Pages Navigation Menu

The blog of DataDiggers

Categories Navigation Menu

XGenomes is bringing DNA sequencing to the masses

Posted by on Mar 15, 2019 in 23andMe, Biology, biotechnology, DNA sequencing, founder, genome, Genomics, george church, harvard, healthcare, Illumina, lasers, Life Sciences, TC, United Kingdom, United States, Y Combinator | 0 comments

As healthcare moves toward genetically tailored treatments, one of the biggest hurdles to truly personalized medicine is the lack of fast, low-cost genetic testing.

And few people are more familiar with the problems of today’s genetic diagnostics tools than Kalim Mir, the 52-year-old founder of XGenomes, who has spent his entire professional career studying the human genome.

Ultimately genomics is going to be the foundation for healthcare,” says Mir. “For that we need to move toward a sequencing of populations.” And population-scale gene sequencing is something that current techniques are unable to achieve. 

“If we’re talking about population scale sequencing with millions of people we just don’t have the throughput,” Mir says.

That’s why he started XGenomes, which is presenting as part of the latest batch of Y Combinator companies next week.

A visiting scientist in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics, Mir worked with the famed Harvard professor George Church on a new kind of gene sequencing technology that promised to conduct sequencing at higher speeds and far lower costs than anything that was on the market.

The costs of sequencing a genome have come down significantly in the 19 years since the Human Genome Project successfully completed its project for $1 billion.

These days, gene sequencing can take a couple of days and cost around $1,000, Mir says. But with XGenomes, Mir hopes to drive the cost of testing down even further.

“We developed a way where we’re sequencing directly on the DNA where we’re not manipulating it except for opening up the double helix,” says Mir. 

Running a startup focused on conducting gene sequencing at population scales is not where Mir thought he’d be when he was growing up in Yorkshire in Northern England. “When I was in school there, I was not into science or tech. I was interested in literature,” he recalls.

That changed when he read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and began thinking about the implications of genetic manipulation that the book presented.

Mir went on to study molecular biology at Queen Mary College and upon graduation worked in a biotech company in the U.S.

After returning to England to complete his doctorate in the mid-90s, Mir worked with the geneticist Edwin Southern on the foundational science that now form the core of testing technologies like 23andMe, Illumina, and Affymetrix.

Xgenomes technology works by unzipping strands of DNA and then sequencing the strands concurrently.

I like to think of the genome as a book. The genome has chapters and the chapters could be the chromosomes,” says Mir. “Current technologies read it letter by letter. [But] we’re recognizing words.”

The company is able to accomplish this feat by using optical imaging technologies. Samples are treated with reagents that are then excited by lasers. XGenomes tech then “reads” the bits of DNA that are highlighted and identifies them.

Using this new tech, Mir thinks he can ultimately sequence a full genome in one to two hours and for as little as $100.

That would be a sea change in the way that testing is conducted and could bring about the rapid throughput of sequencing that Mir says is needed to make the vision of truly personalized medicine a reality.


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

MIT’s deflated balloon robot hand can pick up objects 100x its own weight

Posted by on Mar 14, 2019 in CSAIL, harvard, MIT, Robotics, soft robot | 0 comments

Soft, biologically inspired robots have become one of the field’s most exciting offshoots, with machines that are capable of squeezing between obstacles and conforming to the world around them. A joint project between MIT CSAIL and Harvard’s Wyss converts those learnings into a simple, soft robotic gripper capable of handling delicate objects and picking up things up to 100x its own weight.

The gripper itself is made of an origami-inspired skeletal structure, covered in either fabric or a deflated balloon. It’s a principle the team recently employed on another project designed to create low-cost artificial muscles. A connector attaches the gripper to the arm and also sports a vacuum tube that sucks air out from the gripper, collapsing it around an object.

Like Soft Robotics’ commercial gripper, the malleable nature of the device means it grab hold of a wide range of different objects with less need for a complex vision system. It also means that it can grab hold of delicate items without damaging them in the process.

“Previous approaches to the packing problem could only handle very limited classes of objects — objects that are very light or objects that conform to shapes such as boxes and cylinders, but with the Magic Ball gripper system we’ve shown that we can do pick-and-place tasks for a large variety of items ranging from wine bottles to broccoli, grapes and eggs,” MIT professor Daniela Rus says in a release tied to the news. “In other words, objects that are heavy and objects that are light. Objects that are delicate, or sturdy, or that have regular or free form shapes.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

Harvard-MIT initiative grants $750K to projects looking to keep tech accountable

Posted by on Mar 12, 2019 in Artificial Intelligence, funding, Government, harvard, Harvard University, Media, media lab, MIT, mit media lab, Philanthropy, Social, TC | 0 comments

Artificial intelligence, or what passes for it, can be found in practically every major tech company and, increasingly, in government programs. A joint Harvard-MIT program just unloaded $750,000 on projects looking to keep such AI developments well understood and well reported.

The Ethics and Governance in AI Initiative is a combination research program and grant fund operated by MIT’s Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman-Klein Center. The small projects selected by the initiative are, generally speaking, aimed at using technology to keep people informed, or informing people about technology.

AI is an enabler of both good and ill in the world of news and information gathering, as the initiative’s director, Tim Hwang, said in a news release:

“On one hand, the technology offers a tremendous opportunity to improve the way we work — including helping journalists find key information buried in mountains of public records. Yet we are also seeing a range of negative consequences as AI becomes intertwined with the spread of misinformation and disinformation online.”

These grants are not the first the initiative has given out, but they are the first in response to an open call for ideas, Hwang noted.

