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A new climate calculator for livestock aims to help ranchers reduce emissions

By David Riggs

When it comes to sustainable livestock production and agriculture, measurement is the first — and sometimes most elusive — step in the process of turning our food system from a carbon emitter into a carbon sink.

So DSM, a science-based company that focuses on agriculture and other parts of our food systems, and Blonk, a data analytics for sustainability consultancy, developed Sustell, a combination software and practical service for ranchers to understand and improve the sustainability of their operations.

While sustainable and regenerative agriculture doesn’t have a universally agreed-upon definition, it usually involves changing land management practices to sequester more carbon in the soil, using more environmentally friendly animal feeds and reducing fossil fuel usage of tractors and other farm equipment among many other changes. The goal is to reduce the 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere, about 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, created by the livestock industry.  

“There’s this tremendous need for accurate footprinting of animal production down to the individual farm level,” said David Nickell, vice president of sustainability and business solutions at DSM. “And each farm, of course, is very different. And you have to have a system which is able to use actual farm data, and to get an accurate picture of that particular farm.” 

The system analyzes the environmental impact of a farm’s activity on 19 different categories, including climate change, resource use, water scarcity, runoff and ozone depletion. Farmers provide data on their daily operations, including feed composition and use, manure management practices, animal mortality, the electricity system and the other infrastructure, transportation logistics and mitigation technologies employed, like scrubbers or excess heat circulation systems, and sometimes packaging to the software.

Blonk’s environmental footprint technology then produces a life cycle assessment of the farm, an analysis of the environmental impact of rearing an animal from inception to when it exits the farm gate. DSM and Blonk have created Sustell modules for most land farm animals, including chickens, pigs and dairy and egg production, and plans to extend it to cover beef and aquaculture. 

“What is really key is that we were able to build on this momentum of methodologies and standards that have been developed,” said Hans Blonk, CEO of Blonk Consultants and Blonk Sustainability Tools. 

Blonk was able to combine agriculture environmental standards from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, European Commission and many others in one place to create the vast library of background data needed for the software to produce useful and actionable insights.   

“Customers at the moment really want to understand what they’re doing,” Nickell said. “They want to understand their baseline [footprint] and rank them. Understand what’s good, and what’s not so good. Customers want to understand how they rate compared to peer benchmarking, whether it’s a country or an industry benchmark.”

Once the Sustell software gives farmers clarity on the emissions on their farms, they can then identify where improvements need to be made and DSM helps implement ways of reducing those emissions, creating an end-to-end service for customers and hopefully a positive impact on the planet. 

“Practical interventions make change happen,” Nickell said. “We’ve invested in technologies which reduce the footprint of animal products production. The service is measurement and marry that up with bringing solutions, which make a difference. That’s the complete solution to making this much-needed change happen.”

But in order for Sustell to create that change, it needs to be adopted widely and the learnings need to be shared between competitors. Right now, DSM and, in some ways, the capitalist system, isn’t set up for that. 

According to Nickell, DSM is first focusing Sustell on big integrated livestock companies. This is a common challenge with new innovative environmental technologies that can be adopted by big farming conglomerates or co-ops with money and resources to spend, while smaller family farms get left behind. But Nickell hopes that Sustell can scale to work with smaller farms, as well. 

The second issue is around data sharing. While Nickell was very clear that Sustell will be following all applicable data privacy and ownership rules — and that’s usually a good thing — in order to really create meaningful environmental change, transparency is actually key. Competitors need to share the best ways for reducing emissions so everyone can adopt them and save the planet, but many companies are very data protective. 

“I think maybe that [data sharing] develops in time,” Nickell said. “I don’t think we’re there yet. Maybe it will get to that level as more and more customers are transparent on their footprint and their reporting.”

Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

After contentious debate, FDA approves first Alzheimer’s drug since 2003

By Emma Betuel

On Monday, the US Food and Drug Administration granted approval to a keenly-watched Alzheimer’s drug, aducanumab, developed by the drugmaker Biogen. The decision to approve the drug, which was once abandoned as a failure, has been the subject of debate within the scientific and regulatory community for months.

Aducanumab, which will be marketed as Aduhelm, is the first novel Alzheimer’s treatment to be approved since 2003, the FDA noted in a press release. Aducanumab is also the first novel treatment designed to address one of several proposed underlying causes of Alzheimer’s: the buildup of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain that disrupt the communication of neurons. 

Critically, the drug received a conditional form of FDA approval called the ‘Accelerated Approval Program.’ The accelerated approval pathway is designed to provide early access to drugs for serious conditions if they address markers of disease – even when the FDA has misgivings about the overall results of clinical trials. Because of this, Biogen will still have to conduct a post-approval confirmatory trial of aducanumab. 

