As the vaccination campaign to counter COVID-19 gets underway (albeit with a rocky start), a number of companies are attempting to support its rollout in a variety of ways. Healthvana, a health tech startup that began with a specific focus on providing patient information digitally for individuals living with HIV, is helping Los Angeles County roll-out mobile vaccination records for COVID-19 using Apple’s Wallet technology. A cursory appraisal of the implementation of this tech might lead one to believe it’s about providing individuals with easy proof of vaccination – but the tech, and Healthvana, are focused on informing individuals to ensure they participate in their own healthcare programs, not providing an immunity pass.
“I generally consider most of healthcare to look and feel like Windows 95,” Healthvana CEO and founder Ramin Bastani. “We look and feel like Instagram . Why is that important? Because patients can engage in things they understand, it’s easier for them to communicate in the way they’re used to communicating, and that ends up leading them better health outcomes.”
Bastani points out that they began the company by focusing this approach to patient education and communication on HIV, and demonstrated that using their software led to patients being 7.4 times more likely to show up for their next follow-up appointment vs. patients who received follow-up information and appointment notices via traditional methods. The company has built their tooling and their approach around not only producing better health for individuals, but also on reducing costs for healthcare providers by eliminating the need for a lot of the work that goes into clearing up misunderstandings, and essentially hounding patients to follow-up, which can significantly dig into clinician and care staff hours.
“We’re actually also reducing the cost to healthcare providers, because you don’t have 1,000 people calling you asking what are their results, and saying ‘I don’t understand, I can’t log in, I don’t know what it means to be SARS nonreactive,’ or all those things we address through simplicity,” Bastain said. “That’s made a huge difference. Overall, I think the key to all healthcare is going to be to be able to get patients to pay attention, and take action to things around their health.”
That’s the goal of Healthvana’s partnership with LA County on COVID-19 immunization records, too – taking vitally important action to ensure the successful rollout of its vaccination program. All approved COVID-19 vaccines to date require a two-course treatment, including one initial inoculation followed by a booster to be administered sometime later. Keeping LA county residents informed about their COVID-19 inoculation, and when they’re due for a second dose, is the primary purpose of the partnership, and benefits from Healthvana’s experience in improving patient follow-up activities. But the app is also providing users with information about COVID-19 care, and, most usefully, prevention and ways to slow the spread.
While Bastani stresses that Healthvana is, in the end, just “the last mile” for message delivery, and that there are many other layers involved in determining the right steps for proper care and prevention, the way in which they provide actionable info has already proven a big boon to one key measure: contact tracing. In select municipalities, Healthvana will also prompt users who’ve tested positive to anonymously notify close contacts directly from their device, which will provide those individuals with both free testing options and information resources.
“Just us doing this in the greater Los Angeles area for less than two months, 12,000+ people have been notified that they’ve been exposed,” Bastani said. “Each of them likely lives with other people and families – this is how you can help slow the spread.”
Contrast that with the relatively slow uptake of the exposure notification tools built into iOS and Android devices via recent software updates provided by Google and Apple working in a rare collaboration. While the technology that underlies it is sound, and focused on user privacy, its usage numbers thus far are far from earthshaking; only 388 people have sent alerts through Virginia’s app based on the exposure notification framework in three months since its launch, for instance.
Healthvana’s focus on timely and relevant delivery of information, offered to users in ways they’re mostly likely to understand and engage with, is already showing its ability to have an impact on COVID-19 and its community transmission. The startup is already in talks to launch similar programs elsewhere in the country, and that could help improve national vaccination outcomes, and how people handle COVID-19 once they have it, too.
A new startup has officially emerged for stealth with the raise of its $62 million Series A funding round. Endeavor BioMedicines is led by co-founder and CEO John Hood, who previously led Impact Biomedicines, and its new funding comes from Omega Funds and Longitude Capital, as well as the company’s own management team. Endeavor is also co-founded by Miguel de los Rios, who serves as its Chief Science Officer and who was previously CEO of Rift Biotherapeutics.
Endeavor’s goal is to develop treatments specifically to address pulmonary disease, and the startup is putting its funding towards two Phase 2 clinical trials that will seek to determine whether their therapeutic candidate can reverse or slow the progression of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a very common type of pulmonary fibrosis that results in long tissue scarring which causes difficulty in breathing for affected patients.
