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Scientific Community Blasts Microsoft for Closing of Silicon Valley Lab

“Dear Harry, Peter, and Jeannette,” starts a letter dated 14 October. It sounds like a casual note to a few good friends—or at least familiar colleagues. And indeed, that’s what the letter from more than 30 researchers from the U.S. computer science community to the leaders of Microsoft Research is; these people know each other from working together in the past or through meetings and conferences. But for the recipients, the letter is also a slap from peers that should be hard to ignore.

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Egg-Freezing Kerfuffle Puts Apple and Facebook in the Hot Seat

Calm down, people. Yes, we all love to comment about the latest perks Silicon Valley companies are throwing at their engineers in the arms race to get and keep tech talent—particularly, female talent—but this week’s firestorm over a relatively new employee benefit has been over the top. National TV networks, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine…the story has been everywhere and often framed in outrage.

The basic news, apparently broken by NBC: Facebook since January has been covering the costs of egg freezing for female employees concerned about preserving their fertility; Apple has included the coverage in the benefits package that will start January 2015. That’s about $10,000 for the procedure, plus $500 or so for annual storage costs.

I’m guessing neither company expected this addition to their benefits package to generate so much media attention. For Apple, it’s simply one of many procedures included under its fertility coverage, which has a $20,000 cap. Facebook, with the same $20,000 cap, lists it under its surrogacy coverage. I’m guessing it cost the companies little—or more likely nothing—to include the option; the cap remains at $20,000, and it’s certainly possible that preemptive egg freezing might prevent the need for costly fertility treatments later.

While these companies are ahead of the curve, I’d give them credit—not grief—for being proactive; the “experimental” label just came off the procedure two years ago. I’m guessing we’ll soon see this option in the typical fertility package for companies that already offer that coverage.

But the fact that egg freezing is now an accepted means of preserving fertility is not what generated the media interest. Instead, it was spun as bad news—that Facebook and Apple, by offering this benefit, are sending the message to their female employees that work should come first, and family later—much later. The satirical publication The Onion, at risk of being trumped by reality here, pushed the envelope with “Facebook Offers To Freeze Female Employees Newborn Children.”

And some women who do believe Facebook and Apple were trying to do the right thing are concerned it could still go wrong. According to their thinking, with the benefit in place, women who take off time for childbearing could find less support from their colleagues and managers now that there’s a paid option to make waiting a little safer.

I don’t agree. I think the existence of this policy sends a far different message to the 20- and 30-somethings for whom parenthood is still in the future, and who likely have never thought about any kind of fertility issues: you don’t have forever. And I’m guessing that when they get that message, most of those women won’t get in line to freeze their eggs, but will start to figure out more work life balance. (Start with those free dinners—take them to go, and use the time you would have spent cooking on developing a life outside work.)

At minimum, people are saying Apple and Facebook should have simultaneously improved their maternity and paternity leave and other family-friendly policies. (I haven’t found a comprehensive list of what those are, but I know that Facebook does provide $4000 in “baby cash” for incidental expenses when an employee has a child, offers a four-month paid parental leave, and subsidizes daycare.) And those policies indeed may come: At Facebook, in particular, the workforce is young (with an average age of 28 last year), and most are barely beginning to think about the possibility of becoming a parent, much less what benefits would be helpful. I just hope the next time a Silicon Valley company considers adding a benefit targeted at its female employees, this week’s kerfuffle won’t make it think again.

Li-ion Battery Has Its Own Fire Alarm

It’s a rare lithium-ion battery that overheats and bursts into flames. But when one does, it can cause really bad things to happen. Phones burn through pants pockets, laptops explode while sending email, and even aircraft batteries catch on fire.

For years researchers have worked to develop battery technology that makes such flame-outs less likely. But battery fires are still happening with surprising regularity—just Google “phone battery fire” or “laptop fire” for the scary latest.

Until we have fireproof batteries, there’s another approach: the fire alarm battery. Researchers are developing technology to detect battery problems while they are developing—and before they cause a fire.

The latest approach, published in Nature Communications this month, comes from Stanford’s materials science and engineering department. Researchers there tweaked the traditional battery design to add a nanolayer of copper onto one side of the thin piece of polymer that separates the carbon anode and the lithium metal-oxide cathode. The copper layer doesn’t block the flow of lithium ions between the electrodes, but can detect problems that could create a short circuit and result in a fire.

The system depends on watching for the growth of dendrites in the battery. Dendrites are chains of lithium metal that can accumulate on the anode when the battery is charged too fast, for example, or when holes develop in the separator. 

