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OctoML raises $15M to make optimizing ML models easier

By Frederic Lardinois

OctoML, a startup founded by the team behind the Apache TVM machine learning compiler stack project, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A round led by Amplify, with participation from Madrone Ventures, which led its $3.9 million seed round. The core idea behind OctoML and TVM is to use machine learning to optimize machine learning models so they can more efficiently run on different types of hardware.

“There’s been quite a bit of progress in creating machine learning models,” OctoML CEO and University of Washington professor Luis Ceze told me.” But a lot of the pain has moved to once you have a model, how do you actually make good use of it in the edge and in the clouds?”

That’s where the TVM project comes in, which was launched by Ceze and his collaborators at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. It’s now an Apache incubating project and because it’s seen quite a bit of usage and support from major companies like AWS, ARM, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, Xilinx and others, the team decided to form a commercial venture around it, which became OctoML. Today, even Amazon Alexa’s wake word detection is powered by TVM.

Ceze described TVM as a modern operating system for machine learning models. “A machine learning model is not code, it doesn’t have instructions, it has numbers that describe its statistical modeling,” he said. “There’s quite a few challenges in making it run efficiently on a given hardware platform because there’s literally billions and billions of ways in which you can map a model to specific hardware targets. Picking the right one that performs well is a significant task that typically requires human intuition.”

And that’s where OctoML and its “Octomizer” SaaS product, which it also announced, today come in. Users can upload their model to the service and it will automatically optimize, benchmark and package it for the hardware you specify and in the format you want. For more advanced users, there’s also the option to add the service’s API to their CI/CD pipelines. These optimized models run significantly faster because they can now fully leverage the hardware they run on, but what many businesses will maybe care about even more is that these more efficient models also cost them less to run in the cloud, or that they are able to use cheaper hardware with less performance to get the same results. For some use cases, TVM already results in 80x performance gains.

Currently, the OctoML team consists of about 20 engineers. With this new funding, the company plans to expand its team. Those hires will mostly be engineers, but Ceze also stressed that he wants to hire an evangelist, which makes sense, given the company’s open-source heritage. He also noted that while the Octomizer is a good start, the real goal here is to build a more fully featured MLOps platform. “OctoML’s mission is to build the world’s best platform that automates MLOps,” he said.

Activity-monitoring startup Zensors repurposes its tech to help coronavirus response

By Devin Coldewey

Computer vision techniques used for commercial purposes are turning out to be valuable tools for monitoring people’s behavior during the present pandemic. Zensors, a startup that uses machine learning to track things like restaurant occupancy, lines, and so on, is making its platform available for free to airports and other places desperate to take systematic measures against infection.

The company, founded two years ago but covered by TechCrunch in 2016, was among the early adopters of computer vision as a means to extract value from things like security camera feeds. It may seem obvious now that cameras covering a restaurant can and should count open tables and track that data over time, but a few years ago it wasn’t so easy to come up with or accomplish that.

Since then Zensors has built a suite of tools tailored to specific businesses and spaces, like airports, offices, and retail environments. They can count open and occupied seats, spot trash, estimate lines, and all that kind of thing. Coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of data that managers of these spaces are now very interested in watching closely given the present social distancing measures.

Zensors co-founder Anuraag Jain told Carnegie Mellon University — which the company was spun out of — that it had received a number of inquiries from the likes of airpots regarding applying the technology to public health considerations.

Software that counts how many people are in line can be easily adapted to, for example, estimate how close people are standing and send an alert if too many people are congregating or passing through a small space.

“Rather than profiting off them, we thought we would give our help for free,” said Jain. And so, for the next two months at least, Zensors is providing its platform for free to “selected entities who are on the forefront of responding to this crisis, including our airport clients.”

The system has already been augmented to answer COVID-19-specific questions like whether there are too many people in a given area, when a surface was last cleaned and whether cleaning should be expedited, and how many of a given group are wearing face masks.

Airports surely track some of this information already, but perhaps in a much less structured way. Using a system like this could be helpful for maintaining cleanliness and reducing risk, and no doubt Zensors hopes that having had a taste via what amounts to a free trial, some of these users will become paying clients. Interested parties should get in touch with Zensors via its usual contact page.

Aspen Neuroscience raises $70M for its experimental Parkinson’s Disease treatment

By Jonathan Shieber

Since 2012, Dr. Jeanne Loring, the founder of the eponymous Loring Lab at Scripps Research, has been thinking about how to use pluripotent stem cells as a potential treatment for Parkinson Disease.

Now, eight years later, Aspen Neuroscience, the company she founded to bring her research to market has raised $70 million in funding and is set to begin clinical trials.

Roughly 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson disease, which destroys parts of the brain responsible for motor function. The disease causes a debilitating loss of movement as a result of the degradation of a specific type of neuron in the brain responsible for the production of dopamine — a chemical that facilitates the brain’s control of mood and movement.

Aspen’s experimental treatment takes skin cells from patients who already have Parkinson’s disease and converts those cells into pluripotent stem cells using the technique that won Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon the Nobel Prize for medicine back in 2012.

It was Yamanaka’s discovery that in some ways served as a trigger for the work that Loring and Aspen’s chief executive officer Dr. Howard Federoff would be bringing to market eight years later.

Other cell replacement therapies for Parkinson’s had run into difficulties because patient’s bodies would reject the introduction of foreign neurons — in much the same way that organ transplants are sometimes unsuccessful because a host rejects the foreign tissue.

Aspen’s technology uses the host’s own tissue to develop the stem cells that will become the basis for treatment. A patient who carries a diagnosis of Parkinsons would be consented to give a biopsy and the tissue collected is then placed in a cell culture. The cells are then converted into pluripotent stem cells through the introduction of an inert viral RNA that recodes the cell structure.

Those pluripotent stem cells are then converted into neurons that are then transplanted into a patient to replace the ones that Parkinson’s disease has destroyed.

Federoff and Loring have known each other for years, and when the former vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of California, Irvine heard what Loring and her team was working on he stepped down to join her company as chief executive.

Federoff previously founded MedGenesis Therapeutix, another privately held company working on a treatment for Parkinsons. “Much of what we do for Parkinsons and the extant gene therapy is stabilizing the disease,” says Federoff. “Cells of fibroblasts help to dial the clock back.”

