Paul Brest didn’t set out to transform philanthropy. A constitutional law scholar who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Harlan and is credited with coining the term “originalism,” Brest spent twelve years as dean of Stanford Law School.
But when he was named president of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the country’s largest large non-profit funders, Brest applied the rigor of a legal scholar not just to his own institution’s practices but to those of the philanthropy field at large. He hired experts to study the practice of philanthropy and helped to launch Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, where he still teaches.
Now, Brest has turned his attention to advising Silicon Valley’s next generation of donors.
Scott Bade: Your background is in constitutional law. How did you make the shift from being dean at Stanford to running the Hewlett Foundation as president?
Paul Brest: I came into the Hewlett Foundation largely by accident. I really didn’t know anything about philanthropy, but I had been teaching courses on problem-solving and decision making. I think I got the job because a number of people on the board knew me, both from Stanford Law School, but also from playing chamber music with Walter and Esther Hewlett.
Bade: When was this?
Brest: I started there in 2000. Bill Hewlett died the year after I came. Walter Hewlett, Bill’s son, was chair of the board during the entire time I was president. But it’s not a family foundation.
Bade: What were your initial impressions of the foundation and the broader philanthropic space?
Brest: Not having come from the non-profit sector, it took me a year or so to really understand what it [meant] to use our assets in each area in a strategic way. The [Hewlett] Foundation had very good values in terms of the areas it was supporting — the environment, education, population, women’s reproductive rights. It had good philanthropic practices, but it was not very strategically focused. It turned out that not very many foundations were strategic.
Bade: What do you mean by ‘strategic’?
Brest: What I mean [by] strategic is having clear goals and having an evidence-based, evidence-informed strategy for achieving them. Big foundations tend to be conglomerates with different programs trying to achieve different goals.
[Being strategic means] monitoring progress as you work towards those goals. Then evaluating in advance whether the strategy is going to be plausible and then whether you’re actually achieving the outcomes you’re trying to achieve so that you can make course corrections if you’re not achieving.
[For example,] the likelihood that the roughly billionaire dollars or more that have been spent or committed to climate advocacy are going to have any effect is quite low. The place where metrics comes in is just having kind of an expected return mindset where yes, the chances of success are low, but we know that the importance of success — or putting it differently, the effects of failure — are going to be catastrophic.
What a strategic mindset does here is say: it’s worth taking huge bets even where the margins of error of the likelihood of success are very hard to measure when the results are huge.
I don’t want to say the [Hewlett] Foundation was anti-strategic, or totally unstrategic, but it really had not developed a [this kind of] systematic framework for doing those things.
Bade: You’re known in the philanthropic community for putting an emphasis on defining, achieving, measuring impact. Have those sort of technocratic practices made philanthropy better?
Brest: I think you have to start by asking, what would it mean for philanthropy to be good? From my point of view, philanthropy is good when I like the goals it chooses. Then, given a good goal, when it is effective in achieving that goal. Strategy really has nothing to say about what the goals are, but only how effective it is.
My guess is that 90 plus percent of philanthropy is intended to achieve goals that most of us think are good goals. There are occasions when you have direct conflicts of goals as you do with say the anti-abortion and the choice movements, or gun control and the NRA. Those are important arguments.
But most philanthropy is trying to improve education or improve the lives of the poor. My view is that philanthropy is good when it is effective in achieving those goals, and trying to do no harm in the process.
Goop is cashing in on pseudoscience and, in the process, giving natural health practices a bad name. Krista Berlincourt, the co-founder and chief executive officer of a new startup, Kenshō Health, hopes she can take back the narrative.
“We’re the antithesis of Goop,” Berlincourt, a fintech veteran who previously led marketing and product at Simple Finance, tells TechCrunch. “What we are creating is less of a consumer magazine. We are a holistic health platform that approaches things as more of a holistic health medical journal — everything is backed by science.”
Kenshō, launching today, is an invite-only subscription-based platform for holistic healthcare providers to list their services and share knowledge. The startup has also collected information to construct a research-backed guide to holistic health, something the team believes has been missing from the natural health sector.