The largest sum of the bunch, a $150,000 grant, went to MuckRock Foundation’s project Sidekick, which uses machine learning tools to help journalists scour thousands of pages of documents for interesting data. This is critical in a day and age when government and corporate records are so voluminous (for example, millions of emails leaked or revealed via FOIA) that it is basically impossible for a reporter or even team to analyze them without help.

Along the same lines is Legal Robot, which was awarded $100,000 for its plan to mass-request government contracts, then extract and organize the information within. This makes a lot of sense: People I’ve talked to in this sector have told me that the problem isn’t a lack of data but a surfeit of it, and poorly kept at that. Cleaning up messy data is going to be one of the first tasks any investigator or auditor of government systems will want to do.

Tattle is a project aiming to combat disinformation and false news spreading on WhatsApp, which, as we’ve seen, has been a major vector for it. It plans to use its $100,000 to establish channels for sourcing data from users, because, of course, much of WhatsApp is encrypted. Connecting this data with existing fact-checking efforts could help understand and mitigate harmful information going viral.

The Rochester Institute of Technology will be using its grant (also $100,000) to look into detecting manipulated video, both designing its own techniques and evaluating existing ones. Close inspection of the media will render a confidence score that can be displayed via a browser extension.

Other grants are going to AI-focused reporting work by The Seattle Times and by newsrooms in Latin America, and to workshops training local media in reporting AI and how it affects their communities.

To be clear, the initiative isn’t investing in these projects — just funding them with a handful of stipulations, Hwang explained to TechCrunch over email.

“Generally, our approach is to give grantees the freedom to experiment and run with the support that we give them,” he wrote. “We do not take any ownership stake but the products of these grants are released under open licenses to ensure the widest possible distribution to the public.”

He characterized the initiative’s grants as a way to pick up the slack that larger companies are leaving behind as they focus on consumer-first applications like virtual assistants.

“It’s naive to believe that the big corporate leaders in AI will ensure that these technologies are being leveraged in the public interest,” wrong Hwang. “Philanthropic funding has an important role to play in filling in the gaps and supporting initiatives that envision the possibilities for AI outside the for-profit context.”

You can read more about the initiative and its grantees here.


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

How students are founding, funding and joining startups

Posted by on Feb 6, 2019 in Accel, Accel Scholars, Alumni Ventures Group, Amanda Bradford, Artificial Intelligence, Bill Gates, boston, coinbase, Column, CRM, CrunchBase, distributed systems, Dorm Room Fund, Drew Houston, Dropbox, editor-in-chief, Energy, entrepreneurship, Facebook, Finance, FiscalNote, Forward, General Catalyst, Graduate Fund, greylock, harvard, Jeremy Liew, Kleiner Perkins, lightspeed, Mark Zuckerberg, MIT, Pear Ventures, peter boyce, Pinterest, Private Equity, Series A, stanford, Start-Up Chile, Startup company, Startups, TC, TechStars, True Ventures, Ubiquity6, uc-berkeley, United States, upenn, Venture Capital, venture capital Firms, Warby Parker, Y Combinator | 0 comments

There has never been a better time to start, join or fund a startup as a student. 

Young founders who want to start companies while still in school have an increasing number of resources to tap into that exist just for them. Students that want to learn how to build companies can apply to an increasing number of fast-track programs that allow them to gain valuable early stage operating experience. The energy around student entrepreneurship today is incredible. I’ve been immersed in this community as an investor and adviser for some time now, and to say the least, I’m continually blown away by what the next generation of innovators are dreaming up (from Analytical Space’s global data relay service for satellites to Brooklinen’s reinvention of the luxury bed).

Bill Gates in 1973

First, let’s look at student founders and why they’re important. Student entrepreneurs have long been an important foundation of the startup ecosystem. Many students wrestle with how best to learn while in school —some students learn best through lectures, while more entrepreneurial students like author Julian Docks find it best to leave the classroom altogether and build a business instead.

Indeed, some of our most iconic founders are Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, both student entrepreneurs who launched their startups at Harvard and then dropped out to build their companies into major tech giants. A sample of the current generation of marquee companies founded on college campuses include Snap at Stanford ($29B valuation at IPO), Warby Parker at Wharton (~$2B valuation), Rent The Runway at HBS (~$1B valuation), and Brex at Stanford (~$1B valuation).

Some of today’s most celebrated tech leaders built their first ventures while in school — even if some student startups fail, the critical first-time founder experience is an invaluable education in how to build great companies. Perhaps the best example of this that I could find is Drew Houston at Dropbox (~$9B valuation at IPO), who previously founded an edtech startup at MIT that, in his words, provided a: “great introduction to the wild world of starting companies.”

Student founders are everywhere, but the highest concentration of venture-backed student founders can be found at just 5 universities. Based on venture fund portfolio data from the last six years, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UPenn, and UC Berkeley have produced the highest number of student-founded companies that went on to raise $1 million or more in seed capital. Some prospective students will even enroll in a university specifically for its reputation of churning out great entrepreneurs. This is not to say that great companies are not being built out of other universities, nor does it mean students can’t find resources outside a select number of schools. As you can see later in this essay, there are a number of new ways students all around the country can tap into the startup ecosystem. For further reading, PitchBook produces an excellent report each year that tracks where all entrepreneurs earned their undergraduate degrees.

Student founders have a number of new media resources to turn to. New email newsletters focused on student entrepreneurship like Justine and Olivia Moore’s Accelerated and Kyle Robertson’s StartU offer new channels for young founders to reach large audiences. Justine and Olivia, the minds behind Accelerated, have a lot of street cred— they launched Stanford’s on-campus incubator Cardinal Ventures before landing as investors at CRV.