The key is the use of autologous cells — those collected from the same individual that will receive the transplant, says Federoff.

Aspen’s novel approach was compelling enough to win the support of longtime healthcare investors including OrbiMed, ARCH Venture Partners, Frazier Healthcare Partners, Domain Associates, Section 32, and former Y Combinator President, Sam Altman.

Following the new round, Aspen is significantly expanding its board of directors to include Faheem Hasnain, the founder of Gossamer Bio who’s taking the chairman role at Aspen; Tom Daniel a venture partner at ARCH Ventures, and Peter Thompson, a partner at OrbiMed.

Aspen’s first product is currently undergoing investigational new drug (IND)-enabling studies for the treatment of sporadic forms of Parkinson disease, the company said. Its second product uses gene correction and neuron therapy to try to treat genetic forms of Parkinson disease. 

According to the company, the financing will support the completion of all remaining investigational studies and FDA submission of the studies relating to the company’s lead product. In addition, the financing will support data collection from a Phase 1 clinical trial and the expansion into Phase 2 randomized studies.

Duke University uses vaporized hydrogen peroxide to clean N95 face masks for reuse

By Jonathan Shieber

With shortages of N95 face masks persisting nationwide, healthcare facilities are scrambling to find ways to clean and treat the masks for reuse to protect doctors and nurses most at risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Duke University thinks it has found a solution using vaporized hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate the masks.

The process uses specialized equipment to vaporize hydrogen peroxide, which can then infuse all the layers of the mask to kill germs (including viruses) without degrading mask material.

“This is a decontamination technology and method we’ve used for years in our biocontainment laboratory,” said Scott Alderman, associate director of the Duke Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, in a statement.

The University said it has proven effective and will begin using the technology at all three of its hospitals, according to Matthew Stiegel, the director of the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office at Duke.

Ideally, the hospitals would be able to use fresh masks and not need to try to decontaminate their masks, but these are not ideal times.

Duke’s decision to use hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 masks is based on published studies conducted in 2016, but the practice wasn’t widespread, because the industry wasn’t facing shortages. Those earlier studies also didn’t include fit-testing — or the resizing of masks for individual wearers — after cleaning. Duke has now done that efficacy testing in the real world, the university said.

“The ability to reuse the crucial N95 masks will boost the hospitals’ ability to protect frontline health care workers during this time of critical shortages of N95 masks,” said Cameron Wolfe, M.D., associate professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist.

Monte Brown, M.D., vice president at Duke University Health System, said the Duke team is working to spread the word about the technique, making the protocols widely available. He said several health systems and many pharmaceutical companies already have the needed equipment, which is currently used in different ways, and could ramp up operations to come to the aid of their local hospitals.

“We could stand up in front of our staff and state with confidence that we are using a proven decontamination method,” Brown said. “It has been a proven method for years. While this alone will not solve the problem, if we and others can reuse masks even once or twice, that would be a huge benefit given the current shortages.”

NYU makes face shield design for healthcare workers that can be built in under a minute available to all

By Darrell Etherington

New York University is among the many academic, private and public institutions doing what it can to address the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) among healthcare workers across the world. The school worked quickly to develop an open source face shield design, and is now offering that design freely to any and all in order to help scale manufacturing to meet needs.

Face shields are a key piece of equipment for frontline healthcare workers operating in close contact with COVID-19 patients. They’re essentially plastic, transparent masks that extend fully to cover a wearer’s face. These are to be used in tandem with N95 and surgical masks, and can protect a healthcare professional from exposure to droplets containing the virus expelled by patients when they cough or sneeze.

The NYU project is one of many attempts to scale production of face masks, but many others rely on 3D-printing. This has the advantage of allowing even very small commercial 3D print operations and individuals to contribute, but 3D printing takes a lot of time – roughly 30 minutes to an hour per print. NYU’s design requires only basic materials, including two pieces of clear, flexible plastic and an elastic band, and it can be manufactured in less than a minute by essentially any production facility that includes equipment for producing flat products (whole punches, laser cutters, etc.).

This was designed in collaboration with clinicians, and over 100 of them have already been distributed to emergency rooms. NYU’s team plans to ramp to scale production of up to 300,000 of these once they have materials in hand at the factories of production partners they’re working with, which include Daedalus Design and Production, PRG Scenic Technologies and Showman Fabricators.

Now, the team is putting the design out there for pubic use, including a downloadable tool kit so that other organizations can hopefully replicate what they’ve done and get more into circulation. They’re also welcoming inbound contact from manufacturers who can help scale additional production capacity.

Other initiatives are working on different aspects of the PPE shortage, including efforts to build ventilators and extend their use to as many patients as possible. It’s a great example of what’s possible when smart people and organizations collaborate and make their efforts available to the community, and there are bound to be plenty more examples like this as the COVID-19 crisis deepens.

Clearstep’s COVID-19 chat-based screener goes in-depth to preserve healthcare resources

By Darrell Etherington

There are a growing number of symptom checker and screening tools that you can use at home if you suspect you might have contracted the new coronavirus that is causing the global COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these are relatively simple, including around three or four questions that basically cover the top reported symptoms experienced by anyone who has confirmed to have had the disease. Chatbot-based symptom checking software startup Clearstep has created its own COVID-19 screener, which goes more in-depth to combine symptom checking with screening for potential exposure to the virus.

The reason Clearstep’s tool is designed to go a step further than most is simple, according to co-founder and COO Bilal Naved – the symptoms reportedly suffered by those affected by COVID-19 include many that could indicate other serious conditions, including an impending heart attack. More effective and comprehensive screening can also help reduce the burden on an already heavily-taxed healthcare system, which seems likely to only get busier over time as the number of cases across the U.S. continues to climb.

Naved and cofounder Adeel Malik, both of whom have worked in health at Johns Hopkins University and been involved in a number of academic scientific publications, developed Clearstep as a front-line way to connect patients with the right care, using remote screening facilitated via chatbot on their desktop or mobile device. Clearstep’s aim fits naturally with one of the key needs in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – effective screening that can provide individuals with clear and accurate guidance about what steps they need to take to seek care, and when.

