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Australia biotech labs struggle to translate bustling research scene into entrepreneurial startup culture


In an effort to catch up with others in the race for a stronger ecosystem, the Australian government has been initiating a new innovation plan that they hope will give them the necessary boost to compete. With one billion Australian dollars in tow, the government is keen to make up for a gap in venture capital funding while simultaneously building a fully-fledged and independent network of startup ecosystems across the country. That strategy has also brought in state and city governments as each state tries to leverage its particular strengths to pivot local economies away from the distressed mining and resources industry.

There has been growth for tech hubs in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and even the capital Canberra’s startup ecosystem. One thing holding back that development is venture capital, as Australia transitions from a conservative investment culture where small funds planted into the country’s natural resources could bring back major returns very quickly. Technology, conversely, has a longer endgame and is not as consistent in terms of profits.

Conservative investors in turn breed conservative prospective entrepreneurs. The innovators of today, who ought to be the business leaders of tomorrow, just aren’t psyched up yet to pursue major venture capital investments. We are not just talking innovation at the keyboard, but in the lab. Australia’s biotech scene is immense and intimidating. Its medical research facilities, in all fields, are proverbially second to none.

But something is holding them back, creating a disconnect between researchers who crave a spinout culture similar to what we might see in the medical schools around Boston but are reluctant to surrender equity for their projects. The answer might be something you don’t expect.

Breakthroughs hold out

Skyline of Brisbane at Kangaroo Point Cliffs (CC BY SA 3.0 Lachlan Fearnley via Wikimedia Commons)

In Brisbane, the country’s third largest city and the largest in the state of Queensland, the effort is circling around commercializing the extremely advanced medical research found at schools like the University of Queensland (UQ) and Queensland University of Technology (QUT), as well as institutes like the Translational Research Institute (TRI) and Queensland Immunology Medical Research (QIMR).

The state government of Queensland is promising over AU$400 million in funding to push researchers to go entrepreneurial, but in lieu of established venture capital, the worry is that risk aversion among investors and biotech researchers will drain national and state resources before they can get a startup and investment culture off the ground. Canberra launched a federal program for devices and drug discoveries, the AU$500 million Biomedical Translation Fund (BTF), in August that will be half-financed by public money and half by the private sector.

Jurgen Götz of UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) is one of those researchers caught in the middle. Götz’s team has shown a promising new path to curing Alzheimer’s disease that would destroy the brain lesions most responsible for the disease: a plaque called amyloid-beta and a “neurofibrillary tangle” made of a protein called tau. Their approach is novel and has earned him a number of investment offers. But so far, Götz has rebuffed them.

“We have decided for the time being to wait, possibly until we got a prototype,” Götz told Geektime. “We are still at a preclinical stage and don’t have a prototype which would work in humans.”

Jurgen Götz
Jurgen Götz (Photo credit: QBI)

Götz has been in Australia for 11 years, spending much of his career hopping between academic centers in Germany, Switzerland and the US. He, like many others who weren’t born in the country, was attracted by the wealth of research centers and talent across Australia. “It is a major undertaking which needs to be carefully planned and executed” to move to the country, he suggests, but is certainly worth it.

“We are not under the pressure to meet the financial needs of VC but can explore what we think is necessary long-term.” Götz admits there is risk-aversion among his comrades when asked if it infects Australian biotech researchers’ pursuit of venture capital.

Translating research isn’t translating culture

It’s not a battle over ethics or integrity, but preparedness he claims. Götz believes the medical research community does need to bring in more private investors and to spin their research to market, but at the same time should avoid rushing into it. He worries that investors will take too much equity before the company even has a minimally viable product, much less something ready to bring to the market.

“I guess Australia is a very creative country and can easily compete. However, despite excellent research, there has not been a lot of translational.” And in that comment is the back-and-forth that the entire country is having. Australia wants to apply its research, but translating it to the market is not just a matter of turning it into a consumer product but embracing the business processes that will turn research teams into fully-fledged companies.

The caution Götz describes on investments is not unique.

Ian Frazer knows a thing or two about translation as the founder of the Translational Research Institute (TRI) just outside Brisbane. He has some experience with the normally slow process of bringing something to the selling point.

Translational Research Institute in Wooloongabba (CC BY SA 4.0 Jimmanybobmcfly via Wikimedia Commons)

He is one of the co-inventors of the HPV vaccine, something credited with reducing cervical cancer rates around the world since its introduction. But before it was finally ready for mass innoculation in the mid-2000s, it went through 15 years of rigorous testing and refinement. He has been named the Australian scientist of the year for his work.

“Governments obviously want a return on investment. Social capital is an ROI too; it’s not all about making money,” Frazer said at a roundtable for visiting journalists. “Australia is good at the basic science but bad about translating it into money. It’s 23rd of 23 in OECD countries in technology translation/transfer.”

Professor Ian Frazer at Princess Alexandra Hospital in 2005 in Brisbane (Photo by Jonathan Wood/Getty Images Israel)
Professor Ian Frazer at Princess Alexandra Hospital in 2005 in Brisbane (Photo by Jonathan Wood/Getty Images Israel)

Similar to Götz, he’s an outsider. Frazer came to Australia from Scotland in the 1980s, attracted by the country’s more advanced medical research facilities. In 2006, Frazer was named Australian of the Year for his work co-inventing the HPV vaccine.

Now he is channeling his influence and wealth as the leader of TRI, dedicated to transferring medical tech from the lab to the consumer market. However, the old business pipeline dominates at TRI.

Researchers get their IP, but then license out or sell their discoveries to Big Pharma or other health corporations. As a rule, the institute and its shareholders get a share of whatever gets spun out from the teams there.

