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The Last Day of Microsoft Research in Silicon Valley

While exuberant tech fanboys crowd Silicon Valley’s Apple stores today, eager to be among the first to get their hands on a new iPhone 6, a much more somber scene prevails at Microsoft Research’s outpost in Mountain View. The research lab, tagged Building 6, is separated by a quiet street from the rest of the company’s Silicon Valley campus, and its parking lot is half empty. A few knots of employees chat quietly, while two men stroll aimlessly, sipping coffee, and looping the soon-to-be-vacant building. Every now and then the front door opens, and out come two or three people carrying heavy packing boxes to their cars.

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Samsung Bets On OLED Printer Maker Kateeva

Let’s talk OLEDs. The news this week is that OLED startup Kateeva, based in Menlo Park near Facebook’s campus, just collected another $38 million in funding, a chunk of that from Samsung. 

Why is this interesting? After all, Kateeva’s been around since 2008 when it spun out of MIT; it already had about $70 million; and OLED has been the unrealized next big thing in large display technology for far too long. But there does seem to be something significant in this announcement. Or maybe I’m just desperately looking for a sign that OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology is really a competitor for large screens, because I’m tired of silly tweaks to regular LCD technology. (Enough with the curved screen already.)

First, a little background. Making an OLED display requires somehow placing the light-emitting (OLED means organic light-emitting diode) materials on a substrate in precise patterns of red, green, and blue pixels; a fuzzy pattern means a fuzzy picture. Today’s OLED display manufacturers use shadow masks and vapor deposition create the patterns, typically on glass. That wastes the material that hits the mask. It also limits the screen sizes: Large shadow masks are not physically stable enough to reliably produce defect-free pixels, and trying to use a small mask to make a big screen by repeatedly moving it adds yield-killing contaminating particles. That’s why the large-screen OLED TVs on the market today are so crazily expensive—the yields are lousy and the wasted ink is expensive.

 A lot of people have thought for years that ink-jet printing would be a much better approach, but they’ve had problems getting it to work reliably, thanks to too many particle-caused defects and uneven printing (like what you might see on your inkjet printer at home when the cartridge starts to run dry). They’ve also had problems with the operating lifetimes of displays made this way compared with those made using the more typical vapor deposition process. Still, there’s been a race on to make a truly practical ink-jet printer for OLEDs. Merck and Epson have been working on it; as has Dupont. As has Kateeva. The winner could own manufacturing for the next generation of TVs.

Photo: Kateeva

Kateeva says it’s got it figured out and will be ready to ship manufacturing equipment, at least for the smaller displays that go in mobile devices, by the end of the year; with large-screen manufacturing systems to follow. The company says that part of making it work is its decision to surround the printers with nitrogen, which improves display lifetimes. It also indicated that it made a number of tweaks designed to reduce particle defects, including shielding parts that tend to generate particles, using filtering systems, and developing its own process monitoring and printing algorithms to eliminate printing unevenness.

OK, so here’s what else is interesting. This announcement isn’t coming from a TV manufacturer unveiling an amazing “price and ship date to be determined later” technology at CES; this is a manufacturing equipment company. That makes (relatively) cheap, large-screen OLED sound very real.

And Kateeva, even with Samsung’s investment, isn’t tied to any one TV manufacturer—it will sell its equipment to anybody, so if the process works, once it gets going we might start really seeing cheap OLED TVs, because the competition will be on.

The announcement also is a reminder of Samsung’s growing presence in venture capital and the world of startups. Back in 2013, Samsung created the $1 billion Ventures America Fund and a $100 million Catalyst Fund and set up what it calls a Strategy and Innovation Center on Sand Hill Road, the prime Silicon Valley address for venture investors. When the Ventures America Fund was first introduced, the company said the money would be going into components and subsystems, not content and services. But Samsung isn’t ignoring software, last year it also set up a software startup incubator, the Samsung Accelerator, in the former Varsity Theater on Palo Alto’s University Ave., and plans to turn part of the building into a “working cafe” that’s open to the public. (It's a smart way to troll for startups at the early early pre-garage stage.)

Finally, this latest evidence of Kateeva’s success is one more sign that Silicon Valley’s energies may be focusing back on hardware. Author Mike Malone recently predicted that Silicon Valley is about to face a technical shift from software back to hardware; he can put this one down on his “evidence” list.