StartU goes above and beyond to be a resource to founders they profile by helping to connect them with investors (they’re active at 12 universities), and run a podcast hosted by their Editor-in-Chief Johnny Hammond that is top notch. My bet is that traditional media will point a larger spotlight at student entrepreneurship going forward.

New pools of capital are also available that are specifically for student founders. There are four categories that I call special attention to:

  • University-affiliated accelerator programs
  • University-affiliated angel networks
  • Professional venture funds investing at specific universities
  • Professional venture funds investing through student scouts

While it is difficult to estimate exactly how much capital has been deployed by each, there is no denying that there has been an explosion in the number of programs that address the pre-seed phase. A sample of the programs available at the Top 5 universities listed above are in the graphic below — listing every resource at every university would be difficult as there are so many.

One alumni-centric fund to highlight is the Alumni Ventures Group, which pools LP capital from alumni at specific universities, then launches individual venture funds that invest in founders connected to those universities (e.g. students, alumni, professors, etc.). Through this model, they’ve deployed more than $200M per year! Another highlight has been student scout programs — which vary in the degree of autonomy and capital invested — but essentially empower students to identify and fund high-potential student-founded companies for their parent venture funds. On campuses with a large concentration of student founders, it is not uncommon to find student scouts from as many as 12 different venture funds actively sourcing deals (as is made clear from David Tao’s analysis at UC Berkeley).

Investment Team at Rough Draft Ventures

In my opinion, the two institutions that have the most expansive line of sight into the student entrepreneurship landscape are First Round’s Dorm Room Fund and General Catalyst’s Rough Draft VenturesSince 2012, these two funds have operated a nationwide network of student scouts that have invested $20K — $25K checks into companies founded by student entrepreneurs at 40+ universities. “Scout” is a loose term and doesn’t do it justice — the student investors at these two funds are almost entirely autonomous, have built their own platform services to support portfolio companies, and have launched programs to incubate companies built by female founders and founders of color. Another student-run fund worth noting that has reach beyond a single region is Contrary Capital, which raised $2.2M last year. They do a particularly great job of reaching founders at a diverse set of schools — their network of student scouts are active at 45 universities and have spoken with 3,000 founders per year since getting started. Contrary is also testing out what they describe as a “YC for university-based founders”. In their first cohort, 100% of their companies raised a pre-seed round after Contrary’s demo day. Another even more recently launched organization is The MBA Fund, which caters to founders from the business schools at Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford. While super exciting, these two funds only launched very recently and manage portfolios that are not large enough for analysis just yet.

Over the last few months, I’ve collected and cross-referenced publicly available data from both Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures to assess the state of student entrepreneurship in the United States. Companies were pulled from each fund’s portfolio page, then checked against Crunchbase for amount raised, accelerator participation, and other metrics. If you’d like to sift through the data yourself, feel free to ping me — my email can be found at the end of this article. To be clear, this does not represent the full scope of investment activity at either fund — many companies in the portfolios of both funds remain confidential and unlisted for good reasons (e.g. startups working in stealth). In fact, the In addition, data for early stage companies is notoriously variable in quality, even with Crunchbase. You should read these insights as directional only, given the debatable confidence interval. Still, the data is still interesting and give good indicators for the health of student entrepreneurship today.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures have invested in 230+ student-founded companies that have gone on to raise nearly $1 billion in follow on capital. These funds have invested in a diverse range of companies, from govtech (e.g. mark43, raised $77M+ and FiscalNote, raised $50M+) to space tech (e.g. Capella Space, raised ~$34M). Several portfolio companies have had successful exits, such as crypto startup Distributed Systems (acquired by Coinbase) and social networking startup tbh (acquired by Facebook). While it is too early to evaluate the success of these funds on a returns basis (both were launched just 6 years ago), we can get a sense of success by evaluating the rates by which portfolio companies raise additional capital. Taken together, 34% of DRF and RDV companies in our data set have raised $1 million or more in seed capital. For a rough comparison, CB Insights cites that 40% of YC companies and 48% of Techstars companies successfully raise follow on capital (defined as anything above $750K). Certainly within the ballpark!

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures companies in our data set have an 11–12% rate of survivorship to Series A. As a benchmark, a previous partner at Y Combinator shared that 20% of their accelerator companies raise Series A capital (YC declined to share the official figure, but it’s likely a stat that is increasing given their new Series A support programs. For further reading, check out YC’s reflection on what they’ve learned about helping their companies raise Series A funding). In any case, DRF and RDV’s numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as the average age of their portfolio companies is very low and raising Series A rounds generally takes time. Ultimately, it is clear that DRF and RDV are active in the earlier (and riskier) phases of the startup journey.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures send 18–25% of their portfolio companies to Y Combinator or Techstars. Given YC’s 1.5% acceptance rate as reported in Fortune, this is quite significant! Internally, these two funds offer founders an opportunity to participate in mock interviews with YC and Techstars alumni, as well as tap into their communities for peer support (e.g. advice on pitch decks and application content). As a result, Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures regularly send cohorts of founders to these prestigious accelerator programs. Based on our data set, 17–20% of DRF and RDV companies that attend one of these accelerators end up raising Series A venture financing.

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures don’t invest in the same companies. When we take a deeper look at one specific ecosystem where these two funds have been equally active over the last several years — Boston — we actually see that the degree of investment overlap for companies that have raised $1M+ seed rounds sits at 26%. This suggests that these funds are either a) seeing different dealflow or b) have widely different investment decision-making.

