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EU lawmakers are eyeing risk-based rules for AI, per leaked white paper

By Natasha Lomas

The European Commission is considering a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition technology, according to a draft proposal for regulating artificial intelligence obtained by Euroactiv.

Creating rules to ensure AI is ‘trustworthy and human’ has been an early flagship policy promise of the new Commission, led by president Ursula von der Leyen.

But the leaked proposal suggests the EU’s executive body is in fact leaning towards tweaks of existing rules and sector/app specific risk-assessments and requirements, rather than anything as firm as blanket sectoral requirements or bans.

The leaked Commission white paper floats the idea of a three-to-five-year period in which the use of facial recognition technology could be prohibited in public places — to give EU lawmakers time to devise ways to assess and manage risks around the use of the technology, such as to people’s privacy rights or the risk of discriminatory impacts from biased algorithms.

“This would safeguard the rights of individuals, in particular against any possible abuse of the technology,” the Commission writes, adding that: “It would be necessary to foresee some exceptions, notably for activities in the context of research and development and for security purposes.”

However the text raises immediate concerns about imposing even a time-limited ban — which is described as “a far-reaching measure that might hamper the development and uptake of this technology” — and the Commission goes on to state that its preference “at this stage” is to rely on existing EU data protection rules, aka the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The white paper contains a number of options the Commission is still considering for regulating the use of artificial intelligence more generally.

These range from voluntary labelling; to imposing sectorial requirements for the public sector (including on the use of facial recognition tech); to mandatory risk-based requirements for “high-risk” applications (such as within risky sectors like healthcare, transport, policing and the judiciary, as well as for applications which can “produce legal effects for the individual or the legal entity or pose risk of injury, death or significant material damage”); to targeted amendments to existing EU product safety and liability legislation.

The proposal also emphasizes the need for an oversight governance regime to ensure rules are followed — though the Commission suggests leaving it open to Member States to choose whether to rely on existing governance bodies for this task or create new ones dedicated to regulating AI.

Per the draft white paper, the Commission says its preference for regulating AI are options 3 combined with 4 & 5: Aka mandatory risk-based requirements on developers (of whatever sub-set of AI apps are deemed “high-risk”) that could result in some “mandatory criteria”, combined with relevant tweaks to existing product safety and liability legislation, and an overarching governance framework.

Hence it appears to be leaning towards a relatively light-touch approach, focused on “building on existing EU legislation” and creating app-specific rules for a sub-set of “high-risk” AI apps/uses — and which likely won’t stretch to even a temporary ban on facial recognition technology.

Much of the white paper is also take up with discussion of strategies about “supporting the development and uptake of AI” and “facilitating access to data”.

“This risk-based approach would focus on areas where the public is at risk or an important legal interest is at stake,” the Commission writes. “This strictly targeted approach would not add any new additional administrative burden on applications that are deemed ‘low-risk’.”

EU commissioner Thierry Breton, who oversees the internal market portfolio, expressed resistance to creating rules for artificial intelligence last year — telling the EU parliament then that he “won’t be the voice of regulating AI“.

For “low-risk” AI apps, the white paper notes that provisions in the GDPR which give individuals the right to receive information about automated processing and profiling, and set a requirement to carry out a data protection impact assessment, would apply.

Albeit the regulation only defines limited rights and restrictions over automated processing — in instances where there’s a legal or similarly significant effect on the people involved. So it’s not clear how extensively it would in fact apply to “low-risk” apps.

If it’s the Commission’s intention to also rely on GDPR to regulate higher risk stuff — such as, for example, police forces’ use of facial recognition tech — instead of creating a more explicit sectoral framework to restrict their use of a highly privacy-hostile AI technologies — it could exacerbate an already confusingly legislative picture where law enforcement is concerned, according to Dr Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL.

“The situation is extremely unclear in the area of law enforcement, and particularly the use of public private partnerships in law enforcement. I would argue the GDPR in practice forbids facial recognition by private companies in a surveillance context without member states actively legislating an exemption into the law using their powers to derogate. However, the merchants of doubt at facial recognition firms wish to sow heavy uncertainty into that area of law to legitimise their businesses,” he told TechCrunch.

“As a result, extra clarity would be extremely welcome,” Veale added. “The issue isn’t restricted to facial recognition however: Any type of biometric monitoring, such a voice or gait recognition, should be covered by any ban, because in practice they have the same effect on individuals.”

An advisory body set up to advise the Commission on AI policy set out a number of recommendations in a report last year — including suggesting a ban on the use of AI for mass surveillance and social credit scoring systems of citizens.

But its recommendations were criticized by privacy and rights experts for falling short by failing to grasp wider societal power imbalances and structural inequality issues which AI risks exacerbating — including by supercharging existing rights-eroding business models.

In a paper last year Veale dubbed the advisory body’s work a “missed opportunity” — writing that the group “largely ignore infrastructure and power, which should be one of, if not the most, central concern around the regulation and governance of data, optimisation and ‘artificial intelligence’ in Europe going forwards”.

