This was a HUGE week in space: SpaceX flew its first ever human spaceflight mission, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken hopping a ride on a Crew Dragon to the International Space Station. It’s a milestone for commercial spaceflight, for the U.S. space program, and for crewed exploration general.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – MAY 30: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft attached takes off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off today on an inaugural flight and will be the first people since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Bob and Doug took off at 3:22 PM EDT on Saturday, May 30 after a few days delay due to weather. The launch vehicle performed its duty beautifully, including sticking the landing on board SpaceX’s drone landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX followed up its textbook launch with a picture-perfect Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station, too. The ISS docking was fully automated, with SpaceX’s guidance and navigation systems handling the precise maneuver, which involves basically bumping the hatch of the capsule into the international docking adapter of the space station, after which point it runs a cycle of “hard sealing” the two together by driving metal pegs from one to the other.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken familiarize themselves with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the spacecraft that will transport them to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Their upcoming flight test is known as Demo-2, short for Demonstration Mission 2. The Crew Dragon will launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In March 2019, SpaceX completed an uncrewed flight test of Crew Dragon known as Demo-1, which was designed to validate end-to-end systems and capabilities, bringing NASA closer to certification of SpaceX systems to fly a crew.
SpaceX became the first commercial space company to ever fly humans on orbit on Saturday, and that’s going to have far-reaching impact. Just like it did with the launch industry, SpaceX has the potential to essentially create and entirely new market out of thin air now that it can successfully launch people into space for a (relatively) low price.
Plenty was shiny and new about SpaceX’s astronaut launch, including the touchscreen control panels that were installed on Crew Dragon for use by the astronauts in case they ever needed to take over manual control. Bob and Doug made use of those for some demonstration maneuvering before handing back over control of the ship, but the more eye-catching new toy on the ship were those SpaceX spacesuits, which come in black, gray and white and use the red NASA worm logo. Can’t wait for the general public launch of these babies.
Image Credits: NASASpaceflight.com (opens in a new window)
SpaceX has a really great week by any measure, but it wasn’t free of hiccups. At the company’s testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, one of its Starship prototypes met with a fiery end as it exploded following a static engine fire test. The development process for that future vehicle hasn’t been without some attention-grabbing test article rapid disassembles, but this was the most spectacular thus far.
Virgin Orbit also had a key demonstration flight last week – its first ever attempt to fly and launch its full system, including dropping its LauncherOne rocket from its carrier aircraft and having that make a try for space. LauncherOne didn’t make it to space – a malfunction caused its own flight to end just seconds after it started, but the company says a lot went right even if it didn’t make orbit on this try.
SpaceX and the U.S. Army have signed an agreement for military to test out use of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet network, in order to determine if it meets their needs in the field. If the three-year test does work out, that could mean a big and lucrative government contract for SpaceX.
The U.S. has suffered from devastating wildfires over the last few years as global temperatures rise and weather patterns change, making the otherwise natural phenomenon especially unpredictable and severe. To help out, Stanford researchers have found a way to track and predict dry, at-risk areas using machine learning and satellite imagery.
Currently the way forests and scrublands are tested for susceptibility to wildfires is by manually collecting branches and foliage and testing their water content. It’s accurate and reliable, but obviously also quite labor intensive and difficult to scale.
Fortunately, other sources of data have recently become available. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel and Landsat satellites have amassed a trove of imagery of the Earth’s surface that, when carefully analyzed, could provide a secondary source for assessing wildfire risk — and one no one has to risk getting splinters for.
This isn’t the first attempt to make this kind of observation from orbital imagery, but previous efforts relied heavily on visual measurements that are “extremely site-specific,” meaning the analysis method differs greatly depending on the location. No splinters, but still hard to scale. The advance leveraged by the Stanford team is the Sentinel satellites’ “synthetic aperture radar,” which can pierce the forest canopy and image the surface below.
“One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allows the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said senior author of the paper, Stanford ecoydrologist Alexandra Konings, in a news release.
The team fed this new imagery, collected regularly since 2016, to a machine learning model along with the manual measurements made by the U.S. Forest Service. This lets the model “learn” what particular features of the imagery correlate with the ground-truth measurements.
They then tested the resulting AI agent (the term is employed loosely) by having it make predictions based on old data for which they already knew the answers. It was accurate, but most so in scrublands, one of the most common biomes of the American west and also one of the most susceptible to wildfires.
You can see the results of the project in this interactive map showing the model’s prediction of dryness at different periods all over the western part of the country. That’s not so much for firefighters as a validation of the approach — but the same model, given up to date data, can make predictions about the upcoming wildfire season that could help the authorities make more informed decisions about controlled burns, danger areas, and safety warnings.
