View From the Valley iconView From the Valley

Happy Birthday Amiga Computer!

The story of the Amiga computer is one of those classic Silicon Valley tales: a group of engineers sees a path open up to a technological future they are eager to explore, but the management at their current company isn’t interested in changing direction. So they go off on their own, passionate about their project. They may not always succeed commercially, but their technical achievements impress, and point the way for others.

The Amiga launched in July 1985 at Lincoln Center in New York City, with Andy Warhol demonstrating the machine’s capabilities by painting a digital picture of singer Debbie Harry. Its original developers, led by Jay Miner, came out of Atari. They wanted to advance home video game hardware by harnessing the power of the then-new Motorola MC68000 microprocessor, and Atari had said no. They started a company, initially called Hi-Toro and later renamed Amiga, to do it anyway. They built a powerful machine that produced amazing graphics and drew passionate fans.

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Getting Tech Women On Board (Boards of Directors, That Is)

The data has been in for years—companies with women board members are more successful by all sorts of objective measures. But Silicon Valley’s tech industry continues to be a boys’ club. According to the Choose Possibility Project, 70 to 75 percent of the thousands of privately funded tech companies in the United States today have all-male boards of directors.

Choose Possibility thinks it can help fix this by building a database of women leaders qualified to serve on the boards of private tech companies. The Choose Possibility effort started in May when 59 women in technology co-signed an open letter to the tech community urging tech leaders to do more to support and advance female entrepreneurs. The group launched its Boardlist earlier this month as a private beta with more than 600 women in the database. It’s since added another hundred or so. Choose Possibility founder Sukhinder Singh Cassidy put the list together by contacting CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other leaders in tech—men and women—and asked each to suggest between 10 and 30 women who would be great candidates for tech boards, Cassidy explained in a post published on Medium and other sites. Cassidy also asked some of the top investors in tech companies to identify companies in their portfolio that will be needing new independent board members. These will likely be the first companies to tap into the new database.

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A Smartphone Charger That Runs On Candlepower

Andrew Byrnes, sitting with me outside a Palo Alto cafe on Monday, lights a candle—in this case, a small Sterno-type can designed for warming food—and fills a tiny pot sitting on a rack above the flame with water. About 10 seconds later, a green light on an attached USB cable begins glowing, and Byrnes plugs in his iPhone. The phone immediately begins charging.

That is how you charge a phone with candlepower, something Byrnes’ San Francisco-based company, Stower, wants people to be able to do during their next power outage. And it’s pretty simple, especially for someone like me who grew up on old school emergency preparedness and still has a tendency to check the drawers for candles when a big storm is predicted.

Stower’s tiny charging system, the Candle Charger, launched on Kickstarter today for $65; it’ll be available late this year or early next at retail for $100. It produces a steady 2.5 watts of USB charging for the 6 hours that standard Sterno can burns, though any candle that can fit under the pot, even votive candles, will work. That’s enough to fully charge a typical smartphone in three hours, Byrnes says. (And you can use the water it heats to make a cup of tea to drink while waiting for your phone to charge.)

The Candle Charger produces electricity using a thermoelectric generator. This device, based on a bismuth telluride semiconductor, takes advantage of the difference in temperature between the area close to the flame and the area near to the water in the pot, which stays cooler. Diffusion of electrons between the hot and cold sides of the semiconductor generates a voltage.

By carefully designing the way different materials are incorporated in the device, Byrnes says Stower’s products can keep generating power indefinitely, as long as there is a heat source underneath and water in the pot. He says the company also put a lot of design effort into conditioning the power output to directly charge smartphones, finally figuring out a reliable way to do so using low-cost analog circuitry. “Our magic is being able to charge phones reliably from a variable power source,” he says.

This isn’t Byrnes’ first foray into charging by fire. I first met him and Stower cofounder Adam Kell two years ago at a showcase for Stanford University’s Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES). They were demonstrating Flamestower, a gadget designed to turn any pot on any cooking fire into a charger. At the time, the two were graduate students studying materials science at Stanford. Before entering grad school, Kell had been working on silicon wafer technology at a clean tech startup, and Byrnes had been involved with utility scale wind and solar energy projects.  But Byrnes wanted to work on technologies with more of a direct connection to the consumer. The need for charging mobile devices during power outages was an obvious place to start for Byrnes, who was a Florida resident during Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.

