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

Health and wellness startups dominate Highway 1’s latest class, launched in former grow-house

3 min read
Hardware Startups Take on Lupus, Asthma, Infertility, Night Terrors
Photo: Highway1

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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).

  • Shade is taking on lupus, “the most overlooked chronic disease in the U.S.,” said CEO Emmanuel Dumont. Monitoring UV exposure, Dumont pointed out, is key to managing lupus symptoms, yet current medical monitors are cumbersome and expensive, and consumer grade monitors just not accurate enough. So Shade, with $400,000 in seed funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Cornell University, and angel investors developed a lab-quality, wearable-size monitor and a smart phone app that tracks UV exposure and links it to the patient’s symptom reports so patients can see how much UV is safe for them. Clinical trials start this year. The company will initially focus on fulfilling preorders from medical facilities for Lupus patients; eventually, Dumont said, it will widen its marketing to target skin cancer patients as well.

  • Transformair co-founder Jaya Rao’s brother has asthma. That’s why her father, University of South Florida professor Yogi Goswami, a mechanical engineer with a long record of solar energy innovations, started working on air purification technology. His approach—use light shining on a catalytic filter to trigger chemical reactions that break down pollutants. Rao says the company’s air purifiers take VOCs, bacteria, and viruses out of the air, along with the particulates that traditional air filters address. Transformair’s first product will be an ultra quiet home air filter; eventually the company hopes to get into the commercial building market.

  • Ayda: While fertility apps abound, they require a lot of effort on the user’s part—set an alarm for the same time every morning, take her temperature, and input the reading into the app. Ayda cofounder James Foody says the company designed its wearable to get automatically get accurate temperature readings during the night—the user sticks it on her side, near the armpit, at bedtime—the results appear in a phone app in the morning.

  • Lully: Not every parent has had to deal with a child with night terrors, but those of us who have will attest—you’d try just about anything to stop these horrible panicked awakenings. So I was quite excited to hear Lully cofounder Varun Boriah say that the company’s under the mattress device “uses vibrations and a predictive sleep algorithm” to “reduce night terrors by 90 percent” for only $169. I was less impressed after I talked to company representatives and found out that it’s not exactly automatic—the parent inputs the average time the child wakes up with night terrors and the time the child goes to bed each night, then the app calculates the terror-time and sets an alarm. The parent hears the alarm, gets up, and turns on the vibrating disk that’s been installed under the child’s mattress. As long as I have to do that, I may as well set the alarm and go shake the bed myself. Still, the idea that you can preempt night terrors is encouraging, and if such preemption really works, a gadget that figures out for itself when to vibrate without waking the parent can’t be far off, from Lully or another company.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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