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Companies betting on data must value people as much as AI

By Ram Iyer
Asaf Cohen Contributor
Asaf Cohen is co-founder and CEO at Metrolink.ai, a data operations platform.

The Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, asserts that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes, rendering the remainder way less impactful.

Those working with data may have heard a different rendition of the 80-20 rule: A data scientist spends 80% of their time at work cleaning up messy data as opposed to doing actual analysis or generating insights. Imagine a 30-minute drive expanded to two-and-a-half hours by traffic jams, and you’ll get the picture.

As tempting as it may be to think of a future where there is a machine learning model for every business process, we do not need to tread that far right now.

While most data scientists spend more than 20% of their time at work on actual analysis, they still have to waste countless hours turning a trove of messy data into a tidy dataset ready for analysis. This process can include removing duplicate data, making sure all entries are formatted correctly and doing other preparatory work.

On average, this workflow stage takes up about 45% of the total time, a recent Anaconda survey found. An earlier poll by CrowdFlower put the estimate at 60%, and many other surveys cite figures in this range.

None of this is to say data preparation is not important. “Garbage in, garbage out” is a well-known rule in computer science circles, and it applies to data science, too. In the best-case scenario, the script will just return an error, warning that it cannot calculate the average spending per client, because the entry for customer #1527 is formatted as text, not as a numeral. In the worst case, the company will act on insights that have little to do with reality.

The real question to ask here is whether re-formatting the data for customer #1527 is really the best way to use the time of a well-paid expert. The average data scientist is paid between $95,000 and $120,000 per year, according to various estimates. Having the employee on such pay focus on mind-numbing, non-expert tasks is a waste both of their time and the company’s money. Besides, real-world data has a lifespan, and if a dataset for a time-sensitive project takes too long to collect and process, it can be outdated before any analysis is done.

What’s more, companies’ quests for data often include wasting the time of non-data-focused personnel, with employees asked to help fetch or produce data instead of working on their regular responsibilities. More than half of the data being collected by companies is often not used at all, suggesting that the time of everyone involved in the collection has been wasted to produce nothing but operational delay and the associated losses.

The data that has been collected, on the other hand, is often only used by a designated data science team that is too overworked to go through everything that is available.

All for data, and data for all

The issues outlined here all play into the fact that save for the data pioneers like Google and Facebook, companies are still wrapping their heads around how to re-imagine themselves for the data-driven era. Data is pulled into huge databases and data scientists are left with a lot of cleaning to do, while others, whose time was wasted on helping fetch the data, do not benefit from it too often.

The truth is, we are still early when it comes to data transformation. The success of tech giants that put data at the core of their business models set off a spark that is only starting to take off. And even though the results are mixed for now, this is a sign that companies have yet to master thinking with data.

Data holds much value, and businesses are very much aware of it, as showcased by the appetite for AI experts in non-tech companies. Companies just have to do it right, and one of the key tasks in this respect is to start focusing on people as much as we do on AIs.

Data can enhance the operations of virtually any component within the organizational structure of any business. As tempting as it may be to think of a future where there is a machine learning model for every business process, we do not need to tread that far right now. The goal for any company looking to tap data today comes down to getting it from point A to point B. Point A is the part in the workflow where data is being collected, and point B is the person who needs this data for decision-making.

Importantly, point B does not have to be a data scientist. It could be a manager trying to figure out the optimal workflow design, an engineer looking for flaws in a manufacturing process or a UI designer doing A/B testing on a specific feature. All of these people must have the data they need at hand all the time, ready to be processed for insights.

People can thrive with data just as well as models, especially if the company invests in them and makes sure to equip them with basic analysis skills. In this approach, accessibility must be the name of the game.

Skeptics may claim that big data is nothing but an overused corporate buzzword, but advanced analytics capacities can enhance the bottom line for any company as long as it comes with a clear plan and appropriate expectations. The first step is to focus on making data accessible and easy to use and not on hauling in as much data as possible.

In other words, an all-around data culture is just as important for an enterprise as the data infrastructure.