Berlincourt and Kenshō co-founder Danny Steiner, who previously worked at NBC Universal, Conde Nast and Hulu before pivoting to health and wellness, have raised $1.3 million in seed funding from Crosscut, a Los Angeles-based venture capital firm, and Female Founders Fund. The pair, based in the LA area, have both suffered from chronic illnesses that had them in and out of doctor’s offices for years.
“I had two years of working with a team of incredible Western physicians and then I had a crash that landed me in the ER. That’s when I realized, OK, this isn’t working,” Berlincourt said. “When you’re caring for yourself or someone you love, there are standards. I am focused on elevating and creating those standards in a way that can be better advised.”
The global wellness economy represented a $4.2 trillion market in 2017, according to The Global Wellness Institute, as subcategories like personalized medicine, healthy eating and fitness/mind-body accelerate growth.
Kenshō, nestled in the personalized and complementary medicine category, says it ensures all of the care providers featured on its platform are 100% validated. Before being allowed to list their services, providers complete a background check and their provider credentials are verified. Kenshō then affirms the providers use research-backed methods and that they have vetted peer references and clients who can provide positive feedback.
“When you look at health as a whole today in the U.S., we only treat the physical,” Berlincourt explains. “The reason that is destructive is 70% of death is premature and lifestyle related. We are dying faster and people are dying more quickly, generally speaking, as the world turns.”
Many, of course, are skeptical of natural care practices because they can be untested or dependent on unscientific principles. Additionally, holistic care often forces patients to pay out-of-pocket. Nonetheless, patients across the globe are turning to non-traditional methods.
”There’s been a massive shift in the zeitgeist in the way people look at health,” she adds. “One in three people have paid for supplemental care out of pocket from a holistic health provider.”
Healthtech is apparently in a golden age. Just a few weeks ago, Livongo and Health Catalyst raised a combined $500 million through IPOs with a joint valuation reaching $3.5 billion. Deals such as these are catalyzing a record-breaking 2019, with digital health deal activity expected to surpass the $8.1 billion invested in 2018.
Amidst such abundance, the digital health ecosystem is thriving: as of 2017, greater than 300,000 mobile applications and 340 consumer wearable devices existed—with 200 new mobile applications added daily. No theme has been more important to this fundraising than artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), a space which captured more than one-quarter of healthtech funding in 2018.
Yet, how many of these technologies will prove valuable in medical, ethical, or financial terms?
Our research group at Stanford addressed this question by taking a deeper dive into the saying that, in AI/ML, “garbage in equals garbage out.” We did this by distinguishing digital health algorithms leveraging AI/ML from their underlying training data, documenting the numerous consequences to the outputs of these technologies should the inputs resemble, well, “garbage.”
For example, the utility of genetic risk scores provided by companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA (which have estimated valuations of $1.75 and $2.6 billion, respectively) may be limited due to diagnostic biases stemming from the underrepresentation of diverse populations.
Responding to such observations, we provide a variety of recommendations to the developers, inventors, and founders spearheading the advancement of digital health—as well as the funders supporting this charge forward—to ensure that their innovations are valuable to the stakeholders they target.
As people strive ever harder to minutely quantify every action they do, the sensors that monitor those actions are growing lighter and less invasive. Two prototype sensors from crosstown rivals Stanford and Berkeley stick right to the skin and provide a wealth of phsyiological data.
Stanford’s stretchy wireless “BodyNet” isn’t just flexible in order to survive being worn on the shifting surface of the body; that flexing is where its data comes from.
The sensor is made of metallic ink laid on top of a flexible material like that in an adhesive bandage. But unlike phones and smart watches, which use tiny accelerometers or optical tricks to track the body, this system relies on how it is itself stretched and compressed. These movements cause tiny changes in how electricity passes through the ink, changes that are relayed to a processor nearby.
Naturally if one is placed on a joint, as some of these electronic stickers were, it can report back whether and how much that joint has been flexed. But the system is sensitive enough that it can also detect the slight changes the skin experiences during each heartbeat, or the broader changes that accompany breathing.