The researchers’ work was published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.
Boasting a technology that can dramatically increase the capacity of existing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing used to identify people infected with COVID-19 and other illnesses, ChromaCode has attracted new funding from Bill Gates-backed Adjuvant Capital.
“We want a good solution for a resource-limited environment,” says ChromaCode founder and executive chairman Alex Dickinson, a serial entrepreneur who has worked with Caltech researchers spinning out companies since the early 2000s.
The technology was based on research conducted by California Institute of Technology graduate student Aditya Rajagopal. A former researcher at Google[x] working on novel medical imaging methods, Rajagopal is the inventor of HDPCR, the tech at the heart of ChromaCode’s product.
With the help of Dickinson, Rajagopal spun out the technology he’d developed to form ChromaCode in 2012, according to Crunchbase, and raised its initial capital to develop a diagnostic tool that could use algorithms and new sensing technologies to increase the number of targets that can be analyzed by traditional PCR analysis.
The polymerase chain reaction tests were invented in 1985 by Kary Mullis, who was working as a chemist at the Cetus Corp., and use copies of very small amounts of DNA sequences that are amplified in a series of cycles of temperature changes. It’s one of the foundations of genetic analysis.
While traditional PCR testing relies on differentiation of targets by color, the HDPCR technology developed by ChromaCode’s co-founder uses signal intensity to identify multiple different targets and signify them as curve signatures encoded into a single color channel. Think of the technology as using color gradients to identify multiple targets in a test instead of just one color.
“It’s like image compression,” Dickinson said.
For COVID-19 specifically, the use of ChromaCode’s technology could expand available testing capacity threefold, the company said.
“Right now the basic test looks at three different things,” said Dickinson. “These machines have wells and they can do 96 tests at a time. The challenge is that you would typically use three of those wells for each test. We let them do all of the test in one well, which would give you a three times multiple.”
That means instead of testing 32 individuals using existing PCR equipment, labs would be able to perform 96 tests at a time.
Even more significant is the ability for ChromaCode’s technology to identify other illnesses alongside COVID-19. “What we’re planning for is the fall when we will be taking the existing COVID test and layering in flu and other diseases,” says Dickinson.
The ability to test for multiple pathogens has important implications for the ability to adequately test, track and trace the spread of the disease in the low and medium income countries that are now undergoing their own outbreaks. “The problem in Africa is that someone has a fever and it might be COVID or that might be Dengue fever,” said Dickinson. Using ChromaCode’s technology, diagnosticians and physicians can tell the difference without having to use new machines.
“The supply chain on the tests will continue to be strained so people will be looking for more efficient mechanisms,” said Gosch.
Adjuvant Capital, the investment fund spun out from a collaboration between the Gates Foundation and JP Morgan Chase, had already identified ChromaCode as a potential investment target well before the pandemic hit, according to managing partner Jenny Yip.
The investment firm began speaking with ChromaCode in the summer of 2019, and was drawn to the company for its ability to expand testing capacity well before the COVID-19 outbreak brought the problems of adequate testing into stark relief.
“From a global health perspective, ChromaCode’s technology ability to be installed in the existing technology base is very powerful,” said Yip. Given the low resource base in some of the countries where testing is needed the most, requiring the installation of an entirely new suite of hardware and software tools is untenable — let alone developing a supply chain that can service and maintain the technology.
The lack of adequate testing in the United States remains the biggest obstacle to safely fully re-starting the country’s economy and ensuring that any future outbreaks of the disease can be managed successfully, according to experts.
“Testing is your first fundamental step in a plan to keep infected people from susceptible people,” Ashish Jha, the K. T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Atlantic.
“There’s a strong sense that the White House knows the amount of testing we need is far more than we have right now,” he said. “It is really stunning and disappointing.”
Ali Amin-Javaheri grew up in the chemicals business.
His father had worked for Iran’s state-owned chemical company and when the family fled the country in the nineteen eighties during the Iran-Iraq war, they first settled in Houston where employers welcomed the senior Amin-Jahaveri’s experience.
Houston in the 80s was dominated by the petrochemicals industry and by the time the family later relocated to Washington State, Amin-Jahaveri was already deeply steeped in a world of covalent bonds, chemical cracking, and the molecular coupling and decoupling of matter.
For the former Texas chemical kid, moving to tech-heavy, rain-soaked Washington, dominated at the time by Microsoft, was a bit of a shock, the founder recalled. But it was the 2000s and everyone was in tech so Amin-Jahaveri figured that’d be his path too.