With 50 research groups that all have at least one doctor from the attached hospital, the institute is trying to bring real-world experience into every discussion and maneuver by its resident teams.

Giving ideas about where research might be applicable is the key to creating something that is commercially viable, something not as clear as one might think to people running business in the lab.

“We like to incentivize not only research but also the commercialization of it.”

Australia's flag waves just outside the new Peter Mac cancer research center in Melbourne. Photo credit: Gedalyah Reback / Geektime
Australia’s flag waves just outside the new Peter Mac cancer research center in Melbourne. Photo credit: Gedalyah Reback / Geektime

Mirroring what Götz said, a fear of failure is weighing down on Australian researchers’ appetite to flip labcoats for suits and ties (or jeans and pleather shoes if we’re going for Silicon Valley garb).

“If it’s your idea you can be encouraged to take a risk. For us, it is important to have a culture where failure is okay: if you know you can fail and come back again and have another go at it; serial entrepreneurship,” Frazer prophesies, noting a new emphasis on industry-based funding rather than grants.

“The funding is more driven commercially now than it used to be. You want to encourage entrepreneurship, but as a country we’re more risk-averse and takes a while to taking more risk.”

Yet, his pro-entrepreneurship tenacity sometimes seemed at odds with Frazer’s other responses, expressing some of the very reservations he skewers.

This reporter noted that some teams in TRI were working in fields where startups are currently thriving, like bone scaffolding (enabling new bone to grow by implanting material around which new bone cells can grow). When asked if those teams holding out from incorporating constituted a missed opportunity, Frazer gave a mixed answer.

Novadip uses stem cells to create scaffolds that might grow out to fill in gaps in bone and skin. Above, examples of growing skin grafts (image, Novadip)

“In some ways yes, but maybe if there is a lot of competition, [it] might be better than commercializing it. If it’s really innovative then launch a startup. That’s fine if there’s a lot of competition in the field, [but] the prize goes to the person who does it best. That’s always a difficult decision to make.”

He goes even further.

“Somebody will always try to come up with a better product than you. Look at Uber which has disrupted monopolies. But, there’s no monopoly areas in drug creation. There’s always a chance someone might overtake you with a better product.”

Embedding entrepreneurial culture in Aussie biotech and medicine

Frazer reflects a blend of hesitation and enthusiasm you can see in Götz. In essence, Frazer explained to Geektime that commercializing one version of a product too early could be a futile effort, so it would be best to wait until it were as perfect as possible.

Professor Ricky Johnstone, who focuses on gene regulation at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Peter Mac) in Melbourne, told Geektime that while there were plenty of things worth commercializing in Australian research centers, the impulse to do it isn’t there. He compared it to what he had seen when he spent time at Harvard, where research teams were able to quickly speak with an the Office for Entrepreneurship and talk about a business track.

The inside of the new-and-improved Peter Mac Cancer Center in Melbourne, Australia (Gedalyah Reback/Geektime)

Harvard Medical School (HMS) and MIT, part of the biotech-dominant Boston startup ecosystem, both have programs to encourage entrepreneurship and commercialization. The HMS innovation and entrepreneurship services are additional to others offered at the Ivy League school, while MIT has its Medical Device Innovation Center (MDIC), its Hacking Medicine hackathon series, and teams going through its school-wide accelerator at the MIT Center for Entrepreneurship.

Harvard Medical School (SBAmin CC BY SA 2.0 via Wikimedia)

“We mostly work with MD students and the post-doc community. The MD students have formed a group called the ‘makerspace’ in which they work on various ideas throughout the year,” Paola Abello, director of innovation at HMS, told Geektime. Her office is responsible for encouraging new ideas in healthcare and providing resources to their inventors or proprietors. There is work underway to create a full-fledged entrepreneur’s track at HMS, but for now many students work through Harvard iLab.

“For the medical students, the majority have an interest in learning about entrepreneurship and applying those skills to their careers but they are mostly focused on becoming doctors,” conveys Abello, but there is a spirit that guides some straight to the entrepreneurial track. “Having said that, there is a small % of them that do focus on launching a company while in medical school and some take time off to accomplish this, along with a team. I suspect that in the coming years, the idea of being a ‘clinician innovator’ or ‘physician entrepreneur’ will become more popular. With all of the issues plaguing healthcare, it is important for our doctors to also be the change agents!”

Similar programs seem to be in short supply down under. These programs don’t appear much at all at Australian universities, much less particular to medical schools. Not emphasizing that transition between

Frazer understands that an emphasis on pure academia would continue to hold Australia’s biotech startup scene back. Chief Scientist of Queensland, Geoff Garrett, agrees. His office supports rating institutions not just by traditional academic parameters like papers written but also patents filed and building relationships with professionals and businesspeople on the applied sciences and corporate ends of the industry.

“When we changed the rules that we needed 50% residency embedded in the industry, some of the traditional academics said no one would apply for this. We got a 35% increase in applications. I think the resistance is from the old guard,” Garrett told Geektime recently, indicating he thinks there are influential members of the community who don’t understand the importance of speed to market and a willingness to fail.

CEO of CSIRO aand Chief Scientist of Queensland Geoff Garrett in his Canberra office, 25 February 2005. (AFR Picture by PENNY BRADFIELD (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images Israel)
CEO of CSIRO aand Chief Scientist of Queensland Geoff Garrett in his Canberra office, 25 February 2005. (AFR Picture by PENNY BRADFIELD (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images Israel)

They have begun to predicate fellowship funding on time in the field, hours spent interning in a way with corporate sponsors that give budding innovators a business acumen as well as research savvy.

“Part of it is the challenge of getting the research community to talk to the business community. Most days I go out and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we were doing that stuff!’” Garrett told Geektime. “There’s an old saying that ‘what gets measured gets done.’”