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures should not just be measured by a returns-basis today, as it’s too early. I hypothesize that DRF and RDV are actually encouraging more entrepreneurial activity in the ecosystem (more students decide to start companies while in school) as well as improving long-term founder outcomes amongst students they touch (portfolio founders build bigger and more successful companies later in their careers). As more students start companies, there’s likely a positive feedback loop where there’s increasing peer pressure to start a company or lean on friends for founder support (e.g. feedback, advice, etc).Both of these subjects warrant additional study, but it’s likely too early to conduct these analyses today.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures have impressive alumni that you will want to track. 1 in 4 alumni partners are founders, and 29% of these founder alumni have raised $1M+ seed rounds for their companies. These include Anjney Midha’s augmented reality startup Ubiquity6 (raised $37M+), Shubham Goel’s investor-focused CRM startup Affinity (raised $13M+), Bruno Faviero’s AI security software startup Synapse (raised $6M+), Amanda Bradford’s dating app The League (raised $2M+), and Dillon Chen’s blockchain startup Commonwealth Labs (raised $1.7M). It makes sense to me that alumni from these communities that decide to start companies have an advantage over their peers — they know what good companies look like and they can tap into powerful networks of young talent / experienced investors.

Beyond Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures, some venture capital firms focus on incubation for student-founded startups. Credit should first be given to Lightspeed for producing the amazing Summer Fellows bootcamp experience for promising student founders — after all, Pinterest was built there! Jeremy Liew gives a good overview of the program through his sit-down interview with Afterbox’s Zack Banack. Based on a study they conducted last year, 40% of Lightspeed Summer Fellows alumni are currently active founders. Pear Ventures also has an impressive summer incubator program where 85% of its companies successfully complete a fundraise. Index Ventures is the latest to build an incubator program for student founders, and even accepts founders who want to work on an idea part-time while completing a summer internship.

Let’s now look at students who want to join a startup before founding one. Venture funds have historically looked to tap students for talent, and are expanding the engagement lifecycle. The longest running programs include Kleiner Perkins’<strong class=”m_1196721721246259147gmail-markup–strong m_1196721721246259147gmail-markup–p-strong”> KP Fellows and True Ventures’ TEC Fellows, which focus on placing the next generation’s most promising product managers, engineers, and designers into the portfolio companies of their parent venture funds.

There’s also the secretive Greylock X, a referral-based hand-picked group of the best student engineers in Silicon Valley (among their impressive alumni are founders like Yasyf Mohamedali and Joe Kahn, the folks behind First Round-backed Karuna Health). As these programs have matured, these firms have recognized the long-run value of engaging the alumni of their programs.

More and more alumni are “coming back” to the parent funds as entrepreneurs, like KP Fellow Dylan Field of Figma (and is also hosting a KP Fellow, closing a full circle loop!). Based on their latest data, 10% of KP Fellows alumni are founders — that’s a lot given the fact that their community has grown to 500! This helps explain why Kleiner Perkins has created a structured path to receive $100K in seed funding to companies founded by KP Fellow alumni. It looks like venture funds are beginning to invest in student programs as part of their larger platform strategy, which can have a real impact over the long term (for further reading, see this analysis of platform strategy outcomes by USV’s Bethany Crystal).

KP Fellows in San Francisco

Venture funds are doubling down on student talent engagement — in just the last 18 months, 4 funds have launched student programs. It’s encouraging to see new funds follow in the footsteps of First Round, General Catalyst, Kleiner Perkins, Greylock, and Lightspeed. In 2017, Accel launched their Accel Scholars program to engage top talent at UC Berkeley and Stanford. In 2018, we saw 8VC Fellows, NEA Next, and Floodgate Insiders all launch, targeting elite universities outside of Silicon Valley. Y Combinator implemented Early Decision, which allows student founders to apply one batch early to help with academic scheduling. Most recently, at the start of 2019, First Round launched the Graduate Fund (staffed by Dorm Room Fund alumni) to invest in founders who are recent graduates or young alumni.

Given more time, I’d love to study the rates by which student founders start another company following investments from student scout funds, as well as whether or not they’re more successful in those ventures. In any case, this is an escalation in the number of venture funds that have started to get serious about engaging students — both for talent and dealflow.

Student entrepreneurship 2.0 is here. There are more structured paths to success for students interested in starting or joining a startup. Founders have more opportunities to garner press, seek advice, raise capital, and more. Venture funds are increasingly leveraging students to help improve the three F’s — finding, funding, and fixing. In my personal view, I believe it is becoming more and more important for venture funds to gain mindshare amongst the next generation of founders and operators early, while still in school.

I can’t wait to see what’s next for student entrepreneurship in 2019. If you’re interested in digging in deeper (I’m human — I’m sure I haven’t covered everything related to student entrepreneurship here) or learning more about how you can start or join a startup while still in school, shoot me a note at sxu@dormroomfund.comA massive thanks to Phin Barnes, Rei Wang, Chauncey Hamilton, Peter Boyce, Natalie Bartlett, Denali Tietjen, Eric Tarczynski, Will Robbins, Jasmine Kriston, Alicia Lau, Johnny Hammond, Bruno Faviero, Athena Kan, Shohini Gupta, Alex Immerman, Albert Dong, Phillip Hua-Bon-Hoa, and Trevor Sookraj for your incredible encouragement, support, and insight during the writing of this essay.


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

Five years and one pivot later, Trueface emerges with a promise for better facial recognition tech

Posted by on Nov 21, 2018 in africa, Asia, Colombia, facial recognition, facial recognition software, harvard, learning, Medellin, Scout Ventures, Southeast Asia, surveillance, TC, video surveillance | 0 comments

Shaun Moore and Nezare Chafni didn’t initially intend to develop a new standalone facial recognition technology, when they first got started developing the technology that would become their new company, Trueface.ai.