“Our country is entering a time of a lot of uncertainty, but but also a time where there could be a true, critical threat to the integrity of the healthcare system,” Naved said in an interview. “If the rate of infection of this really reaches some projections, we might not have enough hospital beds or ICU beds to deal with all of this […] So it’s all about urgency and speed here and rapid response, but also being able to deliver the highest quality product. We are built off of nurse protocols, and we’re the only ones that have access to this in a publicly available chatbot format that has been used in over 200 million encounters in over 95% of the call centers around the country.”

Clearstep’s screener asks a range of questions about symptoms, travel, potential contact with anyone either diagnosed with COVID-19 or likely to have it based on their own travel and other factors. Once you go through the questions, which are presented in a fairly standard and easy-to-follow chat message format, the tool provides you an evaluation of what next steps you should take. It’ll provide you advice about whether or not you need testing for COVID-19 based on current CDC guidelines about who should be tested – and alert you about whether you should seek care for any other reason, independent of your potential coronavirus exposure.

The Clearstep team is also making sure to stay on top of new research as it emerges regarding the presentation and likelihood of symptoms in COVID-19 patients. Their approach focuses on data-driven representation of the symptoms that most people are likely to have, and then also taking the less likely presenting symptoms and building a model wherein those compound and add up to a total. The team is “keeping a pulse in the literature” published in peer-reviewed sources and adapting its screener as it needs to, as well, Naved says.

Ultimately, Naved thinks that where Clearstep can contribute is in its ability to integrate quickly with healthcare providers, providing a triage tool that can give frontline responders a way to interface with the public safely, while also helping to ensure that all the health issues that are not related to COVID-19 but that are still serious and require care don’t get left behind.

“We were able to go from first conversation to contract signed to configured and implemented in total of nine days,” Naved says about their speed of response. “The contracts took six days and in three days, we we customized, put in behind their branding, integrate itd and deployed it out to an entire population in Florida for a health system there […] The symptom checkers that are being put out there need to be able to integrate with those places that are seeing the massive influx of volume and may not be able to handle it, because that’s our responsibility right now.”

Study behind updated FDA guidance shows self-swab tests are as effective as those done by clinicians

By Darrell Etherington

Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would be updating its guidance to allow self-swab tests for COVID-19, in which a patient collects a sample from their own nose for a health professional to test. On Wednesday, UnitedHealth Group revealed the results of a peer-reviewed large-scale study that provided the science behind the decision to switch to the less-invasive sample collection method.

The self-swab process doesn’t change where FDA-approved testing can happen — this expanded guidance only applies to the method of collection, meaning at-home swab-based PCR tests that many startups had hoped to bring to market are still on hold. But even though people still have to go to either clinics or drive-through testing sites to get a COVID-19 test done, the ability to self-swab offers more comfort, as well as real advantages when it comes to the health and safety of the clinicians and front-line healthcare workers staffing the sites.

This new study shows that not only does self-swabbing lessen the chance of someone with COVID-19 passing on their infection to a healthcare worker, it’s also just as effective as a test where clinicians collected the sample from much deeper inside a person’s nasal cavity. UnitedHeatlh worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Quest Diagnostics and the University of Washington to conduct the study, which covered almost 500 patients who received tests at OptumCare diagnostic facilities in the state of Washington.

There are other benefits to the self-swab method as well, including eliminating the need for specifically trained medical professionals who have to administer the tests at point-of-care. This should help with clearing up backlogs owing to staffing, at least, though supplies and bottlenecks due to demand are going to persist as more people seek diagnosis.

IBM and The Weather Channel launch detailed local COVID-19 maps and data tracking

By Darrell Etherington

There are already a number of resources available for mapping the spread of confirmed COVID-19 cases both in the U.S. and globally, but IBM and its subsidiary The Weather Company have launched new tools that bring COVID-19 mapping and analysis to more people via their Weather Channel mobile app and weather.com.

Existing tools are useful, but come from fairly specialized sources including the World Health Organization (WHO) and Johns Hopkins University. This new initiative combines data fro these same sources, including global confirmed reported COVID-19 cases, as well as reported data from sources at both the state and county level. This is collected on a so-called “incident map” that displays color-coded reported case data for states and counties, as well as on state-wide trend graphs and through reporting of stats including relative percentage increase of cases week-over-week.

On top of these sections built into the core, consumer-facing Weather.com products, IBM has also launched a more in-depth analytics reporting dashboard, providing views of global reported COVID-19 cases, as well as rate of spread based on available data, county-by-county stats and more.

This information from IBM, which runs on its Watson and Cognos Analytics tools, are intended for use by both researchers and public officials – but they’re also meant for general public consumption. IBM is also providing resources including fact-checking resources and practical guidance for both COVID-19 patients and the general public, to help not only inform people about the spread of the virus, but also the steps they can take to protect themselves and others.

One of the key elements of COVID-19 mitigation is making sure that the average American has access to reliable and accurate information, including the most up-to-date guidelines about social distancing and isolation from trusted experts including the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That makes this a key resource in the ongoing efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, since it resides in an app that is among the most popular pieces of software available for smartphones. There are around 45 million or so monthly active users of the Weather Channel app, which means that this information will now be readily accessible by a large percentage of the U.S. population.

Oxford Uni academics launch a tracker for COVID-19 policy interventions

By Natasha Lomas

Oxford University academics have launched a project to track government responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

The tool, called the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT), tracks 11 indicators to generate an index that compares the stringency of policy responses around the world.

Nation state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to vary widely, both in timing and stringency. The UK, for example, only began imposing more stringent restrictions on Saturday, ordering bars and restaurants to close. Yet Denmark — a European country with fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 — took similar steps around a week earlier.

The index, which is being made freely available, contains data from 73 countries at launch — including China, South Korea, Italy, UK and USA. The academics say it will continue to be updated throughout the crisis.

The idea is to help policymakers and researchers understand the impacts of different state interventions and identify triggers for implementing more or less strict measures during the public health crisis.

The range of government interventions being tracked for the index are: 1. school closure; 2. workplace closures; 3. public event cancellation; 4. public transport closure; 5. public information campaigns; 6. restriction on internal movement; 7. international travel controls; 8. fiscal measures; 9. monetary measures; 10. emergency investment in healthcare; 11. investment in vaccines.

