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Atlanta area gets a 5G incubator courtesy of T-Mobile and Georgia Tech

By Jonathan Shieber

The Atlanta area is getting a new incubator for startups working with 5G technology courtesy of T-Mobile and Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), the companies announced today.

It’s an expansion of the T-Mobile Accelerator program and part of the big carrier’s efforts to boost 5G innovation.

Located in the Atlanta-adjacent exurb of Peachtree Corners’ technology development park, which is already equipped with T-Mobile’s 5G services, the incubator will help developers build and test 5G use cases including autonomous vehicles, robotics, industrial drone applications, mixed reality training and entertainment, remote medical care and personal health, the company said.

Startups working with the 5G Connected Future program will work directly with folks at T-Mobile’s accelerator, Georgia Tech and Curiosity Lab, an initiative in the Peachtree Corners campus.

“In addition to the normal startup concerns, entrepreneurs in the 5G space face a unique set of challenges such as regulatory issues at the state and local levels, network security, and integration testing,” said ATDC Director John Avery.

Peachtree Corners’ setup may help folks navigate that rollout. As part of its involvement, ATDC will offer programing, recruit and evaluate startups, and hire staff to manage the vertical in Peachtree Corners, the organization said.

“This collaboration is a great opportunity for ATDC and Georgia Tech, the city of Peachtree Corners and Curiosity Lab, and T-Mobile, a Fortune 50 company, to create a unique collection to work with these companies, refine their ideas into scalable companies, and bring these solutions to market more quickly,” Avery said.

Such a partnership underscores “Georgia Tech’s commitment to enabling tomorrow’s technology leaders, which remains as strong as when ATDC was founded 41 years ago,” said Chaouki T. Abdallah, Georgia Tech’s executive vice president for research. “Innovation cannot take place in a vacuum, which is why entrepreneurs and startups require the knowledge and resources provided through partnerships such as ours.”

DuPont and VCs see lithium mining as a critical investment for the electric future

By Jonathan Shieber

“Mining” has become synonymous with crypto the past few years in the tech industry, what with Bitcoin piercing the $50,000 barrier and GPUs and ASICs worldwide scrambling to hash functions in a bid for distributed crypto manna. That excitement belies an increasingly energetic push though to bring VC dollars and entrepreneurial acumen back to Mining 1.0 — actual meatspace resource extraction.

One of the key target resources is lithium, a critical component for smartphones, electric vehicle batteries and nearly every other electric tool of modern convenience and industrial import. China through its mining companies and battery manufacturers is currently in the lead, thanks to a years-long push to control both the supply of lithium and develop massive new manufacturing capacity to meet global demand. As tensions rise between China and the United States however, companies are racing to find alternative supplies as the world transitions to more electric-based infrastructure systems.

That’s one reason why DuPont is making a push to prove out its extraction technologies.

The water filtration and purification service provider DuPont Water Solutions has teamed up with Vulcan Energy Resources, a developer of lithium mining and renewable energy projects, to test a new process for direct lithium extraction.

Current processes for mining lithium are bad for the environment (to put it mildly), involving heavy use of toxic chemicals and increasingly scarce water resources. This new joint project, which is being developed in the Upper Rhine Valley of Germany, would tap DuPont’s direct lithium extraction products and filtration expertise to mine and refine lithium in a more environmentally-friendly way, the company said.

Dr. Francis Wedin, Managing Director of Vulcan, said in a statement that “DuPont’s diverse set of products, which can be manufactured at scale, are likely to be well-suited to sustainably extract the lithium from the brine.”

DuPont is hoping to push the technology out across the mining industry and make its portfolio of sorbents, nanofiltration technologies, reverse osmosis filters, ion exchange resins, ultrafiltration, and close-circuit reverse osmosis products available to a wider group of customers.

A push by DuPont to become more involved in the lithium-mining business will heighten competition for startups like Lilac Solutions, which has developed its own technology for lithium extraction. The company has partnered with an Australian company, Controlled Thermal Resources, to develop lithium brine deposits in the Salton Sea, which is among California’s most blighted environmental disasters.