Google Takes On Parkinson’s One Bite at a Time

Last week, Google bought San Francisco startup Lift Labs for an undisclosed price. Lift creates devices to counteract the shaking caused by Parkinson’s disease and “essential tremor,” an even more common medical condition that triggers shaking. The company’s first product, introduced late last year for $300, is a tremor-cancellation handle with spoon and fork attachments for people whose shaking makes it difficult to eat without a struggle. The gadget really seems to make a difference—the company’s website displays touching e-mails from users, like one from a man who says he was able to eat a bowl of cereal for the first time in years.

Lift Labs will live in Google’s Google X division, the not-so-secret secret branch of the company responsible for its self-driving car and Google Glass.

Cofounder Anupam Pathak got the idea for this gizmo when he was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, working on a military project focusing on how to stabilize rifles when the soldiers aiming them are shaky from stress. The approach uses a technology similar to active-noise cancellation in audio headphones. As he told Mechanical Engineering Magazine last year, “The basic issue I discovered is you can’t stop soldiers from trembling but you can accommodate it. With our device, we allow the hand to move but what you’re holding onto cancels its motion. Digital cameras already do this on a small scale so we’ve come up with technology to do it on a larger scale.”

In 2011, Pathak got funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop a prototype—something the company reminded the world of in a tweet last week: “We hope to continue to be a living example of what Govt seed funding can do for public. So grateful. @NIHsbir”. In 2013, the venture firm Rock Health was part of a group of angel investors that together put $1 million into the company.

Ho hum, just another Google acquisition, right? After all, Google picks up about a company a week.

Or is it? In the continuing effort to decipher Google’s tea leaves, Silicon Valley has been trying to figure out just what this latest acquisition means.

One possibility: Google, or at least a part of it, is turning into a medical device company. Google X, which is also working on contact lenses that monitor the glucose levels of tears and is collecting data to try to build a complete picture of a “baseline” healthy human, has invested in a number of medical ventures including genomics company 23 and Me, and started Calico, a biotech company that’s looking at how to dramatically extend lifespans.

Or it’s not a broad strategy, but a narrow one: Google is taking a very specific and personal interest in Parkinson’s. The company has a reason to do so: Google cofounder Sergey Brin, who oversees Google X, has a genetic mutation that makes him more susceptible to developing Parkinson’s, and his mother has been diagnosed with the disease. Independently, Brin has been donating money to Parkinson’s research.

Or, you might even think—particularly if you’ve read Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle lately—that Google’s trying to figure out a way to know just when, where, and what you’re eating, and that pretty soon these gadgets will be sending data to the Internet as well as helping people eat. In which case you might be overthinking this just a bit.

But I’m going to go with perhaps the simplest—and, to me, most encouraging—explanation. The Lift Labs acquisition simply means that Google is aware that groundbreaking technology is not just about the big stuff: organizing all the world’s information, changing the way cars work, or eradicating a disease. The Lift Labs acquisition is a sign that sometimes the stuff that seems small but is fixable in the short term—like being able to eat independently with ease—can make a huge difference while we’re waiting for the big stuff to get figured out.


The California Drought: There’s an App For That

The California drought has taken over from real estate prices and traffic as the go-to topic of casual conversation in Silicon Valley. We’re jokingly proud of our proud of our brown lawns or apologizing for our green ones. We’re introducing our ice bucket challenge videos by explaining that we’re using pool water, reycled water, or positioning the bucket to hit a wilting plant when it's dumped. We’re asking each other if artificial turf really smells bad when it gets hot.


Photo: Dropcountr

But behind the scenes some people aren’t just talking about the drought—they’re figuring out how to solve the problems it’s causing. And while some of these solutions are decidely low tech, like a company that’s offering to paint brown grass green, the first of what is likely to be a wave of high-tech drought busters are emerging.

While I’m guessing a host of new drought-inspired companies are likely still in stealth mode, some who were already working in water conservation technology, like Watersmart Software, are getting new attention. And some existing technologies are being repurposed to focus on the drought, for example, vizSafe, an app designed to post localized alerts allowing people to warn their neighbors about crime, flooding, fire, missing persons, and traffic, is being used for “drought shaming,” calling out water wasters.