Graduate student Denys Zhuo explained in a news release:

The copper layer acts like a sensor that allows you to measure the voltage difference between the anode and the separator. When the dendrites grow long enough to reach the copper coating, the voltage drops to zero. That lets you know that the dendrites have grown halfway across the battery. It's a warning that the battery should be removed before the dendrites reach the cathode and cause a short circuit. 

Exactly what kind of alarm that voltage drop will trigger has yet to be decided. I’m thinking Siri calmly suggesting that you take your phone out of your pocket and turn it off just isn’t going to be effective. Instead, perhaps we can dip back into television history, and lift a line from Mission Impossible: “This tape phone will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck.”

Ian Wright is Turning Fedex and Garbage Trucks Into High Performance EVs

In Silicon Valley, the mark of a successful entrepreneur is not how good his first idea is; it’s how well he pivots when that first idea doesn’t work out.  San Jose Mercury News columnist Michelle Quinn recently wrote, “successful pivots are the stuff of tech industry lore, a critical gamble that resulted in great wealth.”

Which brings us to Ian Wright, founder of Wrightspeed. Wrightspeed, which now makes powertrains for trucks, just got a big order from FedEx; the company is comfortably funded, thriving, and hiring. But it nearly crashed and burned before making a pivot that I didn’t see coming — and neither did Wright.

I met Wright back in 2006. A networking engineer who had spent some time on the amateur auto racing circuit, Wright had been working on a plan for an optical switching company when neighbor Martin Eberhard told him about his new startup, Tesla Motors. Wright shelved his business plan and signed on as employee number one, eager for a chance to merge his two passions, electronics and cars. He worked on optimizing the Tesla One for energy efficiency, but became fascinated with the potential of the technology for high-performance cars — much higher than Tesla would be able to sell to a mass market. So he quit Tesla and set out to build the highest performance electric vehicle possible, without worrying about whether it would have much of a market.

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Geeks Rule Fortune’s 40 Under 40 List

Seventeen tech execs—14 of whom lead San Francisco Bay Area companies—made Fortune’s 2014 list of the world’s 40 top business leaders under the age of 40. Interestingly, the only two tech companies on the list that are not in California are completely outside of the U.S.

At the top of the list, in a tie for first place, are Travis Kalanick, cofounder of Uber, and Brian Chesky, cofounder of Airbnb, a selection that demonstrates how important the peer-to-peer economy has become to the business world.  Right behind them is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, number one on the 2013 list, has dropped to number six. This will be the last time Mayer can be honored as a “young” executive; at 39, she’s about to age out of those ranks.  Squeezing in ahead of her at number five this year is Jan Koum, cofounder of WhatsApp (recently acquired by Facebook). And Elizabeth Holmes, founder of tHeranos, a health technology company, is the sixth tech leader to make the top ten.

What’s not so impressive is the tech industry’s batting average in elevating women to the top business ranks. Overall, 16 of the 40 selected business stars are women; the tech industry only brought four of those to the party.

Here are the tech executives on the list, with their company, city, and what they studied in college if available (not all completed their degrees).

  • Travis Kalanick, Uber, San Francisco, computer engineering
  • Brian Chesky, Airbnb, San Francisco, industrial design
  • Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, Menlo Park, computer science
  • Jan Koum, WhatsApp, Mountain View
  • Marissa Mayer, Yahoo, Sunnyvale, computer science
  • Elizabeth Holmes, tHeranos, Palo Alto, chemistry
  • Jack Dorsey, Twitter, San Francisco
  • Ben Silbermann, Pinterest, San Francisco
  • Nick Woodman, GoPro, San Mateo, visual arts
  • Evan Spiegel, Snapchat, Venice (Calif.), product design
  • Emily White, Snapchat
  • Lyndon Rive, Solarcity, San Mateo
  • Rahul Sharma, Micromax, Gurgaon, Haryana, India, mechanical engineering
  • Tang Yan, Momo, Beijing
  • Kevin Chou, Kabam, San Francisco, business
  • Vijaya Gadde, Twitter, law
  • Kevin Systrom, Instagram, Menlo Park, management science and engineering

And one more fun fact, though not exactly relevant to the tech exec headcount: two people descended from tech “royalty” made the list for their decidedly non-tech activities: filmmaker Megan Ellison is daughter of Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and Sam Nazarian, head of an entertainment conglomerate, is the son of Younes Nazarian, who was involved with Qualcomm early on.

Facebook, Box, and Pinterest Create A “Girls’ Club” for Women in Tech

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the abysmal numbers of women in tech. The chatter started late last year when Pinterest engineer Tracey Chou started pushing companies to release data about the number of women in technical positions.

The data trickled out this year and it seemed each statistic was worse than the next: Google, 17 percent; Twitter, 10 percent; Yahoo, 15 percent; Linked In, 17 percent. Popular tweets like this and this shared photos of bathroom lines at tech conferences (the long men’s line and the short women’s line). Even the TV show Silicon Valley got into the act with a joke about the huge female turnout at a startup event — a whopping 15 percent.