The academics behind the project, from Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, are relying on tracking publicly available information.

They caveat the effort by saying it obviously does not represent the fill picture, nor should it be interpreted as measuring “the appropriateness or effectiveness of a country’s response”.

Commenting in a statement, Thomas Hale, associate professor of global public policy at the School and lead for the project, said: “Our index cannot, of course, tell the full story, but we believe the data we have collected can help decision makers and public health professionals examine the robustness of government responses and provide a first step into understanding exactly what measures have been effective in certain contexts, and why.”

The OxCGRT can be found here — where project data and notes are also available for download.

UK researchers develop new low-cost, rapid COVID-19 test that could even be used at home

By Darrell Etherington

A new type of test developed by UK researchers from the Brunel University London, Lancaster University and the University of Surrey can provide COVID-19 detection in as little as 30 minutes, using hand-held hardware that costs as little as £100 (around $120 USD) with individual swab sample kits that cost around $5 per person. The test is based on existing technology that has been used in the Philippines for testing viral spread in chickens, but it’s been adapted by researchers for use with COVID-19 in humans, and the team is now working on ramping mass production.

This test would obviously need approval by local health regulatory bodies like the FDA before it goes into active use in any specific geography, but the researchers behind the project are “confident it will respond well,” and say they could even make it available for use “within a few weeks.” The hardware itself is battery-operated and connects to a smartphone application to display diagnostic results and works with nasal or throat swabs, without requiring that samples be round-tripped to a lab.

There are other tests already approved for use that use similar methods for on-site testing, including kits and machines from Cepheid and Mesa Biotech. These require expensive dedicated table-top micro-labs, however, which is installed in dedicated healthcare facilities including hospitals. This test from UK scientists has the advantage of running on inexpensive hardware, with testing capabilities for up to six people at once, which can be deployed in doctor’s offices, hospitals and even potentially workplaces and homes for truly widespread, accessible testing.

Some frontline, rapid results tests are already in use in the EU and China, but these are generally serological tests that rely on the presence of antibodies, whereas this group’s diagnostics are molecular, so it can detect the presence of viral DNA even before antibodies are present. This equipment could even potentially be used to detect the virus in asymptomatic individuals who are self-isolating at home, the group notes, which would go a long way to scoping out the portion of the population that’s not currently a priority for other testing methods, but that could provide valuable insight into the true extend of silent, community-based transmission of the coronavirus.

Oura partners with UCSF to determine if its smart ring can help detect COVID-19 early

By Darrell Etherington

Startups continue to find new ways to contribute to ongoing efforts to fight the global spread of COVID-19 during the current global coronavirus pandemic, and personal health hardware-maker Oura is no exception. The smart ring startup is working with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) on a new study to see if its device can help detect early physiological sings that might indicate the onset of COVID-19.

This study will include two parts: Around 2,000 frontline healthcare professionals will get Our rings to wear during the study. The rings track a users’s body temperature continuously, as well as their sleep patterns, heart rate and activity levels. Fever is a common and early symptom that could indicate COVID-19, and a continuously updated body temperature reading could detect fever very early. That’s not enough to confirm a case of COVID-19, of course, but the purpose of the study is to determine whether the range of readings Oura’s ring tracks might, taken together and with other signals, be useful in some kind of early detection effort.

There’s good reason why researches believe that Oura could be used in early detection: An Oura user in Finland alerted him to the fact that he was ill before he was displaying any overt symptoms of the virus, prompting him to get tested (relatively easy in that country). Test results confirmed that while asymptomatic, he had indeed contracted COVID-19. As a result, UCSF researcher Dr. Ashley Mason hypothesizes that the Oura ring could anticipate COVID-19 onset by as many as two to three days before the onset of more obvious symptoms, like coughing.

Being able to detect the presence of the virus in an individual early is key to global containment efforts, but even more important when it comes to frontline healthcare workers. The earlier a frontline responder is diagnosed, the less chance that they expose their colleagues or others they’re working around in close quarters.

In addition to the Oura rings being provided to study participants, the plan is to expand it to include Oura’s general user population, meaning its over 150,000 global users can opt in to participate and add to the overall poor of available information with their ring’s readings and daily symptom surveys. For existing Oura users, it’s a relatively low-lift way to contribute to the global effort to combat the pandemic – without even leaving the house.

Better know a CSO: Indiana University Health’s Mitch Parker

By Zack Whittaker

Mitch Parker has one of Indiana’s most critical jobs.

As chief information security officer for Indiana University Health, Parker oversees cybersecurity for more than 30,000 employees at 18 hospitals across the state, along with countless numbers of computers, workstations and medical devices, making it the largest health system in Indiana — and the United States.

Indiana University Health is tasked with helping patients recover and maintain their health, but Parker’s job is keeping their data safe. In our discussion, he discussed the state of medical devices, his security team’s priorities and why — when an organization is so big — communication is absolutely key.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re talking to chief security officers to learn more about their work, promote best practices that don’t hamper growth and share insights from some of the industry’s most experienced security professionals.

TechCrunch: You’ve been at IU Health for a little over three years. Multiple hospitals, thousands of staff, a range of threats and no two days are the same. What’s the secret sauce?

Mitch Parker: The organization is significantly more receptive to working together towards cybersecurity solutions than when I first got here. A lot of it I’ve found comes down to just taking the time to understand your customers’ needs. I align everything the security team does with our core mission and values and with purpose, excellence, team and compassion. We don’t talk about cybersecurity first. We talk about, how do we improve healthcare, and how do we provide a better patient experience? And we ask, how do we assist in fulfilling our customers’ needs?

So, in a few words, what’s your approach to cybersecurity across the various teams at IU Health?

Cybersecurity is constantly evolving. Healthcare threats change, too. Three years ago we were talking about Ebola [virus] and now we’re talking about new disease threats. Just as our organization has to adapt, cybersecurity has to adapt in the same way. When I first got here, the organization understood that they had a need but didn’t feel they had a valued business partner to work with. That partnership is more important than the threat of the week.