If the drug does not work as intended, we can take steps to remove it from the market. But hopefully, we will see further evidence of benefit in the clinical trial and as greater numbers of people receive Aduhelm,” the FDA statement reads. 

TechCrunch has contacted Biogen for comment on the upcoming confirmatory trial, and will update this story with Biogen’s response. 

The use of the accelerated approval pathway is clearly intended to address lingering controversies that have plagued aducanumab in the months leading up to the FDA’s ruling. 

In early-stage trials, there were promising signs that aducanumab might slow cognitive decline, a major Alzheimer’s symptom. In a 2016 trial published in the journal Nature, 125 patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s who received monthly infusions of the drug saw levels of plaques decrease, as did symptoms of cognitive decline. 

The decline of the plaques in the brain were “robust and unquestionable” as one Lancet Neurology paper puts it, but the clinical findings were more modest – it wasn’t clear exactly how much people’s cognitive ability benefitted from the treatment. 

These early trials eventually led the FDA to allow the drug to skip phase 2 clinical trials, which are designed to identify dosages of the drug, and proceed directly to phase 3 clinical trials. This move was criticized by some physicians. 

Those phase 3 clinical trials, called ENGAGE and EMERGE, have become the center of tension. Both trials tested monthly intravenous injections of the drug on about 1600 patients with early Alzheimer’s. In 2019, both trials were halted because the drug didn’t appear to be slowing cognitive decline, the primary endpoint of the trials. 

Additional data analyzed in late 2019 from the EMERGE trial suggested that the drug was linked with a 23 percent less cognitive decline, compared to a placebo. There were side effects: namely swelling and inflammation of the brain. This was seen in about 40 percent of Phase 3 trial participants, though most were symptomatic and most of those with symptoms (headache, nausea, visual disturbances) resolved after 4-16 weeks. 

Still, even the new data wasn’t enough to convince an independent FDA advisory committee, who, in November 2020 did not endorse approval of the drug. 

On Monday, The FDA, argued that the drug’s effects on beta-amyloid plaques were strong enough to suggest that benefit outweighed the risk. Critically, the FDA did not comment on the strength of clinical outcomes – in short, the agency is basing this approval on the drug’s ability to address beta-amyloid plaques, not how well each patient cognitive function responds to the drug. The followup study will need to address that outcome directly. 

Still, about 6 million people have Alzheimer’s in the US, and patient organizations have rallied in response to this drug. The Alzheimer’s Association has hailed the drug as a “victory for people living with Alzheimer’s.” 

Ahead of the FDA’s decision on Monday, it was clear that, should aducanumab be approved, it would soon become a “blockbuster drug.” The financial picture around the drug seems to support that idea. 

Trading of Biogen shares were initially halted, but have since jumped 40 percent today, following the announcement. Shares of Eisai Co. Ltd, a Japanese company working with Biogen jumped over 46 percent in the first three hours following the FDA’s approval. 

Certainly, Biogen was banking on this approval as a long-term strategy. In an April 2021, earnings presentation, the company estimated that there were 600 sites ready to launch the treatment post-approval. Biogen has also submitted marketing authorization applications for aducanumab in Brazil, Canada, Switzerland and Australia. On June 7, the company announced that a year’s supply of the drug would cost $56,000

In the wider world of Alzheimer’s drugs, it’s possible other companies may see this approval as proof-of-concept for other drugs targeting beta amyloid plaques. 

In an editorial that accompanied the 2016 Nature paper on aducanumab, Eric Reiman, executive director of Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, argued that scientific confirmation that beta-amyloid-targeted treatment slows cognitive decline would be a “game changer.” The aducanumab trials have been likened to a test of this idea. Speaking to The Financial Times, Howard Filit, founding executive director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, called aducanumab “the first rigorous test of the beta-amyloid hypothesis.”

In that sense, conditional approval may indicate that the FDA is sympathetic to this form of Alzheimer’s treatment. 

There’s at least one more beta-amyloid targeted drug from a major drugmaker (Eli Lilly) clinical trials. We may see some more of them emerge soon, provided that Biogen’s confirmatory study of aducanumab doesn’t prompt the FDA to withdraw approval. 

 

A New Way to Shape Metal Nanoparticles—With a Magnetic Field

By Karmela Padavic-Callaghan
Making the tiny nanoparticles used in everything from electronics to paint isn't easy. But a new experiment creates order out of chaos.

Will a Volcanic Eruption Be a Burp or a Blast?

By Robin George Andrews
Scientists have begun to decipher the seismic signals that reveal how explosive a volcanic eruption is going to be.