When the two serial entrepreneurs were planning their next act five years ago, they wanted to ride the wave of smart home technologies with the development of a new smart doorbell — called Chui.

That doorbell would be equipped with facial recognition software as a service. The company raised $500,000 in angel funding and opened a manufacturing facility in Medellin, Colombia.

What the two entrepreneurs discovered was that most existing facial recognition tools lacked the ability to identify spoof or presentation attacks, which rendered the tech unfeasible for the access control functions they were trying to develop.

So Moore and Chafni set out to develop better software for facial recognition.

 

“In 2014 we focused our engineering efforts on deploying face recognition on the edge in highly constrained environments that could identify hack or spoof attempts,” Moore, the chief executive of Trueface.ai said in an email. “This technology is the core of what has become Trueface.”

With the upgrades to the product, Chui began tackling the commercial access control market, and while customers loved the software, they wanted to use their own hardware for the product, according to Moore.

So the two entrepreneurs shuttered the factory in 2017 and began focusing on selling the facial recognition product on its own. Thus Trueface was born.

It’s actually the third company that the two founders have worked on together. Friends since their days studying business at Southern Methodist University, Moore and Chafni previously worked on a content management startup, before moving on to Chui’s smart doorbell.

The company spun Trueface out of Chui in June 2017 and raised seed capital from investors including Scout Ventures with Harvard Business Angels and GSV Labs. That $1.5 million round has powered the company’s development since (including the integration with IFTT earlier this year to prove that its system worked).

But over the past few years, as damning stories around the risks associated with potentially bad training data being applied to facial recognition technologies continued to appear, the company set itself another task — aligning its training data with the real world.

To that end the company has partnered with a global non-profit which is collecting facial images from Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia to create a more robust portfolio of images to train its recognition software.

“Like many facial recognition companies, we acknowledge the implicit bias in publicly available training data that can result in misidentification of certain ethnicities,” the company’s chief executive has written. “We think that is unacceptable, and have pioneered methods to collect a multiplicity of anonymized face data from around the world in order to balance our training models. For example, we partnered with non-profits in Africa and Southeast Asia to ensure our training data is diverse and inclusive, resulting in reduced bias and more accurate face recognition – for all.

The company has also established three principles by which its technology will be applied. The first is an explicit commitment to reduce bias in training data; the second, an agreement with its customers that in any case that goes to court, human decision making is privileged over any data from its software; and finally, an explicit focus on data security to prevent breaches and data transparency so that customers discloes what information they’re collecting.

“When implemented responsibly, people will demand this technology for its daily benefits and utility, not fear it,” writes Moore.


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

Payday startups are increasing access to wages, but is “make any day payday” the right choice?

Posted by on Sep 1, 2018 in California, Column, credit, debt, economy, Finance, Food Stamps, fresno, Google, harvard, loans, Lyft, money, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, TC, Uber | 0 comments

Imagine you get a monthly paycheck on the 15th of the month but your bills come in on the 1st of the month.  Between the 15th and 1st you must set a portion of your check aside to pay bills.  This becomes a complicated budgeting equation. How much can I spend today vs how much do I need to set aside?

In a perfectly rational world people would reduce their consumption by the amount needed to afford their bills and have money left over to make it to the next payday.  Sadly, this isn’t what happens. When income and bills are farther apart, we struggle to make the math work.

Researchers Brian Baugh  and Jialan Wang found that financial shortfalls – payday loans and bank overdrafts – happen 18% more when there is a greater mismatch between the timing of someone’s  income and the bills they owe.

We come up short.

Baugh offers some reasoning: When we get paid, we spend money. More money than usual.  Research from Arna Olafsson and Michaela Pagel supports this. They find that both poor and rich households respond to the receipt of income, with the poorest households spending 70 percent more when they get paid than they would on an average day and the richest households spending 40 percent more.  This inclination to spend more on payday makes the monthly budget harder to balance – and sometimes makes it unable to balance at all.

Many fintech companies are starting to address pay period timing, in hopes they can close the gap between income and consumption needs.  Apps like Even, Earnin and PayActive provide people with instant access to their paycheck.  Gig economy employers like Uber and Lyft have features that allow drivers to cash out immediately after they drive.  For people who would otherwise get paid on a monthly schedule, this is critical.  Jesse Shapiro of Harvard  found that food stamp recipients consume 10 to 15 percent fewer calories the week before food stamps are disbursed.   Even a few days matter. In Baugh’s study, the difference between a paycheck period of 35 days vs a paycheck period of 28 days resulted in 9% more instances of financial distress.

The question we should be asking now is what is the optimal timing for pay periods?  Too long between checks causes hardship, but how short should pay periods become?  These fintech companies are offering to “Make Any Day Payday” with promises that people can “Get your paycheck anytime you want.”  While this smooths the gap between pay periods, given Olassof’s research, it may also serve to increase spending if everyday is payday.

To dive deeper into this problem, our team sought to understand what employees preferred.  As a reminder, our preferences don’t always represent what’s best for us. You may want to eat that chocolate cake, but that doesn’t mean it will help you with your summer dieting goals.  However, we were curious: do people have the intuition that more frequent pay periods are better, and how frequent is optimal?   To do this we asked 384 people making less than median income ($30,000 a year) to tell us their preferred pay schedule. Using Google Consumer Surveys, we gave them six payment schedules to choose from: Annual, Monthly, Bi-weekly, Weekly, Daily or Hourly.