Last year, the Oakland-based startup announced a $20 million investment led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures (those folks are everywhere), the MIT-affiliated investment firm The Engine and early Uber investor Chris Sacca’s relatively new climate-focused fund, Lowercarbon Capital.

Outside Lilac, there’s been a stream of VC dollars flowing into the (non-crypto) mining business as software helps extraction companies operate more efficiently. Notable investments include high-tech prospectors like KoBold Minerals (another Breakthrough Energy Ventures portfolio company), which uses big data and machine learning to help pick better targets for mines and Lunasonde, which prospects from space using satellites.

Other solutions to the lithium problem are attracting investor attention, too. For Jeff Chamberlain, the founder and chief executive of the battery technology investment firm Volta Energy Technologies, an alternative may be found in “urban mining,” or the recycling of used lithium-ion batteries. For decades, lead-acid batteries have been recycled for their component materials, and Chamberlain expects that the lithium-ion supply chain will evolve to support more efficient reuse of existing materials as well.

There’s a slew of companies trying to prove Chamberlain right. They include businesses like Li-Cycle, which yesterday announced that it would go public through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in a deal that would value the company at $1.67 billion.

Meanwhile, privately-held and venture-backed startups are developing other recycling solutions. Battery Resourcers, a spinout from Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is focused on making cathode power converters from recycled scrap. Singapore-based Green Li-ion is another company that’s opening a recycling plant for lithium-ion battery cathodes, and Northvolt, a Swedish battery startup that was founded by former Tesla executives in 2016, already has an experimental recycling plant up and running.

Finally there’s J.B. Straubel’s Nevada-based startup Redwood Materials, which was one of the first companies to receive funding from Amazon through its Climate Pledge Fund.

“Ultimately we won’t have to extract lithium out of rock. We can extract lithium from pools and using urban mining,” said Chamberlain. Call it Mining 1.0, Version 2 — but it’s just the kind of investment our world needs if we are going to secure a better climate future.

Mars rover Perseverance touches down tomorrow – how to watch and what to expect

By Devin Coldewey

There will be one more robot on Mars tomorrow afternoon. The Perseverance rover will touch down just before 1:00 Pacific, beginning a major new expedition to the planet and kicking off a number of experiments — from a search for traces of life to the long-awaited Martian helicopter. Here’s what you can expect from Perseverance tomorrow and over the next few years.

It’s a big, complex mission — and like the Artemis program, is as much about preparing for the future, in which people will visit the Red Planet, as it is about learning more about it in the present. Perseverance is ambitious even among missions to Mars.

If you want to follow along live, NASA TV’s broadcast of the landing starts at 11:15 AM Pacific, providing context and interviews as the craft makes its final approach:

Until then, however, you might want to brush up on what Perseverance will be getting up to.

Seven months of anticipation and seven minutes of terror

Illustration of the Perseverance landing capsule entering the Martian atmosphere like a meteor.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

First, the car-sized rover has to get to the surface safely. It’s been traveling for seven months to arrive at the Red Planet, its arrival heralded by new orbiters from the UAE and China, which both arrived last week.

Perseverance isn’t looking to stick around in orbit, however, and will plunge directly into the thin atmosphere of Mars. The spacecraft carrying the rover has made small adjustments to its trajectory to be sure that it enters at the right time and angle to put Perseverance above its target, the Jezero crater.

The process of deceleration and landing will take about seven minutes once the craft enters the atmosphere. The landing process is the most complex and ambitious ever undertaken by an interplanetary mission, and goes as follows.

After slowing down in the atmosphere like a meteor to a leisurely 940 MPH or so, the parachute will deploy, slowing the descender over the next minute or two to a quarter of that speed. At the same time, the heat shield will separate, exposing the instruments on the underside of the craft.

Perseverance rover and its spacecraft in an exploded view showing its several main components.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a crucial moment, as the craft will then autonomously — there’s no time to send the data to Earth — scan the area below it with radar and other instruments and find what it believes to be an optimal landing location.