The problem comes when you have to get that signal off the skin. Using a wire is annoying and definitely very ’90s. But antennas don’t work well when they’re flexed in weird directions — efficiency drops off a cliff, and there’s very little power to begin with — the skin sensor is powered by harvesting RFID signals, a technique that renders very little in the way of voltage.
The second part of their work, then, and the part that is clearly most in need of further improvement and miniaturization, is the receiver, which collects and re-transmits the sensor’s signal to a phone or other device. Although they managed to create a unit that’s light enough to be clipped to clothes, it’s still not the kind of thing you’d want to wear to the gym.
The good news is that’s an engineering and design limitation, not a theoretical one — so a couple years of work and progress on the electronics front and they could have a much more attractive system.
“We think one day it will be possible to create a full-body skin-sensor array to collect physiological data without interfering with a person’s normal behavior,” Stanford professor Zhenan Bao in a news release.
Over at Cal is a project in a similar domain that’s working to get from prototype to production. Researchers there have been working on a sweat monitor for a few years that could detect a number of physiological factors.
Normally you’d just collect sweat every 15 minutes or so and analyze each batch separately. But that doesn’t really give you very good temporal resolution — what if you want to know how the sweat changes minute by minute or less? By putting the sweat collection and analysis systems together right on the skin, you can do just that.
While the sensor has been in the works for a while, it’s only recently that the team has started moving towards user testing at scale to see what exactly sweat measurements have to offer.
“The goal of the project is not just to make the sensors but start to do many subject studies and see what sweat tells us — I always say ‘decoding’ sweat composition. For that we need sensors that are reliable, reproducible, and that we can fabricate to scale so that we can put multiple sensors in different spots of the body and put them on many subjects,” explained Ali Javey, Berkeley professor and head of the project.
As anyone who’s working in hardware will tell you, going from a hand-built prototype to a mass-produced model is a huge challenge. So the Berkeley team tapped their Finnish friends at VTT Technical Research Center, who make a specialty of roll-to-roll printing.
For flat, relatively simple electronics, roll-to-roll is a great technique, essentially printing the sensors right onto a flexible plastic substrate that can then simply be cut to size. This way they can make hundreds or thousands of the sensors quickly and cheaply, making them much simpler to deploy at arbitrary scales.
These are far from the only flexible or skin-mounted electronics projects out there, but it’s clear that we’re approaching the point when they begin to leave the lab and head out to hospitals, gyms, and homes.
Any first responder knows that situational awareness is key. In domestic violence disputes, hostage rescue, or human trafficking situations, first responders often need help determining where humans are behind closed doors.
That’s why Megan Lacy, Corbin Hennen and Rob Kleffner developed Lumineye, a 3D printed radar device that uses signal analysis software to differentiate moving and breathing humans from other objects, through walls.
Lumineye uses pulse radar technology that works like echolocation (how bats and dolphins communicate). It sends signals and listens for how long it takes for a pulse to bounce back. The software analyzes these pulses to determine the approximate size, range and movement characteristics of a signal.
On the software side, Lumineye’s app that will tell a user how far away a person is when they’re moving and breathing. It’s one dimensional, so it doesn’t tell the user whether the subject is to the right or left. But the device can detect humans out to 50 feet in open air, and that range decreases depending upon the materials placed in between like drywall, brick or concrete.
One scenario the team gave to describe the advantages of using Lumineye was the instance of hostage rescue. In this type of situation, it’s crucial for first responders to know how many people are in a room and how far away they are from one another. That’s where the use of multiple devices and triangulation from something like Lumineye could change a responding team’s tactical rescue approach.
Machines that currently exist to make these kind of detections are heavy and cumbersome. The team behind Lumineye was inspired to manufacture a more portable option that won’t weigh teams down during longer emergency response situations that can sometimes last for up to 12 hours or overnight. The prototype combines the detection hardware with an ordinary smartphone. It’s about 10 x 5 inches and weighs 1.5 pounds.
Lumineye wants to grow out its functionality to become more of a ubiquitous device. The team of four is planning to continue manufacturing the device and selling it directly to customers.