Facebook engineers develop new open source time keeping appliance

By Ron Miller

Most people probably don’t realize just how much our devices are time driven, whether it’s your phone, your laptop or a network server. For the most part, time keeping has been an esoteric chore, taken care of by a limited number of hardware manufacturers. While these devices served their purpose, a couple of Facebook engineers decided there had to be a better way. So they built a new more accurate time keeping device that fits on a PCI Express (PCIe) card, and contributed it to the Open Compute Project as an open source project.

At a basic level, says Olag Obleukhov, a production engineer at Facebook, it’s simply pinging this time-keeping server to make sure each device is reporting the same time. “Almost every single electronic device today uses NTP — Network Time Synchronization Protocol — which you have on your phone, on your watch, on your laptop, everywhere, and they all connect to these NTP servers where they just go and say, ‘what time is it’ and the NTP server provides the time,” he explained.

Before Facebook developed a new way of doing this, there were basically two ways to check the time. If you were a developer, you probably used something like Facebook.com as a time checking mechanism, but a company like Facebook, working at massive scale, needed something that worked even when there wasn’t an internet connection. Companies running data centers have a hardware device called Stratum One, which is a big box that sits in the data center, and has no other job than acting as the time keeper.

Because these time-keeping boxes were built by a handful of companies over years, they were solid and worked, but it was hard to get new features. What’s more, companies like Facebook couldn’t control the boxes because of their proprietary nature. Obleukhov and his colleague research scientist, Ahmad Byagowi began to attack the problem by looking for a way to create these devices by building a PCIe card with off-the-shelf parts that you could stick into any PC with an open slot.

Facebook time keeping PCI card

Image Credits: Facebook

They literally drew the first design on an iPad and began to build that vision into a prototype. A time appliance relies on a couple of key components: a GNSS receiver and what’s called a high stability oscillator. In a blog post describing the project, Obleukhov and Byagowi explained the role of these two parts:

“It all starts from a GNSS receiver that provides the time of day (ToD) as well as the 1 pulse per second (PPS). When the receiver is backed by a high-stability oscillator (e.g., an atomic clock or an oven-controlled crystal oscillator), it can provide time that is nanosecond-accurate. The time is delivered across the network via an off-the-shelf network card,” the two engineers wrote.

It all sounds pretty basic when described like this, but it’s actually quite complex and perhaps that’s why nobody had ever thought to attack the problem in this way, simply accepting that the current methods of determining time worked fine. But these two Facebook engineers were annoyed by the limitations of these approaches and decided to build something better themselves.

“A lot of it came from frustration. We were frustrated with whatever exists in the market, and we needed certain features like security features to maintain different things and monitor what’s going on. And we had to always ask the vendors [for these new features] and every time a request would take like six months to one year, and [it wouldn’t be exactly what we wanted] and we had to change things all the time, so that’s why we had to basically make this from scratch in this way,” Obleukhov said.

One thing that made it possible to put a time keeping device on a PCIe card was the advances in miniaturization of the atomic clock/oscillator. So when you combine the timing of their frustration with the current capabilities of the technologies, they realized they could do this themselves if they dedicated themselves to the task.

As the design began coming together, the engineers decided to make it flexible to enable engineers to play off the basic design and drop in whatever components met their needs. Some might need highly sophisticated expensive parts, but others could get away with much cheaper parts, depending on their requirements.

They also decided early on to open source the design process, and to involve the Open Compute Project so that other companies and engineers could contribute to the design. “It was actually going to be open source from the get-go, and the reason for that is we needed to have community support. I didn’t want it to be just one in-house project and let’s say if I lost interest or the businesses lost interest [it could go away]. I wanted this to [keep going] regardless [of what happened],” Obleukhov said.

Today there are a dozen vendors involved in the project and a number of cards out there including the one designed by these engineers, as well as a commercial offering from Orilia, but the goal is to continue improving the design, and by making it open source, the community of companies and engineers involved will continue to improve it.

The best way to grow your tech career? Treat it like an app

By Ram Iyer
Raj Yavatkar Contributor
As CTO, Raj Yavatkar is responsible for charting Juniper Networks' technology strategy through the execution of the company’s innovations and products for intelligent self-driving networks, security, mobile edge cloud, network virtualization, packet-optical integration and hybrid cloud.

Software developers and engineers have rarely been in higher demand. Organizations’ need for technical talent is skyrocketing, but the supply is quite limited. As a result, software professionals have the luxury of being very choosy about where they work and usually command big salaries.