Once it does so, from more than a mile up, the parachute will detach and the rover will continue downwards in a “powered descent” using a sort of jetpack that will take it down to just 70 feet above the surface. At this point the rover detaches, suspended at the end of a 21-foot “Sky Crane,” and as the jetpack descends the cable extends; once it touches down, the jetpack boosts itself away, Sky Crane and all, to crash somewhere safely distant.

All that takes place in about 410 seconds, during which time the team will be sweating madly and chewing their pencils. It’s all right here in this diagram for quick reference:

Diagram showing the various parts of the Perseverance landing process

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And for the space geeks who want a little more detail, check out this awesome real-time simulation of the whole process. You can speed up, slow down, check the theoretical nominal velocities and forces, and so on.

Rocking the crater

Illustration of Perseverance very small against a Martian landscape.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Other rovers and orbiters have been turning up promising signs of life on Mars for years: the Mars Express Orbiter discovered liquid water under the surface in 2018; Curiosity found gaseous hints of life in 2019; Spirit and Opportunity found tons of signs that life could have been supported during their incredibly long missions.

Jezero Crater was chosen as a region rich in possibilities for finding evidence of life, but also a good venue for many other scientific endeavors.

The most similar to previous missions are the geology and astrobiology goals. Jezero was “home to an ancient delta, flooded with water.” Tons of materials coalesce in deltas that not only foster life, but record its presence. Perseverance will undertake a detailed survey of the area in which it lands to help characterize the former climate of Mars.

Part of that investigation will specifically test for evidence of life, such as deposits of certain minerals in patterns likely to have resulted from colonies of microbes rather than geological processes. It’s not expected that the rover will stumble across any living creatures, but you know the team all secretly hope this astronomically unlikely possibility will occur.

One of the more future-embracing science goals is to collect and sequester samples from the environment in a central storage facility, which can then be sent back to Earth — though they’re still figuring out how to handle that last detail. The samples themselves will be carefully cut from the rock rather than drilled or chipped out, leaving them in pristine condition for analysis later.

Animated image showing how Perseverance could travel and retravel certain routes to bring items to a central location.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance will spend some time doubling back on its path to place as many as 30 capsules full of sampled material in a central depot, which will be kept sealed until such a time as they can be harvested and returned to Earth.

The whole time the rover will be acting as a mobile science laboratory, taking all kinds of readings as it goes. Some of the signs of life it’s looking for only result from detailed analysis of the soil, for instance, so sophisticating imaging and spectroscopy instruments are on board, PIXL and SHERLOC. It also carries a ground-penetrating radar (RIMFAX) to observe the fine structure of the landscape beneath it. And MEDA will continuously take measurements of temperature, wind, pressure, dust characteristics, and so on.

Of course the crowd-pleasing landscapes and “selfies” NASA’s rovers have become famous for will also be beamed back to Earth regularly. It has 19 cameras, though mostly they’ll be used for navigation and science purposes.

Exploring takes a little MOXIE and Ingenuity

Animated image showing the Ingenuity Mars helicopter taking off and flying on Mars.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance is part of NASA’s long-term plan to visit the Red Planet in person, and it carries a handful of tech experiments that could contribute to that mission.

The most popular one, and for good reason, is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. This little solar-powered two-rotor craft will be the first ever demonstration of powered flight on another planet (the jetpack Perseverance rode in on doesn’t count).

The goals are modest: the main one is simply to take off and hover in the thin air a few feet off the ground for 20 to 30 seconds, then land safely. This will provide crucial real-world data about how a craft like this will perform on Mars, how much dust it kicks up, and all kinds of other metrics that future aerial craft will take into account. If the first flight goes well, the team plans additional ones that may look like the GIF above.

Being able to fly around on another planet would be huge for science and exploration, and eventually for industry and safety when people are there. Drones are have already become crucial tools for all kinds of surveying, rescue operations, and other tasks here on Earth — why wouldn’t it be the same case on Mars? Plus it’ll get some great shots from its onboard cameras.

Image of the MOXIE device, which will isolate oxygen from Mars's atmosphere.