Flamestower hit retail shelves last year, and is now available for $99 at Sportsman’s Warehouse and other outdoor equipment outlets in the United States and Canada. The company is working with Grupo EBIS to build the technology into its Eco-Stove clean-burning cookstoves being distributed in Central America, and with French telecom giant Orange to develop a version of the technology for use in Africa.

But Byrnes thinks the Candle Charger will have a much broader market than Flamestower, since it can be easily used indoors, and it fits compactly on a shelf or in an emergency kit until needed. Though people in developed countries have become more and more dependent on cellphones, power has become less reliable, he says: according to Department of Energy statistics power outages in the United States have been on the rise since 2000.

The company is guaranteeing that Candle Chargers ordered on Kickstarter will ship in December—a bit too late for this year’s hurricane season.

Exploratorium’s Iron Science Teacher Competition Explores Everyday Objects

Science enthusiasts crammed into the Exploratorium’s studio in San Francisco last week to watch the last Iron Science Teacher competition of the year. Mimicking the popular TV show, Iron Chef, four-science teachers battled it out to construct science experiments incorporating a specific ingredient found in everyday life.

Among the fans were Soo Han and her eight-year-old daughter, Isole, and five-year-old daughter, Lanah. “We loved it [last time], so we came back for the second one,” says Han, who arrived early to secure front row seats. “I think it’s important for them to learn about science.” At home, her daughters play with electricity and physics learning kits and visit the Exploratorium every week during the summer, she says.   

Each year, three episodes of Iron Science Teacher are showcased featuring staff scientists or teachers enrolled in the Summer Institute for Teachers, a three-week program that helps middle and high school instructors learn hands-on about teaching science and mathematics. The point of using everyday objects, such as light bulbs, magnets, and even lunch foods, is to show people that science is accessible—and fun. This season, one competitor demonstrated the physics of blinking lights by using Christmas lights, while another competitor draped a paper-bag skeleton over a volunteer to demonstrate how air passes through our lungs.  A winner was selected based on how loud the audience cheered.

“I was nervous” about entering the competition, said Becca Friedland, a contestant in last week’s season finale. “I thought I would push myself and try to go outside my comfort level.” Friedland was crowned victor after she climbed on top of a flat table stacked on top of an open table. As volunteers blew air into Ziploc bags wedged between both tables, she levitated through the air with each passing breath.

Beyond entertaining science enthusiasts, the Exploratorium hosts these yearly challenges to encourage interactive STEM education and to celebrate educators. “Teachers get to be cheered for teaching well, which does not happen at school very often, if at all,” says Julie Yu, director of the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute and host of the competition.

If you missed this season of challenges or if you’re hunting for science experiments, you can catch all the action here

This Dictionary Will Get You Ready For “Talk Like Silicon Valley” Day

Remember “Talk Like a Pirate Day?” Yes, that ship sailed some time ago. And instead of talking like pirates lately, the denizens of Silicon Valley have been inventing their own language, one that is often as incomprehensible as pirate-speak outside of the Bay Area.

Early attempts to encode this emerging vocabulary were informal. There were a few videos that went slightly viral in 2012, including “$#!% Silicon Valley Says” and “$#!% Venture Capitalists Say”.

Now there’s a Silicon Valley Dictionary, and it’s growing daily. It started as a weekend project in June, when three software engineers at Valley startups, Kilim Choi, Matt Hui, and Zeeshan Javed were watching HBO’s Silicon Valley, and thought the jargon in the show—vocabulary they’d heard frequently in their day jobs—needed its own dictionary.

During the last weekend of June they put together a “Silicon Valley Dictionary” website with ten words and definitions, and opened it up to contributions. In the less than two weeks since the vocabulary list has grown to some 300 words, and ten or so contributions arrive daily, Hui reports. The two delete entries that they consider insensitive or irrelevant, and they do some minor editing for grammar, but generally they leave the evolution of this phrasebook to the wisdom of the crowd.