LocalGlobe partner Julia Hawkins discusses femtech’s risks and rewards

By Natasha Lomas

London-based seed fund LocalGlobe is incredibly active at the early-stage end of the startup pipeline with a broad focus across multiple sectors and areas, including health.

We interviewed partner Julia Hawkins about the opportunities and risks related to femtech investing in light of the fund’s early backing for Ferly, a female-founded startup with a subscription app that describes itself as an audio guide to “mindful sex.”

The startup says its mission is to open up conversations around female sexual pleasure and create a place for self-discovery and empowering community — touting “sex-positive” content that it says is “backed by research, written by experts, and personalized to you.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

23andMe co-founder’s new startup, Precise.ly, brings genomics to India through Narayana partnership

By Jonathan Shieber

Precise.ly, the new genomics startup launched by 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey and Aneil Mallavarapu, is taking its spin on direct to consumer personalized genomics to India through a partnership with Naryana Health, one of India’s leading specialty hospital networks.

Narayana, a company that operates a network of 24 hospitals serving 2.5 million patients, is one of the most fascinating stories in healthcare. By emphasizing efficiencies and cost savings, the hospital network has managed to bring costs down dramatically for many procedures — including providing cancer surgeries for as little as $700 and heart bypass surgeries for $3,000 (as this fascinating article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek illustrates).

Precise.ly’s mission — to collect and analyze genetic data from populations that typically haven’t had access to the services — is one that resonates in a world where the majority of research has been conducted on wealthier populations in wealthy countries. Other startups, like 54Gene, are trying to bring a similar message to the African continent.

“To date, most human genetics research has focused on European populations. But genetic insights need to be tuned to the rest of the world,” said Mallavarapu, in a statement. “We’ve assembled a team of experts who are pioneering advances in genetic analysis and its application to the huge populations of people in south Asia and beyond.” 

Some of that work is being done in concert with Narayana health, the hospital network founded by Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty nearly twenty years ago. Dr. Shetty is initially hoping that Precise.ly’s genetic database will be able to help his hospitals build out a stem cell donor registry that could help hundreds of thousands of Indians who need transplants.

“Personal genetic testing is recognized by the U.S. FDA to test genetic risk for Parkinsonism, late onset Alzheimer’s disease and celiac disease. It is only a matter of time before most diseases get added to the list,” Dr. Shetty said in a statement. “Because of the simplicity of genetic testing from saliva samples, it’s possible to conduct large-scale population screening at a reasonable cost. We are working with Precise.ly’s team of researchers to add HLA typing, which has the potential to transform cancer and other disease treatments in India.”

The path to entering the Indian market was slightly circuitous for Precise.ly. When Avey first left 23andMe, she went to RockHealth (an investor in the company’s $1 million seed round), and began exploring ways to organize and store more of a patient’s quantified health data.

As that company failed to gain traction, Avey took another look at the genetics market and found that there were significant opportunities in underserved markets — and that India, with its rising middle class and burgeoning healthcare industry would be a good target.

“We decided we would build on this Helix platform all kinds of apps for people who had specific diagnosis,” says Avey. But the market was already chock full of startups (including 23andMe), so an early investor in the company from, Civilization Ventures, and its founder Shahram Seyedin-Noor suggested that they begin to look globally for growth.

“Precise.ly’s mission is to deliver validated genetic insights to the billions of people living outside the western world. We’re initially focused on India where there are urgent health issues readily addressable through access to personal genomic data,” said Avey, the chief executive officer of Precise.ly, in a statement. “Our partnership with Narayana is vital to delivering on the promise of precise, data-driven health.” 

Scientists Fight Back Against Toxic ‘Forever’ Chemicals

By Michele Cohen Marill
The ubiquitous compounds known as PFAS are nearly indestructible. But scientists are learning to split their ultra-strong carbon-fluorine bonds.

Got the Flu? These Doctors Really Want to See You—Virtually

By Sara Harrison
Getting sick is the worst. But if you're trying to lure customers who are reluctant or unable to leave home, the virus can be an ally.

Peleton’s stock sinks 7% as the ad saga continues to weigh on the company

By Alex Wilhelm

Shares of popular home exercise company Peloton are off 7% in regular trading today as the company continues to reel in the wake of an advertisement it released that went viral for the wrong reasons.

The ad is to blame for Peloton being in the public eye for the wrong reasons, but can’t be framed for causing all the company’s recent stock price declines. Having a brand-centric company’s name drawn into controversy can have a larger impact on a momentum-focused stock than on, say, an industrials concern whose brand isn’t in the consumer eye. But it isn’t enough, on its own, to explain Peloton’s recent value erosion.

Still, it does matter that Peloton is shedding value after it helped an already fit woman become slightly more fit while her husband slept in. That other brands have picked up on the ad segment (which also got a mention on Saturday Night Live) has helped keep the episode alive far longer than it might have on its own.

History

Peloton, a heavily backed company that raised nearly $1 billion while private, went public earlier this year worth $29 per share. Its post-IPO life was initially fraught, as the company’s losses were rising sharply alongside its revenue leading to investor unrest.