In 2020, the U.S. had nearly 1.5 million full-time developers, who earned a median salary of around $110,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the next 10 years, the federal agency estimates, developer jobs will grow by 22% to 316,000.

But what happens after a developer or engineer lands that sweet gig? Are they able to harness their skills and grow in interesting and challenging new directions? Do they understand what it takes to move up the ladder? Are they merely doing a job or cultivating a rewarding professional life?

To put it bluntly, many developers and engineers stink at managing their own careers.

These are the kinds of questions that have gnawed at me throughout my 25 years in the tech industry. I’ve long noticed that, to put it bluntly, many developers and engineers stink at managing their own careers.

It’s simply not a priority for some. By nature, developers delight in solving complex technical challenges and working hard toward their company’s digital objectives. Care for their own careers may feel unattractively self-promotional or political — even though it’s in fact neither. Charting a career path may feel awkward or they just don’t know how to go about it.

Companies owe it to developers and engineers, and to themselves, to give these key people the tools to understand what it takes to be the best they can be. How else can developers and engineers be assured of continually great experiences while constantly expanding their contributions to their organizations?

Developers delight in solving complex challenges and working hard toward their company’s objectives. Care for their own careers may feel unattractively self-promotional or political — even though it’s in fact neither.

Coaching and mentoring can help, but I think a more formal management system is necessary to get the wind behind the sails of a companywide commitment to making developers and engineers believe that, as the late Andy Grove said, “Your career is your business and you are its CEO.”

That’s why I created a career development model for developers and engineers when I was an Intel Fellow at Intel between 2003 and 2013. This framework has since been put into practice at the three subsequent companies I worked at — Google, VMWare, and, now, Juniper Networks — through training sessions and HR processes.

The model is based on a principle that every developer can relate to: Treat career advancement as you would a software project.

That’s right, by thinking of career development in stages like those used in app production, developers and engineers can gain a holistic view of where they are in their professional lives, where they want to go and the gaps they need to fill.

Step 1: Functional specification

In software development, a team can’t get started until it has a functional specification that describes the app’s requirements and how it is supposed to perform and behave.

Why should a career be any different? In my model, folks begin by assessing the “functionality” expected of someone at their next career level and how they’re demonstrating them (or not). Typically, a person gets promoted to a higher level only when they already demonstrate that they are operating at that level.

Nothing Ear (1) review

By Brian Heater

Carl Pei says he looked around and saw a lot of the same. He’s not alone in that respect. Apple didn’t invent the fully wireless earbud with the first AirPods, but it did provide a kind of inflection point that sent many of its competitors hurtling toward a sort of homogeneity. You’d be hard-pressed to cite another consumer electronics category that matured and coalesced as quickly as Bluetooth earbuds, but finding something unique among the hordes is another question entirely.

These days, a pair of perfectly serviceable wireless earbuds are one click and $50 away. Spend $200, and you can get something truly excellent. But variety? That’s a different question entirely. Beyond choosing between a long-stemmed AirPods-style design and something a bit rounder, there’s really not a lot of diversification. Up until recently, features like active noise canceling and wireless charging bifurcated the category into premium and non-premium tiers, but they’ve both become increasingly ubiquitous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

So, let’s say you’re launching a new consumer hardware company in 2021. And let’s say you decided your first product is going to be a pair of earbuds. Where does that leave you? How are you going to not only differentiate yourself in a crowded market but compete alongside giants like Samsung, Google and Apple?

Price is certainly a factor, and $99 is aggressive. Pei seemed to regret pricing the Ear (1) at less than $100 in our first conversation. It’s probably safe to say Nothing’s not exactly going to be cleaning up on every unit sold. And much like his prior company — OnePlus — he seems reluctant to position cost as a defining characteristic.

In a conversation prior to the Ear (1) launch, Pei’s take on the state of the industry was a kind of “feature glut.” Certainly, there’s been a never-ending spec race across different categories over the last several years. And it’s true that it’s getting more difficult to differentiate based on features — look at what smartphone makers have been dealing with the last several years. Wireless headphones, meanwhile, jumped from the “exciting early-stage mess” stage to “the actually pretty good” stage in record time.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I do think there’s still room for feature differentiation. Take the recently launched NuraTrue headphones. That company has taken an opposite approach to arrive at earbuds, beginning with a specialized audio technology that it’s built three different headphone models around.