What should people say? If everyone acts rationally, we would expect people to say they want to get paid hourly – immediately after working. It’s their money and they would be best off with unfettered access to it.

This is not what we found. Instead, people prefer to get paid on a bi-weekly or weekly schedule.  Aggregating everyone’s responses, people preferred bi-weekly (37.2%), followed by weekly (26.6%).

Why aren’t more people choosing hourly or daily?  While we can’t be sure, one guess is that Baugh’s findings ring true. Weekly and biweekly paychecks can act as a self control device for spending. If paydays were every day, they may be more tempted to spend on non-critical items, leaving less money for bills.  Weekly and biweekly paychecks also serve as a way to fix the misalignment of income and bills that Baugh cites drives overdrafts and payday loans.  Our team interviewed 40 people in Fresno, California and found this to be a popular budgeting strategy – one paycheck is used for the family car payment and one is used for rent.

When we break out responses by income, we find some correlational differences across income groups. People reporting less than $6,000 income (50% below poverty line) are more likely to opt for an immediate pay schedule.  As people’s income level rises above poverty (or part time status), the preference for weekly and bi-weekly pay schedules increases.

We also asked people to tell us how they would describe their personal need for money when paying their bills over the past year. No surprise, but the more people felt they needed money for immediate bills (or feeling scarce) the higher the demand for more frequent paychecks (hourly or weekly).

The verdict?

More research is needed to determine the effects of the growing trend to offer instant access to your paycheck. These apps can bridge critical gaps for people living paycheck to paycheck, but they may also have some detrimental effects if Baugh and Olafsson’s findings hold. If apps help people make everyday payday, and each payday results in higher spending, the end of the month may be much harder to get to.

Key insights for companies trying to improve people’s financial lives

  1. Help move people off a monthly pay cycle. Our study suggests that lower income individuals don’t prefer monthly and other research suggests it has costly implications for their financial lives.
  2. Help people match up their income and their bills. Lenders can do this upon loan origination or fintech apps (like EarnUp) can help people automate timing.
  3. Provide (thoughtful) access to the paycheck. Apps could ask people up front to precommit to when they want to take money from their paycheck. This would still allow people to have access, but could possibly slow down an urge to withdraw too frequently.


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

From humble beginnings, 645 Ventures founders find validation in new $40 million fund

Posted by on Aug 28, 2018 in 645 ventures, Draper-Fisher-Jurvetson, Goldman Sachs, harvard, Nnamdi Okike, TC, Venture Capital | 0 comments

Nnamdi Okike, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Nigeria and Germany, and Aaron Holiday, whose mother worked in the collections department of Sears and whose father was a substance abuse counselor in New Orleans, are not typical venture investors. And their firm, 645 Ventures, which just closed on $40.6 million for its second fund, is certainly not a typical venture fund.

Both men are firm believers in the power of data to help make better investment decisions, and both men are using that belief as the core tenet of their rapidly growing venture capital fund.

Holiday and Okike are using their backgrounds as technology-driven analysts at Goldman Sachs and Insight Venture Partners (respectively) to build a new model for early-stage investing. The two men believe they can have a greater geographical breadth, and reach companies at earlier stages of their development, by leveraging tools that automate the heavy lifting of the investment business.

For Holiday, the growth of 645 Ventures from its first fund of $8 million to the current $48 million under management is a testament to the firm’s technology-first investment thesis. A computer scientist who grew up in New Orleans’ sixth ward and attended Morehouse College, Holiday began his professional career developing algorithms for high-frequency trading at Goldman Sachs.

Not content with just developing the algorithms, Holiday wanted to assume a more active role in managing money and found himself drawn to venture capital. He attended business school at Cornell and began working with the University’s BR Venture Fund, a small $4 million direct investment vehicle for venture capital.

From there he moved to Gotham Ventures, the New York-based affiliate fund of DFJ, and met Okike through an entrepreneur with whom both men were working.

Okike had already been involved in angel investing and had taken a job at Insight Venture Partners in 2002, just after the dot-com bubble burst. As an analyst with the firm, the Worcester, Mass. native (his parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria) and Harvard alum, tracked the renaissance of the tech industry with Web 2.0 and thought that the data-driven approach that Insight used could be applied to earlier-stage startups.

“What I was seeing was that there was a proliferation of data on startups that you could use to drive an outbound sourcing model on startups,” Okike said. “Insight’s model was a team and using data that they were acquiring manually. What I started to see was that you could automate a lot of the data collection and you could do it earlier.”

The firm uses data analytics and software throughout its operation, from deal sourcing, to deal evaluation and tracking, to portfolio company value-add. The primary aims of using data analytics are to a) create digitized institutional memory across our organization; b) automate many of the manual tasks that VCs perform every day; c) to be able to move more quickly and cover more ground than the typical VC firm, according to Okike.

For instance, the firm analyzes internet web traffic growth to help identify companies that have reached an inflection point in terms of user or consumer demand. For online marketplaces and direct-to-consumer brands, web traffic growth is a proxy for revenue growth. In the case of MM.LaFleur, one of the most compelling signals at the seed stage was the rapid growth in internet traffic, reflecting consumer demand for their “Bento Box” product offering, Okike said.

In terms of deal evaluation, every company the firm assesses for a potential investment is tracked within proprietary 645 software, and all of the firm’s diligence work is tagged and tracked. That way the firm can document how a company’s key characteristics change over time. For example, how the team is growing, how revenue is growing or how unit economics are improving. It gives the firm the ability to be smarter over time in terms of which characteristics are most predictive for success in a given market sector, Okike said.