For context, Peloton lost about four times as much in its fiscal year ending June 30, 2019 (a net loss of $195.6 million) compared to the preceding fiscal year ($47.9 million). As the market rejected the WeWork IPO and SmileDirectClub’s own losses seemed to push investors away from high-growth, high-loss companies, Peloton’s debut quickly slipped underwater as its shares closed under its IPO price.

Then things got better. After Peloton reported its first earnings as a public company in early November, its share price recovered, cresting its IPO price and reaching $37 per share. Today the company is worth just a little over $30 per share, a sharp retread from its return to form.

Why

If the ad isn’t entirely to blame, why is Peloton losing value? Short interest is helping spook investors about the company’s future prospects recently, and, I would add, the company’s churn rate is rising.

Regarding the short interest, you can read the report in question here, but it deals mainly with the possible challenge of lower-priced, third-party hardware being paired with Peloton’s lower-cost media option. This would undercut Peloton’s revenue twice, though consumers would still add to the company’s subscription revenue category in the scenario. The same group also points out that Peloton’s valuation per subscriber is higher than some market comps; how to weigh those concerns we leave to you.

Turning to churn, observe the following data from Peloton’s recent earnings report:

The table shows Peloton’s average churn rising from 0.50% to 0.90%. That’s up 80% in a single year. If that trend continues, some of the money that Peloton spent on sales and marketing in the calendar year 2019 will look a bit more expensive than it did at first; rising churn lowers the lifetime value of a subscriber, making marketing spend less efficient.

Peloton shares are down, but remain far above its recent lows, and the company is still worth far more today ($8.5 billion) than it was as a private company ($4.1 billion). The ad, of course, hasn’t helped.

Larry Page’s secret war on the flu

By Arman Tabatabai

Now that Larry Page has stepped down as CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, he could be following in Bill Gates’s footsteps and tackling global health challenges.

According to charity and business documents obtained by TechCrunch, the billionaire co-founder of Google has been quietly waging a war on the flu.

Thousands of children and teachers in San Francisco’s Bay Area will receive free flu shots at their schools this year from Shoo The Flu, which describes itself as a “community-based initiative.” In fact, it is wholly funded by a for-profit company controlled by Page. Another of his companies, Flu Lab, is supporting multi-million dollar efforts to develop a universal flu vaccine. Neither effort makes public Page’s role in them.

Nyxo is building an app-based, sleep-coaching program

By Lucas Matney

Few areas of health tech appear as untapped as the technology around how we sleep. Far too many people spend much of their waking hours obsessed with how to maximize their hours in bed.

Nyxo is building an app-based sleep-coaching program to help users track and improve their quality of sleep in a four-week program.

Consumer health tech apps have always had a bit of an uphill battle when it comes to bringing complete experiences to customers. Data collection is a pain and you’re left building products for the lowest common denominator. Nyxo is trying to make it easier on themselves by taking input from most sleep trackers out there, or you can simply use the startup’s app to gather information about your sleep quality.

Most sleep-tracking apps out there will give you some tips about when to stop drinking coffee, but the quality of sleep coaching generally ends there. Nyxo’s founding team is looking to leverage university research from the University of Helsinki to deliver more specific insights about their sleep rhythm and why their sleep is suffering.

The lesson plan focuses on topics like strategies for developing sleep routines, the relationship between sleep and exercise, how sleep can affect your weight and plenty of other quick reads that can help you be more mindful and develop better habits. You’ll also have quick access to statistics on the available sleep data that you’re feeding the app.

The startup is heavily banking on the interest of companies to have well-rested employees, partnering with them to provide their services to employees. Nyxo is also pitching the service directly to consumers with a dedicated app and a $7.99 per month cost.

Pear, whose seed-stage bets are followed closely, just raised $160 million for its third fund

By Connie Loizos

Pear, a six-year-old, Palo Alto, Calif.-based seed-stage firm whose bets on nascent startups are closely watched by early-stage investors, has closed on $160 million in capital commitments from a wide array of backers, including a previous investor, the University of Chicago.

It’s more than twice the $75 million that the firm raised for its second fund in 2016 and triple the $50 million it raised for its debut fund back in 2013. We gather the firm had to turn down quite a few interested parties, too, in order to stick to what it’s most comfortable doing and not start writing bigger checks to more mature companies.

A little less than half of its current portfolio companies were launched by college students or recent grads, many of them at nearby Stanford, but also at a growing number of other top universities, including UC Berkeley, Harvard and MIT. The firm also invests roughly 55% of its capital in founders who’ve logged some time in the working world, including at Uber, Facebook and Google.

We talked last week with Pear’s co-founders, Mar Hershenson and Pejman Nozad, who’ve known one another for 20 years. Nozad famously sold rugs to tech millionaires before becoming a full-time investor; one early bet was on the smartphone company Danger, which sold to Microsoft in 2008 for $500 million. Danger was co-founded by the husband of Hershenson, who is herself a three-time entrepreneur who also received backing from Nozad while growing an intellectual property startup called Sabio Labs. (It was later acquired by a now defunct software company called Magma Design Automation.)

The pair said that little will change with this new, far bigger fund. The goal remains to be the “best partner on the ground for the entrepreneur from ground zero,” said Hershenson, meaning Pear doesn’t need to see revenue or even customers so much as to trust a team and its vision.