Pei noted in the Ear (1) launch presser that the company determined its aesthetic ideals prior to deciding what its first product would be. And true to form, its partnership with the design firm Teenage Engineering was announced well before a single image of the product appeared (the best we got in the early days was an early concept inspired by Pei’s grandmother’s tobacco pipe).

There are other ideals, as well — concepts about ecosystems, but those are the sorts of things that can only come after the release of multiple products. In the meantime, we’ve seen the product from all angles. I’m wearing the product in the ears and holding it in my hand (though I’m putting it down now; too hard to type).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The form factor certainly borrows from the AirPods, from the long stems to the white buds from which they protrude. You can’t say that they’re entirely their own thing in that respect. But perhaps a case can be made that the nature of fully wireless earbuds is, in and of itself, limiting in the manner of form factors it can accommodate. I’m certainly not a product designer, but they need to sit comfortably in your ears, and they can’t be too big or too heavy or protrude too much.

According to Pei, part of the product’s delayed launch was due to the company going back to the drawing board to rethink designs. What they ultimately arrived at was something recognizable as a pair of earbuds, while offering some unique flourishes. Transparency is the primary differentiator from an aesthetic standpoint. It comes into play in a big way with the case, which is unique, as these things go. With the buds themselves, most of the transparency happens on the stems.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In a vacuum, the buds look a fair bit like an Apple product. The glossy white finish and white silicone tips are a big part of that. The reason the entire buds aren’t transparent, as early renderings showed, is a simple and pragmatic one: the components in the buds are too unsightly. That brings us to another element in the product’s eventual delay: making a gadget clear requires putting thought into how things like components and glue look. It’s the same reason why there’s a big white strip in the middle of an otherwise clear case: charging components are ugly (sorry/not sorry).

It’s a potential recipe for overly busy design, but I think the team landed on something solid — and certainly distinctive. That alone should account for something in the homogeneous world of gadget design. And the company’s partnership with StockX should be a pretty clear indication of precisely the sorts of early adopters/influencers Nothing is going after here.

The Ear (1) buds are a lot more welcoming than any of the style-first experiments Will.i.am made in the category. And while they’re distinct, they don’t really stand out in the wild — which is to say, no one’s going to scream and point or stop you in the street to figure what’s going on with your ears (sorry, Will).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Ultimately, I dig the look. There are nice touches, as well. A red and white dot indicate the right and left buds, respectively, a nod to RCA and other audio cables. A subtle Nothing logo is etched in dotted text, bringing to mind circuit board printing. The letter extends to most of Nothing’s branding. It’s clear the design was masterminded by people who have spent a lot of time negotiating with supply-chain vendors. Notably, the times I spoke to Pei, he was often in and around Shenzhen rather than the company’s native London, hammering out last-minute supply issues.

The buds feel really great, too. I’ve noted my tendency to suffer from ear pain wearing various earbud designs for extended periods. On Monday, I took a four hour intra-borough walk and didn’t notice a thing. They also stayed in place like champs on visits to the gym. And not for nothing, but there’s an extremely satisfying magnetic snap when you place them back in the charging case (the red and white dots still apply).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is flat and square with rounded edges (a squircle, if you please). If it wasn’t clear, it might closely resemble a tin of mints. It also offers a pretty satisfying snap when shutting. Will be curious to see how well that stands up after several hundred — or thousand — openings and closings.

Though the company says it put the product through all of the standard drop and stress tests, it warns that even the strongest transparent plastic is still prone to scratching, particularly with a set of keys in the same pocket. Pei says that kind of battle scarring will ultimately be part of its charm, but the jury’s still out on that one. After a few days and no keys in close proximity, I have one long scratch across the bottom. I don’t feel any cooler, but you tell me.

A large concave circle on the top helps keep the lid from slamming into the earbuds when closing. It’s also a nice spot to put your thumb when fiddling around with the thing. I suspect it doubles to relieve some of that fidgeting we (I) usually release by absentmindedly flipping a case lid up and down. It’s a small, but thoughtful touch. Round back, you’ll find the USB-C charging port and Bluetooth sync button.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

On iOS, you’ll need to connect the buds both through the app and in the Bluetooth settings the first time. There are disadvantages when you don’t make your own operating system, chips and phones in addition to earbuds. That’s a minor (probably one-time) nuisance, though.