MOXIE is the other forward-looking experiment, and could be even more important (though less flashy) than the helicopter. It stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, and it’s all about trying to make breathable oxygen from the planet’s thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere.

This isn’t about making oxygen to breathe, though it could be used for that too. MOXIE is about making oxygen at scales large enough that it could be used to provide rocket fuel for future takeoffs. Though if habitats like these ever end up getting built, it will be good to have plenty of O2 on hand just in case.

For a round trip to Mars, sourcing fuel from the there rather than trucking all the way from Earth to burn on the way back is an immense improvement in many ways. The 30-50 tons of liquid oxygen that would normally be brought over in the tanks could instead be functional payloads, and that kind of tonnage goes a long way when you’re talking about freeze-dried food, electronics, and other supplies.

MOXIE will be attempting, at a small scale (it’s about the size of a car battery, and future oxygen generators would be a hundred times bigger), to isolate oxygen from the CO2 surrounding it. The team is expecting about 10 grams per hour, but it will only be on intermittently so as not to draw too much power. With luck it’ll be enough of a success that this method can be pursued more seriously in the near future.

Self-roving technology

An orbital image of the Jezero Crater region of Mars with a potential path for the rover on it.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the big challenges for previous rovers is that they have essentially been remote controlled with a 30-mintue delay — scientists on Earth examine the surroundings, send instructions like go forward 40 centimeters, turn front wheels 5 degrees to the right, go 75 centimeters, etc. This not only means a lot of work for the team but a huge delay as the rover makes moves, waits half an hour for more instructions to arrive, then repeats the process over and over.

Perseverance breaks with its forbears with a totally new autonomous navigation system. It has high resolution, wide-angle color cameras and a dedicated processing unit for turning images into terrain maps and choosing paths through them, much like a self-driving car.

Being able to go farther on its own means the rover can cover far more ground. The longest drive ever recorded in a single Martian day was 702 feet by Opportunity (RIP). Perseverance will aim to cover about that distance on average, and with far less human input. Chances are it’ll set a new record pretty quickly once it’s done tiptoeing around for the first few days.

In fact the first 30 sols after the terrifying landing will be mostly checks, double checks, instrument deployments, more checks, and rather unimpressive-looking short rolls around the immediate area. But remember, if all goes well, this thing could still be rolling around Mars in 10 or 15 years when people start showing up. This is just the very beginning of a long, long mission.

Notable Health seeks to improve COVID-19 vaccine administration through intelligent automation

By Sophie Burkholder

Efficient and cost-effective vaccine distribution remains one of the biggest challenges of 2021, so it’s no surprise that startup Notable Health wants to use their automation platform to help. Initially started to help address the nearly $250 billion annual administrative costs in healthcare, Notable Health launched in 2017 to use automation to replace time-consuming and repetitive simple tasks in health industry admin. In early January of this year, they announced plans to use that technology as a way to help manage vaccine distribution.

“As a physician, I saw firsthand that with any patient encounter, there are 90 steps or touchpoints that need to occur,” said Notable Health medical director Muthu Alagappan in an interview. “It’s our hypothesis that the vast majority of those points can be automated.”

Notable Health’s core technology is a platform that uses robotic process automation (RPA), natural language processing (NLP), and machine learning to find eligible patients for the COVID-19 vaccine. Combined with data provided by hospital systems’ electronic health records, the platform helps those qualified to receive the vaccine set up appointments and guides them to other relevant educational resources.

“By leveraging intelligent automation to identify, outreach, educate and triage patients, health systems can develop efficient and equitable vaccine distribution workflows,” said Notable Health strategic advisor and Biden Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board Member Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, in a press release.

Making vaccine appointments has been especially difficult for older Americans, many of whom have reportedly struggled with navigating scheduling websites. Alagappan sees that as a design problem. “Technology often gets a bad reputation, because it’s hampered by the many bad technology experiences that are out there,” he said.

Instead, he thinks Notable Health has kept the user in mind through a more simplified approach, asking users only for basic and easy-to-remember information through a text message link. “It’s that emphasis on user-centric design that I think has allowed us to still have really good engagement rates even with older populations,” he said.