Asked more specifically what it is that they look for, Nozad likened it to understanding “really good wine; it’s hard to explain it in words but once you have it, you know it.” Adds Hershenson, “We spend a lot of time with founders and a lot of it comes down to their commitment, how mission-driven they are, and their ability to attract talent. You want a captain of the ship, someone who leaves last and who wants to build a product for many people.”

Certainly, the two have plenty of opportunities to meet founders, opportunities that they’ve created for the firm by focusing — to an extreme degree — on building community. In the last year alone, Pear has hosted roughly 100 events, from a speaker series where it brings in investors and CEOs to speak to founders and students, to workshops, bootcamps, pitch nights, CEO dinners, hackathons and demo days. (Hershenson says one of her favorite evenings every quarter are dinners she separately has with other women engineers.)

Hershenson and Nozad are also building an organization to help scale their work — as well as to outlast the two of them, they hope. Most notably, Pear now features three other partners: Ajay Kamat, who focuses on consumer startups and previously founded the of Pear-funded startup Wedding Party, which he sold to Instacart; Ian Taylor, who heads up Pear’s “Dorm” programs and concentrates on supporting student founders; and Nils Bunger, who previously founded the desktop virtualization company Pano Logic before founding MobileSpan, a maker of enterprise file-sharing software that he sold to Dropbox. Bunger focuses, unsurprisingly, on helping Pear uncover promising business-to-business startups.

The approach seems to be working. Among dozens of other startups, Pear was early to a number of big and growing companies, including the now publicly traded blood diagnostics company Guardant Health; the delivery company DoorDash; the HR and payroll software company Gusto; and Branch, a company that helps brands drive sales through its linking infrastructure.

Some of its newer bets seem interesting, too. Among these is Nightfall, a company whose tech scans structured and unstructured data in hundreds of apps for sensitive information that it then acts to secure, and which launched publicly last month with $20.3 million in funding. Another is ixLayer, a young San Francisco-based infrastructure startup promising to make it easier for its customers to offer home DNA tests by providing them all the services they need, from a custom storefront marketplace and patient portal, to EHR data access and payment handling.

Indeed, like another six-year-old firm that we wrote about yesterday called SignalFire, Pear isn’t focused on themes so much as on founders, no matter where they might find them.

As Nozad told us last week during our call, “We’re not a research-driven fund. We think founders know better than us, so we want to see future through their eyes.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Pear and its portfolio companies, the team interviewed roughly a dozen of their founders for the video below. Among those to sing the firm’s praises and explain how Pear has helped them: Tony Xu of DoorDash and Shubham Goel and Ray Zhou of the relationship intelligence platform Affinity.

 

Baby food delivery startup Yumi spoon fed another $8M in strategic funding

By Sarah Buhr

Babies have options these days when it comes to what goes in their mouths. No more is it just the standard mush in a jar. Now they’ve got everything from pouches to organic purees delivered right to their parents’ door — and Yumi is one of several startups cashing in.

The company has just announced that it raised another $8 million from several of Silicon Valley’s household names, including Allbirds, Warby Parker, Harry’s, Sweetgreen, SoulCycle, Uber, Casper and the CEO of Blue Bottle Coffee, James Freeman. That puts the total raised now to $12.1 million.

But it’s a tough and saturated market full of products all vying for mom and dad’s attention, and that’s not a lot of cash to go on, compared to the billion-dollar industry Yumi is up against. According to Zion Market Research, the global baby food market could reach as much as $76 billion by 2021. However, you wouldn’t know Yumi was up against such odds if you ask them and their financial supporters.

The advantage, according to the company, is in providing fresh food alternatives, and that “shelf-stable” competitors like Gerber lack key nutrients parents want for their little ones.

“Our goal is to change the standards for childhood nutrition, and completely upend what it means to be a food brand in America,” Yumi co-founder and CEO Angela Sutherland said. “This group of visionary leaders have all redefined their categories and now we have the opportunity to work together to reimagine early-age nutrition for the next generation.”

Will that bet pay off and help this startup stand out? Sales continue to rise and have risen by 10 times in the last year, according to the company — we’ve asked but don’t know what those sales numbers are, unfortunately. However, Yumi’s bet on fresh and delivered could prove to be just what parents want as the company continues to grow.

“As a parent, Yumi’s mission immediately resonated,” said co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker Neil Blumenthal . “As we’ve seen at Warby Parker, and now at Yumi, there is a massive shift happening in the world of retail. There’s now a new generation of consumers who are actively seeking brands that reflect their values and lifestyle — the moat that big, legacy brands once enjoyed has evaporated.”

Healthcare-focused venture firms are forming a best practices group for securing health data

By Jonathan Shieber

Some of the nation’s top healthcare-focused venture capital firms are banding together to form an advisory council with the technology security certification provider, Hitrust, to create best practices for data security for startups developing digital health technologies.

The conversations, spearheaded by the Nashville-based, healthcare-focused investment fund, Frist-Cressey, were designed to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies throughout the healthcare industry by creating best-practices around data security that large healthcare organizations demand before adopting a new service.