IPF has a significant and worrying fatality rate – the condition comes with “an estimated mean survival of 2-5 years from time of diagnosis,” according to Hood in a press release. Endeavor’s new treatment candidate, called ‘taladegib,’ is an inhibitor that addresses what’s known as the ‘Hedgehog’ pathway for IPF. This pathway, which is primarily responsible for cell differentiation during embryonic development, can also play a role in development of harmful conditions in adults when they malfunction while regulating the regeneration of mature tissues.
Hood’s last company Impact Biomedicines exited in a sale to Celgene Corp worth put to $7 billion, depending on performance milestones set in the terms of the acquisition for passing certain regulatory and sales conditions. That company focused on treatment development specifically for myelofibrosis, a type of blood cancer, using an inhibitor for a specific type of protein kinase.
Boost Biomes, the Y Combinator-backed developer of microbiome-based bio-fungicides and bio-pesticides for agricultural applications, has added $2 million in funding and picked up a new strategic investor in Japan’s Universal Materials Incubator.
To date, Boost Biomes has raised more than $7 million in financing to support the development of new products like its bio-fungicide developed from the microorganisms that live in the soil in a symbiotic relationship with plants.
The work that Boost does is primarily on understanding the interactions between microbes and plants in the soil. “The goal is to be the discovery engine and develop new microbial products for use in food and agriculture,” said Boost chief executive and co-founder Jamie Bacher.
The commitment from Japan’s Universal Materials Incubator expands on a $5 million institutional round led by another strategic partner, Yara International, a global crop nutrition company, and venture investors like Viking Global Investors and Y Combinator.
Boost hopes to tackle issues in agriculture like spoilage, bacterial contamination and pathogen infestations, as well as addressing diseases that can affect plant health directly.
Boost is already working with an undisclosed biomanufacturing partner to develop its bio-fungicide.
“UMI’s decision to invest in Boost comes from our evaluation of their team, technology, and the associated market opportunities. We believe that Boost’s platform generates a unique data set that can be exploited for far superior products with many diverse microbiome applications in food and agriculture,” said Yota Hayama, an investor at UMI, in a statement. “These are critical areas to achieve food security and promote sustainable agriculture. We also expect Boost’s huge potential on other areas where microbiomes are utilized.”
Resilience, a new biopharmaceutical company backed by $800 million in financing from investors including ARCH Venture Partners and 8VC, has emerged from stealth to transform the way that drugs and therapies are manufactured in the U.S.
Founded by ARCH Venture Partners investor Robert Nelsen, National Resilience Inc., which does business as Resilience was born out of Nelsen’s frustrations with the inept American response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a statement the company will invest heavily in developing new manufacturing technologies across cell and gene therapies, viral vectors, vaccines and proteins.
Resilience’s founders identified problems in the therapeutic manufacturing process as one of the key problems that the industry faces in bringing new treatments to market — and that hurdle is exactly what the company was founded to overcome.
“COVID-19 has exposed critical vulnerabilities in medical supply chains, and today’s manufacturing can’t keep up with scientific innovation, medical discovery, and the need to rapidly produce and distribute critically important drugs at scale. We are committed to tackling these huge problems with a whole new business model,” said Nelsen in a statement.
The company brings together some of the leading investment firms in healthcare and biosciences including operating partners from Flagship Pioneering like Rahul Singhvi, who will serve as the company’s chief executive’ former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a partner at New Enterprise Associates and director on the Resilience board; and Patrick Yang, the former executive vice president and global head of technical operations at Roche/Genentech .
“It is critical that we adopt solutions that will protect the manufacturing supply chain, and provide more certainty around drug development and the ability to scale up the manufacturing of safe, effective but also more complex products that science is making possible,” said Dr. Gottlieb, in a statement. “RESILIENCE will enable these solutions by combining cutting edge technology, an unrivaled pool of talent, and the industry’s first shared service business model. Similar to Amazon Web Services, RESILIENCE will empower drug developers with the tools to more fully align discovery, development, and manufacturing; while offering new opportunities to invest in downstream innovations in formulation and manufacturing earlier, while products are still being conceived and developed.”