But talking innovation is a cultural issue, not something easily injected into everyday conversation in Aussie universities.

“I was there at Harvard when funding ceased to be what is used to be,” Frazer noted. “Innovation became the buzzword and translation was something they were forced to do. During that time they completely restructured.”

Frazer says that has allowed Harvard to keep its accounts well in the black, asserting they might cry fowl about losing private funding, “But when peer-reviewed funding dropped off, they totally restructured to go forward and built new buildings. Now that the peer-review funding is coming back they’re in a position to go forward.

Venture capital means losing traditional funding sources

But that old guard might have a position that is far more rational than people living in the startup world might realize.

“I would not describe the reluctance to spin out as risk aversion,” says Vaxxas CEO David Hoey, whose company is building a vaccine-delivery technology and recently raised $20 million Series B investment round. He also advises Healthcare Ventures LLC, splitting his time between biotech-heavy Boston and equally apt Brisbane. His company got its start as a spinout from Queensland University way back in 2011.

The Vaxxas Nanopatch (Vaxxas)

“Generally, there is no risk to the research, only potential upside. However, I have seen hesitation to spin out technology because of the potential loss of grant funding to the researcher – that is, for researchers who have had a secure and lengthy funding source that also provides academic prestige, if the technology is out-licensed, the grants might dry-up.

The company has since opened an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right in the Harvard-MIT neck of the woods and in the heart of the bustling Boston healthcare industry.

“As an aside, because the venture capital community in Australia is so small, ‘selling’ technology to VC’s here is fundamentally different from US markets.  Some of the perceived reluctance may just be weariness.”

The facade of the new-and-improved Peter Mac Cancer Center in Melbourne, Australia (Gedalyah Reback/Geektime)

When asked about researchers actually turning down viable offers, he related it back to the potential downside of losing a familiar stream of funding where a variety of public programs exist. But he recommends that people in academia break out of the mentality that the entire pathway to commercialization should be or can easily be done with government money alone.

“It’s possible that when a researcher gets close enough to product,” Hoey suggests, “they’d rather try to finish it off with government money thinking that this will eliminate the need for commercial funding.”

And that’s the idea Australia’s formidable biotechnology research ecosystem will have to change. They can’t rely on grants forever.

“This is, of course, a fallacy – it takes huge amounts of capital to make ‘finished’ products successful.”

Google ‘tappable’ shortcuts debut on mobile for Translate and weather, though seem redundant


The Google app is introducing new ‘tappable’ shortcuts in mobile search for US users, VP of Product Management Tamar Yehoshua announced early Tuesday. The new feature will be available both on Android and iOS phones, with a few extra features for Android owners.

“The Google search box is great when you’re looking for a specific answer, but there are also moments when you just want to catch up on the latest for topics of interest,” Yehoshua wrote. “Now with a tap on the entertainment shortcut, you can see what’s playing this weekend at your local theater or what to watch on TV. You can also get the latest news from both the small and silver screens. You can tap into news, trailers and reviews that are relevant for you or swipe through listings to catch up on your favorite show.”

The best way to characterize the changes might be as a reorganization of common search parameters. Just as many location-based/check-in apps have favorite locations or how some users reserve favorite website icons in web browsers, Google has already defined rough search results for sports, restaurants, local weather, flights, translation (via Google Translate), and more. But it will also include other frequent search queries like currency conversion and internet speed tests. It’s unclear if the latter will be available in a developer’s option for webmasters.

“To find the most timely and recently used shortcuts, make sure your Google app is updated to the latest version,” Yehoshua directs readers, “then look for your shortcuts right underneath the search box. You’ll see new shortcuts appear for big moments and events moving forward.”

Of course, many of these categories are pretty general (aside from things like currency conversion). They also commit the common error among media (and social media) companies that some users even care about lifestyle or sports sections (and don’t even broach political topics with some people).

Google search shortcuts, screenshots

It’s not clear if these shortcuts would change automatically or manually should they never be used. For instance, it’s hard to imagine some people ever using a florist and with dwindling car ownership it might be unnecessary to have a button for gas station locations. It’s also worth questioning the inclusion of ‘Roll a die’ or ‘Coin flip’ in the same category with tools of necessity like Google Translate or currency converters

The push looks more like a way to circumvent some competitor apps or at least channeling traffic through Google before you reach apps for an entertainment site like Rotten Tomatoes or a sports site like ESPN. (presumably, you would be rerouted to a mobile site’s companion app anyway). Google also already provides automatic weather updates for mobile users, while some phones will reorganize frequently used apps automatically.

There was no word on roll-out to users outside the US.

5 growing Jaipur startups turning the Pink City green


Jaipur is growing. It’s the tenth-largest city in the country with just over 3 million people — flaked by 9th place Pune (3.1 million) and 11th place Lucknow (2.8 million) according to the national Indian census. For its local technology sector, things are looking up as well. Between 2014 and 2016, Jaipur startups raised $142.25 million according to Inc42, with 44 percent of funding going to seed stage startups and 26 percent to late stage. The deal flow was small in the first 10 months of 2016 with 16 investments, but they were spread out across different industries (edtech, cars, e-commerce, fintech, etc.)

The city can get lost on the long road between New Delhi and Ahmedabad, the capital of neighboring state Gujarat, but it’s little excuse to ignore the municipality. The Rajasthan Angel Investor Fund, Rajasthan Venture Capital Fund, and SME Tech Fund II are building a solid foundation for local funding to continue supporting future entrepreneurs from the state’s 22 universities including Malaviya National Institute of Technology and LNM Institute of Information Technology.