Lumineye’s device can detect humans through walls using radio frequencies
Lumineye has just started its pilot programs, and recently spent a Saturday at a FEMA event testing out the the device’s ability to detect people covered in rubble piles. The company was born out of the Boise Idaho cohort of Stanford’s Hacking4Defense program, a course meant to connect Silicon Valley innovations with the U.S. Department of Defense and Intelligence Community. The Idaho-based startup is graduating from Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 class.
Megan Lacy, Corbin Hennen and Rob Kleffner
Kurbo Health, a mobile weight loss solution designed to tackle childhood obesity which was acquired for $3 million by WW (the rebranded Weight Watchers), has now relaunched as Kurbo by WW — and not without some controversy. Pre-acquisition, the startup was focused on democratizing access to research, behavior modification techniques and other tools that were previously only available through expensive programs run by hospitals or other centers.
As a WW product, however, there are concerns that parents putting kids on “diets” will lead to increased anxiety, stress and disordered eating — in other words, Kurbo will make the problem worse, rather than solving it.
*If* you are worried about your child’s health/lifestyle, give them plenty of nutritious food and make sure they get plenty of fun exercise that helps their mental health. And don’t weigh them. Don’t burden them with numbers, charts or “success/failure.” It’s a slippery slope.
— Jameela Jamil (@jameelajamil) August 14, 2019
The Kurbo app first launched at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2014. Founder Joanna Strober, a venture investor and board member at BlueNile and eToys, explained she was driven to develop Kurbo after struggling to help her own child. Mainly, she came across programs that cost money, were held at inconvenient times for working parents or were dubbed “obesity centers” — with which no child wanted to be associated.
Her child found eventual success with the Stanford Pediatric Weight Loss Program, but this involved in-person visits and pen-and-paper documentation.
Together with Kurbo Health’s co-founder Thea Runyan, who has a Master’s in Public Health and had worked at the Stanford center for 12 years, the team realized the opportunity to bring the research to more people by creating a mobile, data-driven program for kids and families.
They licensed Stanford’s program, which then became Kurbo Health.
The company raised funds from investors, including Signia Ventures, Data Collective, Bessemer Venture Partners and Promus Ventures, as well as angels like Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube; Greg Badros, former VP Engineering and Product at Facebook; and Esther Dyson (EdVenture), among others.
At launch, the app was designed to encourage healthier eating patterns without parents actually being able to see the child’s food diary. Instead, parents set a reward that was doled out simply for the child’s participation. That is, the parents couldn’t see what the child ate, specifically, which allowed them to stop playing “food police.”
Unlike adult-oriented apps like MyFitnessPal or Noom, kids wouldn’t see metrics like calories, sugars, carbs and fat, but instead had their food choices categorized as “red,” “yellow” and “green.” However, no foods were designated as “off limits,” as it instead encouraged fewer reds and more greens.
The program also included an option for virtual coaching.
As a WW product, the program has remained somewhat the same. There are still the color-coded food categorizations and optional live coaching, via a subscription. Parents are still involved, now with updates after coaching calls or the option to join coaching sessions. The app also now includes tools that teach meditation, recipe videos and games that focus on healthy lifestyles. Subscribers gain access to one-on-one 15-minute virtual sessions with coaches whose professional backgrounds include counseling, fitness and other nutrition-related fields.
However, there are also things like a place to track measurements, goals like “lose weight” and Snapchat-style “tracking streaks.”
While the original program was designed to be a solution for parents with children who would have otherwise had to seek expensive medical help for obesity issues, the association with parent company and acquirer WW has led to some backlash.
Today, body positivity and fat acceptance movements have gone mainstream, encouraging people to be confident in their own bodies and not hate themselves for being overweight. The general thinking is that when people respect themselves, they become more likely to care for themselves — and this will extend to making healthier food and lifestyle choices.
Meanwhile, food tracking and dieting programs often lead to failure and shame — especially when people start to think of some food as “bad” or a “cheat,” instead of just something to be eaten in moderation. And excessive tracking can even lead to disordered eating patterns for some people, studies have found.