Hui’s favorite submission to date is Waterloo: A mythical University in Canada where many good Engineers and Computer Scientists come from. [as in] Sam: "Where are all these Canadians from?"  Matthew: "We hired 10 interns and 20 full-times from Waterloo. They get $#&% done because if we don't hire them, they'll have to work for Blackberry. (Hui, by the way, is Canadian.)

Choi leans towards Soylent ProfitableA term that can be used interchangeably with ramen profitable [that is: when a startup makes enough money to pay its founders’ expenses]. With the increase in [soylent’s] popularity, its rich nutrition and affordability, more and more health-concerned entrepreneurs are changing their diet to soylent.

A few of my favorite examples, edited slightly for length. Most of these I’ve heard in the wild. (I just added that term: In the wild. Seeing a new technology out in the real world, not just at launches and demos. “Have you spotted the new Google car in the wild yet?”)

  • Apple Maps Bad: A phrase used to indicate the low quality of a product because Apple Maps is barely usable.
  • Brogrammer: When you mix your typical engineer with your typical frat boy. The official heuristic to identify a brogrammer in your organization is when you can't tell whether the suspect is part of your engineering team or your sales team.
  • Bus Factor: The number of people that need to be hit by a bus before their project is dead."Our engineers work in teams of 10 for the higher bus factor."
  • Button's Law: Inspired by Benjamin Button and Moore's Law, this is an observation that the average age of new engineers and entrepreneurs decreases by approximately 1year with every passing year. “Did you read about that 7 year old entrepreneur? He started his own car company to compete with Tesla and has already raised funding.”
  • Code Ninja: A euphemism that is used by Bay Area recruiters who don't actually know what in particular they want in a Software Engineer, just someone who can pretty much do everything and anything that's handed to them. “We're looking to recruit the best Code Ninjas possible for our startup of 4 currently employed non-technical founders. Free pizza will be provided on Wednesdays.”
  • CUICoding under the influence. “Last Tuesday, Jeremy decided to code from a bar near his house instead of going to work. His code was very sloppy so the PM on the team gave him a CUI warning.”
  • Dave Ratio: It's very difficult to achieve gender parity at a startup. The next best metric is to compare the number of men named Dave to the number of women. Alex: “It's hard finding a company that has a reasonable number of women.” Kourtney: “Have you tried working at a company with a 10:1 Dave ratio?”
  • Nomophobia: The irrational and all consuming fear of being out of cell phone contact.
  • Outside-In Engineer: An engineer who doesn't display fear, anger, happiness, sadness, or disgust—five key emotions popularized in Pixar's Inside Out.
  • Tech Drowning: How you feel after living in Silicon Valley for a while, because it seems like everyone you talk to is either working at a startup, trying to start something, or is a VC. It's normal to feel a little annoyed when you overhear your bus driver say he is preparing a Y-Combinator application.

New entries are being added every day. Add your own here and tell us about them below. And study up, it won’t be too long before someone declares a “Talk Like Silicon Valley Day.”

Update: While this article was being edited for publication, Business Insider extracted their favorites from the Silicon Valley Dictionary and my submission, “In the wild,” was their number one pick. Just sayin’.

Updated 17 July to add name of third founder.

Highlights From Wearable Computing’s History

“On You,” a traveling exhibition on the history of wearable computing, opened this week at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., where it will be on display until September 20, 2015. Curated by researchers at Georgia Tech, the display covers virtual reality, augmented reality, and health and fitness monitors.

Clint Zeagler, a research scientist at Georgia Tech and co-curator of the exhibit has a few personal favorites, like the 1999 Reebok Traxtar, the first shoes with built-in fitness sensors that predated the 2006 Nike+ (and were a lot more fun—meet certain goals and they played “Pomp and Circumstance”). He’s also fond of the Herbert 1, an audio-based wearable with a seven-button chording keyboard that could be easily used while walking—not so much because of what it did, but because it was designed to fit into a VHS cassette box, another piece of technology history younger exhibit visitors often don’t recognize.

I had a few favorites of my own:

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Venture Money Flows to Space Startups

Where’s the hottest technology for startups mining for investment gold this year? In consumer hardware? Maybe. Health and wellness? Perhaps.