Stanford cancels classes in response to novel coronavirus outbreak

By Danny Crichton

Following on the heels of several major cancellations of events the past few days, including the SXSW conference in Austin and the tech conference SaaStr, Stanford University, which is located in the heart of Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, California, announced late Friday that the school would cancel in-person classes for the final two weeks of the university’s winter quarter in response to the expanding outbreak of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

In a statement posted by the university, Stanford’s provost Persis Drell announced that the university would cancel two weeks of classes leading up to the university’s winter quarter exams, and “to the extent feasible” migrate classes to online formats.

In addition, professors are being encouraged by the administration to find ways of delivering functionally equivalent course material through online formats, and all exams for winter quarter are expected to be delivered remotely. The policy takes effect immediately starting with classes this coming Monday, March 9.

Furthermore, the university is canceling its annual Admit Weekend, where newly-admitted prospective freshman visit the palm-lined campus and learn more about the school before making a final decision on where to head for their undergraduate degrees. Tours of the campus have also been canceled.

The university in a separate note today acknowledged that two students are in self-isolation after “possible exposure” to the novel coronavirus. The university emphasized that neither student has affirmatively tested positive for the infection at this time.

The San Francisco Bay Area has seen increasing numbers of potential exposures to the novel coronavirus. Stanford itself has been on the vanguard of responding to the global pandemic, announcing the development of its own test earlier this week to detect the infection.

Could lessons from the challenger bank revolution kick-start innovation on the climate crisis?

By Mike Butcher

Now that the world is swimming in data we may be able to address the climate and environmental risks to the planet. But while there is plenty of capital to invest in things like ClimateTech, a lot of the data that’s needed to tackle this big issue is badly applied, leading to a big misallocation of resources. So to deal with the climate we have to get the data right. A big part of the solution is open standards and interoperability.

The story of how the Open Banking Standard developed might show a way forward. Its development out of the UK led to regulated sector-wide interoperability (covering a broad range of areas including IP, legal, liability and licensing, and technology to enable data sharing). It’s meant over 300 fintech companies now use the Standard, which has helped to catalyze similar initiatives.

Open Banking has lead to the explosion in tech startups that we see today. Revolut, Monzo, Starling bank – none of them would have existed without Open Banking.

What if someone created something like the Open Banking Standard, but this time to stimulate climate-friendly innovation around financial products. Afterall, it’s more likely we’ll save the planet is we incentivize firms with financial models to make it work.

Well, it just so happens that one of the key players that developed the Open Banking Standard plans to do the same for data about the climate to allow the insurance industry to engage in the solutions to the climate crisis.

Gavin Starks co-chaired the development of the Open Banking Standard, laying the foundations for regulation and catalyzing international innovation.

But Starks has form in this arena. Prior to co-creating Open Banking, he was the Open Data Institute’s founding CEO, working with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The ODI may not be well known in Silicon Valley, but it’s launched franchises across 20 countries and trained 10,000 people.

Starks’ previous venture was a pioneer in the climate space: AMEE (Avoidance of Mass Extinctions Engine) organized the world’s environmental data and standards into an open web-service, raising $10M and selling in 2015 PredictX.

Starks also chaired the development of the first Gold Standard Carbon Offset.

But what Starks has set himself is a task different to Open Banking.

His new project is Icebreaker One, a new non-profit which last month raised £1m+ investment, largely funded by the UK’s government-backed body UK Research and Innovation. It’s also supported by a consortium of financial and regulatory institutions.

So what’s the big idea this time?

The idea is to develop an open standard for data sharing that will stimulate climate-friendly financial product innovation and deliver new products.

Just like the Open Banking Standard, Icebreaker One will steer the development of the SERI standard. This is the Standard for Environment, Risk and Insurance (SERI) which has been created to design, test and develop financial products with Icebreaker One members ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year.

SERI could provide a framework for an addressable, open marketplace, built around the needs of both the market and the new reality of climate change. If it works, this would enable insurers to share data robustly, legally and securely, driving the use and adoption of artificial intelligence tools within the insurance sector.

It would mean insurers being able to invest in demonstrably low-carbon financial products and services, based on real, hard data.

The current SERI launch partners are Aon, Arup, Agvesto, Bird & Bird, Brit Insurance, Dais LLP, Lloyd’s Register Group and the University of Cambridge.

The thinking behind the initiative is that as large catastrophic climate events occur with higher frequency, the UK’s insurance market is under pressure to evolve.

By creating the data platform, insurers can invest in low-carbon financial products, rather than ignore them because they can’t be priced right.

Starks says: “The time for theory is over—we need rapid and meaningful action. The threat of climate change to the global economy is tangible, and the increase in catastrophic climate events is capable of bankrupting markets and even nation-states. We are already witnessing insurance in some areas becoming untenable – which is a genuine threat to communities and wider society.”

He adds: “We are working with some of the most influential organizations in the world to plan policies and regulation to protect citizens, our environment and our economy; to unlock the power of unused and underutilized data to enable governments and business to respond effectively, responsibly and sustainably to the threats posed by the climate emergency.”

Arup, the multinational professional services firm best known for large engineering projects, is one of those in the SERI consortium.

Volker Buscher, Chief Data Officer at Arup, says: “Responding to climate change and futureproofing the market is vital – and working with Gavin and senior industry figures is a big opportunity to make real-world data work harder, to evolve investment strategies, shine a light on inefficiencies and better understand risk. It’s of benefit to everyone that we create the working blueprint for the freer sharing and licensing of data-at-scale that can be a shot in the arm to climate-affected financial products and services.”

Icebreaker One plans to overcome the locked, legacy culture of the insurance industry.

The task ahead is a big one. Currently, the valuable data needed to unlock this potential is in lately closed-off “data lakes”. The goal is to influence $3.6 trillion of investment.

If the insurance industry can innovate around climate change and the new kinds of risk it creates, then the financial world industry can create the kind of boom Open Banking did.

And that would mean not just brand new insurance products but also new startups in what’s been described as “InsureTech”.

But the greater prize, is of course the planet itself.

SpaceX wins the $117 million launch contract to explore Psyche’s heavy metal asteroid

By Jonathan Shieber

SpaceX has won the launch contract for NASA’s 2022 mission to explore the mineral-rich asteroid known as Psyche, the space agency announced today, including launch services and other mission-related costs valued at $117 million — remarkably low for a mission of this scale.