The Ear (1) are a decent sounding pair of $99 headphones. I won’t say I was blown away, but I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed that they don’t really go head-to-head with, say, the Sony WF-1000xM4 or even the new NuraTrue. These aren’t audiophile headphones, but they’re very much suitable for walking around the city, listening to music and podcasts.

The app offers a built-in equalizer tuned by Teenage Engineering with three settings: balanced, more treble/more bass, and voice (for podcasts, et al.). The differences are detectable, but pretty subtle, as far as these things go. As far as equalizer customizations go, it’s more point-and-shoot than DSLR, as Nothing doesn’t want you straying too far from the intended balance. After experimenting with all of the settings, I mostly stuck with the balanced setting. Feel free to judge me accordingly.

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There are three ANC settings, as well: noise cancellation, transparency and off. You can also titrate the noise cancellation between light and heavy. On the whole, the ANC did a fine job erasing a fair bit of street noise on my New York City walks, though even at heavy, it’s not going to, say, block out the sound of a car altogether. For my sake, that’s maybe for the best.

There’s also a built-in “find my earbud” setting that sends out a kind of piercing chirp so you can find the one that is inevitably trapped beneath your couch cushion.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

My big complaint day today is one I encountered with the NuraTrue. I ran into a number of Bluetooth connection dropouts. It’s a bit annoying when you’re really engrossed in a song or podcast. And again, it’s something you’re a lot less likely to encounter for those companies that build their own buds, phone, chips and operating systems. It’s a pretty tough thing to compete with for a brand-new startup.

I have quibbles, and in spite of months of excited teases, the Ear (1) buds aren’t going to turn the overcrowded category upside down. But it’s always exciting to see a new company enter the consumer hardware space — and deliver a solid first product out of the game. It’s an idiosyncratic take on the category at a nice price from a company worth keeping an eye on.

Preorders for Panic’s Playdate handheld open July 29

By Greg Kumparak

Playdate, the adorable whimsy-and-nostalgia-box/handheld game system built by Panic (with some help from Teenage Engineering), has taken one more big step toward reality: it has an official preorder date. And it’s soon!

The company announced this morning that preorders for the handheld will go live on July 29th at 10 a.m. Pacific.

Looking to get one from the first batch? Here’s the other stuff you need to know:

  • The handheld will cost $179, and they’ll be selling an optional case accessory for $29. They’re offering both as a bundle for $199, saving you a couple bucks if you already know you want both. No word yet on when the previously announced docking station will go on sale.
  • It sounds like the actual ship date still isn’t fully locked in, but Panic says the first batch (20,000 units or so) should start going out “towards the end of the year,” with additional units going out in 2022. The company stresses that they’re not capping preorders so they can’t really “sell out,” but ordering earlier means getting it sooner.
  • Preorders will be capped at two per person.

Panic first announced the Playdate in 2019. Games on the Playdate are released in “seasons”; in season one, two new titles will be released each week for 12 weeks. As experimental as it is charming, Panic is pretty open about what to expect of the titles. From their product page: “Some are short. Some are long. Will you love them all? Probably not. Will you have a great time trying them? Absolutely.”

 

Pivot Bio rakes in $430M round D as modified microbes prove their worth in agriculture

By Devin Coldewey

Pivot Bio makes fertilizer — but not directly. Its modified microorganisms are added to soil and they product nitrogen that would otherwise have had to be trucked in and dumped there. This biotech-powered approach can save farmers money and time and ultimately may be easier on the environment — a huge opportunity that investors have plowed $430 million into in the company’s latest funding round.

Nitrogen is among the nutrients crops need to survive and thrive, and it’s only by dumping fertilizer on the soil and mixing it in that farmers can keep growing at today’s rates. But in some ways we’re still doing what our forebears did generations ago.

“Fertilizer changed agriculture — it’s what made so much of the last century possible. But it’s not a perfect way to get nutrients to crops,” said Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio. He pointed out the simple fact that distributing fertilizer over a thousand — let alone ten thousand or more — acres of farmland is an immense mechanical and logistical challenge, involving many people, heavy machinery, and valuable time.