The city is closely competing with other nascent, second tier startup ecosystems like Ahmedabad and Chennai, who both have put up respectable investment numbers as well. If any of these three cities — especially Jaipur — are going to compete with the bigger towns, they will need to start providing middle stage funding to local companies.

In the interim, these five startups might provide the success necessary to continue growing the local angel investor network and to get Jaipur on the tip of non-Indian tongues when they talk about the startup ecosystem in South Asia:

1. ServX

An app that connects people to the best local options for automotive repair, ServX announced Monday they would enter San Francisco-based Y Combinator where they would presumably grab $120,000 in exchange for a 7-percent stake for the company from the landmark incubator.

“We intend to optimise their processes to make the customer experience transparent and seamless service while bringing down the costs for them,” ServX CEO Anubhav Deep commented about the selection. “We had clarity of doing something on our own from early engineering years. So joining a job was not an option for us.”

2. Nactus

“We focus on connecting students and tutors, and giving them the entire technology platform for efficient learning management. The platform virtually gives tutors total control over the management of a class on their mobiles or PCs,” Co-Founder Rohit Dusad told VC Circle, who founded the company with his wife Pooja Khandelwal in 2015.

They have analytics on performance, tools for class management, and provide help with business development. They’re backed by angels like Nomura MD Sandeep Aggarwal and ICICI Bank GM R Balachandar.

3. CarDekho

CarDekho screenshot

CarDekho is the flagship subsidiary of GirnarSoft and perhaps India’s leading car comparison portal. The company also operates similar sites for bikes, mobiles, and other consumer products. They recently expanded out with CarBay to Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Phillippines. They have raised $65 million from the likes of CapitalG and Seqouia Capital, last evaluated at $380 million.

“Travel time to work is a breeze! Most people here don’t commute more than 10-15 minutes. There’s peace of mind; life is stress-free. People are good, there’re closeness and depth in relationships, which helps you bond,” Anurag Jain, GirnarSoft co-founder along with his brother Amit, recently told Inc42.

He explained that in addition to its charm the city has much lower operating costs than India’s major cities, plus “is also home to many engineering colleges, which ensure a steady flow of talent.”

4. Tax2win

Tax2win screenshot

With three co-founders in hand (two of them Indian chartered accountants), this Tax2win team is matching customers quickly with accountants through their online marketplace. They raised $1 million last July from an unknown suitor and claim big-name clients like the Rajasthan state police and Marriott.

“Being a female entrepreneur has been life-changing,” Tax2win Co-Founder Vertika Kedia told Tech in Asia last year. “In Indian society, it turns out to be very challenging. One good experience is that you see a different perception of things – people encourage you for that.”

5. Blue Box Media

The Tech Portal screenshot

Blue Box Media has been on a tear creating new media properties and on the hunt to acquire other local outlets in the Jaipur or Rajasthan area. They have only raised about $159,000 according to Crunchbase, but have already acquired another company by the name of Startify last June and operate both Indian tech news site The Tech Portal as well as marketing house Jaipur.Digital.

They added local culture site COnnect Jaipur at the beginning of March with Blue Box Co-Founder Pawas Jain explaining “With a view of providing digital advertising and branding platform to millions of small and medium sized businesses across the country, we believe it is the right time for us to venture into lifestyle space.”

5 startups whose ‘law bots’ can find a missing Oxford comma and automate contract analysis


The transatlantic debate over the final comma in a series — the so-called Oxford Comma — may have reached a decisive conclusion last week when a US judge cited the absence of the comma in a law governing overtime laws in the state of Maine as reason to find a case in favor of workers at Oakhurst Dairy who were suing for compensation.

Just to review for non-native English speakers and for Americans, the comma is innocuous. If you’re a Brit, it’s simply conventional to write a list of fruits and vegetables like this: “apples, oranges, bananas, tomatoes, and carrots.” In the United States, you would rarely see the comma between tomatoes and carrots — the “and” makes the comma’s appearance superfluous.

What is so remarkable about the decision is that it is by no means conventional to use an Oxford Comma in American grammar and it is often not taught. This author may have even thought it would be marked incorrect when he was in elementary school. The judge’s decision could have easily gone the other way. In this case, it’s possible the judge was influenced by more than just lazy legal writing, yet the importance of proofreading and considering all modes of legal interpretation was underscored by the incident.

Many startups have found the value in applying natural language processing advances to legal documents. Considering the uniformity of such things, one would think such law bots might actually be simpler than other forms of similar technology. But the ramifications of multiple interpretations are far more pronounced here. Getting automated contract analysis — or legislative analysis — correct is of paramount importance to all those involved.

Robo-lawyer has had enough of your crap (screenshot, Jimmy Kimmel via YouTube)

Deloitte estimates more than 110,000 law jobs in just the United Kingdom alone could be gone within the next twenty years thanks to automation. That could result in the creation of more highly-skilled jobs and reduction of paralegal and temp positions, but the impact is undeniable.

“By 2025, we predict a profound transformation of the profession due to the quickening pace of technological developments, shifts in workforce demographics and the need to offer clients more value for money,” the report’s summary reads. The report itself claims “There is significant potential for high-skilled roles that involve repetitive processes to be automated by smart and self-learning algorithms.”

Around the world there have been scores of companies founded making an effort to grab market share. It is a nascent sector that might push NLP developers to the limits of linguistic understanding, forcing new developments in artificial intelligence that would anticipate possible future interpretations or challenges to the language presented in torts and bills.