“Our service or our software want to be taken nationwide and everybody gets excited and thats’ when you get in front of the Chief security officer’s office and they ask if you’re HiTrust certified,” says Frist-Cressey partner Chris Booker. 

“It makes [startups] more marketable or more viable,” says Daniel Nutkis, the chief executive of Hitrust. “Organizations tend to be reluctant to work with startups… [Our certification] gave venture capital firms a level of comfort and we saw it as an opportunity.. Chris approached us to better develop a program more targeted at early stage companies… so that this becomes an easier program and can make it more wide-scale.”

So far investors including Ascension Ventures, Bain Capital . Ventures, Echo Health Ventures, Frist Cressey Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Blue Cross Blue Shield Ventures, Heritage Group, New Enterprise Associates and 7wire Ventures have all signed on to the venture capital advisory council.

For the firms, it’s simply a matter of protecting what is an increasing percentage of capital commitments. Investors have poured $50 billion into healthcare startups, according to data pulled from CB Insights, and nearly $16 billion of those investments were in digital health companies. Meanwhile, early stage startups are increasingly vulnerable to data breaches and lax security practices — failures of oversight that can mean the difference between life and death for early stage startups.

“Data breaches and privacy violations… these things can destroy a company,” says Booker.

Scientists Find a Weak Spot in Some Superbugs' Defenses

By Sara Harrison
Treatment-resistant infections are increasingly common—and increasingly deadly. Now researchers have found a new way to attack some of those bacteria.

Camp Grounded Digital Detox returns after founder’s death

By Josh Constine

Summer camp for adults and beloved tech-free weekend getaway Camp Grounded ground to a halt in 2017. Its big-hearted founder Levi Felix who’d espoused the joys of trading screens for nature walks was tragically killed by brain cancer at just age 32. Left in his wake was mourning community who’d lost their digital detox rally just as everyone was realizing the importance of looking up from their phones.

As an attendee, I’d been impressed by how the founder (known as Professor Fidget Wigglesworth at camp) used playfulness and presence to transport us back to childhood, before we got hooked on the Internet. But he also broke people’s addiction to shame, mandating that anyone who screwed up in a sports game or talent show announce “I’m awesome”, and be met with a cheer from the crowd, “your awesome!”

Luckily, one of Felix’s elementary school friends Forest Bronzan wants to write a happier ending to this story. Almost three years after it went into hibernation follow its creator’s death, Bronzan has acquired Camp Grounded and its parent company Digital Detox .

Camp Grounded will relaunch in May 2020 as two back-to-back weekend retreats at Northern California’s gorgeous Camp Mendocino. Attendees will again leave their devices in Tech Check lockers run by hazmat-suit wearing staffers, assume nicknames, and stop the work talk. They’ll get to play in the woods like technology never existed, indulging in Camp Grounded favorites from archery to arts & crafts to bonfire singalongs about enthusiastic consent. However, to simplify logistics, Camp Grounded won’t hold sessions in New York, North Carolina, or Texas any more.

The company will also organize more four-hour Unplugged Nights in cities around the country where partiers can switch off their phones and make new friends. The idea is to give a broader range of people a taste of the Grounded lifestyle in smaller doses. Those interested in early access to tickets for all of Digital Detox’s events can sign up here.

Camp Grounded’s Tech Check staffers confiscate attendees’ devices upon their arrival. Image Credit: Daniel N. Johnson

Meanwhile, Digital Detox will start a new business of education and certifications for K-12 schools, coaching teachers and parents on how to gently reduce students’ screentime. Schools will pay per student like a Software-As-A-Service model. Through research by a few PhDs, the company will recommend proper rules for using tech in and out of the classroom to minimize distraction, and empathetic penalties for violations.

The obvious question to ask, though, is if Bronzan is just some business guy coming to coin off the anti-tech trend and Felix’s legacy. “I’m not Apple coming in and buying the company. This isn’t a tech acquisition” Bronzan insists at a coffee shop in San Francisco. “I knew Levi before anyone else knew Levi. We went trick-or-treating and played in school band together. I want to the first Digital Detox summit, and brought my company year after year. I’ve been involved from the begginning, seeing Levi’s passion and inspiration.”

Levi Felix and Forest Bronzan (from left) in 1996

Fidget had an innately soothing camp counselor vibe to him that Bronzan doesn’t quite capture. He’d previously built and sold Email Aptitude, a CRM and email agency, not an event or education business. But he truly seems to mean well, and he’s earned the support of Digital Detox’s team.

“My mission was to find someone that was as excited and ferocious as Levi and I were when we started Digital Detox to further it as a movement” says Brooke Dean, Felix’s wife and co-founder. “It was imperative that the person running DD and CG had actually experienced the magic. This person had to be more than a lover of camp and nature, they also needed the hard skills and successful track record of running a company. Forest is stable, business-minded and also finds value in that very unique magic.”

Bronzan tells me the acquisition includes a cash component (“We’re not talking eight figures”) and a capital investment in the business, both funded by his email company’s exit. Two other individuals and one company had also expressed interest. Dean and Felix’s brother Zev will retain equity in the company, and she’ll stay on the board of directors. The trio are launching the Levi Felix Foundation that will donate money to brain cancer research.