On the value-add side, VCs frequently leverage their networks to make introductions to prospective customers, partners and investors on behalf of their portfolio companies. However, most VC firms don’t map their networks systematically with the relevant attributes of each individual, so they can easily overlook potentially valuable introductions. They also don’t track the outcomes of the introductions they make. 645 Ventures use software to map the firm’s networks and tag individuals within those networks with the most relevant attributes, so it’s easy for the firm to make the most relevant introductions quickly.

Nnamdi Okike and Aaron Holiday, co-founders of 645 Ventures

Okike’s observations aligned directly with what Holiday saw too, and after a few conversations the two men raised $8 million for the first 645 Ventures fund in late 2014 and closed in 2015.

That first fund has already garnered successes with deals like MM.Lafleur, the women’s subscription clothing company, and Iterable, a marketing automation business, according to Holiday.

And with the second fund, the firm has attracted notable backers including: Princeton University; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Spelman College; tech investors like Albert Wenger, a general partner at Union Square Ventures; First Round Capital founder Howard Morgan; Ken Chenault, the former chief executive of American Express and a general partner; and chairman at General Catalyst and Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments.

“We agreed that the next wave of outbound deal sourcing was going to be earlier,” says Okike. And that the firm can uncover great deals across a broader geographical area, when investment decisions are more data driven. “One of our core beliefs is that you can build a geographically distributed fund through better data.”

As for the firm’s name, the local phone code for Martha’s Vineyard both evoked fond childhood memories for Okike and foregrounded the firms numerical and data-driven approach for Holiday. “When you saw the number, alphanumerically, numbers show up at the top of a list before names, so it would be good to have a number as the name of the firm,” Holiday said.


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

The alumni of these universities raised the most VC in the past year

Posted by on Aug 25, 2018 in Column, harvard, Pennsylvania, stanford, Stanford University, TC, University of Pennsylvania, Venture Capital | 0 comments

Whatever criteria we look at, whether it’s schools with the highest number of well-capitalized founders, highest funding totals or even where startup investors went to college, the same names top the list. The only surprise factor, it seems, is whether Harvard or Stanford will be in first place.

It’s possible we’ll do a data-driven university- and startup-related ranking that doesn’t feature the same two schools in the top two positions. But that’s not happening today, as we look at universities with founder alumni who have raised the most venture funding.1

OK, so who else is on the list?

Luckily, there are more than two names on the list. In this survey, we looked at the top 15 schools ranked by alumni who have raised the most venture funding for their startups in roughly the past year.

This is a follow-up to our earlier piece, which ranked U.S. universities according to the number of funded startup founders who raised $1 million or more in the survey period. The results, however, feature most of the same names, and an only slightly altered order.

Take a look for yourself below. The chart includes the name of the school, the total known venture capital funding raised by alumni founders since August 1, 2017, and the most heavily funded companies.

Methodology

In the survey results, we included universities and affiliated business schools together. This significantly bumped up the totals for universities with well-known business schools, like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania (home of the Wharton School of Business).

Additionally, a number of funded founders have degrees from more than one university in the ranking. These entrepreneurs are counted once for each university.

  1. The survey data is for seed through late-stage venture funding rounds announced on or after August 1, 2017.


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

Your vegetables are going to be picked by robots sooner than you think

Posted by on Aug 8, 2018 in agriculture, america, Artificial Intelligence, Culture, Emerging-Technologies, executive, Food, harvard, neural network, Pennsylvania, robot, Robotics, Root AI, Soft Robotics, TC, Technology, United States, University of Pennsylvania, Walmart, whole foods | 0 comments

In the very near future, robots are going to be picking the vegetables that appear on grocery store shelves across America.

The automation revolution that’s arrived on the factory floor will make its way to the ag industry in the U.S. and its first stop will likely be the indoor farms that are now dotting the U.S.

Leading the charge in this robot revolution will be companies like Root AI, a young startup which has just raised $2.3 million to bring its first line of robotic harvesting and farm optimization technologies to market.

Root AI is focused on the 2.3 million square feet of indoor farms that currently exist in the world and is hoping to expand as the number of farms cultivating crops indoors increases. Some estimates from analysis firms like Agrilyst put the planned expansions in indoor farming at around 22 million square feet (much of that in the U.S.).

While that only amounts to roughly 505 acres of land — a fraction of the 900 million acres of farmland that’s currently cultivated in the U.S. — those indoor farms offer huge yield advantages over traditional farms with a much lower footprint in terms of resources used. The average yield per acre in indoor farms for vine crops like tomatoes, and leafy greens, is over ten times higher than outdoor farms.

Root AI’s executive team thinks their company can bring those yields even higher.

Founded by two rising stars of the robotics industry, the 36 year old Josh Lessing and 28 year old Ryan Knopf, Root is an extension of work the two men had done as early employees at Soft Robotics, the company pioneering new technologies for robotic handling.

Spun out of research conducted by Harvard professor George Whiteside, the team at Soft Robotics was primarily comprised of technologists who had spent years developing robots after having no formal training in robot development. Knopf, a lifetime roboticist who studied at the University of Pennsylvania was one of the sole employees with a traditional robotics background.

“We were the very first two people at Soft developing the core technology there,” says Lessing. “The technology is being used for heavily in the food industry. What you would buy a soft gripper for is… making a delicate food gripper very easy to deploy that would help you maintain food quality with a mechanical design that was extremely easy to manage. Like inflatable fingers that could grab things.”