Not to mention the risk that a heavy rain might carry off a lot of the fertilizer before it’s absorbed and used, and the huge contributions of greenhouse gases the fertilizing process produces. (The microbe approach seems to be considerably better for the environment.)

Yet the reason we do this in the first place is essentially to imitate the work of microbes that live in the soil and produce nitrogen naturally. Plants and these microbes have a relationship going back millions of years, but the tiny organisms simply don’t produce enough. Pivot Bio’s insight when it started more than a decade ago was that a few tweaks could supercharge this natural nitrogen cycle.

“We’ve all known microbes were the way to go,” he said. “They’re naturally part of the root system — they were already there. They have this feedback loop, where if they detect fertilizer they don’t make nitrogen, to save energy. The only thing that we’ve done is, the portion of their genome responsible for producing nitrogen is offline, and we’re waking it up.”

Other agriculture-focused biotech companies like Indigo and AgBiome are also looking at modifying and managing the plant’s “microbiome,” which is to say the life that lives in the immediate vicinity of a given plant. A modified microbiome may be resistant to pests, reduce disease, or offer other benefits.

Illustration showing stages of modifying and deploying nitrogen-producing microbes.

Image Credits: Pivot Bio

It’s not so different from yeast, which as many know from experience works as a living rising agent. That microbe has been cultivated to consume sugar and produce a gas, which leads to the air pockets in baked goods. This microbe has been modified a bit more directly to continually consume the sugars put out by plants and put out nitrogen. And they can do it at rates that massively reduce the need for adding solid fertilizer to the soil.

“We’ve taken what is traditionally tons and tons of physical materials, and shrunk that into a powder, like baker’s yeast, that you can fit in your hand,” Temme said (though, to be precise, the product is applied as a liquid). “All of a sudden managing that farm gets a little easier. You free up the time you would have spent sitting in the tractor applying fertilizer to the field; you’ll add our product at the same time you’d be planting your seeds. And you have the confidence that if a rainstorm comes through in the spring, it’s not washing it all away. Globally about half of all fertilizer is washed away… but microbes don’t mind.”

Instead, the microbes just quietly sit in the soil pumping out nitrogen at a rate of up to 40 pounds per acre — a remarkably old-fashioned way to measure it (why not grams per square centimeter?) but perhaps in keeping with agriculture’s occasional anachronistic tendencies. Depending on the crop and environment that may be enough to do without added fertilizers at all, or it might be about half or less.

Whatever the proportion provided by the microbes, it must be tempting to employ them, because Pivot Bio tripled its revenue in 2021. You might wonder why they can be so sure only halfway through the year, but as they are currently only selling to farmers in the northern hemisphere and the product is applied at planting time early in the year, they’re done with sales for the year and can be sure it’s three times what they sold in 2020.

The microbes die off once the crop is harvested, so it’s not a permanent change to the ecosystem. And next year, when farmers come back for more, the organisms may well have been modified further. It’s not quite as simple as turning the nitrogen production on or off in the genome; the enzymatic pathway from sugar to nitrogen can be improved, and the threshold for when the microbes decide to undertake the process rather than rest can be changed as well. The latest iteration, Proven 40, has the yield mentioned above, but further improvements are planned, attracting potential customers on the fence about whether it’s worth the trouble to change tactics.

The potential for recurring revenue and growth (by their current estimate they are currently able to address about a quarter of a $200 billion total market) led to the current monster D round, which was led by DCVC and Temasek. There are about a dozen other investors, for which I refer readers to the press release, which lists them in no doubt a very carefully negotiated order.

Temme says the money will go towards deepening and broadening the platform and growing the relationship with farmers, who seem to be hooked after giving it a shot. Right now the microbes are specific to corn, wheat, and rice, which of course covers a great deal of agriculture, but there are many other corners of the industry that would benefit from a streamlined, enhanced nitrogen cycle. And it’s certainly a powerful validation of the vision Temme and his co-founder Alvin Tamsir had 15 years ago in grad school, he said. Here’s hoping that’s food for thought for those in that position now, wondering if it’s all worth it.

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