Other heavy hitters in the world of medicine and biotechnology who are working with the company include Frances Arnold, the Nobel Prize-winning professor from the California Institute of Technology; George Barrett, the former chief executive of Cardinal Health; Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the former president of product development at Genentech; Kaye Foster, the former vice president of human resources at Johnson and Johnson; and Denice Torres, the former President of Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical and Consumer Companies.
Images of elephants roaming the African plains are imprinted on all of our minds and something easily recognized as a symbol of Africa. But the future of elephants today is uncertain. An elephant is currently being killed by poachers every 15 minutes, and humans, who love watching them so much, have declared war on their species. Most people are not poachers, ivory collectors or intentionally harming wildlife, but silence or indifference to the battle at hand is as deadly.
You can choose to read this article, feel bad for a moment and then move on to your next email and start your day.
Or, perhaps you will pause and think: Our opportunities to help save wildlife, especially elephants, are right in front of us and grow every day. And some of these opportunities are rooted in machine learning (ML) and the magical outcome we fondly call AI.
Image Credits: Jes Lefcourt (opens in a new window)
Six months ago, amid a COVID-infused world, Hackster.io, a large open-source community owned by Avnet, and Smart Parks, a Dutch-based organization focused on wildlife conservation, reached out to tech industry leaders, including Microsoft, u-blox and Taoglas, Nordic Semiconductors, Western Digital and Edge Impulse with an idea to fund the R&D, manufacturing and shipping of 10 of the most advanced elephant tracking collars ever built.
These modern tracking collars are designed to deploy advanced machine-learning (ML) algorithms with the most extended battery life ever delivered for similar devices and a networking range more expansive than ever seen before. To make this vision even more audacious, they called to fully open-source and freely share the outcome of this effort via OpenCollar.io, a conservation organization championing open-source tracking collar hardware and software for environmental and wildlife monitoring projects.
Our opportunities to help save wildlife — especially elephants — are right in front of us and grow every day.
The tracker, ElephantEdge, would be built by specialist engineering firm Irnas, with the Hackster community coming together to make fully deployable ML models by Edge Impulse and telemetry dashboards by Avnet that will run the newly built hardware. Such an ambitious project was never attempted before, and many doubted that such a collaborative and innovative project could be pulled off.
Only they pulled it off. Brilliantly. The new ElephantEdge tracker is considered the most advanced of its kind, with eight years of battery life and hundreds of miles worth of LoRaWAN networking repeaters range, running TinyML models that will provide park rangers with a better understanding of elephant acoustics, motion, location, environmental anomalies and more. The tracker can communicate with an array of sensors, connected by LoRaWAN technology to park rangers’ phones and laptops.
This gives rangers a more accurate image and location to track than earlier systems that captured and reported on pictures of all wildlife, which ran down the trackers’ battery life. The advanced ML software that runs on these trackers is built explicitly for elephants and developed by the Hackster.io community in a public design challenge.
“Elephants are the gardeners of the ecosystems as their roaming in itself creates space for other species to thrive. Our ElephantEdge project brings in people from all over the world to create the best technology vital for the survival of these gentle giants. Every day they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. This innovation and partnerships allow us to gain more insight into their behavior so we can improve protection,” said Smart Parks co-founder Tim van Dam.
Image Credits: Jes Lefcourt (opens in a new window)
With hardware built by Irnas and Smart Parks, the community was busy building the algorithms to make it sing. Software developer and data scientist Swapnil Verma and Mausam Jain in the U.K. and Japan created Elephant AI. Using Edge Impulse, the team developed two ML models that will tap the tracker’s onboard sensors and provide critical information for park rangers.
The first community-led project, called Human Presence Detection, will alert park rangers of poaching risk using audio sampling to detect human presence in areas where humans are not supposed to be. This algorithm uses audio sensors to record sound and sight while sending it over the LoRaWAN network directly to a ranger’s phone to create an immediate alert.
The second model they named “Elephant Activity Monitoring.” It detects general elephant activity, taking time-series input from the tracker’s accelerometer to spot and make sense of running, sleeping and grazing to provide conservation specialists with the critical information they need to protect the elephants.