While moving into education might seem like a left turn for Digital Detox after throwing events since 2012, Dean says “Levi was planning on going back to school and was deeply interested in being an academic in this field. We always believed that there needed to be evidence in order to convince the masses that being outside and connecting with other human beings ‘IRL’ is critical to our health and longevity.”

Some alarming stats the organization has already uncovered include:

  • 77% of people check or pretend to check their phone to avoid talking to others
  • 38% feel less connected to their partner or close friend due to cell phone use
  • Nearly 20% check their phone while having sex

“We want to eventually be the central source of tools on how tech is affecting lives and relationships at all age levels” Bronzan tells me. It’s zeroing in on how compulsive behaviors like endless scrolling increase anxiety and depression, and how parents glued to their devices train children to not be present. The father of two kids under age five, Bronzan knows a weekend at camp in your 20s or 30s is too little too late to seriously address the crisis of fractured attention.

Digital Detox’s new CEO says he’s heartened by the progression of some of Felix’s ideals, as with the Time Well Spent movement. The screentime dashboards launched by tech companies don’t do enough to actually change people’s actions, he says, though “They’re at least making some effort.” Digital Detox plans to launch a comprehensive quiz to determine how addicted you are to your phone, and Bronzan says he’d happily work with tech giants to integrate his company’s research.

 

On the camp for adults front, we’ve seen Burning Man go mainstream but lose some of what made it special including a lack of cell phone reception. It’s now common to see people on the playa staring at their phones, talking about work, and stressed about the clock — all of which are prohibited at Camp Grounded. Festivals like Coachella seem to get more corporate and less mindful each year. That leaves plenty of open space for Digital Detox to fill with purposeful breaks from the default world.

Bronzan also wants to introduce more surprise and serendipity to the event calendar. Camp Grounded will experiment with a “Mystery Trip” where eight to ten people sign up to be whisked away, only receiving a confidential briefing package the day before they show up. The point is to extract people from their routines where unhealthy habits manifest. Without connectivity, Camp Grounded hopes people will forge new connections in their minds, and with each other.

PM2.5 Air Pollution Is Still Killing Thousands of People in the US

By Megan Molteni
Particulate matter steals lives through dementia, kidney disease, and hypertension—even when the air quality is within the permitted levels.

With echoes of Theranos, Truvian Sciences revives the dream of low-cost, accessible blood tests

By Jonathan Shieber

A little over a year after the dissolution of the once high-flying blood testing startup Theranos, another startup has raised over $27 million to breathe new life into the vision of bringing low-cost blood tests to point-of-care medical facilities.

Unlike Theranos, Truvian Sciences is not claiming that most of its blood tests do not need clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and is, in fact, raising the money to proceed with a year-long process to refine its technology and submit it to the FDA for approval.

“More and more consumers are refusing to accept the status quo of healthcare and are saying no to expensive tests, inconvenient appointments and little to no access to their own test results,” said Jeff Hawkins, the president and chief executive of Truvian, in a statement. “In parallel, retail pharmacies are rising to fill demand, becoming affordable health access points. By bringing accurate, on-site blood testing to convenient sites, we will give consumers a more seamless experience and enable them to act on the vast medical insights that come with regular blood tests.”

Hawkins, the former vice president and general manager of reproductive and genetic health business at Illumina, is joined by a seasoned executive team of life sciences professionals including Dr. Dena Marrinucci, the former co-founder of Epic Sciences, who serves as the company’s senior vice president of corporate development and is a co-founder of the company.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Mate Marschalko

As part of today’s announcement, the company said it was adding Katherine Atkinson, a former executive at Epic Sciences and Illumina, as its new chief commercial officer, and has brought on the former chairman of the Thermo Fisher Scientific board of directors, Paul Meister, as a new director.

Funding for the company came from GreatPoint Ventures and included DNS Capital,Tao Capital Partners and previous investor Domain Associates.

The ultimate goal, according to Hawkins, is to develop a system that can be installed in labs and can provide accurate results in 20 minutes for a battery of health tests from a small sample of blood for as low as $50. Typically, these tests can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars — depending on the testing facility, says Hawkins.

Using new automation and sensing technologies, Truvian is aiming to combine chemistries, immunoassays and hematology assays into a single device that can perform standard assessment blood tests like lipid panels, metabolic panels, blood cell counts, and tests of thyroid, kidney and liver functions.

The company’s system includes remote monitoring and serviceability, according to a statement from Truvian. Its dry reagent technology allows materials to be stored at room temperature, removing the need for cold chain or refrigerated storage. According to a statement, the company is working to receive a CE Mark in the European Economic Area and submitted to the FDA for 510(k) clearance along with a  “clinical laboratory improvement amendments” waiver application to let the devices be used in a retail setting or doctor’s office.

“We don’t believe that single drop of blood from a finger stick can do everything,” says Hawkins (in opposition to Theranos). “Fundamentally as a company we have built the company with seasoned healthcare leaders.”