The Psyche mission will use a Falcon Heavy rocket, which will launch from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the Psyche asteroid is made of the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet and represents a fragment of one of the earliest building blocks of our solar system.

NASA is hoping that the exploration of Psyche will yield clues about the history of the evolution of terrestrial planets through the examination of Psyche’s own proto-planetary material.

The space agency’s Psyche mission includes two secondary payloads: The Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, which will study the atmosphere on Mars, and the Janus mission, which will study binary asteroids.

NASA said its Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida will manage the SpaceX launch service and that the mission is led by Arizona State University .

“With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us,” said principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe, in a statement when NASA announced that it was approving the mission.

Pasadena, Calif.’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be the overall manager for the mission, including system engineering, integration, testing and mission operations. The spacecraft’s propulsion chassis is a high-power solar electric rig provided by Maxar Space Solutions.

This announcement clears the way for Phases D, E, and F of the Psyche mission — the final official phases before launch.

As we wrote last year:

Phase D will begin in early 2021, and includes the final manufacturing and testing of the spacecraft along with the planned launch in early 2022.

Phase E will happen as soon as Psyche’s exploratory craft hits the vacuum of space, NASA said. It’ll cover the deep space operations of the mission and the collection of data for science. NASA expects Psyche will arrive at its eponymous asteroid on January 31, 2026 after buzzing Mars in 2023 (two years before Elon Musk  predicted the first human astronauts would arrive).

Instruments on the Psyche craft will include a magnetometer designed to detect and measure the remnant magnetic field of the asteroid. A multi-spectral imager will be on board to provide high-resolution images to determine the composition of the asteroid (how much is metal versus how much is a silicate). The craft will also include a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to detect, measure and map the asteroid’s elemental composition, and a new laser technology that’s designed for deep space communications.

Meet the first wave of speakers & enter your startup for The Europas Awards, 25 June

By Mike Butcher

Excitement for The Europas Awards for European Tech Startups is heating up. Here is the first wave of speakers and judges — with more coming!

The Awards — which have been running for over 10 years — will be held on 25 June 2020 in London, U.K. on the front lawn of the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton, London — creating a fantastic and fun garden-party atmosphere in the heart of London’s tech startup scene.

TechCrunch is once more the exclusive media sponsor of the awards and conference, alongside The Pathfounder.

The application form to enter is here.

We’re scouting for the top late-stage seed and Series A startups in 22 categories.

You can nominate a startup, accelerator or venture investor that you think deserves to be recognized for their achievements in the last 12 months.

CLOSING DATE FOR APPLICATIONS: 25 March 2020

For the 2020 awards, we’ve overhauled the categories to a set that we believe better reflects the range of innovation, diversity and ambition we see in the European startups being built and launched today. This year we are particularly looking at startups that are able to address the SDGs/Globals Boals.

The Europas Awards
The Europas Awards results are based on voting by experts, experienced founders, hand-picked investors and the industry itself.

But the key to it is that there are no “off-limits areas” at The Europas, so attendees can mingle easily with VIPs.

Timeline of The Europas Awards deadlines:

Submissions now open!
25 March 2020 – Submissions close
14 April – Public voting begins
25 April – Public voting ends
8 June – Shortlist Announced
25 June – Awards evening, winners announced

Amazing networking

We’re also shaking up the awards dinner itself. There are more opportunities to network. Our awards ceremony this year will be in the setting of a garden/lawn party, where you’ll be able to meet and mingle more easily, with free-flowing drinks and a wide selection of street food (including vegetarian/vegan). The ceremony itself will last less than 45 minutes, with the rest of the time dedicated to networking. If you’d like to talk about sponsoring or exhibiting, please contact Claire Dobson on claire@thepathfounder.com

Instead of thousands and thousands of people, think of a great summer event with the most interesting and useful people in the industry, including key investors and leading entrepreneurs.

The Europas Awards have been going for the last 10 years, and we’re the only independent and editorially driven event to recognise the European tech startup scene. The winners have been featured in Reuters, Bloomberg, VentureBeat, Forbes, Tech.eu, The Memo, Smart Company, CNET, many others — and of course, TechCrunch.

• No secret VIP rooms, which means you get to interact with the speakers

• Key founders and investors attending

• Journalists from major tech titles, newspapers and business broadcasters

The Pathfounder Afternoon Workshops
In the afternoon prior to the awards we will be holding a special, premium content event, The Pathfounder, designed be a “fast download” into the London tech scene for European founders looking to raise money or re-locate to London. Sessions include “How to Craft Your Story”; “Term Sheets”; “Building a Shareholding Structure”; Investor Panel; Meet the Press; and a session from former Europas winners. Followed by the awards and after-party!

The Europas “Diversity Pass”
We’d like to encourage more diversity in tech! That’s why we’ve set aside a block of free tickets to ensure that pre-seed female and BAME founders are represented at The Europas. This limited tranche of free tickets ensures that we include more women and people of colour who are specifically “pre-seed” or “seed-stage” tech startup founders. If you are a women/BAME founder, apply here for a chance to be considered for one of the limited free diversity passes to the event.

Meet some of our first speakers and judges:


Anne Boden
CEO
Starling Bank
Anne Boden is founder and CEO of Starling Bank, a fast-growing U.K. digital bank targeting millions of users who live their lives on their phones. After a distinguished career in senior leadership at some of the world’s best-known financial heavyweights, she set out to build her own mobile bank from scratch in 2014. Today, Starling has opened more than one million current accounts for individuals and small businesses and raised hundreds of millions of pounds in backing. Anne was awarded an MBE for services to financial technology in 2018.


Nate Lanxon (Speaker)
Editor and Tech Correspondent
Bloomberg
Nate is an editor and tech correspondent for Bloomberg, based in London. For over a decade, he has particularly focused on the consumer technology sector, and the trends shaping the global industry. Previous to this, he was senior editor at Bloomberg Media and was head of digital editorial for Bloomberg.com in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Nate has held numerous roles across the most respected titles in tech, including stints as editor of WIRED.co.uk, editor-in-chief of Ars Technica UK and senior editor at CBS-owned CNET. Nate launched his professional career as a journalist by founding a small tech and gaming website called Tech’s Message, which is now the name of his weekly technology podcast hosted at natelanxon.com.