While the startup’s platform will likely help hospitals and health systems develop a more efficient approach to vaccinations, its use of RPA and NLP holds promise for future optimization in healthcare. Leaders of similar technology in other industries have already gone on to have multi-billion dollar valuations, and continue to attract investors’ interest.

Artificial intelligence is expected to grow in healthcare over the next several years, but Alagappan argues that combining that with other, more readily available intelligent technologies is also an important step towards improved care. “When we say intelligent automation, we’re really referring to the marriage of two concepts: artificial intelligence—which is knowing what to do—and robotic process automation—which is knowing how to do it,” he said. That dual approach is what he says allows Notable Health to bypass administrative bottlenecks in healthcare, instructing bots to carry out those tasks in an efficient and adaptable way.

So far, Notable Health has worked with several hospital systems across multiple states in using their platform for vaccine distribution and scheduling, and are now using the platform to reach out to tens of thousands of patients per day.

Axiom Space raises $130 million for its commercial space station ambitions

By Darrell Etherington

One of the new space startups with the loftiest near-term goals has raised $130 million in a Series B round that demonstrates investor confidence in the scope of its ambitions: Axiom Space, which has been tapped by NASA to add privately-developed space station modules to the ISS, announced the new funding led by C5 Capital on Tuesday.

This is the latest in a string of high-profile announcements for Axiom, which was founded in 2016 by a team including space professionals with a history of demonstrated expertise working on the International Space Station. Eventually, Axiom hopes to go from adding the first private commercial modules to the existing station, to creating their own, wholly private on-orbital platforms – for research, space tourism and more.

Axiom announced the people who will take part it it first ever private astronaut launch to the ISS, which is set to fly next January using a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. Axiom is the service provider for the mission, brokering the deal for the private spacefarers and setting up training and mission profile. That should be the first time we see a crew made up entirely of private individuals (ie., not astronauts selected, trained and employed by their respective national government) make its way to the station.

The company was also in discussions with Tom Cruise about filming at least part of an upcoming film aboard the ISS, and it’s in development with a production company on a forthcoming competition reality show that will see contestants vie for a spot on a private flight to the station.

Axiom is emerging as the leading linkage between private human spaceflight and the existing infrastructure and industry, covering both public sector partners like NASA, and the ‘rails’ of the bourgeoning industry – SpaceX and its ilk. It’s been focused on this unique opportunity longer than most in the private market, and it has all the relationships and in-house expertise to make it work.

This new, significant injection of capital will help the company hire, as well as boost its ability to construct the pieces of its forthcoming private space station modules, as well as its eventual station itself. The Houston-based company aims to put its ISS modules on the station by 2024, and it has raised $150 million to date.

Scientists Can Literally Become Allergic to Their Research

By Hannah Thomasy
Researchers spend long periods of time around the organisms they study. Sometimes, that exposure has unintended—and potentially deadly—effects.

We Need a Global Outbreak Investigation Team—Now

By Megan Molteni
The WHO’s fact-finding mission into the origins of Covid-19 was limited and late. But there are models to help prepare for the next crisis.

Researchers Levitated a Small Tray Using Nothing but Light

By Max G. Levy
One day a “magic carpet” based on this light-induced flow technology could carry climate sensors high in the atmosphere—wind permitting.

Vaccine Progress, New Mask Guidelines, and More News

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

As More Women Enter Science, It’s Time to Redefine Mentorship

By Grace Huckins
In STEM fields, female students often can’t find an adviser who looks like them. It’s important to talk about what they need from a mentor.

NASA Wants to Set a New Radiation Limit for Astronauts

By Eric Niiler
As the agency considers sending people to the moon and Mars, it’s taking a fresh look at the research on cancer risk and recalculating acceptable thresholds.

Premature Babies and the Lonely Terror of a Pandemic NICU

By Eva Holland
Baby Olivia weighed 1 pound, 10 ounces. Her doctors faced a stressful paradox: giving her the healing power of a parent's touch, while keeping the virus out.