As the company brings its testing technology to market, it’s also looking to compliment the diagnostics toolkit with a consumer-facing app that would provide a direct line of communication between the company and the patients receiving the results of its tests.

Truvian’s data will integrate with both Apple and Google’s health apps as well as reside on the company’s own consumer-facing app, according to Hawkins.

“At the end of the day precision medicine is going to come from integrating these data sources,” says Hawkins. “I think if we pull off what we want we should be able to make your routine blood testing far more accessible.”

Remrise raises $8.2M to deliver tailored, plant-based sleep solutions

By Brian Heater

Sleep is big business. Casper, Leesa and a dozen other mattress companies have driven the point home in recent years. It’s something we all want, but none of us are getting enough of. In 2017, sleep aids generated $69.5 billion, globally. By 2023, that number is expected to blow past $101 billion.

Remrise is the latest startup in search of the Holy Grail of a better night’s sleep. The company’s already raised $8.2 million in seed funding led by Founders Fund to kickstart that effort. Fostered by Atomic, the same incubator that gave the world Hims/Hers, the startup delivers herbal sleep solutions, tailored to the user.

The goal of the service is to move users off medicated sleep aids, using a combination of traditional herbal supplements and improvements to sleep hygiene. “We’re creating an app that is tracking and analyzing data,” CEO and founder Veronica Lee tells TechCrunch. “So we’re going to connect to any existing trackers to understand your bedtime, wake time, REM cycles. We’re collecting that passive data, and we’re also working with the customer around collecting active data around choices. The goal is to help the consumer improve sleep hygiene over time.”

116 101019 RestWell

The company has already launched a pilot with 90 users and plans to expand it to a larger study of about 400 people, using both sleep trackers (like Fitbits or Apple Watches) and sleep clinics. In the meantime, however, it’s already launching for the public.

There’s a 14-point questionnaire on Remrise’s site aimed at getting users started. I filled it out and the startup suggested the “Rested Up” mix, featuring Spirit Poria (Fu Shen), Salvia Root (Dan Shen), Polygala (Yuan Zhi), Shi Chang Pu, GABA, Magnesium and Valerian Root. Results will vary.

“Each formation has about a dozen to 15 different ingredients. We’re tailoring it to the individual. When people go through the quiz, we’re basing the patterns off of traditional Chinese medicine patterns. Each profile type goes through four different patterns that rotate on a daily basis.”

The company is offering a “free trial” for a week, which requires the user to pay shipping. Those interested in the full service deal will be charged $55 a month.

Lucence raises $20 million Series A for its non-invasive cancer screening technology

By Catherine Shu

Lucence Diagnostics, a genomic medicine startup that develops non-invasive tests for cancer screening, announced today that it has raised a $20 million Series A led by IHH Healthcare, one of the world’s largest integrated private healthcare groups. Other participants included SGInnovate and returning investors Heliconia Capital (a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings), Lim Kaling and Koh Boon Hwee.

The round will be used for scaling Lucence’s labs, hiring and making its products commercially available to more patients in Asia and North America.

The funding will also support two prospective clinical trials. One will focus on its technology’s sensitivity to actionable variables in late-stage cancer patients, while the other will evaluate its use for early-stage detection in several types of cancer, including lung, colorectal, breast and pancreatic. Lucence is currently designing a study that will involve 100,000 participants to validate its early-stage detection test. It will recruit its first patient in the middle of next year and launch in the United States and Asia.

Together with its seed funding, this round brings Lucence’s total raised so far to $29.2 million.

Lucence’s tests are currently used by physicians in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, and it plans to expand further in North America and East Asia. Its lab in Singapore has received both CLIA certification and CAP accreditation, which means its tests can be used by doctors and patients in the United States. It is also currently building a lab in the Bay Area to decrease turnaround times for patients.

Headquartered in Singapore, with offices in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Suzhou, China, Lucence was founded by CEO Dr. Min-Han Tan, an oncologist, and spun out from Singapore’s Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in 2016. Two years later, it launched LiquidHALLMARK, which the company describes as “the first and only clinical sequencing blood test that detects both cancer-related genetic mutations and cancer-causing viruses with a single assay” and looks for signs of fourteen types of cancer. The company says LiquidHALLMARK has been used by oncologists for 1,000 patients in Asia so far.

Other genomic sequencing startups that have developed tests that screen for cancer risks and signs include Sanomics, Prenetics, Guardant and Grail. Lucence’s differentiators include its proprietary amplicon-sequencing, which examines specific genomic regions for variations, including mutations linked to cancer. The company describes its tests as a “Swiss Army knife,” because it can be used for cancer screening, diagnoses, treatment selections and monitoring.

In a statement, Dr. Kelvin Loh, the CEO-designate of IHH Healthcare, said “liquid biopsy is a game-changer in our endeavor to provide cancer treatments with better, value-driven outcomes through precise treatment selections and more affordable care. Our investment in Lucence will provide IHH patients with better access to this advanced technology.”