In addition, WW has already been under fire for extending its weight loss program to teens 13-17 for free, and the launch of what’s seen as a “dieting app for kids” as part of WW’s broader family-focused agenda certainly isn’t helping the backlash.
That said, when positive reinforcement is used correctly, it can work for weight loss. As TIME reported, the red-yellow-green traffic light approach was effective in adults in one independent study by Massachusetts General Hospital and another presented at the Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference worked in children, with 84% reducing their BMI after 21 weeks.
“According to recent reports from the World Health Organization, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. This is a global public health crisis that needs to be addressed at scale,” said Joanna Strober, co-founder of Kurbo, in a statement about the launch. “As a mom whose son struggled with his weight at a young age, I can personally attest to the importance and significance of having a solution like Kurbo by WW, which is inherently designed to be simple, fun and effective,” she said.
I thought that I hated Weight Watchers. I have not hated them as much as I do right now.
Making weight loss trendy for children is making the development of eating disorders easier and trendier. I am not here for this.
— Anna Sweeney MS, CEDRD-S (@DietitianAnna) August 13, 2019
That said, it’s one thing for a parent to work in conjunction with a doctor to help a child with a health issue, but parents who foist a food tracking app on their kids may not get the same results. In fact, they may even cause the child to develop eating disorders that weren’t present before. (And no, just because a child is overweight, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re suffering from an “eating disorder.”)
— Dr. Yasmin (@DoctorYasmin) August 14, 2019
There can be many other factors that could be causing a child’s unexpected weight gain, beyond just their interest in eating high-calorie foods. This includes health ailments, hormone or chemical imbalances, medication side effects, puberty and other growth spurts (which can’t always be determined through BMI changes, which are tracked in-app), genetics, and more.
Parents may also be part of the problem, by simply bringing unhealthy food into the house because it’s more affordable or because they aren’t aware of things like hidden sugars or how to avoid them. Or perhaps they’re putting money into a child’s school lunch account, without realizing the child is able to spend it on vending machine snacks, sodas or off-menu items like pizza and chips.
The child may also suffer from health problems like asthma or allergies that have become an underlying issue, making it more difficult for them to be active.
In other words, a program like this is something that parents should approach with caution. And it’s certainly one where the child’s doctor should be involved at every stage — including in determining whether or not an app is actually needed at all.
Much of Silicon Valley mythology is centered on the founder-as-hero narrative. But historically, scientific founders leading the charge for bio companies have been far less common.
Developing new drugs is slow, risky, and expensive. Big clinical failures are all too common. As such, bio requires incredibly specialized knowledge and experience. But at the same time, the potential for value creation is enormous today more than ever with breakthrough new medicines like engineered cell, gene, and digital therapies.
What these breakthroughs are bringing along with them are entirely new models—of founders, of company creation, of the businesses themselves—that will require scientists, entrepreneurs and investors to reimagine and reinvent how they create bio companies.
In the past, biotech VC firms handled this combination of specialized knowledge + binary risk + outsized opportunity with a unique “company creation” model. In this model, there are scientific founders, yes; but the VC firm essentially founded and built the company itself—all the way from matching a scientific advance with an unmet medical need, to licensing IP, to having partners take on key roles such as CEO in the early stages, to then recruiting a seasoned management team to execute on the vision.
Image: PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images
You could call this the startup equivalent of being born and bred in captivity—where great care and feeding early in life helps ensure that the company is able to thrive. Here the scientific founders tend to play more of an advisory role (usually keeping day jobs in academia to create new knowledge and frontiers), while experienced “drug hunters” operate the machinery of bringing new discoveries to the patient’s bedside. This model’s core purpose is to bring the right expertise to the table to de-risk these incredibly challenging enterprises—nobody is born knowing how to make a medicine.
But the ecosystem this model evolved from is evolving itself. Emerging fields like computational biology and biological engineering have created a new breed of founder, native to biology, engineering and computer science, that are already, by definition, the leading experts in their fledgling fields. Their advances are helping change the industry, shifting drug discovery away from a highly bespoke process—where little knowledge carries over from the success or failure of one drug to the next—to a more iterative, building-block approach like engineering.