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Thync's Wearable Won't Just Measure Your Mood, It Will Fix It

What if you could strap on a wearable that could adjust your energy level, stress level, or ability to concentrate directly, without requiring you to lace up your running shoes, suck down a cup of coffee or tipple a glass of vino?

You might not have to wonder for long because mood-altering wearables are in testing, and heading towards becoming a consumer product.  One of the first will be from a startup company, Thync, which announced yesterday that it aims to bring consumer brain-tweaking wearables to market.

Thync has been in stealth mode for three years; it pulled back the curtains on Wednesday, announcing that it has raised $13 million from Khosla Ventures and other investors, and intends to give other mind-altering substances like caffeine and alcohol some serious competition.

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Hewlett-Packard Splits Again: But What About the Labs?

Once, Hewlett-Packard’s research laboratories were famous.

Founded by David Packard and William Hewlett in 1966, their mission was to focus on the future, not day-to-day business concerns. The first commercially available LED came out of HP Labs, as did the first programmable scientific calculator. So when I saw today’s announcement about yet another split for HP, I had to wonder, what happens to the Labs?

 

(The company divided once before, in 1999, keeping the Hewlett-Packard name for the computers, storage, and imaging businesses and creating  Agilent for the the test and measurement, semiconductor, chemical analysis, and medical businesses.)

The response from an official HP spokesperson was brief: “The majority of the research is already divided among the business units,” she told me, “so each project will just go with the appropriate new company.”

There is some overlap, however, the spokesperson said; in particular, in research involved with memristors and “edge devices”. In such cases of shared research, the projects and the people will become part of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, which will essentially be a software and services company; the other entity, HP Inc., gets the PC and printer businesses. There will be a licensing agreement to allow the HP Inc. labs to use some of the intellectual property assigned to Hewlett-Packard Enterprise.

That struck me as a lot simpler than it should be; aren’t research organizations big and intertwined and full of synergies between different researchers and projects? But HP Labs today aren’t the advanced research mecca that they used to be.  

Ed Karrer, former co-director of HP Labs before the 1999 split and head of Agilent’s research operation for some time after, gave me a little perspective about how the labs have changed and why this coming split will affect them differently from the 1999 division that created Agilent.

In the 1990s, Karrer says, the HP Labs were still following their original mission, that is, to grow the company by creating new businesses out of research breakthroughs made by the Labs. At the time of the Agilent split, both what remained of HP and the part of the company that became Agilent intended to continue to use their laboratory efforts to grow new businesses, so each would need to take with them a full assortment of researchers and projects, covering hardware, software, and the more basic physical sciences.

But in subsequent years the mission of both company’s laboratories changed to be more focused on supporting existing businesses instead of on long-term, blue-sky research. In August 2007 HP executives—worried that the labs were too scattered, with about 150 projects—brought in Prith Banerjee as laboratory director to restructure the organization. He pared down the number of projects to fewer than 30 and dramatically tightened the ties between lab teams and business groups. Distinguished technologist Pathasarathy Ranganathan, who worked as part of the labs’ planning group, told me in 2009, that the previous philosophy was to "let a thousand flowers bloom. But Prith said, 'My garden doesn't have room for all these roses,' and once we got the sense of what kinds of flowers he liked, we started pruning."

Having a limited number of projects and having them tied directly to the business units makes sorting out which researcher goes with which company in this latest HP split easy. But that doesn’t make it a good thing.

For one, this latest split may mean the labs no longer have critical mass.  A former HP executive told me that he questions whether the current labs are big enough to divide, given all the downsizing in recent years. As recently as 2007 the company employed 500 researchers, currently the labs has just over 200 researchers listed on the company website.

Instead, he suggested it might be better if the HP Enterprise company were to simply absorb the entire operation, given that much of the energy put into research in recent years has been in support of the company’s business services operations.

And a bigger concern is that the more focused a laboratory becomes, the less likely there will be room for the unexpected to emerge.

“I don’t think that major corporations today are investing in the longer term R&D necessary for creating new business footprints,” says Karrer. “That doesn’t seem to be part of  their current mission. I think that this change represents a major setback for the growth of our country, since it reduces potential technology contributions to society.”

Teens Take On Drone Collision Avoidance, Cyber Bullying, and More at Google Science Fair

The annual Google Science Fair is one of my favorite Silicon Valley events. Held on the Google Campus each September, it brings teens from around the world to wow the judges, press, and visiting schoolchildren with their cleverness, their surprising maturity, and their willingness to take on tough problems. The fair’s packaging has gotten slicker since its inception in 2011 — the first year the projects rested on shaky tables in a crowded, windowless room, with handwritten or simple printed posters mounted above them.