Those two worlds collided for the young University of Washington graduate in his very first job — his only job before launching his first startup — as a programmer and developer at Chempoint.
“Completely through happenstance I was walking around a certain part of Seattle and I walked by this building and it had all these logos outside the office. I saw this logo for a company called Chempoint and I was instantly intrigued,” Amin-Jahaveri said. “I walked up to the receptionist and asked what they were doing.”
In the summer of 2001, Amazon was an online bookseller a little over seven years old, the dot-com boom hadn’t gone completely bust quite yet and business-to-business marketplaces were a hot investment.
“It was a startup with just a handful of folks,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “There wasn’t a business model in place, but the intent was to build a marketplace for chemicals… The dot-com boom was happening and everything was moving on line and the chemicals industry likely will as well.”
Fifteen years later, Chempoint is one of the last remaining companies in a market that once boasted at least fifteen competitors — and the chemicals industry still doesn’t have a true online marketplace. Until (potentially) now, with the launch of Amin-Jahaveri’s first startup — Knowde.
A volumetric flask, used during the process of determining phosphorus content in crude edible oil, sits in a laboratory of the quality assurance department at the Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd. edible oil refinery plant in Patalganga, India, on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images
For the vast majority of Americans, the chemicals industry remains a ubiquitous abstraction. Consumers have a direct relationship with the energy business through the movements of prices at the pump, but the ways in which barrels of oil get converted into the plastics, coatings, films, flavors, fillings, soaps, toothpastes, enamels and unguents that touch everyone’s daily life are a little bit less obvious.
It’s a massive industry. The U.S. accounted for 17% of the global chemicals market in 2017 and that percentage amounted to a staggering $765 billion in sales. Worldwide there are thousands of chemicals companies selling hundreds of different specialty chemicals each and all contributing to a total market worth trillions of dollars.
“The market is $5 trillion,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “Just to be super clear about that.. It’s $5 trillion worth of transactions happening every year.”
It’s no secret that venture capitalists love marketplaces. Replacing physical middlemen with electronic ones offers efficiencies and economies of scale that have a cold logic and avoid the messiness of human contact. For the past twenty years, different entrepreneurs have cropped to tackle creating systems that could connect buyers on one side with sellers on another — and the chemicals industry has been investors’ holy grail since Chempoint made its pitch to the market in 2001.
“The chemicals industry is the most interesting of all of them. It’s the biggest. It’s also the most fragmented,” said Sequoia partner Shaun Maguire. “There were three companies in the world that all did about $90 billion in sales and none of those three companies did more than 1.6% of sales of the entire industry.”
Those kinds of numbers would make any investor’s jaw drop. And several firms tried to make a pitch for the hotly contested financing round for Knowde. Maguire first heard that there was a company looking for funds to pursue the creation of the first true marketplace business for the chemicals industry through a finance associate at Sequoia, Spencer Hemphill.
Hemphill knew an early Knowde investor named Ian Rountree at Cantos Ventures and had heard Rountree talk about the new company. He flagged the potential deal to Maguire and another Sequoia partner. It only took one hour for Maguire to be blown away by Amin-Jahaveri’s pedigree in the industry and his vision for Knowde.
From that initial meeting in September to the close of the company’s $14 million Series A round on March 11 (the day the markets suffered their worst COVID-19-related losses), Maguire was tracking the company’s progress. Other firms in the running for the Knowde deal included big names like General Catalyst, according to people with knowledge of the process.
Sequoia wound up leading the Series A deal for Knowde, which also included previous investors Refactor Capital, Bee Partners, and Cantos Ventures.*
The tipping point for Maguire was the rapid adoption and buy-in from the industry when Knowde flipped the switch on sales in early January.
An employee of International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) picks up perfume components on December 8, 2016 at the company’s laboratory in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. / AFP / PATRICK KOVARIK (Photo credit should read PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP via Getty Images)
For at least the past fifty years, the modern chemicals industry has been defined — and in some ways constrained — by its sales pitches. There are specialty manufacturers who have hundreds of chemicals that they’ve made, but the knowledge of what those chemicals can do is often locked inside research labs. The companies rely on distributors, middlemen, and internal sales teams to get the word out, according to Maguire and Amin-Jahaveri.
“The way that things are done is still through field sales teams and product catalogs and brochures and face to face meetings and all that stuff,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “This industry has not evolved as quickly as the rest of the world… And we always knew that something has got to give.”
One selling point for Knowde is that it breaks that logjam, according to investors like Maguire.