Take gene therapy: once we learn how to deliver a gene to a specific cell in a given disease, it is significantly more likely we will be able to deliver a different gene to a different cell for another disease. Which means there’s an opportunity not only for novel therapies but also the potential for new business models. Imagine a company that provides gene delivery capability to an entire industry — GaaS: gene-delivery as a service!
Once a founder has an idea, the costs of testing it out have changed too. The days of having to set up an entire lab before you could run your first experiments are gone. In the same way that AWS made starting a tech company vastly faster and easier, innovations like shared lab spaces and wetlab accelerators have dramatically reduced the cost and speed required to get a bio startup off the ground. Today it costs thousands, not millions, for a “killer experiment” that will give a founding team (and investors) early conviction.
What all this amounts to is scientific founders now have the option of launching bio companies without relying on VCs to create them on their behalf. And many are. The new generation of bio companies being launched by these founders are more akin to being born in the wild. It isn’t easy; in fact, it’s a jungle out there, so you need to make mistakes, learn quickly, hone your instincts, and be well-equipped for survival. On the other hand, given the transformative potential of engineering-based bio platforms, the cubs that do survive can grow into lions.
Image via Getty Images / KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
So, which is better for a bio startup today: to be born in the wild—with all the risk and reward that entails—or to be raised in captivity
The “bred in captivity” model promises sureness, safety, security. A VC-created bio company has cache and credibility right off the bat. Launch capital is essentially guaranteed. It attracts all-star scientists, executives and advisors — drawn by the balance of an innovative, agile environment and a well-funded, well-connected support network. I was fortunate enough to be an early executive in one of these companies, giving me the opportunity to work alongside industry luminaries and benefit from their well-versed knowledge of how to build a world-class bio company with all its complex component parts: basic, translational, clinical research, from scratch. But this all comes at a price.
Because it’s a heavy lift for the VCs, scientific founders are usually left with a relatively small slug of equity—even founding CEOs can end up with ~5% ownership. While these companies often launch with headline-grabbing funding rounds of $50m or above, the capital is traunched — meaning money is doled out as planned milestones are achieved. But the problem is, things rarely go according to plan. Traunched capital can be a safety net, but you can get tangled in that net if you miss a milestone.
Being born in the wild, on the other hand, trades safety for freedom. No one is building the company on your behalf; you’re in charge, and you bear the risk. As a recent graduate, I co-founded a company with Harvard geneticist George Church. The company was bootstrapped — a funding strategy that was more famine than feast -— but we were at liberty to try new things and run (un)controlled experiments like sequencing heavy metal wildman Ozzy Osbourne.
It was the early, Wild West days of the genomics revolution and many of the earliest biotech companies mirrored that experience — they weren’t incepted by VCs; they were created by scrappy entrepreneurs and scientists-turned-CEO. Take Joshua Boger, organic chemist and founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals: starting in 1989 his efforts to will into existence a new way to develop drugs, thrillingly captured in Barry Werth’s The Billion-Dollar Molecule and its sequel The Antidote in all its warts and nail-biting glory, ultimately transformed how we treat HIV, hepatitis C and cystic fibrosis.
Today we’re in a back-to-the-future moment and the industry is being increasingly pushed forward by this new breed of scientist-entrepreneur. Students-turned-founder like Diego Rey of in vitro diagnostics company GeneWEAVE and Ramji Srinivasan of clinical laboratory Counsyl helped transform how we diagnose disease and each led their companies to successful acquisitions by larger rivals.
Popular accelerators like Y Combinator and IndieBio are filled with bio companies driven by this founder phenotype. Ginkgo Bioworks, the first bio company in Y Combinator and today a unicorn, was founded by Jason Kelly and three of his MIT biological engineering classmates, along with former MIT professor and synthetic biology legend Tom Knight. The company is not only innovating new ways to program biology in order to disrupt a broad range of industries, but it’s also pioneering an innovative conglomerate business model it has dubbed the “Berkshire for biotech.”
