadeghi noted how internships assume a certain level of privilege in applicants, prioritizing those who can afford to move to a highly populated city with little to no pay. A remote internship, even in a time of health and prosperity, is important, she said.

“If you can log on to a laptop, you can access an opportunity,” she said. Another program, Chicago-based Sage Corps, founded in 2013, is pushing companies to sponsor the students impacted by internship cancellations. If sponsored, students can still participate in career growth development workshops virtually from Sage Corps, at $1,250 per student. 

Thomas Brunskill, the founder of InsideSherpa, which helps companies host virtual internships, said he’s seen nearly 1,000 students a day sign up for the platform, from Northern Italy, to South-East Asia, to the United States. He started the company, which went through Y Combinator last year, to give students courses and online simulations of jobs through the comfort of their own homes.

He said his customers are mainly larger companies that employ upwards of 1,000 students, like JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte, Citi, BCG and GE.

On one end, Brunskill said the interest makes sense, as larger companies have to meet significant hiring demands. Per the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 70.4% of interns get return offers from the company where they intern. 

On the other end, this concentration further showcases how smaller businesses will be impacted disproportionately from this pandemic. Many will freeze hiring altogether.

“Obviously [this] matters for students, but it also matters for companies who are now going to have this blackhole of talent,” Brunskill said. “Nobody wins in that situation — companies end up with less work-ready students who don’t really know what they’re getting into and students end up in full-time jobs that might not be aligned to their interest or skills because they never had an opportunity to test it out first.”

While layoffs are devastating, and obviously well upon us in the tech world, internship cancellations offer a harsh window into how COVID-19 doesn’t just impact our current workforce, but our future one as well.

Update 3/25/2020 3:35 p.m. PST: After asking Google on Monday to comment on internship cancellations it denied any changes. After TC published this article, however, Google provided a statement that it will moving its program to a “virtual model” this summer. The story has been updated to reflect this development. 

Honeywell says it will soon launch the world’s most powerful quantum computer

By Frederic Lardinois

“The best-kept secret in quantum computing.” That’s what Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) CEO Ilyas Khan called Honeywell‘s efforts in building the world’s most powerful quantum computer. In a race where most of the major players are vying for attention, Honeywell has quietly worked on its efforts for the last few years (and under strict NDA’s, it seems). But today, the company announced a major breakthrough that it claims will allow it to launch the world’s most powerful quantum computer within the next three months.

In addition, Honeywell also today announced that it has made strategic investments in CQC and Zapata Computing, both of which focus on the software side of quantum computing. The company has also partnered with JPMorgan Chase to develop quantum algorithms using Honeywell’s quantum computer. The company also recently announced a partnership with Microsoft.

Honeywell has long built the kind of complex control systems that power many of the world’s largest industrial sites. It’s that kind of experience, be that that has now allowed it to build an advanced ion trap that is at the core of its efforts.

This ion trap, the company claims in a paper that accompanies today’s announcement, has allowed the team to achieve decoherence times that are significantly longer than those of its competitors.

“It starts really with the heritage that Honeywell had to work from,” Tony Uttley, the president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions, told me. “And we, because of our businesses within aerospace and defense and our business in oil and gas — with solutions that have to do with the integration of complex control systems because of our chemicals and materials businesses — we had all of the underlying pieces for quantum computing, which are just fabulously different from classical computing. You need to have ultra-high vacuum system capabilities. You need to have cryogenic capabilities. You need to have precision control. You need to have lasers and photonic capabilities. You have to have magnetic and vibrational stability capabilities. And for us, we had our own foundry and so we are able to literally design our architecture from the trap up.”

The result of this is a quantum computer that promises to achieve a quantum Volume of 64. Quantum Volume (QV), it’s worth mentioning, is a metric that takes into account both the number of qubits in a system as well as decoherence times. IBM and others have championed this metric as a way to, at least for now, compare the power of various quantum computers.

So far, IBM’s own machines have achieved QV 32, which would make Honeywell’s machine significantly more powerful.

Khan, whose company provides software tools for quantum computing and was one of the first to work with Honeywell on this project, also noted that the focus on the ion trap is giving Honeywell a bit of an advantage. “I think that the choice of the ion trap approach by Honeywell is a reflection of a very deliberate focus on the quality of qubit rather than the number of qubits, which I think is fairly sophisticated,” he said. “Until recently, the headline was always growth, the number of qubits running.”

The Honeywell team noted that many of its current customers are also likely users of its quantum solutions. These customers, after all, are working on exactly the kind of problems in chemistry or material science that quantum computing, at least in its earliest forms, is uniquely suited for.

Currently, Honeywell has about 100 scientists, engineers and developers dedicated to its quantum project.

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