Listen to an 18,000-Year-Old Instrument Sing Once More

By Matt Simon
Long, long ago, a human modified a conch shell to belt out a tune. Here's how scientists resurrected its triumphant sound.

How This Teeny-Tiny Sea Critter Punches Like Mike Tyson

By Matt Simon
Using a camera shooting 300,000 frames per second, researchers catch the amphipod snapping its extraordinarily powerful claw.

Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

By Kirsten Korosec

Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million toward a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

Am donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 21, 2021

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible products such as converting ethanol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks. Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

Alphabet shuts down Loon internet balloon company

By Manish Singh

Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, is done exploring the idea of using a fleet of balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

The firm said on Thursday evening that it was winding down Loon, a nine-year-old project and a two-and-a-half-year-old spin off firm, after failing to find a sustainable business model and partners.

The demise of Loon comes a year after the Android-maker ended Google Station, its other major connectivity effort to bring internet to the next billion users. Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.

That said, Alphabet’s move today is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from the government of Kenya to launch first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.

On its website, Loon has long stated its mission as: “Loon is focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world. We are in discussions with telecommunications companies and governments worldwide to provide a solution to help extend internet connectivity to these underserved areas.”

Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — if not, the two firms are going to have to answer some difficult feasibility questions of their own in the future.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.

“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The blog post characterised Loon’s connectivity effort as success. “The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.

What happens next

In a separate blog post, the firm said it had pledged a fund of $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focussed on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.

Alphabet also plans to “take some of Loon’s technology” forward and share what it learned from this moonshot idea with others.

Additionally, “some of Loon’s technology — like the high bandwidth (20Gbps+) optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between balloons bopping in the stratosphere — already lives on in Project Taara. This team is currently working with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring affordable, high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities starting in Kenya,” the firm said.

Scores of firms including Google and Facebook have visibly scaled down several of their connectivity efforts in recent years after many developing nations such as India that they targeted solved their internet problems on their own.

It has also become clear that subsidizing internet access to hundreds of millions of potential users is perhaps not the most sustainable way to acquire customers.

8 VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021

By Sarah Buhr

In TechCrunch investor surveys of years past, we’ve seen a big focus on fixing what’s broken or bringing the infrastructure into the modern era. But the world has dramatically changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More of us saw our doctor on video than ever before in 2020 — reaching a 300-fold increase in telehealth visits. It was the year healthcare finally moved fully into the digital space with data management solutions as well. And, though those digital visits have fallen slightly from the beginning of the pandemic, it doesn’t look like people want to go back to the way things were in the foreseeable future.

Now we’re onto the next phase where more people will be getting vaccinated, more of us will likely start to return to the office towards the end of the year, and there’s now a slew of new tech solutions to the issues 2020 presented. If you are investment-minded, as so many of our TechCrunch readers are, you will likely see a lot of potential in this space in 2021.

So we asked some of our favorite health tech VCs from The TechCrunch List where we are headed in the next year, what they’re most excited about and where they might be investing their dollars next. We asked each of them the same six questions, and each provided similar thoughts, but different approaches. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity:


Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocker, partners, Venrock

Do you see more consumer demand for digital services? How does this trend affect what you are looking to invest in for 2021?
The pandemic certainly intensified pressure on the legacy, fee-for-service, activity-based healthcare system since volumes dried up for several months. People were scared to go to the doctor and doctors who are only paid when they see patients saw their revenue evaporate overnight. Telemedicine offered some revenue salvation fee-for-service healthcare but it was impossible to do as many tests and procedures so they have by and large, since summer 2020, reverted back to in-person as much as possible for increased revenue capture.

On the other hand, value-based providers were, in the short term, more insulated as they are paid based on typical levels of utilization. Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has motivated more providers to embrace value-based care because it offers much more stable cash flows and does not depend on the tyranny of cramming more patients into the daily schedule.