Like the Ginkgo founders, Alec Nielsen and Raja Srinivas launched their startup Asimov, an ambitious effort to program cells using genetic circuits, shortly after receiving their PhDs in biological engineering from MIT. And, like Boger, renowned machine learning Stanford professor Daphne Koller is working to once again transform drug discovery as the founder and CEO of Instiro.
Just like making a medicine, no one is born knowing how to build a company. But in this new world, these technical founders with deep domain expertise may even be more capable of traversing the idea maze than seasoned operators. Engineering-based platforms have the potential to create entirely new applications with unprecedented productivity, creating opportunities for new breakthroughs, novel business models, and new ways to build bio companies. The well-worn playbooks may be out of date.
Founders that choose to create their own companies still need investors to scrub in and contribute to the arduous labor of company-building — but via support, guidance, and with access to networks instead. And like this new generation of founders, bio investors today need to rethink (and re-value) the promise of the new, and still appreciate the hard-earned wisdom of the old. In other words, bio investors also need to be multidisciplinary. And they need to be comfortable with a different kind of risk: backing an unproven founder in a new, emerging space. As a founder, if you’re willing to take your chances in the wild, you should have an investor that understands you, believes in you, can support you and, importantly, is willing to dream big with you.
Electric-vehicle chargers today are designed for human drivers. Electrify America and San Francisco-based startup Stable are preparing for the day when humans are no longer behind the wheel.
Electrify America, the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over the diesel emissions cheating scandal, is partnering with Stable to test a system that can charge electric vehicles without human intervention.
The autonomous electric-vehicle charging system will combine Electrify America’s 150 kilowatt DC fast charger with Stable’s software and robotics. A robotic arm, which is equipped with computer vision to see the electric vehicle’s charging port, is attached to the EV charger. The two companies plan to open the autonomous charging site in San Francisco by early 2020.
There’s more to this system than a nifty robotic arm. Stable’s software and modeling algorithms are critical components that have applications today, not just the yet-to-be-determined era of ubiquitous robotaxis.
While streets today aren’t flooded with autonomous vehicles, they are filled with thousands of vehicles used by corporate and government fleets, as well as ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft . Those commercial-focused vehicles are increasingly electric, a shift driven by economics and regulations.
“For the first time these fleets are having to think about, ‘how are we going to charge these massive fleets of electric vehicles, whether they are autonomous or not?’ ” Stable co-founder and CEO Rohan Puri told TechCrunch in a recent interview.
Stable, a 10-person company with employees from Tesla, EVgo, Faraday Future, Google, Stanford and MIT universities, has developed data science algorithms to determine the best location for chargers and scheduling software for once the EV stations are deployed.
Its data science algorithms take into account installation costs, available power, real estate costs as well as travel time for the given vehicle to go to the site and then get back on the road to service customers. Stable has figured out that when it comes to commercial fleets, chargers in a distributed network within cities are used more and have a lower cost of operation than one giant centralized charging hub.
Once a site is deployed, Stable’s software directs when, how long and at what speed the electric vehicle should charge.
Stable, which launched in 2017, is backed by Trucks VC, Upside Partnership, MIT’s E14 Fund and a number of angel investors, including NerdWallet co-founder Jake Gibson and Sidecar co-founder and CEO Sunil Paul .
The pilot project in San Francisco is the start of what Puri hopes will lead to more fleet-focused sites with Electrify America, which has largely focused on consumer charging stations. Electrify America has said it will invest $2 billion over 10 years in clean energy infrastructure and education. The VW unit has more than 486 electric vehicle charging stations installed or under development. Of those, 262 charging stations have been commissioned and are now open to the public.
Meanwhile, Stable is keen to demonstrate its autonomous electric-vehicle chargers and lock in additional fleet customers.
“What we set out to do was to reinvent the gas station for this new era of transportation, which will be fleet-dominant and electric,” Puri said. “What’s clear is there just isn’t nearly enough of the right infrastructure installed in the right place.”
After a hearing this week, members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform said that Juul, the ultra-popular e-cigarette brand, may have intentionally targeted teens in schools and online.
Based on 55,000 non-public documents out of Juul Labs, the subcommittee said that Juul’s Youth Prevention Plan recruited schools into a program that put Juul representatives and students in the same room. Schools received payment for participating in the program.