Another brilliant community development came from the other side of the world. Sara Olsson, a Swedish software engineer who has a passion for the national world, created a TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard to help park rangers with conservation efforts.
With little resources and support, Sara built a full telemetry dashboard combined with ML algorithms to monitor camera traps and watering holes, while reducing network traffic by processing data on the collar and considerably saving battery life. To validate her hypothesis, she used 1,155 data models and 311 tests!
Sara Olsson’s TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard. Image Credits: Sara Olsson
Image Credits: Sara Olsson (opens in a new window)
Project ElephantEdge is an example of how commercial and public interest can converge and result in a collaborative sustainability effort to advance wildlife conservation efforts. The new collar can generate critical data and equip park rangers with better data to make urgent life-saving decisions about protecting their territories. By the end of 2021, at least ten elephants will be sporting the new collars in selected parks across Africa, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and Vulcan’s EarthRanger, unleashing a new wave of conservation, learning and defending.
Naturally, this is great, the technology works, and it’s helping elephants like never before. But in reality, the root cause of the problem runs much more profound. Humans must change their relationship to the natural world for proper elephant habitat and population revival to occur.
“The threat to elephants is greater than it’s ever been,” said Richard Leakey, a leading palaeoanthropologist and conservationist scholar. The main argument for allowing trophy or ivory hunting is that it raises money for conservation and local communities. However, a recent report revealed that only 3% of Africa’s hunting revenue trickles down to communities in hunting areas. Animals don’t need to die to make money for the communities you live around.
With great technology, collaboration and a commitment to address the underlying cultural conditions and the ivory trade that leads to most elephant deaths, there’s a real chance to save these singular creatures.
While certifications for security management practices like SOC 2 and ISO 27001 have been around for a while, the number of companies that now request that their software vendors go through (and pass) the audits to be in compliance with these continues to increase. For a lot of companies, that’s a harrowing process, so it’s maybe no surprise that we are also seeing an increase in startups that aim to make this process easier. Earlier this month, Strike Graph, which helps automate security audits, announced its $3.9 million round, and today, Secureframe, which also helps businesses get and maintain their SOC 2 and ISO 27001 certifications, is announcing a $4.5 million round.
Secureframe’s round was co-led by Base10 Partners and Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures fund. BoxGroup, Village Global, Soma Capital, Liquid2, Chapter One, Worklife Ventures and Backend Capital participated. Current customers include Stream, Hasura and Benepass.
Shrav Mehta, the company’s co-founder and CEO, spent time at a number of different companies, but he tells me the idea for Secureframe was mostly born during his time at direct-mail service Lob.
“When I was at Lob, we dealt with a lot of issues around security and compliance because we were sometimes dealing with very sensitive data, and we’d hop on calls with customers, had to complete thousand-line security questionnaires, do exhaustive security reviews, and this was a lot for a startup of our size at the time. But it’s just what our customers needed. So I started to see that pain,” Mehta said.
After stints at Pilot and Scale AI after he left Lob in 2017 — and informally helping other companies manage the certification process — he co-founded Secureframe together with the company’s CTO, Natasja Nielsen.
“Because Secureframe is basically adding a lot of automation with our software — and making the process so much simpler and easier — we’re able to bring the cost down to a point where this is something that a lot more companies can afford,” Mehta explained. “This is something that everyone can get in place from day one, and not really have to worry that, ‘hey, this is going to take all of our time, it’s going to take a year, it’s going to cost a lot of money.’ […] We’re trying to solve that problem to make it super easy for every organization to be secure from day one.”
The main idea here is to make the arcane certification process more transparent and streamline the process by automating many of the more labor-intensive tasks of getting ready for an audit (and it’s virtually always the pre-audit process that takes up most of the time). Secureframe does so by integrating with the most-often used cloud and SaaS tools (it currently connects to about 25 services) and pulling in data from them to check up on your security posture.
“It feels a lot like a QuickBooks or TurboTax-like experience, where we’ll essentially ask you to enter basic details about your business. We try to autofill as much of it as possible from third-party sources — then we ask you to connect up all the integrations your business uses,” Mehta explained.
The company plans to use much of the new funding to staff up and build out these integrations. Over time, it will also add support for other certifications like PCI, HITRUST and HIPAA.