Quick-to-build apps are leading the wave of drought technology. There’s H2O Tracker to allow people to analyze their own water usage, Captain Plop to teach water conservation to children, Dropcountr for setting and managing a home water budget, and Waterprint, a kind of calorie counter for water usage (including not just what you’re using, but what was used upstream to produce an apple, say, or two eggs). And during Tuesday’s Apple event, when Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a nod to hot new apps, one clearly was designed for household water conservation (though flashed across the screen too fast for me to get the details.)

Photo: H2O Tracker

Gadgets are coming next. On Kickstarter, Luka is proposing a gizmo, shipping in December, that adds a pause button to a shower head. That’s a pretty dumb device; no doubt a more sophisticated version that can tell when I’ve stepped away from the stream of water is under development somewhere. Several companies are trying to jump into smart irrigation Hydros, a smart irrigation controller that combines sensor data with web-based information about weather, didn’t hit its funding goal on Kickstarter this summer, but Eve Ecosystem, another smart irrigation system, is about halfway to its funding goal and plans to ship in March 2015. All the smart irrigation controllers I’ve seen so far, however, have yet to automatically integrate with local watering restriction calendars. So there’s room for a more clever system.


Apple Watch's Wristful of Sensors and MEMS

Today was Apple’s big launch, as everybody who follows technology in anyway already knows (and probably tried to watch on the troubled live feed). Phones got bigger and the smart watch got smaller and finally comes in more than one size—including one tiny enough to fit on my too-small-for-the-Galaxy-Gear wrist.

But it’s what’s inside that little package that is really interesting—sensors, lots of them, along with a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) actuator that lets the watch reach out and touch you.

“This is an exciting day for people in the MEMS industry,” says Matthew Crowley, CEO of Vesper, a company that makes MEMS microphones. “By getting involved in the development of sensors, Apple validates that this is an important industry.”

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Willow Garage Founder Scott Hassan Aims To Build A Startup Village

Once, Silicon Valley was all about garages. It seemed if you put a couple of smart engineers together in a garage, magical things happened.

These days, it’s about incubators; these sometimes-big operations host as many as 80 or more tiny companies whose founders are busily developing prototypes and fine-tuning business plans. Incubators are often funded by investors who take a little piece of each of the companies they incubate.

Garages have an important advantage over incubators—if your company is in your garage, it’s easy to work day and night, or any time you get the impulse. Get a great idea in the shower? You can start testing it out in about as long as it takes you to towel off.

Companies in incubators, though, have an advantage of their own—the presence of other smart engineers to act as inspirations, sounding boards, and sometimes collaborators.

It appears that Scott Hassan—who worked with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to develop an early version of the company's technology, sold a company to Yahoo for $413 million (some of which he invested in Google), and founded robotic research lab Willow Garage—is going to try to combine the advantages of both the garage and the incubator. Hassan, it came out last week, is behind a large real estate development in Menlo Park, Calif. He reportedly plans to create an incubator village with 18,500 square meters of workspace and another 18,500 square meters of living space on a 30,000 square meter site.

Hassan has room on his plate for something new. He essentially shut down Willow Garage last year, after seven years of operation. Hassan has been involved with Willow Garage spinoff, Suitable Technologies. (Another spin-off company, Unbounded Robotics, shut down this summer.) But it turns out he had another project in the works at least since last year.

Hassan doesn’t talk to the press that often, and didn’t respond to my request to discuss his plans for the Menlo Park incubator village. Last week, Bob Burke, a principal at Greenheart Land Companies, told the Palo Alto Daily Post that Hassan plans to create a space for young tech entrepreneurs to work and live, one that is close to downtown restaurants and transit. Beyond that, Burke gave little detail. (The article is not yet available online.)

Hassan’s incubator village isn’t exactly a done deal. Last November, the proposal submitted to the City of Menlo Park by Greenheart (Hassan’s involvement had yet to be revealed) generated some pushback. A group of residents called Save Menlo Park organized to limit the amount of office space on the project (and other large developments) to 9300 square meters; they succeeded in placing an initiative that would set such a limit on the upcoming November ballot. Arguments in favor of what is called Measure M surround concerns over commute traffic generated by workers at the complex, leading to rush-hour gridlock on busy El Camino Real and therefore more traffic cutting through neighborhoods.