Luna is a new kind of space company helping biotech find its footing in microgravity

By Darrell Etherington

Toronto-based startup Luna Design and Innovation is a prime example of the kind of space company that is increasingly starting up to take advantage of the changing economics of the larger industry. Founded by Andrea Yip, who is also Luna’s CEO, the bootstrapped venture is looking to blaze a trail for biotechnology companies who stand to gain a lot from the new opportunities in commercial space – even if they don’t know it yet.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the public and private health industry, doing a lot of product and service design and innovation,” Yip told me in an interview. “I was working in pharma[ceuticals] for several years, but at the end of 2017, I decided to leave the pharma world and I really wanted to find a way to work along the intersection of pharma, space and design, because I just believe that the future of health for humanity is in space.”

Yip founded Luna at the beginning of this year to help turn that belief into action, with a focus on highlighting the opportunities available to the biotechnology sector in making use of the research environment unique to space.

“We see space as a research platform, and we believe that it’s a research platform that can be leveraged in order to solve healthcare problems here on Earth,” Yip explained. “So for me, it was critically important to open up space to the biotech sector, and to the pharma sector, in order to use it as a research platform for R&D and novel discovery.”

The International Space Station has hosted a number of pharma and biotech experiments.

NASA’s work in space has led to a number of medical advances, inducing digital imaging tech used in breast biopsy, transmitters used for monitoring fetus development within the womb, LED’s used in brain cancer surgery and more. Work done on researching and developing pharmaceuticals in space is also something that companies including Merck, Proctor & Gamble and other industry heavyweights have been dabbling in for years, with experiments conducted on the International Space Station. Companies like SpaceFarma have now sent entire minilaboratories to the ISS to conduct research on behalf of clients. But it’s still a business with plenty of remaining under-utilized opportunity, according to Yip – and tons of potential.

“I think it’s a highly underutilized research platform, unfortunately, right now,” she said. “When it comes to certain physical and life sciences phenomena, we know that things behave differently in space, in what we refer to as microgravity-based environments […] We know that cancer cells, for instance, behave differently in short- and longer-term microgravity when it comes to the way that they metastasize. So being able to even acknowledge that type of insight, and try and understand ‘why’ can unlock a lot of new discovery and understanding about the way cancer actually functions […] and that can actually help us better design drugs, and treatment opportunities here on Earth, just based on those insights.”

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Credit: Blue Origin .

Yip says that while there has been some activity already in biotech and microgravity, “we’re on the early end of this innovation,” and goes on to suggest that over the course of the next ten or so years, the companies that will be disrupting the existing class of legacy big pharma players will be ones who’ve invested early and deeply in space-based research and development.

The role of Luna is to help biotech companies figure out how best to approach building out an investment in space-based research. To that end, one of its early accomplishments is securing a role as a ‘Channel Partner’ for Jeff Bezos’ commercial space launch company Blue Origin. This arrangement means that Luna acts a a sales partner for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket, working with potential clients for the Amazon founder’s rocket company on how and why they might seek to set up a sub-orbital space-based experiment.

That’s the near-term vision, and the way that Luna will seek to have the most impact here on Earth. But the possibilities of what the future holds for the biotech sector start to really open up once you consider the current trajectory of the space industry, including NASA’s next steps, and efforts by private companies like SpaceX to expand human presence to other planet.

“We’re talking about going back to the Moon by 2024,” Yip says, referring to NASA’s goal with its Artemis program. “We’re talking about going to Mars in the next few years. There’s a lot that we will need to uncover and discover for ourselves, and I think that’s a huge opportunity. Who knows what we’ll discover when we’re on other planets, and we’re actually putting people there? We have to start preparing for that and building capability for that.”

Cybersecurity startup CyCognito raises $18M in Series A funding

By Zack Whittaker

CyCognito, a cybersecurity platform that aims to give visibility into a company’s security weak spots, has raised $18 million in its Series A round of funding.

Lightspeed Partners led the fundraise, which included a personal investment from Lightspeed venture partner and former Microsoft chairperson John Thompson, and additional participation from Sorenson Ventures.

CyCognito says its software-as-a-service platform can “autonomously discover, enumerate, and prioritize each organization’s security risks based upon a global analysis of all external attack surfaces.” In other words, it measures a company’s entire attack surface, looking for holes and flaws, which could be exploited by malicious actors. It does this by maintaining tens of thousands of bots which spiders out across the internet, looking for internet-connected and exposed devices. With that database of digital assets, the company looks for issues that could be used for attacks.

The startup says its platform already in use by “dozens” of corporate customers, across healthcare, hospitality and financial verticals.

Now with $18 million in the bank, CyCognito says it plans to expand its engineering and sales teams to reach more enterprise clients.

Two years since the company’s founding, its leadership page consisted of only men.

Chief executive Rob Gurzeev said the company was “actively seeking to hire more women and non-binary persons into senior roles” and “actively encourages growth of diversity in its workforce.”

After TechCrunch raised lack of diversity with CyCognito, the company quickly changed its leadership page to include one woman.

Updated to correct the funding amount. 

How Earnest Research Into Gay Genetics Went Wrong

By Megan Molteni
When a well-intentioned study led to a dubious DNA test for same-sex attraction, it exposed the need for safeguards on research in the age of big genetic data.
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