Root AI co-founders Josh Lessing and Ryan Knopf

It was radically different from the ways in which other robotics companies were approaching the very tricky problem of replicating the dexterity of the human hand. “From the perspective of conventional robotics, we were doing everything wrong and we would never be able to do what a conventional robot was capable of. We ended up creating adaptive gripping with these new constructs,” Lessing said.

While Soft Robotics continues to do revolutionary work, both Knopf and Lessing saw an opportunity to apply their knowledge to an area where it was sorely needed — farming. “Ag is facing a lot of complicated challenges and at the same time we have a need for much much more food,” Lessing said. “And a lot of the big challenges in ag these days are out in the field, not in the packaging and processing facilities. So Ryan and I started building this new thesis around how we could make artificial intelligence helpful to growers.”

The first product from Root AI is a mobile robot that operates in indoor farming facilities. It picks tomatoes and is able to look at crops and assess their health, and conduct simple operations like pruning vines and observing and controlling ripening profiles so that the robot can cultivate crops (initially tomatoes) continuously and more effectively than people.

Root AI’s robots have multiple cameras (one on the arm of the robot itself, the “tool’s” view, and one sitting to the side of the robot with a fixed reference frame) to collect both color images and 3D depth information. The company has also developed a customized convolutional neural network to detect objects of interest and label them with bounding boxes. Beyond the location of the fruit, Root AI uses other, proprietary, vision processing techniques to measure properties of fruit (like ripeness, size, and quality grading).  All of this is done on the robot, without relying on remote access to a data-center. And it’s all done in real time.

Tools like these robots are increasingly helpful, as the founders of Root note, because there’s an increasing labor shortage for both indoor and outdoor farming in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the mounting pressures on the farm industry increasingly make robotically assisted indoor farming a more viable option for production. Continuing population growth and the reduction of arable land resulting from climate change mean that indoor farms, which can produce as much as twenty times as much fruit and vegetables per square foot while using up to 90% less water become extremely attractive.

Suppliers like Howling Farms, Mucci Farms, Del Fresco Produce and Naturefresh are already producing a number of fruits and vegetables for consumers, said Lessing. “They’ve really fine tuned agriculture production in ways that are meaningful to broader society. They are much more sustainable and they allow you to collocate farms with urban areas [and] they have a much more simplified logistics network.”

That ability to pare down complexity and cost in a logistics supply chain is a boon to retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods that are competing to provide fresher, longer lasting produce to consumers, Lessing said. Investors, apparently agreed. Root AI was able to enlist firms like First Round CapitalAccompliceSchematic Ventures, Liquid2 Ventures and Half Court Ventures to back its $2.3 million round.

“There are many many roles at the farm and we’re looking to supplement in all areas,” said Lessing. “Right now we’re doing a lot of technology experiments with a couple of different growers. assessment of ripeness and grippers ability to grab the tomatoes. next year we’re going to be doing the pilots.”

And as global warming intensifies pressures on food production, Lessing sees demand for his technologies growing.

“On a personal level I have concerns about how much food we’re going to have and where we can make it,” Lessing said. “Indoor farming is focused on making food anywhere. if you control your environment you have the ability to make food…. Satisfying people’s basic needs is one of the most impactful things i can do with my life.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More

‘Underwater Pokéball’ snatches up soft-bodied deep dwellers

Posted by on Jul 18, 2018 in Gadgets, harvard, Science, wyss institute | 0 comments

Creatures that live in the depths of the oceans are often extremely fragile, making their collection a difficult affair. A new polyhedral sample-collection mechanism acts like an “underwater Pokéball,” allowing scientists to catch ’em all without destroying their soft, squishy bodies in the process.

The ball is technically a dodecahedron that closes softly around the creature in front of it. It’s not exactly revolutionary, except in that it is extremely simple mechanically — at depths of thousands of feet, the importance of this can’t be overstated — and non-destructive.

Sampling is often done via a tube with moving caps on both ends into which the creature must be guided and trapped, or a vacuum tube that sucks it in, which as you can imagine is at best unpleasant for the target and at worst, lethal.

The rotary actuated dodecahedron, or RAD, has five 3D-printed “petals” with a complex-looking but mechanically simple framework that allows them to close up simultaneously from force applied at a single point near the rear panel.

“I was building microrobots by hand in graduate school, which was very painstaking and tedious work,” explained creator Zhi Ern Teoh, of Harvard’s Wyss Institute, “and I wondered if there was a way to fold a flat surface into a three-dimensional shape using a motor instead.”

The answer is yes, obviously, since he made it; the details are published in Science Robotics. Inspired by origami and papercraft, Teoh and his colleagues applied their design knowledge to creating not just a fold-up polyhedron (you can cut one out of any sheet of paper) but a mechanism that would perform that folding process in one smooth movement. The result is the network of hinged arms around the polyhedron tuned to push lightly and evenly and seal it up.

In testing, the RAD successfully captured some moon jellies in a pool, then at around 2,000 feet below the ocean surface was able to snag squid, octopus and wild jellies and release them again with no harm done. They didn’t capture the octopus on camera, but apparently it was curious about the device.

Because of the RAD’s design, it would work just as well miles below the surface, the researchers said, though they haven’t had a chance to test that yet.

“The RAD sampler design is perfect for the difficult environment of the deep ocean because its controls are very simple, so there are fewer elements that can break,” Teoh said.

There’s also no barrier to building a larger one, or a similar device that would work in space, he pointed out. As for current applications like sampling of ocean creatures, the setup could easily be enhanced with cameras and other tools or sensors.

“In the future, we can capture an animal, collect lots of data about it like its size, material properties, and even its genome, and then let it go,” said co-author David Gruber, from CUNY. “Almost like an underwater alien abduction.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

Read More