“One of the references said that they had a bunch of legacy flavors from the seventies,” Maguire said. “It was a Madagascar Vanilla that none of their sales people had tried to sell for 25 years… By putting them on Knowde the sales numbers had gone up over 1,000%… That company does over $5 billion a year in sales through flavors.”
The change happened as the old guard of executives began aging out of the business, according to Amin-Jahaveri. “Between 2002 and 2012 nothing happened.. There was no VC money thrown at any type chemical company and then it started changing a little bit,” he said. “The first domino was the changing age demographic… these consumer product companies kept getting younger.”
Amin-Jahaveri’s previous company grew to $400 million in revenue selling technology and services to the chemicals industry. It was back-end software and customer relationship tools that the industry had never had and needed if it were to begin the process of joining the digital world. Knowde, according to Amin-Jahaveri, is the next phase of that transition.
“Our plan is to connect the chemical producers directly with the buyers,” Amin-Jahaveri said. “And provide all the plumbing and storefronts necessary to manage these things themselves.”
All that Knowde needed to do was collate the disparate data about what chemicals small manufacturers were making and had in stock and begin listing that information online. That transparency of information used to be more difficult to capture, since companies viewed their product catalog as an extension of their intellectual property — almost a trade secret, according to Amin-Jahaveri.
Once companies began listing products online, Amin-Jahaveri and his team could go to work creating a single, searchable taxonomy that would allow outsiders to find the materials they needed without having to worry about differences in descriptions.
Knowde has broken down the chemicals industry into ten different verticals including: food, pharmaceuticals, personal care, houseware goods, industrial chemicals. The company currently operates in three different verticals and plans to extend into all ten within the year.
Amin-Jahaveri knows that he’s not going to get a meaningful chunk of business from the huge chemical manufacturers like BASF or Dow Chemical that pump out thousands of tons of commodity chemicals, those deals only represent $2 trillion of the total addressable market.
That means another $3 trillion in sales are up for grabs for the company Amin-Jahaveri founded with his partner Woyzeck Krupa.
While the opportunity is huge, the company — like every other new business launching in 2020 — is still trying to do business in the middle of the worst economic collapse in American history. However, Amin-Jahaveri thinks the new economic reality could actually work in Knowde’s favor.
“It’s going to be one more trigger event for these chemical companies that they have to go online,” he said. The personal relationships that drove much of the sales for the chemicals business before have dried up. No more conferences and events means no more opportunities to glad-hand, backslap, and chat over drinks at the hotel bar. So these companies need to find a new way to sell.
Maguire sees another benefit to the movement of chemical catalogs into an online marketplace, and that’s internal transparency within chemical companies.
“Even the biggest companies in the world do not have an internal search feature even for their own chemicals,” said Maguire. “I talked to two of the biggest companies in the world. In the case of one chemist who is a friend of mine. If you are trying to formulate some new concoction how do you find what chemicals you have in the company? If it’s in my division it’s pretty easy.. If I need chemicals from another division… there’s no way to search it right now.”
*This article has been updated to indicate that Bee Partners, a previous investor in Knowde, participated in the company’s Series A round. 8VC, another seed investor, did not.
In the time of COVID-19, much of what transpires from the science world to the general public relates to the virus, and understandably so. But other domains, even within medical research, are still active — and as usual, there are tons of interesting (and heartening) stories out there that shouldn’t be lost in the furious activity of coronavirus coverage. This last week brought good news for several medical conditions as well as some innovations that could improve weather reporting and maybe save a few lives in Cambodia.
Arrhythmia is a relatively common condition in which the heart beats at an abnormal rate, causing a variety of effects, including, potentially, death. Detecting it is done using an electrocardiogram, and while the technique is sound and widely used, it has its limitations: first, it relies heavily on an expert interpreting the signal, and second, even an expert’s diagnosis doesn’t give a good idea of what the issue looks like in that particular heart. Knowing exactly where the flaw is makes treatment much easier.
Ultrasound is used for internal imaging in lots of ways, but two recent studies establish it as perhaps the next major step in arrhythmia treatment. Researchers at Columbia University used a form of ultrasound monitoring called Electromechanical Wave Imaging to create 3D animations of the patient’s heart as it beat, which helped specialists predict 96% of arrhythmia locations compared with 71% when using the ECG. The two could be used together to provide a more accurate picture of the heart’s condition before undergoing treatment.