Here are just five such startups from around the world trying to streamline the legal analysis process by pooling resources and applying new forms of machine intelligence to the field:

1. Acumenist Analytics / Lawbot.ai (Chennai)

“Lawyers spend too much of their precious time on contract reviews,” Lawbot Co-Founder Manaswani Krishna recently said. At the intersection of new automated legal services and chat bots, Acumenist has developed the simply-dubbed Lawbot that checks for legal loopholes, grammatical errors (such as missing the aforementioned Oxford commas, which have massive bearing on case law in any country), and other elements of contracts.

Founders Krishna and Krishna Sundaresan have bootstrapped operations so far and have begun rebranding their company after their flagship product. Once you upload your contract, the system scans the document for issues with the language and identifies possible indemnities or liabilities the contract as is might cause.

Lawbot.ai screenshot

They are a member of the fourth cohort at the Target accelerator alongside companies like Preksh, Lechal, Uncanny Vision, and MintM.

2. Luminance (Cambridge)

Luminance is making law fun again, making even the humans feel less robotic (screenshot, luminance.com)

Out of England’s University of Cambridge, Luminance announced a $3 million investment in September 2016 to speed up the analysis of legal documents, speeding up the process by learning how lawyers think along the way (which will unlock mysteries for a lot of people actually).

As Luminance Founder and CEO Emily Foges has said, “AI won’t replace lawyers, but can it make law fun again?” Rather than looking into the minutiae of contracts, Luminance will pick up on anomalies automatically. Therefore, lawyers will be a little freer to focus on actual negotiations and on their clients.

“This will transform document analysis and enhance the entire transaction process for law firms and their clients,” Foges has said. “Highly-trained lawyers who would otherwise be scanning through thousands of pages of repetitive documents can spend more of their time analysing the findings and negotiating the terms of the deal.”

3. Neota Logic

With its Neota Logic System (NLS), this company is automating a number of legal jobs like early case assessment and client intake. Their PerfectNDA product also promises to automate the filing and even the negotiation of non-disclosure agreements. They promise to make workflow more consistent for drafting, delivery, and archiving. They already claim several clients like the Florida Justice Technology Center, Hive Legal, Hall & Wilcox (firm), Littler, and Linklaters.

Neota screenshot

4. Nift.io (London)

Nift comes to us from London, co-founded by Stacey Seltzer and Meeta Gournay, CFO and partner at ‘innovation studio’ Prehype respectively. They have gotten their own contractual agreements out of Outbrain to go over its employment handbook, NatWest to analyze financial agreements, and a spot with BarkBox to go over freelance accords. When you upload a contract into Nift’s system, it ‘translates’ the text from legal mumbo jumbo into plain lay language with notes and explanations for readers.

“In such things as retail finance, but also housing, car rentals and so on, where people sign contracts, they are surprised by things later on. I think it’s bad for the individuals but it’s also bad for the business that they engage with,” Gournay recently told Legal Futures.

Nift contract example (courtesy)

Seltzer added, “When you speak to individual lawyers or risk managers, I would argue that their intent is not to mislead [but] to do right by their organisation and by their customers. [Yet] law is complex and there is a very specific legal language… I think sometimes when you are in the profession, things that seem very clear to you are not necessarily very clear to people who are outside of it. I think that’s true for any profession.”

5. Ravn (London)

Applying machine learning and big data to a “sea” of legal data, Ravn uses enterprise-scale graph search to map legally relevant documents. They list four co-founders: CSO Peter Wallqvist, CTO Jan Van Hoecke, Professional Services Director Simon Pecovnik, and COO Sjoerd Smeets. Their software can either refine documents or extract information and restructure it into organized data sets. They recently released the RAVN ACE (Applied Cognitive Engine) bot to skim documents for GDPR compliance (General Data Protection Regulation).

“GDPR compliance is of universal importance as it will apply to any organisation that control and process data concerning EU citizens,” Wallqvist recently stated. “Using RAVN’s unique ACE technology, the GDPR Robot has the ability to deal with several aspects of the GDPR obligations in one platform: Auditing large volumes of structured and unstructured data, dealing with DSARs very efficiently, and finally to help review contractual obligations that are affected by the new regulations.”


5 Chennai startups putting the startups of Tamil Nadu on the map


The bulk of the Indian economy is generated in three central locations: the capital Delhi, the financial hub of Mumbai, and the undisputed technology center in Bengaluru. But innovation is pervasive across India and venture capital has been mroe than ready to oblige every industry.

The capital of Tamil Nadu, the city of Chennai is often overshadowed by country’s bigger cities. The city ranked 5th in India for venture capital with $43 million raised in the first half of 2016 across 16 deals according to Your Story, right behind Pune and the big three, just falling short of 2014 numbers for the entire year ($58 million).

Chennai Train Station (MrPanyGoff CC BY SA 2.0 via Wikimedia)

IIT Madras, the Madras Institute of Technology, the College of Engineering at Anna University, and Velammal Engineering College rank among the top engineering schools in the city. The Chennai Angels (TCA) are prominent early investors, while the Indian Angel Network (IAN) and Mumbai Angels are also influential. In short, Chennai is poised to grow more and can compete with larger economies across India. A non-exhaustive map of the local ecosystem counts 439 startups, though Angelist catalogs nearly 1,000 (Angelist tends to be inaccurate and often contains defunct companies).

This list can go on, but here are five of the companies that are off to a running start and showing true promise to grow and influence the Chennai startup ecosystem:

1. Wandertrails

Wandertrails raised $1 million at the beginning of March for its traveltech business that builds itineraries based on very individualized interests that always tries to include something unique in the schedule. They have five founders: Hari Gangadharan Nair, Sruti Ramesh Chander, Vishnu Menon, Narayan Menon and Pranav Kumar Suresh.

“Not everyone is lucky to know a local to set up such an experience for them,” Vishnu told New Indian Express. “We wanted to become the blindly trusted Alfred (Bruce Wayne’s caretaker) for the new age traveller!”