Tania Boler
CEO and founder
Elvie
/> Tania is an internationally recognized women’s health expert and has held leadership positions for various global NGOs and the United Nations. Passionate about challenging taboo women’s issues, Tania founded Elvie in 2013, partnering with Alexander Asseily to create a global hub of connected health and lifestyle products for women.


Kieran O’Neill
CEO and co-founder
Thread
Thread makes it easy for guys to dress well. They combine expert stylists with powerful AI to recommend the perfect clothes for each person. Thread is used by more than 1 million men in the U.K., and has raised $35 million from top investors, including Balderton Capital, the founders of DeepMind and the billionaire former owner of Warner Music. Prior to Thread, Kieran founded one of the first video sharing websites at age 15 and sold it for $1.25 million at age 19. He was then CEO and co-founder of Playfire, the largest social network for gamers, which he grew to 1.5 million customers before being acquired in 2012. He’s a member of the Forbes, Drapers and Financial Times 30 Under 30 lists.


Clare Jones
Chief Commercial Officer
what3words
Clare is the chief commercial officer of what3words; prior to this, her background was in the development and growth of social enterprises and in impact investment. Clare was featured in the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 list for technology and is involved with London companies tackling social/environmental challenges. Clare also volunteers with the Streetlink project, doing health outreach work with vulnerable women in South London.


Luca Bocchio
Principal
Accel
Luca Bocchio joined Accel in 2018 and focuses on consumer internet, fintech and software businesses. Luca led Accel’s investment in Luko, Bryter and Brumbrum. Luca also helped lead Accel’s investment and ongoing work in Sennder. Prior to Accel, Luca was with H14, where he invested in global early and growth-stage opportunities, such as Deliveroo, GetYourGuide, Flixbus, SumUp and SecretEscapes. Luca previously advised technology, industrial and consumer companies on strategy with Bain & Co. in Europe and Asia. Luca is from Italy and graduated from LIUC University.


Bernhard Niesner
CEO and c-founder
busuu
/> Bernhard co-founded busuu in 2008 following an MBA project and has since led the company to become the world’s largest community for language learning, with more than 90 million users across the globe. Before starting busuu, Bernhard worked as a consultant at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. He graduated summa cum laude in International Business from the Vienna University of Economics and Business and holds an MBA with honours from IE Business School. Bernhard is an active mentor and business angel in the startup community and an advisor to the Austrian Government on education affairs. Bernhard recently received the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2018 UK Awards in the Disruptor category.


Chris Morton
CEO and founder
Lyst
Chris is the founder and CEO of Lyst, the world’s biggest fashion search platform used by 104 million shoppers each year. Including over 6 million products from brands including Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Prada and Saint Laurent, Lyst offers shoppers convenience and unparalleled choice in one place. Launched in London in 2010, Lyst’s investors include LVMH, 14W, Balderton and Accel Partners. Prior to founding Lyst, Chris was an investor at Benchmark Capital and Balderton Capital in London, focusing on the early-stage consumer internet space. He holds an MA in physics and philosophy from Cambridge University.


Husayn Kassai
CEO and co-founder
Onfido
/> Husayn Kassai is the Onfido CEO and co-founder. Onfido helps businesses digitally onboard users by verifying any government ID and comparing it with the person’s facial biometrics. Founded in 2012, Onfido has grown to a team of 300 across SF, NYC and London; received over $100 million in funding from Salesforce, Microsoft and others; and works with over 1,500 fintech, banking and marketplace clients globally. Husayn is a WEF Tech Pioneer; a Forbes Contributor; and Forbes’ “30 Under 30”. He has a BA in economics and management from Keble College, Oxford.

Nigeria’s Paga acquires Apposit, confirms Mexico and Ethiopia expansion

By Jake Bright

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga has acquired Apposit, a software development company based in Ethiopia, for an undisclosed amount.

That’s just part of Paga’s news. The Lagos based startup will also launch its payment products in Mexico this year and in Ethiopia imminently, CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch

The moves come a little over a year after Paga raised a $10 million Series B round and Oviosu announced the company’s intent to expand globally, while speaking at Disrupt San Francisco.

Paga will leverage Apposit — which is U.S. incorporated but operates in Addis Ababa — to support that expansion into East Africa and Latin America.

Repat founders

Behind the acquisition is a story threaded with serendipity, return, and collaboration.

Both Paga and Apposit were founded by repatriate entrepreneurs. Oviosu did his MBA at Stanford University and worked at Cisco Systems before returning to Nigeria.

Apposit CEO Adam Abate moved back to Ethiopia 17 years ago for an assignment in the country’s Ministry of Finance, after studying at Brown University and working in fintech in New York. 

“I put together a team…to build…public financial management systems for the country. And during the process…brought in my best friend Eric Chijioke…to be a technical engineer,” said Abate.

The two teamed up with Simon Solomon in 2007 to co-found Apposit, with a focus on building large-scale enterprise software for Africa.

Apposit partners (L-R) Adam Abate, Simon Solomon, Eric Chijioke, Gideon Abate

A year later, Oviosu met Chijioke when he crashed at his house while visiting Ethiopia for a wedding. It just so happened Chijioke’s brother was his roommate at Stanford.

That meeting began an extended conversation between the two on digital-finance innovation in Africa and eventually led to a Paga partnership with Apposit in 2010.

Apposit dedicated an engineering team to build Paga’s payment platform, Eric Chijioke became Paga’s CTO (while maintaining his Apposit role) and Apposit backed Paga.

“We aligned ourselves as African entrepreneurs…which then developed into a close relationship where we became…investors in Paga and strategically aligned,” said Abate.

African roots, global ambitions

Fast forward a decade, and the two companies have come pretty far. Apposit has grown its business into a team of 63 engineers and technicians and has racked up a list of client partnerships. The company helped digitize the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange and has contracted on IT and software solutions with banks non-profits and brick and mortar companies.

For a decade, Apposit has also supported Paga’s payment product development.