The Drought Is Making the Klamath River’s Baby Salmon Sick

By Anna V. Smith
Dry conditions are worsening a warm-water disease that’s sweeping through juvenile fish. Their deaths will create a future crisis for both fish and human populations.

New Vaccine Incentives, Surplus Dose Shipments, and More News

By Eve Sneider
Catch up on the most important updates from this week.

You Need to Weigh Some Water. All You’ve Got Is a Paper Clip

By Rhett Allain
OK, so you might need a couple other supplies, but your best option is to do what MacGyver would do: Turn it into a scale.

TezLab CEO Ben Schippers to discuss the Tesla effect and the next wave of EV startups at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

As Tesla sales have risen, interest in the company has exploded, prompting investment and interest in the automotive industry, as well as the startup world.

TezLab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, is just one example of the numerous startups that have sprung up in the past few years as electric vehicles have started to make the tiniest of dents in global sales. Now, as Ford, GM, Volvo, Hyundai along with newcomers Rivian, Fisker and others launch electric vehicles into the marketplace, more startups are sure to follow.

Ben Schippers, the co-founder and CEO of TezLab, is one of two early-stage founders who will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to talk about their startups and the opportunities cropping up in this emerging age of EVs. The six-person team behind TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups.

HFC’s engineers, including Schippers, who also co-founded HFC, were attracted to Tesla  because of its techcentric approach and one important detail: the Tesla API endpoints are accessible to outsiders. The Tesla API is technically private. But it exists allowing the Tesla’s app to communicate with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.

Schippers’ experience extends beyond scaling up TezLab. Schippers consults and works with companies focused on technology and human interaction, with a sub-focus in EV.

The list of speakers at our 2021 event is growing by the day and includes Motional’s president and CEO Karl Iagnemma and Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson, who will discuss the past, present and future of AVs. On the electric front is Mate Rimac, the founder of Rimac Automobili, who will talk about scaling his startup from a one-man enterprise in a garage to more than 1,000 people and contracts with major automakers.

We also recently announced a panel dedicated to China’s robotaxi industry, featuring three female leaders from Chinese AV startups: AutoX’s COO Jewel Li, Huan Sun, general manager of Momenta Europe with Momenta, and WeRide’s VP of Finance Jennifer Li.

Other guests include, GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, and Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson.

And we may even have one more surprise — a classic TechCrunch stealth company reveal to close the show.

Don’t wait to book your tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility as prices go up at our virtual door.

This one email explains Apple

By Matthew Panzarino

An email has been going around the internet as a part of a release of documents related to Apple’s App Store based suit brought by Epic Games. I love this email for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that you can extrapolate from it the very reasons Apple has remained such a vital force in the industry for the past decade. 

The gist of it is that SVP of Software Engineering, Bertrand Serlet, sent an email in October of 2007, just three months after the iPhone was launched. In the email, Serlet outlines essentially every core feature of Apple’s App Store — a business that now brings in an estimated $64B per year. And that, more importantly, allowed the launch of countless titanic internet startups and businesses built on and taking advantage of native apps on iPhone.

Forty five minutes after the email, Steve Jobs replies to Serlet and iPhone lead Scott Forstall, from his iPhone, “Sure, as long as we can roll it all out at Macworld on Jan 15, 2008.”

Apple University should have a course dedicated to this email. 

Here it is, shared by an account I enjoy, Internal Tech Emails, on Twitter. If you run the account let me know, happy to credit you further here if you wish:

Bertrand Serlet to Steve Jobs: "Fine, let's enable Cocoa Touch apps"

October 2, 2007 pic.twitter.com/9aTxmjgkRS

— Internal Tech Emails (@TechEmails) June 3, 2021

First, we have Serlet’s outline. It’s seven sentences that outline the key tenets of the App Store. User protection, network protection, an owned developer platform and a sustainable API approach. There is a direct ask for resources — whoever we need in software engineering — to get it shipped ASAP. 

It also has a clear ask at the bottom, ‘do you agree with these goals?’

Enough detail is included in the parentheticals to allow an informed reader to infer scope and work hours. And at no point during this email does Serlet include an ounce of justification for these choices. These are the obvious and necessary framework, in his mind, for accomplishing the rollout of an SDK for iPhone developers. 

There is no extensive rationale provided for each item, something that is often unnecessary in an informed context and can often act as psychic baggage that telegraphs one of two things:

  1. You don’t believe the leader you’re outlining the project to knows what the hell they’re talking about.
  2. You don’t believe it yourself and you’re still trying to convince yourself. 

Neither one of those is the wisest way to provide an initial scope of work. There is plenty of time down the line to flesh out rationale to those who have less command of the larger context. 