2. Karomi Technologies

Karomi screenshot

Starting the month of March off with a half-million-dollar seed round from Ideaspring Capital, Karomi wants to augment digital art for the digital age.

“In the next 12 months, we plan to make a dent in the US market and have reference clients in the Pharma and FMCG industry in the US,” Karomi Founder and CEO Vilva Natarajan told Inc42. “We have some exciting new technology that we will introduce in the next 12 months which will help the customer cut-down on the time to market dramatically.”

3. Energyly

Energyly is one of dozens of startups that helps building managers and businesses reduce their utility bills by better managing (and sometimes automating) energy use. Founded by Dayal Nathan and Dilip Rajendran, Energyly can connect up to 10 devices to monitor via its analytics dashboard.

“Around 70% of domestic consumers come within the 450 to 520 units consumption slab. The problem is most of them do not know when they cross from 500 to 501 and end up paying Rs 800 extra”, said Energyly Founder Dayal Nathan, recently claimed. The company just released a new feature called TariffAlarm that warns Indian customers when they have reached the threshold for electricity usage.

4. Pipecandy

A sales prospecting program that raised $1.1 million just last week, attracting investors curious about how they hunt for “nuances” among sales leads that hint at a higher likelihood for a deal.

“At the end of the day, sales is primarily a data problem. If you fix data, you fix authenticity or rather the lack of it,” Pipecandy Co-Founder Murali Vivekanandan said earlier in March. He and his co-founders — Shrikanth Jagannathan and Ashwin Ramasamy — are backed by Axilor Ventures, IDG Ventures, the Indian Angel Network, and Emergent Ventures India.

Pipecandy screenshot

5. Acumenist Analytics (Lawbot.ai)

Lawbot.ai screenshot

At the intersection of new automated legal services and chat bots, Acumenist has developed the simply-dubbed Lawbot that checks for legal loopholes, grammatical errors (such as missing Oxford commas, which have massive bearing on case law in any country), and other elements of contracts. Founders Manaswani Krishna and Krishna Sundaresan have self-funded their business thus far.


Before Tesla: 10 Hawaiian startups building an amazing alternative energy ecosystem


Hawaii is a small ecosystem for technology, but the opening of Tesla’s newest solar center is bringing overdue attention to the state’s bustling alternative energy sector and thus to a growing list of new energy startups taking advantage of local resources both for business and pleasure. Leading that drive is local accelerator Energy Excelerator (EEx), which has invested in about 40 startups from across the United States. The plurality of them are Hawaiian, and not solely based out of Honolulu (the capital and certainly largest city of the eight islands).

The entire ecosystem is growing thanks to other institutions like pan-industry Blue Startups, which has had eight cohorts of companies thus far. A select few have had the chance to go through both programs. Many have expanded their operations by opening offices in Silicon Valley, a near-certain inevitability for scaling technology outfits around the world.

Challenges are definitely ahead though. The new White House budget proposal would eliminate ARPA-E, a Department of Energy division responsible for allocating millions to fledgling startups and research programs across the US. Private venture capital and industry titans like Tesla (and SolarCity) will find themselves with disproportionate responsibility for driving new kinds of energy forward for the future economy. Hawaii is positioned to help with that.

These are just 10 of the companies turning Hawaii into a new capital for alternative energy:

1. Volta

Volta charging station outside Whole Foods (courtesy)

Independent electric car charging network Volta is one of the big reasons Tesla has arrived. Volta has set up an impressive EV-charging network and is arguably the most recognizable and most-likely to exit company that has emerged from the Hawaiian islands. They have already set up their own stations across the United States with particular emphasis on Chicago, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, San Diego, and of course home-base Hawaii.

Founder and CEO Scott Mercer is a true car enthusiast. His bio recounts how he restored and sold a 1967 Jaguar XKE to get the bootstrap money to launch Volta. He has gotten himself on the 40 Under 40 by Pacific Business News and 20 for the Next 20 by Hawaii Business.

Volta charging station map (courtesy)

Somehow, they have managed to offer their charging services for free into 2017. They use an ad-based model, meaning you just have to put up with the commercials to get a charge. The difference with Tesla is that Volta’s network is open to all brands, not just Tesla drivers. They have raised $12.5 million as of late 2015 with backers like 500 Startups, SQN Capital, and Three Bridges Ventures.

“We face competitors selling emerging media advertising to sustainably minded brands. Where Volta really stands out is offering brands the opportunity to do more than a simply put their name on something that delivers a ‘green’ message,” a company rep communicated to VentureBeat in 2015. “Volta advertisers are providing a real service to communities by powering drivers to a more sustainable future.”

Volta charging station (courtesy)

2. Smart Yields

This Honolulu company has an app and desktop program that predicts changing environmental conditions and alerts farmers to plan accordingly. They recently raised another $420,000 in seed funding (bringing their total haul to $520,000) and joined the Energy Excelerator’s newest cohort. They are also a veteran of the Blue Startups accelerator.

“We’re extremely humbled that we’ve been able to raise these additional funds and close out our seed round,” Vincent Kimura, Smart Yields’ chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Our pace of fundraising and growing team is a testament to the broad and wide-ranging support we’re seeing for our mission. … Here at home, as Hawaii bolsters its local food production, technology will play a critical part in helping our state achieve a more sustainable future.”

Their most interesting focus might be on disseminating their know-how to STEM education, as Smart Yields Co-Founder and Head of Education Lizzy Schiller said last month, “School farms are excellent, hands-on learning laboratories that inspire kids to explore the environment and think about sustainability.”

SmartYields Intro from Smart Yields on Vimeo.