With value-based care, the incentives are strongly aligned for more, and continued, tech-enabled virtual care since it is more profitable for those clinicians when they detect diseases earlier and take action to avoid hospitalizations. The beauty of virtual and tech-enabled care is that it can be delivered more frequently and group visits can be facilitated easily, with multiple specialists or people supporting a patient, to improve coordination and speed of action. Also, much more data can be brought to bear to make these interactions higher quality. Imagine how much better blood pressure is controlled when a doctor has not just the in-office reading but also all of the daily readings, or diabetic control when it is informed by all the data from a patient’s continuous glucose monitor, or post-surgical care when a surgeon can review daily pictures of the surgical site.

The enormity of the opportunity to make healthcare more productive and recession-proof growth from our aging population will attract more entrepreneurs and more capital to healthcare IT.

Digital health funding broke records in 2020, with investors pouring in over $10 billion in the first three quarters and a jump in deals overall, compared to the previous year. Do you see that trend continuing as we move back to offices and out of this pandemic or do you think this was a blip due to special circumstances?

We think growth in healthcare IT has been and will continue to be, driven by (1) better businesses and business models via aligned economic incentives and information and (2) some big wins in the space via Teladoc-Livongo merger and JD Health IPO — so both sides of the supply (great businesses) — demand (investor interest) equation. For payers, many healthcare providers and patients, it is in their interest to adopt more cost-effective approaches for care delivery and to access new data to derive insights and remove arbitrages. These prerequisites are strongly aligned in favor of more healthcare IT company formation, rapid growth and successful exits.

While people may spend more time receiving in-person HC in the future than today, we think the rapid adoption of virtual care in 2020 coupled with ever-stronger incentives for the healthcare system to emulate consumer technology usability and the never-ending imperative of improving affordability, will continue to drive demand for startups. We also think that downward cost pressures will drive demand for technology to replace fax-machine-era, labor-first administrative processes too.

What do you think are the biggest trends to look out for in the digital healthcare industry this next year, given we are likely toward the end of the year to see more workers return to the office and everyone resuming activities as they did before this pandemic hit?

We think that telehealth will become the “Intel Inside” for many of the full stack healthcare IT businesses — Medicare Advantage payers, navigation companies, virtual pharmacies, virtual primary care practices — and that patients will continue to embrace telehealth. As a result, payers will increasingly redesign how insurance benefits work to encourage every patient to start with a telehealth visit every time. In many cases, telehealth will be able to fully resolve the problem and if not, guide the patient, along with the relevant data, to the best next step in care. This will improve responsiveness and reduce costs. We do think that brick-and-mortar players will lag behind since they continue to have strong incentives for in-person care and procedures to cover their large fixed costs.

COVID-19 has also made inescapable the inadequacy of behavioral healthcare in America. We have observed this firsthand through our investment in Lyra Health, which experienced dramatic growth in 2020. We think greater access to behavioral health, better coordination of behavioral health and primary care, better use of medications and tech-enabled care for more complex behavioral health conditions are all large opportunities.

We also foresee virtual care growing in more specialty care areas as patients demand more convenient ways to access specialist expertise and value-based primary care doctors desire more rapid and cost-effective ways to co-manage patients.

How will the Biden administration possibly affect your funding strategy in the digital health field now that there’s a change of the guard?

Economic incentives to lower healthcare cost growth and the desire to use information and data to find arbitrages and insights are as aligned as ever. Remember, the law driving the adoption of new payment models is MACRA, which passed the Senate in a bipartisan 92-8 vote in 2015. This implies an uninterrupted effort to drive the adoption of value-based care in Medicare, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid. A Biden administration will also continue efforts to create more interoperable data systems and support telehealth adoption.

A Biden administration also reduces uncertainty around the permanence of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They instead will focus their efforts on expanding coverage through enhanced subsidies to buy insurance, more marketing of ACA plans, greater support for e-broker enrollment and strong incentives for states to expand Medicaid. And we do not think Medicare for All will be seriously considered by a ~50/50 Senate, although it will likely be spoken about periodically and loudly by the far left.

What’s the biggest category in your mind for digital health this next year? Why is that?