This year giant posters displaying facts about the finalists covered the exterior of the large exhibit space along with impressive displays full of professional graphics within — though none of this outshone the sparkle of the teens who saw a problem in the world around them and set out to solve it. I may be gushing, but there was star power in abundance — STEM star power. I wasn’t the only one who sensed it — I saw many of the visitors from local schools lining up for autographs of the 18 finalists. Hey, who wouldn’t want to have had the autograph of a 14-year-old Steve Jobs?

This year’s grand prize winning project came from Ireland. Teens Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow figured out a way to use naturally occurring soil bacteria, first noticed on a pea plant, to speed up the germination process of cereal seeds by 50 percent, making them less vulnerable to weather problems and increasing crop yields, and in that way address the global food crisis. Previously scientists thought that such bacteria, which has been used to jump-start some food crops, didn’t work on grains like barley and oats. As winners, they’ll each receive a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands from National Geographic, astronaut training from Virgin Galactic, and other goodies; they'll also split $50,000 in scholarship money from Google,.

As important as this discovery is, though, I found myself drawn to the more engineering-oriented projects. These included:

---Flybot: Fourteen-year-old Mihir Garimella, from Pittsburgh, (video above) figured out a way to make flying robots evade collisions with obstacles, moving and nonmoving, by behaving like fruit flies. Garimella got the idea for his system when his family returned from a trip, to find rotten bananas on a counter and a house full of fruit flies that seemed to be able to brilliantly evade swatting. Garimella’s uses the simple vision system of a fruit fly to allow an onboard computer to quickly detect and analyze a coming threat, and wrote algorithms to mimic the fruit fly’s tendency to dodge by moving first horizontally, then vertically to escape to the threat. Garmilla’s project won top honors in the 13-14 age group and the computer science award.

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Eko Devices Thinks Stethoscopes Need a Little Help From the Cloud

A digital stethoscope isn’t anything new. Stethoscope makers already offer versions that convert the analog sound of a heart beating to a digital audio file, amplify it, and filter out noise. There are even DIY versions.

But Eko Devices thinks today’s technology can do more. Its aim is to collect a digital audio file using a small attachment to a standard stethoscope, send the file via Bluetooth to a smartphone where it becomes an image, then send that image on to an analytics system in the cloud where it can be compared to reference heart traces. Eko is also working with partner companies to make it possible to store the image of the heart sound in a standard digital medical record.

Connor Landgraf, cofounder and CEO, says Eko’s cloud-based system for analyzing recordings of patients' heartbeats is better at detecting heart murmurs than the experienced ears of a veteran doctor.

The founders of Eko Devices, who were part of Stanford's StartX program, showed their gadget and analytics technology at a show-and-tell for potential investors and journalists last week. (StartX is a nonprofit accelerator for Stanford-affiliated entrepreneurs.)

The company still needs to get its system approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But it's not the only company getting ready to market a stethoscope attachment that turns heart sounds into visual images that appear on a mobile device. Rijuven is doing roughly the same thing, has FDA approval, and is taking preorders ($400 for the device, and various fees for cloud usage and specific tests).  Sensi, which is already commercially available, is an analysis app that requires a separate electronic stethoscope (not an add-on for a regular stethoscope). Thinklabs makes a digital stethoscope that connects to a phone and provides a library of standard heartbeat visualizations for a doctor to use for comparision. It stands to reason that there are others out there—based on nothing more than the ubiquity of the stethoscope. It's obvious that whoever creates a must-have attachment has a big market and may really advance the practice of medicine.

 

Photo: Eko Devices
Eko Devices' app sends data from a smart stethoscope to the cloud for analysis.

 

“The stethoscope is still one of the main instruments for a doctor and almost any other health care provider,” says Akhil Saklecha, managing director of venture capital firm Artiman and an Assistant Professor in Emergency Medicine at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. Saklecha, who attended the StartX event last week, said, “A technological upgrade is just a matter of time and maybe these products are it.”

Saklecha thinks that this technology has applications beyond physicians. “There is already a push to decentralize medicine and also to extend the reach of a physician through extenders. Imagine a physician assistant who is in a rural part of India or China or Africa using this technology. The ability to use digitally processed sound and algorithms through the cloud in order to identify pathological conditions can have a huge impact on quality of life.”

And gathering all these heart sounds may advance medicine in another way, Saklecha says. “There is opportunity to use this technology to create a library that can do more than just distinguish between pathological or normal. Imagine knowing the specifics in a particular sound that are associated with critical aortic stenosis that may require surgery versus those that signal more trivial mitral valve prolapse.”

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
Contact us:  t.perry@ieee.org

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Tekla Perry
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