3. Ibis Networks

Ibis is an energy management platform geared toward the needs of large companies trying to manage their utility bills. Their main customers are building managers. Founded by CEO Michael Pfeffer, Ibis recently raised another $2.5 million in December 2016. Their sole investor listed in Crunchbase is Keiretsu Capital, though the company claims to have several anonymous funders.

They have expanded to Silicon Valley with an office in Santa Clara, California and another location in Washington state according to their website. They have a strategic partnership with Honeywell that they claim helped them expand their “national sales footprint.” They also come out of the local Energy Excelerator.

4. TerViva

TerViva, an abbreviation and portmanteau of “terra” and “viva” (or living Earth), is the monicker for a company that makes a business out of producing crops on traditionally “unproductive agricultural land.” The idea is to make better use of land and create more natural solutions to diet and energy supplementation in the economy. Their first crop is the legume-producing and soy-like Pongamia tree, whose oil is described as “excellent for biofuel” and its seeds perfect for animal feed. TerViva claims the crop is eight times more productive than soybeans.

In the near-term they are setting up a 25,000-tree orchard on Hawaii’s main island Oahu.

5. in2lytics

in2lytics is to utility data what zip drives are to collections of photos. They better organize and store data, making data storage lighter and keeping tabs on utilities easier for their three utility clients and even a Marine Corps base located in Hawaii.

“in2lytics offers a software platform capable of integrating disparate time-series data, along with visual analytics tools to help electric companies improve their energy efficiency, stop energy loss and theft, prevent equipment failures, and plan for and manage distributed and renewable energy resources,” the company describes itself to Energy Exceleration.

IN2LYTICS X1 from Pixel Engine Studio on Vimeo.

6. Pono Home

Pono makes automated recommendations to homeowners looking for ways to make their water and energy use more efficient by auditing how you use these utilities. They recently worked with Hawaii Energy to help 500 low-income and elderly residents make improvements in how they spend their money. Renters also were a particular target of the project. The primary objective was to replace older forms of technology — say, incandescent light bulbs — with more energy-efficient ones. But educating homeowners (or renters) on best practices was part of the deal.

“The program is expected to produce annual electricity savings in excess of $165,000 per year, or about $300 per participating home,” CEO Scott Cooney summarized recently in CleanTechnica. “Overall, 12,252 efficiency products were installed, including over 10,000 LED bulbs, 1,695 water efficiency products, and 382 advanced power strips.”

7. Carbon Lighthouse

Carbon Lighthouse founders

Using a sensor network, the company’s software can optimize energy use in office buildings and factories. They claim to deliver utility savings “10x more cost-effectively than traditional methods offered”: them’s fighting words. Sensors are installed on roofs to cover solar power and in utility rooms, an arrangement they have made with over 400 buildings in the United States since the company’s founding in 2010.

The Social Entrepreneurs Fund has given them an undisclosed amount of money to work with clients like Hilton Hotels and even Tesla, estimating they saved the company $1,716,300 in a case study featured on Carbon Lighthouse’s website. The company is led by CEO Brenden Millstein and VP Sales Eric Brown.

8. Prota Culture

Out of the Hawaiian town of Waimanalo, they’re led by Founder & CEO, Robert Olivier, Head of Product Design Katharina Unger, and Head of Sales & Marketing Karl Warkomski.

Sustainable food is the name of the game, specifically for animals in this case. An insect-based production system is supposed to generate basic ingredients for biodiesel and animal feeds from organic waste. The idea is to reduce the global footprint of landfills and make use of the useless.

“Given enough food waste, one commercial BioPod™ produces as much protein from insects as an entire acre of land in California planted with soy. With these portable units, Prota Culture could disrupt a 50 million dollar food waste disposal market on Oahu while providing cheap, locally produced animal feed for poultry, fish and pigs making Hawai’i more self-reliant,” the company claims.

9. Kunoa Company

Based in Kapolei, they’re led by CEO Jack Beuttell and COO Bobby Farias.

Kunoa wants to streamline agricultural management in Hawaii by turning the local beef industry into an energy-efficient and better scaled operation. Managing energy use, water, crops, and the like, Kunoa is getting tis business started by experimenting with ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels at Hawaiian food processing facilities. That project got off the ground in November 2016 with the company’s leasing of Oahu’s only slaughter house.

“The vision for this facility is to renovate it, rehabilitate it for our purposes as a beef company. Also make that facility open to the livestock community throughout the state of Hawaii,” Kunoa partner Jack Beuttell recently told Hawaii News Now. “We’ve entered a new phase in the marketplace where consumers are more conscious of the food that they’re shopping for. They’re looking for products that are more natural, that are hormone- and antibiotic-free. That are sourced here in Hawaii.”

10. Geli

Geli is ambitious, hoping to install “solar-plus-storage” across Hawaii. They boast that their software can assess the viability of installing energy storage systems according to site, to automate energy systems, and integrate with other energy programs.

Co-founded by President Ryan Wartena and CTO Cris Wagner back in 2010, they’ve raised about $8 million from the likes of Shaell Technology Ventures, Abdel Banda, and Molly Voorhees among many others.

Geli ESyst – Uploading Energy Data from Geli on Vimeo.

A $15 billion Israeli exit: How did it happen, and why Mobileye?


Israeli company Mobileye is one of the companies specializing in autonomous vehicles, and is regarded as one of the best and most advanced in the world. Mobileye realized the potential in the autonomous auto sector at an early stage, and managed to establish itself as a technology leader in this global industry. The announcement that the company will be acquired in the largest deal ever in Israeli high tech therefore came as a complete surprise to no one, although many wondered why Intel was the one to acquire Mobileye, and how the $15 billion price for the deal had been set.