These arguments were written up when the project was simply described as a mix of office and residential space. The "incubator village" concept, however, eliminates the commute issue; in a true incubator village, residents would walk to work, and only use cars in off hours. With that concept and Hassan's involvement on the table, I asked one of the residents behind Save Menlo Park if he now is less worried about the proposed development. He told me that thinks Hassan's incubator would be interesting—built somewhere else—because he doesn’t see it as cutting traffic, believing both the apartments and the office space will go to the highest bidders, with no real link between the two.

Indeed, I am curious about how Hassan plans to get entrepreneurs to live as well as work on the site, and if such a program is sustainable—when companies move, will the engineers have to move too? Will he offer free rentals? Subsidized housing? However, I am more optimistic than the Save Menlo backer that Hassan will do something more interesting with this project than just make money. For one, this isn’t the first time he’s tried to make it easy for engineers to live close to work—in its day, Willow Garage bought a few houses near its Menlo Park offices and set them up as residences for the company’s interns. For another, Hassan has shown that he looks at buildings as places to generate companies, not rental income. According to Business Week, Willow Garage started when Hassan “snagged some prime office space in Menlo Park.” He then tapped Steve Cousins, a former Xerox Parc and IBM research lab manager, as CEO and simply told him to fill the building with interesting stuff, with the mantra being: “Impact first and return on capital second.”

So it’s possible that’s what Hassan will do in Menlo Park—focus on impact first and return on capital second. That is, if his project is not blocked, he’s likely to get it built and then get someone to fill it with “interesting stuff.” Will it be interesting enough to make tech workers used to San Francisco’s restaurants and nightlife want to get off the bus and live where they work? Stay tuned.

White House Sends CTO Todd Park Back to Silicon Valley As Recruiter-in-Chief

Airlines serving San Jose might consider adding a few more nonstop flights to Washington, because the route between the two cities seems to be getting a lot of traffic lately. Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer for the U.S. government, will move west to Silicon Valley to take on a new, as yet unnamed position recruiting Silicon Valley tech talent into government jobs. Google engineer Megan Smith, currently a vice president at Google's X lab, is reportedly on deck to replace him. Meanwhile, former Google reliability manager Mikey Dickerson, who last autumn was recruited by Park as part of a team of technologists to fix the website, is joining the White House staff full time.

Photo: AP Photo

Park's replacement, Megan Smith

Dickerson will lead a new team aimed at identifying and fixing problems in government computer systems and web sites. According to Dickerson’s LinkedIn page, his new title is Administrator, United States Digital Service.

A big question from the engineering community, Dickerson reports in the video below, has been whether or not he’ll be wearing a suit to work, because what he has to wear will reflect whether or not the government community will truly listen to its tech hires, or just go on with business as usual. At this point, he says, he’s not wearing a suit, though he has traded in his t-shirts for shirts with buttons.

As for Park, he was the second to hold the post of U.S. CTO; he came on in March 2012. The first U.S. CTO, Aneesh Chopra, was appointed in April 2009. The post is rather loosely defined and doesn’t carry a lot of power, perhaps one reason for Park’s move west, though he has yet to make a public statement about the change.

Park already has a track record as a recruiter of tech talent. Besides bringing Dickerson in to fix, he lured Code For America founder Jennifer Pahlka to Washington, as well as Twitter’s Nicole Wong. Wong, a lawyer, just announced that she’s leaving Washington, perhaps to be replaced with someone with more technical expertise—that’s likely one post Park will be looking to fill in his role as recruiter-in-chief.

So the political world will, if Park has anything to do with it, become more technical. Meanwhile, the tech world is becoming more political. Uber, for example, just hired former Obama advisor David Plouffe, recognizing that the challenges ahead for the company are as much or more political as they are technical. And other tech companies are reportedly looking to hire political talent.

Perhaps Park can set up an exchange program…

Does “Net Neutrality” Need a Better Name?

Today, the Internet in most places operates under a policy of "net neutrality"—the idea that all data flowing through the Internet should be treated equally. That may be about to change in the United States. Early this year, a Washington, D.C., Circuit Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently has no authority to enforce network neutrality rules. And this spring, the FCC proposed new rules to govern Internet traffic that would allow broadband providers to charge for access to a “fast” Internet lane, relegating other content to a “slow” lane.