Paga Interfaces

Over that period, Oviosu and team went to work building Paga’s platform and driving digital payment adoption in Nigeria, home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

That’s been no small task considering Nigeria’s percentage of unbanked was pegged as high as at 70% in 2011 and still lingers around 60% in 2017 by, according to The Global Findex database.

Paga has created a multi-channel network to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally. The company has 14 million customers in Nigeria who can transfer funds from one of Paga’s 24,411 agents or through the startup’s mobile apps.

Paga products work on iOS, Android, and basic USSD phones using a star, hashtag option. The company has remittance partnerships with the likes of Western Union and allows for third-party integration of its app.

Since inception, the startup has processed 104 million transactions worth $6.6 billion, according to Oviosu.

With the acquisition, Paga absorbs Apposit’s tech capabilities and team of 63 engineers.  The company will direct its boosted capabilities and total workforce of 530 to support expansion.

Paga plans its Mexico launch in 2020, according to Oviosu.

Adam Abate is now CEO of Paga Ethiopia, where Paga plans to go live as soon as it gains a local banking license. The East African nation of 100 million, with the continent’s seventh largest economy, is bidding to become Africa’s next startup hub, though it still lags the continent’s tech standouts — like Nigeria and Kenya — in startup formation, ISP options and VC.

Ethiopia has also been slow to adopt digital finance, with less than 1% of the population using mobile-money, compared to 73% for Kenya, Africa’s mobile-payments leader.

Paga aims to shift the financial needle in the country. “The goal is straight-forward. We want Ethiopians to use the Paga wallet as their payment account. So it’s about digitizing cash transactions and driving financial services,” said Oviosu.

Paga CEO Tayo Oviosu

With the Apposit acquisition and country expansion, he also looks to grow Paga’s model in Africa and beyond, as an emerging markets fintech solution.

“There are several very large countries around the world in Africa, Latin America, Asia where these [financial inclusion] problems still exist. So our strategy is not an African strategy…We want to go where these problems exist in a large way and build a global payments business,” Oviosu said.

Fintech competition in Nigeria

As it grows abroad, Paga faces greater competition in Nigeria. For the last decade, South Africa and Kenya — with the success of Safaricom’s  M-Pesa product — have been Africa’s standouts in digital payments.

But over the last several years, Nigeria has become a magnet for VC and fintech startups. This trend reached a high-point in 2019 when Chinese investors put $220 million into Opera owned OPay and Transsion backed PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and broader Africa.

That’s a hefty war chest compared to Paga’s total VC haul of $34 million, according to Crunchbase.

Oviosu names product market fit and benefits from the company’s expansion as factors that will keep it ahead of these well-funded new entrants.

“That’s where the world-class technology comes in,” he said.

“We also take a perspective that we cannot build every use-case,” he said — contrasting Paga’s model to Opera in Africa, which has launched multiple startup verticals around its OPay product, from ride-hailing to food-delivery.

Oviosu compares Paga’s approach to PayPal, which allows third-party developers to shape businesses around PayPal as the payment solution.

With its Apposit acquisition and plans for continued expansion, PayPal may become more than a model for Paga.

Founder Tayo Oviosu sees big fintech players, such as PayPal and Alipay, as future competitors with Paga’s planned expansion into more emerging markets.

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

By Jake Bright

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.

‘PigeonBot’ brings flying robots closer to real birds

By Devin Coldewey

Try as they might, even the most advanced roboticists on Earth struggle to recreate the effortless elegance and efficiency with which birds fly through the air. The “PigeonBot” from Stanford researchers takes a step towards changing that by investigating and demonstrating the unique qualities of feathered flight.

On a superficial level, PigeonBot looks a bit, shall we say, like a school project. But a lot of thought went into this rather haphazard looking contraption. Turns out the way birds fly is really not very well understood, as the relationship between the dynamic wing shape and positions of individual feathers are super complex.

Mechanical engineering professor David Lentink challenged some of his graduate students to “dissect the biomechanics of the avian wing morphing mechanism and embody these insights in a morphing biohybrid robot that features real flight feathers,” taking as their model the common pigeon — the resilience of which Lentink admires.

As he explains in an interview with the journal Science:

The first Ph.D.student, Amanda Stowers, analyzed the skeletal motion and determined we only needed to emulate the wrist and finger motion in our robot to actuate all 20 primary and 20 secondary flight feathers. The second student, Laura Matloff,uncovered how the feathers moved via a simple linear response to skeletal movement. The robotic insight here is that a bird wing is a gigantic underactuated system in which a bird doesn’t have to constantly actuate each feather individually. Instead, all the feathers follow wrist and finger motion automatically via the elastic ligament that connects the feathers to the skeleton. It’s an ingenious system that greatly simplifies feather position control.

In addition to finding that the individual control of feathers is more automatic than manual, the team found that tiny microstructures on the feathers form a sort of one-way Velcro-type material that keeps them forming a continuous surface rather than a bunch of disconnected ones. These and other findings were published in Science, while the robot itself, devised by “the third student,” Eric Chang, is described in Science Robotics.

Using 40 actual pigeon feathers and a super-light frame, Chang and the team made a simple flying machine that doesn’t derive lift from its feathers — it has a propeller on the front — but uses them to steer and maneuver using the same type of flexion and morphing as the birds themselves do when gliding.

Studying the biology of the wing itself, then observing and adjusting the PigeonBot systems, the team found that the bird (and bot) used its “wrist” when the wing was partly retracted, and “fingers” when extended, to control flight. But it’s done in a highly elegant fashion that minimizes the thought and the mechanisms required.

It’s the kind of thing that could inform improved wing design for aircraft, which currently rely in many ways on principles established more than a century ago. Passenger jets, of course, don’t need to dive or roll on short notice, but drones and other small craft might find the ability extremely useful.

“The underactuated morphing wing principles presented here may inspire more economical and simpler morphing wing designs for aircraft and robots with more degrees of freedom than previously considered,” write the researchers in the Science Robotics paper.

Up next for the team is observation of more bird species to see if these techniques are shared with others. Lentink is working on a tail to match the wings, and separately on a new bio-inspired robot inspired by falcons, which could potentially have legs and claws as well. “I have many ideas,” he admitted.

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