If you’re a historian of iPhone software development, you’ll know that developer Nullriver had released Installer, a third-party installer that allowed apps to be natively loaded onto iPhone, in the summer of 2007, early September, I believe. It was followed in 2008 by the eventually far more popular Cydia. And there were developers that August and September already experimenting with this completely unofficial way of getting apps on the store, like the venerable Twitterific by Craig Hockenberry and Lights Off by Lucas Newman and Adam Betts.

Though there has been plenty of established documentation of Steve being reluctant about allowing third-party apps on iPhone, this email establishes an official timeline for when the decision was not only made but essentially fully formed. And it’s much earlier than the apocryphal discussion about when the call was made. This is just weeks after the first hacky third-party attempts had made their way to iPhone and just under two months since the first iPhone jailbreak toolchain appeared. 

There is no need or desire shown here for Steve to ‘make sure’ that his touch is felt on this framework. All too often I see leaders that are obsessed with making sure that they give feedback and input at every turn. Why did you hire those people in the first place? Was it for their skill and acumen? Their attention to detail? Their obsessive desire to get things right?

Then let them do their job. 

Serlet’s email is well written and has the exact right scope, yes. But the response is just as important. A demand of what is likely too short a timeline (the App Store was eventually announced in March of 2008 and shipped in July of that year.) sets the bar high — matching the urgency of the request for all teams to work together on this project. This is not a side alley, it’s the foundation of a main thoroughfare. It must get built before anything goes on top. 

This efficacy is at the core of what makes Apple good when it is good. It’s not always good, but nothing ever is 100% of the time and the hit record is incredibly strong across a decade’s worth of shipped software and hardware. Crisp, lean communication that does not coddle or equivocate, coupled with a leader that is confident in their own ability and the ability of those that they hired means that there is no need to bog down the process in order to establish a record of involvement. 

One cannot exist without the other. A clear, well argued RFP or project outline that is sent up to insecure or ineffective management just becomes fodder for territorial games or endless rounds of requests for clarification. And no matter how effective leadership is and how talented their employees, if they do not establish an environment in which clarity of thought is welcomed and rewarded then they will never get the kind of bold, declarative product development that they wish. 

All in all, this exchange is a wildly important bit of ephemera that underpins the entire app ecosystem era and an explosive growth phase for Internet technology. And it’s also an encapsulation of the kind of environment that has made Apple an effective and brutally efficient company for so many years. 

Can it be learned from and emulated? Probably, but only if all involved are willing to create the environment necessary to foster the necessary elements above. Nine times out of ten you get moribund management, an environment that discourages blunt position taking and a muddy route to the exit. The tenth time, though, you get magic.

And, hey, maybe we can take this opportunity to make that next meeting an email?

If Bertrand Serlet and Steve Jobs could change the world over an email perhaps we don’t need to have that meeting. https://t.co/NZ1HmVAnwb

— Matthew Panzarino (@panzer) June 3, 2021

The Sneaky, Lying Flower That Pretends to Be a Rotting Beetle

By Max G. Levy
Aristolochia microstoma finds love by smelling like death. Coffin flies can’t resist.

Wait, Vaccine Lotteries Actually Work?

By Adam Rogers
Ooh, the behavioral economists are going to be so smug about this.

The UK Has a Plan for a New ‘Pandemic Radar’ System

By Maryn McKenna
Disease surveillance schemes to catch the next rising virus already exist—they’re just not communicating with each other.

This Dam Acts Like a Water Cannon. Let’s Do Some Physics!

By Rhett Allain
Like a giant bucket with a hole, the Funil Hydropower Plant sprays out an enormous jet of water. We can use its speed to calculate the depth of the reservoir.

Sleep Evolved Before Brains. Hydras Are Living Proof

By Veronique Greenwood
Some of nature’s simplest animals suggest that sleep evolved long before centralized nervous systems.

There’s a Great Whip Spider Boom. What Gives?

By Eric Boodman
The discovery of exotic arachnids reveals as much about the structure of science as it does about the creatures.

The Covid Lab Leak Theory Is a Tale of Weaponized Uncertainty

By Adam Rogers
Scientists almost never say they’re sure, and it could take years to pin down the pandemic's origins. Until then: People are trying to scare you.

Vaccine Milestones in the US, Shots for India, and More News

By Eve Sneider
Catch up on the most important updates from this week.

NASA’s MOXIE Experiment Is Making Oxygen on Mars

By Eric Niiler
Future crews on the Red Planet will need it to make propellant for the trip home. Scientists are also testing whether oxygen can be extracted from lunar soil.
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