There’s a huge debate going on in the U.S. about whether continuing net neutrality is a good or bad thing. Generally, Silicon Valley companies think it’s good, because it allows start-ups and established companies equal access to the Internet; on the other side are Internet service providers who would prefer to be able to charge for preferred access or give their own content priority.

But the term “net neutrality” itself can get in the way of the debate. Comedian John Oliver charged that the term is being used intentionally to bore people, so they won’t pay attention to the importance of the issue.

And the phrase can be confusing as well as boring. To someone just coming into the discussion, does “net neutrality” imply that the Government should or shouldn’t pass laws regulating traffic on the Internet? (For example, it might seem that a “neutral” government wouldn’t pass laws regulating the Internet, but maintaining net neutrality in the U.S. is going to require regulation.)

Silicon Valley Congresswoman Anna Eshoo says its time to dump "net neutrality" and replace it with something more descriptive and energizing. People know what kind of Internet they want, she says, but, with confusing buzzwords flying around, they have no idea which set of phrases describes their desired outcome.


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Fitness Trackers Quantify Sunday’s Northern California Earthquake

Many of us wear fitness bands during the day (to track activity) and at night (to track sleep). But it turns out that the data they gather can do a lot more—like track an earthquake.

At 3:20 a.m. Sunday morning 24 August, an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale struck northern California near the city of Napa. Down in Palo Alto where I live, the shaking was minor: not enough to set off car alarms, but enough for my husband to wake me up to tell me that we might be having an earthquake and to cause something in another room to crash to the floor. (It turned out to be my son's old Mr. Potato Head toy.) After that commotion, it took me a little while to fall back to sleep.

I often wear a fitness tracker; on Saturday night, it was in its charger, so it missed my earthquake-driven awakening. But enough people in Northern California were wearing their fitness trackers that night to enable tracker-maker Jawbone to create a snapshot of the earthquake’s intensity by analyzing sleep disruptions of users in the region.

Jawbone’s results weren’t surprising—people living closest to the epicenter were more likely to have been immediately awakened by the earthquake (93 percent, compared with 55 percent a little farther away) and to stay up longer—45 percent of Jawbone users living 24 kilometers or fewer from the epicenter stayed up all night. But it was a fast and powerful demonstration of a new way to use anonymized fitness tracker data.

Data about the amount of ground shaking produced by an earthquake--which differs from the earthquake's magnitude or the distance from the epicenter because it is affected by the type of soil and other factors—is currently provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the form of ShakeMaps.  The maps guide earthquake response and disaster planning. The USGS produces its ShakeMaps by combining measured ground motion from earthquake monitors with predicted motion based on geological features that fills in the gaps between the monitors. There are plenty of gaps, which is why data like that gathered by Jawbone could help improve accuracy.

Jawbone isn’t the only tech company testing its data as a supplement or alternative to ShakeMaps. Twitter has been working with researchers at Stanford University to determine if Tweets can be used to create accurate ShakeMaps. The company took a look at geo-tagged tweets sent in the first 10 minutes following a number of Japanese earthquakes in 2011 and 2012 and found that the ground-shaking estimates generated from those tweets were comparable to the official ShakeMaps.

Photo: Jawbone



Engineer Tracy Chou Has the Stats on Workplace Diversity at Startups

Where are all the women engineers? That’s a question on a lot of minds these past few months. A number of large companies—like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple—have gone public with statistics about their workforces, and the numbers weren’t encouraging. At Apple, the latest large company to report in, women make of 20 percent of the engineering workforce. At Google, 17 percent; Yahoo, 15 percent; Facebook, 15 percent.

But these large companies are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The tech world bustles with small startups. Most don’t get a lot of attention unless they get big—but it’s when they are small and just starting to build their workforces, that they create company cultures, those that are a good fit for women, or those that are not. But how do you get the data from small companies that aren’t public or making the news?

Well, it helps to ask. That’s what Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest with BS in electrical engineering and an MS in computer science, both from Stanford, has been doing. Indeed, a blog post she wrote last October may have sparked the series of revelations of diversity stats from the big Silicon Valley tech companies; she’s not so sure about that, but she knows it started a few conversations. Since then, she’s asked engineers throughout the tech industry to give her the numbers—anonymously if need be—of the female engineers in full-time roles at their companies. She’s collected data on nearly 200 companies to date, and made it available on a spreadsheet to anyone who is interested.

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