Or maybe it’s space.

Space investment, according to a report released this month by research firm CB Insights, has been steadily increasing for the past few years, with investment to date in 2015 hitting a four-year high, at US $1.17 billion raised by 21 companies. (For most of these companies, the 2015 infusions added to money already raised.)

The bulk of the money (almost $1.12 billion) went to California companies, with SpaceX leading the pack at $1 billion. But ventures around the U.S., and, indeed, the world, drew funds. Even without the SpaceX investment, investment in space ventures for the first half of 2015 tops investment throughout all of 2014.

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Taking the U.S. to 100 Percent Renewable Energy State by State

A group of researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, led by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, says that the United States can get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources, using existing technologies, by 2050. And they lay out a state-by-state plan for doing so. Jacobson and Delucchi had previously calculated that the world could theoretically go 100-percent renewable by 2030; in this more practical plan, they focus on the United States and look forward to 2050.

They conclude that, in aggregate, the the United States’ energy mix could be: 30.9 percent onshore wind, 19.1 percent offshore wind, 30.7 percent utility-scale photovoltaics, 7.2 percent rooftop photovoltaics, 7.3 percent concentrated solar power with storage, 1.25 percent geothermal power, 0.37 percent wave power, 0.14 percent tidal power, and 3.01 percent hydroelectric power.

Every state, of course, will have a different mix. The report concludes that California can meet 54.5 percent of its energy needs with some type of solar power, with wind power accounting for 35 percent. Five percent will come from geothermal, with hydroelectric power, wave power, and tidal turbines making up smaller percentages of the mix. North Dakota, the study says, can look towards meeting its energy demands with 42 percent solar power and 55 percent wind power. And Maine will be able to draw 70 percent of its energy from the wind.

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IndieBio’s First Class of Startups: Bioreactors, Blood Tests, and DIY Genetic Engineering

IndieBio San Francisco, a startup accelerator dedicated to launching science-based companies, launched its first class of 12 companies last week. Backed by SOSVentures, the same company that’s behind hardware accelerator Hax, IndieBio San Francisco is a sister company to IndieBio Europe, based in Cork, Ireland, launched in 2014.

“This is the time for biology,” said IndieBio co-founder Arvind Gupta at the launch event. Biology is accelerating faster than Moore’s Law; the cost of DNA sequencing is falling rapidly. And its not just sequencing, but all aspects of science—DNA synthesis, digital PCR, DNA editing—that are promising to make molecular biology more efficient, faster, and cheaper than ever before.”

Many of the companies in IndieBio’s first class are making tools for biotech.

  • Low-cost bioreactors. Bioreactors that precisely control fermentation are used in industry for everything from brewing beer to making insulin. The problem with bioreactors on the market today is that they are too expensive, hard to use, and inflexible in what you can do with them. At least, that’s what the founders of Sensa.io, a.k.a. ArkReactor, think. The company has designed a low-cost (about $600), easy to use (you can check on fermentation in process with a mobile phone app), and open source bioreactor. Sensa.io says its first official customer is a company making a vegan cheese, however, a couple of IndieBio sister companies have also been using its technology. I’m guessing home brewmeisters will have some interest in this as well.

  • A desktop lab robot that can see what it’s doing. aBioBot thinks its time for biologists to have their own “Makerbot,” that is, a desktop robot in a box that can assemble things—in this case, liquid-based experiments in test tubes. I’ve seen other versions of pipetting robots; aBioBot says its robot is special because it can “see,” so users don’t have to precisely align test tubes or do complicated programming; its vision capabilities also let it spot problems and send alerts to a mobile app.

  • Stem cells for research use. Extem says there aren’t enough stem cells to go around, so the company intends to build a large stem cell donor bank and produce stem cells in large quantities from that bank.

  • Lowering the manufacturing cost of monoclonal antibodies. These immunotherapy drugs are expensive to make; one of the major costs of production is separating out the specific antibodies. This is often done through a process called affinity purification, using an antigen to attract the antibodies. Affinity says it has designed a synthetic affinity column for performing this task at a dramatically lower cost than the alternatives.

