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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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Hackers Invade Hospital Networks Through Insecure Medical Equipment

“Oh no, not again,” sings Rod Stewart in his 1984 song “Infatuation.” That’s how I felt in reading an early version of a report on medical device hacking from TrapX Labs, a cybersecurity research team within security system maker TrapX, scheduled to be released on 15 June.

The report, “Anatomy of an Attack–Medical Device Hijack (MEDJACK),” describes in detail three situations in which hackers were able to get into supposedly secure hospital networks, collecting valuable information, by targeting medical devices. human os icon

Once into the devices, the hackers were able to roam at will through hospital networks. Their goal was the valuable health insurance information in patient records—this, TrapX stated, is worth 20 times the value of a credit card record on the black market. But had they wanted to, they could potentially have taken control of the devices themselves. Here are the three incidents detailed in the TrapX report:

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An Autonomous Camera Picks Its Shots

I understand the problem LensBricks, a startup company that graduated from the Highway 1 hardware accelerator this month, is trying to solve. After all, I am the one in the family who took all the candid photos as my children grew up; the rare photo I’m actually in was one in which I grabbed a kid, handed a camera to someone, and instructed them to take a picture. They’re not exactly the magic moments. And yes, there are a lot of moments I wished I’d captured, both the classic—first steps—and the only cute in retrospect—tantrums over the silliest problems.

But there are also a lot of moments of family life I’m probably better off not replaying—or perhaps not even knowing about.

That’s why LensBricks' Vidalife camera system has me scratching my head. It’s a friendly looking gadget, containing a video camera and built in smarts that help it sort snippets of video it records and select “interesting moments” to keep. Cofounder Raji Kannan says the system learns who the people and pets are in a household, and prioritizes interactions between people, or people and pets, and moments of high activity and sound. (I’m guessing it’ll save a lot of videos of pets chasing each other around the house and fewer of mom and baby quietly rocking.) It’s got auto zoom and night vision. And it can also work as a security cam, Kannan says. The technology seems pretty impressive.

LensBricks isn’t the only startup to make cameras operate more autonomously; startup Lily recently came out of stealth with a drone camera you can set to follow you around while you’re doing something—skiing, say, or playing with a child—and then forget it for a while. But are we really ready for a camera that decides who, what, and when to film?

Is Drone Racing the Next Consumer Fad? Game of Drones Hopes So

Marque Cornblatt, CEO of San Francisco-based Game of Drones, sees a lot of “pain points” in today’s drones. (In startup speak, “pain points” means “problems”.) They’re expensive, they’re hard to learn to fly, and they’re fragile, he says.

So last year, Game of Drones got a hard-to-destroy drone body (with no motor or electronics on board) to market via a successful Kickstarter campaign. This drone kit was targeted at hobbyists who know enough about drones to build them, and wanted to engage in drone combat—or at least not have to repair their drones after crashes. The drone body sells for $140. The company then added complete build-a-drone kits for $400 to $700 to its offerings.

Next year, Game of Drones will move beyond kits for do-it-yourselfers and bring out a ready-to-fly racing drone, Cornblatt said last week, speaking to a crowd of investors, journalists, and other entrepreneurs attending the Highway 1 accelerator’s demo day. The Flow State Tantrum, or FST, will be designed for people who want to use a drone right out of the box.

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Do You Really Need a Smart Watch? Or Just a Smart Watch Back?

It’s common wisdom that a watch isn’t just a watch, it’s a fashion statement. That’s why Apple is offering its smart watch with five colors of plastic bands—and in $10,000-plus gold versions. But today’s smart watch is still not going to be as personal a fashion statement as the watch you got as a gift on a special birthday—or handed down from a parent.

Chronos, a startup company that launched this week at the Highway 1 accelerator’s demo day, is betting that a lot of people have special watches—or at least fashionable watches—that they don’t want to replace with something new, but that they would like the functionality of a smart watch. So it has developed a smart watch back with some basic smart watch functions—notifications in the form of vibrations and colored lights, phone and music controls, and movement tracking.

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Hardware Startups Take on Lupus, Asthma, Infertility, Night Terrors

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Highway 1, a San Francisco-based hardware accelerator backed by global product development firm PCH, launched its fourth class of startups this week to a packed house (specifically, a packed former grow-house: Highway 1 recently moved its accelerator into a building that previously housed a marijuana growing operation).

And, as seems to be the trend in this year’s hardware launches, products directed at solving health-related problems dominated. Four of the 11 companies in the group see their customers as suffering from a specific health problem (or parenting someone with such a problem).

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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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Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
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