“Technology-enabled, virtual-everything” as the initial journey in healthcare, until you need to visit a facility because in-person is necessary. In 2020, we witnessed about a decade of user adoption compressed into six months as COVID-19 made it scary, or even impossible, to access in-person healthcare. Nearly every clinician in America, and at about half of the population, conducted a virtual healthcare visit in 2020. What happened? Patients liked it. Clinicians found virtual visits useful. And going forward we think that most care will incorporate aspects of virtual care, asynchronous communication and in-person encounters only when a procedure is needed. As importantly, payers found these approaches to be more cost-effective since care was delivered more rapidly and with only the most necessary diagnostics tests ordered.

Finally, are there any rising startups in your portfolio we should keep our eyes on at TechCrunch? 

We have two portfolio companies that may be very compelling candidates:  Suki and NewCo Health.

Suki has created a virtual medical assistant that acts as a voice user interface for electronic health records, enabling a doctor to write their clinical notes, enter orders, view information and exchange data with other providers dramatically and more efficiently. They have launched primary care and specialist doctors across dozens of health systems in 2020.

NewCo Health is a startup trying to democratize access to world-class cancer outcomes. Starting initially in Asia, they are tech-enabling the diagnosis, treatment planning and care management processes for cancer patients, connecting expert clinicians to every cancer case.

MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips

By Darrell Etherington

MIT researchers are looking to address the significant gap between how quickly robots can process information (relatively slowly), and how fast they can move (very quickly thanks to modern hardware advances), and they’re using something called “robomorphic computing” to do it. The method, designed by MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) graduate Dr. Sabrina Neuman, results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.

Custom-built chips tailored to a very specific purpose are not new — if you’re using a modern iPhone, you have one in that device right now. But they have become more popular as companies and technologists look to do more local computing on devices with more conservative power and computing constraints, rather than round-tripping data to large data centers via network connections.

In this case, the method involves creating hyper-specific chips that are designed based on a robot’s physical layout and its intended use. By taking into account the requirements a robot has in terms of its perception of its surroundings, its mapping and understanding of its position within those surroundings, and its motion planning resulting from said mapping and its required actions, researchers can design processing chips that greatly increase the efficiency of that last stage by supplementing software algorithms with hardware acceleration.

The classic example of hardware acceleration that most people encounter on a regular basis is a graphics processing unit, or GPU. A GPU is essentially a processor designed specifically for the task of handling graphical computing operations — like display rendering and video playback. GPUs are popular because almost all modern computers run into graphics-intensive applications, but custom chips for a range of different functions have become much more popular lately thanks to the advent of more customizable and efficient small-run chip fabrication techniques.

Here’s a description of how Neuman’s system works specifically in the case of optimizing a hardware chip design for robot control, per MIT News:

The system creates a customized hardware design to best serve a particular robot’s computing needs. The user inputs the parameters of a robot, like its limb layout and how its various joints can move. Neuman’s system translates these physical properties into mathematical matrices. These matrices are “sparse,” meaning they contain many zero values that roughly correspond to movements that are impossible given a robot’s particular anatomy. (Similarly, your arm’s movements are limited because it can only bend at certain joints — it’s not an infinitely pliable spaghetti noodle.)

The system then designs a hardware architecture specialized to run calculations only on the non-zero values in the matrices. The resulting chip design is therefore tailored to maximize efficiency for the robot’s computing needs. And that customization paid off in testing.

Neuman’s team used a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is sort of like a midpoint between a fully custom chip and an off-the-shelf CPU, and it achieved significantly better performance than the latter. That means that were you to actually custom manufacture a chip from scratch, you could expect much more significant performance improvements.

Making robots react faster to their environments isn’t just about increasing manufacturing speed and efficiency — though it will do that. It’s also about making robots even safer to work with in situations where people are working directly alongside and in collaboration with them. That remains a significant barrier to more widespread use of robotics in everyday life, meaning this research could help unlock the sci-fi future of humans and robots living in integrated harmony.

Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

By Darrell Etherington

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

Vaping Won't Keep Young People From Smoking Cigarettes Later

By Sara Harrison
It won't prevent teens from later becoming smokers. But some health experts say that focusing on the risk of addicting new smokers cuts off a chance to help adults quit.
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