  • DIY genetic engineering. Arcturus BioCloud thinks a lot more people would be involved in genetic engineering if they had access to the tools, so the company has created what it calls “robotic bioservers” that will make up a cloud-based genetic engineering laboratory. The company plans to offer a library of DNA fragments, assembled to order by robots in San Francisco. Users will be able to watch live streams of their experiment; they don’t actually receive the physical results, just the virtual ones.

  • More accurate genetic testing. Ranomics says genetic testing today has a big problem; researchers don’t understand what the majority of variants of critical genes mean. The company is hoping to improve this situation by manufacturing full spectrums of gene variants and then testing them in various ways to determine how pathogenic each variant is. This process will allow Ranomics to build a database of variant information far faster than it would take if we wait for patients with each variant to be diagnoses. The company plans to launch its database with variants of the 20 most common cancer genes; it will charge genetics testing firms to query its database.

Some, however, did focus on producing biotechnology-based products. With the shared incubator space, it turned out that some of these first product companies were the first customers of some of the tool-building companies.

  • Animal-free egg white. Startup Clara Foods thinks chickens are a terrible way to make eggs, particularly the egg-white only products that are sold to health-conscious consumers and used in processed foods. So the company reverse engineered the egg white and figured out how to use yeast to create the seven proteins out of sugar. For a “normal” egg white, Clara Foods combines all seven proteins, but the company says it can also make designer egg whites with special features, for example, better foaming for lighter meringues.  Clara Foods is using sister company Sensa.io’s bioreactors in its manufacturing process.

  • Lab-on-a-chip blood testing. Orphidia isn’t the only company aiming to bring blood testing out of the laboratory and onto a chip, but that doesn’t mean it won’t win the race to develop this technology. Orphidia says it can make those chips for about US $5 (or 10 cents a test) and will sell them for $20 to $100; it plans on making the reader available for free.

  • A way to grow enzymes in a patient, not in a lab. Enzyme replacement therapy for a number of disease conditions is expensive and requires regular hospital visits. Blue Turtle Bio thinks a better way to get enzymes into a patient’s stomach is to make them there. It is engineering bacteria to produce enzymes; a patient will just have to swallow a pill that contains the bacteria. The company’s first product will be an enzyme that treats Gaucher’s Disease.

  • Engineered bacteria to produce skin-like dressings—or even artificial skin. Bioloom has developed bacteria that excrete long strands of cellulose fiber. The company plans to first turn these fibers into hydrogels for wound dressings; it says eventually the material could be used as a scaffold for growing artificial skin.

  • Non-petroleum based industrial chemicals. Startup ZymoChem wants synthetic materials—like the nylon used to make everyday jackets—to come from renewable resources instead of petroleum. The company says it has developed microbes that can convert natural sugars to industrial chemicals.

IndieBio is now taking applications for its next class. Each company accepted will receive up to $250,000 in funding, lab space, mentorship opportunities, and other help in return for 8 percent of equity.

Biotech and 3-D Printing Could Make Rhino Poaching Pointless

Poaching is destroying the rhino population. The Western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011, and all five remaining rhino species are either listed as threatened or critically endangered. Yet it continues—in spite of the damage to the rhino population, in spite of the risks to poachers—because demand for rhino horn is huge.

Rhino horn is thought in some cultures as a cure-all and an aphrodisiac; demand has been booming, particularly in Vietnam, where it’s both considered a cure for cancer and as the millionaire’s protection against the negative health effects of alcohol consumption. It fetches some US $300,000 per horn. Higher penalties for poaching and greater enforcement have had little impact to date, according to statistics gathered by the organization Save the Rhino.

But what if there were a sustainably produced, animal free rhino horn indistinguishable from real rhino horn—not just by look and feel, but even in lab tests, like spectroscopy, and DNA analysis. Could that faux rhino flood the market, and drive the poachers out of business?

That’s the concept behind Pembient, a biotech startup that was part of the first class of startups to graduate last week from the San Francisco branch of IndieBio, an accelerator started by SOSVentures—the same company that’s behind hardware accelerator Hax.

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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.
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