Another approach from Stanford applies deep learning techniques to ultrasound imagery and shows that an AI agent can recognize the parts of the heart and record the efficiency with which it is moving blood with accuracy comparable to experts. As with other medical imagery AIs, this isn’t about replacing a doctor but augmenting them; an automated system can help triage and prioritize effectively, suggest things the doctor might have missed or provide an impartial concurrence with their opinion. The code and data set of EchoNet are available for download and inspection.
Hardware engineering is mostly document-based. A typical satellite might be described in several hundred thousand PDF documents, spreadsheets, simulation files and more; all potentially inconsistent between each other. This can lead to costly mistakes. NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because one engineering team used metric units while another used English units, for instance.
Germany-HQ’d Valispace, which also has offices in Portugal, dubs itself as “Github for hardware”. In other words, it’s a collaboration platform for engineers, allowing them to develop better satellites, planes, rockets, nuclear fusion reactors, cars and medical devices, you name it. It’s a browser-based application, which stores engineering data and lets the users interconnect them through formulas. This means that when one value is changed, all other values are updated, simulations re-run and documentation rewritten automatically.
That last point is important in this pandemic era, where making and improving medical ventilators has become a huge global issue.
Indeed, the company is currently partnering with initiatives that develop open-source hardware solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. They are partnering with several initiatives that gather thousands of engineers working on the problem, most prominently the CoVent-19 Challenge and GrabCAD, as well as Helpful Engineering. Engineers working on ventilators can apply here for free accounts or email email@example.com.
The funding will be used to expand into new industries (e.g. medical devices, robotics) and expansion of the existing ones (aeronautics, space, automotive, energy). The company is addressing the Systems Engineering Tool market in Europe which is worth €7Billion, while the US market is at least as big. It’s competitors include RHEA CDP4, Innoslate, JAMA and the largest player Status Quo.
Marco Witzmann, CEO of Valispace said: “Valispace has proven to help engineers across industries to develop better hardware. From drones to satellites, from small electronic boxes to entire nuclear fusion reactors. When modern companies like our customers have the choice, they chose an agile engineering approach with Valispace.”
Tobias Schirmer from JOIN Capital commented: “Browser-based collaboration has become a must for any modern hardware company, as the importance of communication across teams and offices increases.”
The company now counts BMW, Momentus, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Airbus as customers.
Witzmann previously worked on Europe’s biggest Satellite Program (Meteosat Third Generation) as a Systems Engineer, while his Portugal-based co-founder Louise Lindblad (COO) worked at the European Space Agency, developing satellites and drones.
As satellite engineers, both were surprised that while the products they were working on were cutting edge, the tools to develop them seemed to be from the 80s. In 2016 they launched Valispace as a company, convincing Airbus to become one of their first customers.
Espressive, a four-year-old startup from former ServiceNow employees, is working to build a better chatbot to reduce calls to company help desks. Today, the company announced a $30 million Series B investment.
Insight Partners led the round with help from Series A lead investor General Catalyst along with Wing Venture Capital. Under the terms of today’s agreement, Insight founder and managing director Jeff Horing will be joining the Espressive Board. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $53 million, according to the company.
Company founder and CEO Pat Calhoun says that when he was at ServiceNow he observed that, in many companies, employees often got frustrated looking for answers to basic questions. That resulted in a call to a Help Desk requiring human intervention to answer the question.
He believed that there was a way to automate this with AI-driven chatbots, and he founded Espressive to develop a solution. “Our job is to help employees get immediate answers to their questions or solutions or resolutions to their issues, so that they can get back to work,” he said.
They do that by providing a very narrowly focused natural language processing (NLP) engine to understand the question and find answers quickly, while using machine learning to improve on those answers over time.
“We’re not trying to solve every problem that NLP can address. We’re going after a very specific set of use cases which is really around employee language, and as a result, we’ve really tuned our engine to have the highest accuracy possible in the industry,” Calhoun told TechCrunch.
He says what they’ve done to increase accuracy is combine the NLP with image recognition technology. “What we’ve done is we’ve built our NLP engine on top of some image recognition architecture that’s really designed for a high degree of accuracy and essentially breaks down the phrase to understand the true meaning behind the phrase,” he said.
The solution is designed to provide a single immediate answer. If, for some reason, it can’t understand a request, it will open a help ticket automatically and route it to a human to resolve, but they try to keep that to a minimum. He says that when they deploy their solution, they tune it to the individual customers’ buzzwords and terminology.
So far they have been able to reduce help desk calls by 40% to 60% across customers with around 85% employee participation, which shows that they are using the tool and it’s providing the answers they need. In fact, the product understands 750 million employee phrases out of the box.
The company was founded in 2016. It currently has 65 employees and 35 customers, but with the new funding, both of those numbers should increase.