According to the release, one testimony put before the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy described a Juul representative telling students that vaping was “totally safe,” and recommended that one already nicotine-addicted student use Juul.
The subcommittee also reported that Juul spent $134,000 to set up a five-week summer camp for 80 children through a charter school, according to documents obtained for the hearing. The camp was meant to be a “holistic health education program.”
Dr. Robert Jackler, Stanford University School of Medicine, testified about his conversations with Juul co-founder James Monsees, who said the use of Stanford’s tobacco advertising database was “very helpful as they designed JUUL’s advertising,” according to information provided by the subcommittee.
“The Subcommittee found that: JUUL deployed a sophisticated program to enter schools and convey its messaging directly to teenage children; JUUL also targeted teenagers and children, as young as eight years old, in summer camps and public out-of-school programs; and JUUL recruited thousands of online ‘influencers’ to market to teens,” the memo states.
The company also turned to more modern methods. Using an influencer marketing program to “curate and identify 280 influencers in LA/NY to seed JUUL product” and find social media “buzzmakers” with “a minimum of 30,000 followers” to attend launch events for the company’s products.
Juul shut down its social media marketing program in November of last year. While it closed its Facebook and Instagram accounts, the company’s products still circulate on social media through hashtags from users themselves.
Documents delivered to the subcommittee show that Juul was aware that its prevention programs were “eerily similar” to those used by the big tobacco companies (which were ultimately forced to pay states and the U.S. government $27.5 billion in a master settlement agreement over their marketing and sales practices).
Juul also took steps to stop selling flavored products in response to FDA criticism.
As we reported:
Juul currently sells eight different flavors of pods. Pods that don’t come in existing tobacco flavors — Virginia Tobacco, Classic Tobacco, Mint and Menthol — will only be available online effective immediately. In other words, the only place to buy Creme, Fruit, Cucumber and Mango (Juul’s most popular flavor) is on the Juul website.
There, the company verifies that customers are 21+ by either cross-referencing information, such as DOB and the last four digits of a Social Security number, with publicly available data, or asking users to upload a scan of their driver’s license.
Responding to pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, JUUL has taken other steps to limit access and curb underage use of its products.
Juul also targeted Native American populations, where smoking rates are higher than the general population. Rae O’Leary, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, testified that Juul targeted Native American tribes to use as “guinea pigs.” According to O’Leary’s testimony, in exchange for a $600,000 investment, Juul solicited tribal medical professionals to provide their devices to tribal members for free and collect information on the tribal members.
Juul declined to comment at the time of publication.
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The closure was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The company is not responding to media inquiries, a PR rep told TechCrunch.
The company’s Mountain View headquarters will close down on Friday, according to WARN documents filed with the Employment Development Department of California. A company must file a WARN document ahead of a mass layoff or plant closure.
Rumors have been swirling for weeks that Apple was looking to snap up the startup. Earlier this month, The Information reported that Apple was pursuing an acqui-hire, a term that typically means a smaller, targeted acquisition aimed at bringing on specific talent.
That appears to have panned out for at least some of the company’s 90 employees. At least five employees changed their LinkedIn profiles to show they started employment at Apple’s special projects division this month, according to SF Chronicle and confirmed by TechCrunch’s own review.
Drive.air was founded in 2015 by former graduate students working in Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab run by Andrew Ng, the renowned artificial intelligence expert. Ng is chairman of Drive.ai’s board and is married to co-founder Carol Reiley.
The company, which originally focused on self-driving software systems and intelligent communications systems, received a lot of attention and investment in those first years. It later raised more money as it tweaked its business model with a plan to combine deep learning software with hardware to make self-driving retrofitted kits designed for business and commercial fleets. In all, the company has raised about $77 million, according to Pitchbook data. It was last valued at $200 million in 2017.
The startup ramped up operations in 2017 and 2018. Last year it launched a pilot program in Frisco, Texas to test an on-demand service using self-drivings. But even as it expanded, the executive team appeared to be constantly in flux with several people holding the CEO spot.