As we saw in our September 2016 analysis of Mobileye, as an independent company, Mobileye always has difficulty in competing with global companies in the autonomous vehicles industry. Companies such as Google with the Waymo project and Tesla, for example, are spending huge amounts on research and development that far exceed the money available to Mobileye, while at the same time acquiring startups working in the sector. These investments are likely to some day close the technological gap between the global companies and the technology developed by Mobileye since 1999.

Why did Intel acquire Mobileye?

After its cooperation with Tesla came to an end, Mobileye began cooperating in June 2016 with Intel and the BMW group for the purpose of developing advanced technology that would make it possible to drive semi-autonomous, or even fully autonomous, vehicles. The technology can also be offered to other players in the auto market. Mobileye began another cooperative effort with Delphi for the purpose of creating a kit that would turn “ordinary” vehicles into autonomous vehicles, and Intel has also joined this venture in recent months. Another cooperative venture, with GM this time, sought to enhance mapping and monitoring technologies with various elements in order to attain a better grasp of the surroundings of the vehicle and the driver. Mobileye also signed many contracts with various auto manufacturers from all over the world.

Intel began its cooperation with Mobileye in the knowledge that the latter was a pioneering company in its field, highly esteemed in the industry and very experienced, with a large customer base and an extensive store of information collected in the course of the company’s many years of doing business, in addition to Mobileye’s familiarity with many auto makers with which it had worked over the years. Becoming acquainted with each other and working together moved the two companies towards the acquisition.

Jerusalem’s Har Hotzvim technology district – home to Intel, Mobileye, and NDS (CC BY SA 3.0 Yonah baby via Wikimedia Commons)

Why did Intel enter the autonomous car sector?

Intel is a veteran technological giant that employs tens of thousands of engineers. The company operates production lines and facilities all over the world. Its products (and processors) are found in most of the world’s households.
Here, the American giant has made a strategic and courageous acquisition that indicates a change in the company’s future thinking. After squandering the opportunity to lead the cellular telephone processors market, the acquisition of Mobileye raises Intel from a secondary player in the autonomous vehicles market to one of the most prominent players in the autonomous vehicle industry. According to Intel, the potential market in 2030 vehicle market with all of its elements is an estimated $70 billion.

Intel realizes that the technology developed by Mobileye can be a substantial springboard for the company, and that such a combination of forces will take it a great many steps forward. Together, the companies can integrate and bolster their auto research and development departments, and enhance the performance of the systems by customizing the processors for Mobileye’s systems. In addition, Intel can later include Mobileye in other areas in which it is active, in which it has yet to benefit from everything that computer vision has to offer, including IoT, drones, and more.

How did they calculate $15 billion?

Mobileye’s market cap is $10.5 billion. Intel will pay $15.3 billion for the company (the real price is $14.7 billion, after deducting Mobileye’s store of cash). It appears that the reason for the added premium that Intel is paying on Mobileye’s market cap is that following the cooperation between the companies, Intel is exposed to internal strategies. It is aware of how Mobileye sees the market, and believes in the path that the company has chosen. Intel regards Mobileye as a technology company, not a consumer company. Intel is learning from its past mistakes (missing out on the cellular market), and in this acquisition, it is getting in ahead of the market. Intel realizes that Mobileye has commercial ties with many auto manufacturers, which Intel can use exploit for its needs. An aggregate calculation of these factors led Intel to assess Mobileye’s value as 46% higher than its current market value.

What about the Israeli perspective?

It is true that once the deal is approved by all the parties, Mobileye will no longer be an Israeli company. Israel, however, still plays a significant role in Intel’s strategy. A considerable proportion of the company’s weight is right here in Israel, and in the company’s business that will remain here. Intel’s developments in Israel, combined with the consolidation of its augmented status in the autonomous vehicle industry as a large American corporation with an Israeli base, maintain Israel’s status as a technological leader, although not necessarily as the startup nation.

From Mobileye’s perspective, the company’s acquisition by Intel is a step that closes the gap between it and the global players in the autonomous car industry. Mobileye has been successful in both its technology and its management, while avoiding the trap that ensnared companies like Nokia and BlackBerry, which relied too much on their technology, and lost their leading positions as a result. As a company with the best software products, becoming part of Intel, a hardware company, appears to be the most correct thing for Mobileye to do.

Beyond Mars: 7 major proposed NASA and ESA missions to conquer the solar system and search for life


SpaceX’s launch early Thursday morning of a recycled rocket is a monumental step in creating more durable and economical missions to space. Rocket boosters, satellites, rovers, and scientific instruments will need to be more heavily girded against the elements with longer lifetimes and more uses should humanity succeed in exploring every planet or moon in the Solar System. For all the talk of Mars by the likes of NASA and SpaceX, the solar system has abundant unexplored territory.

Few places might have the known ingredients to support life, but that might be irrelevant to the cause of advancing space-faring science around the sun. Missions have been taken to places like Venus and the moons of Saturn, but we got a mere glimpse of what those worlds — in the case of Venus just a few hours. Even the realization Pluto’s collection of ice was extraordinarily diverse excited scientists. The fact several moons in our neighborhood have geological activity and heat generated not just from the sun but their host planets’ respective gravity is more of a reason to think complex molecules could develop and actually breed similar or alternative versions of carbon-based life on Earth.

Proposals abound to send longer-lasting spacecraft to those worlds and others, even with human crews. For now, several robotic missions have passed by the eyes of mission specialists and long-term schedule planners at places like NASA and other space agencies. ISRO is currently working on a follow-up mission to Mars, which is obviously not the focus of this list. These are just 10 of the most incredible but absolutely serious missions scientists have proposed for exploring our neck of the universal woods, with some in a very real hunt for research approval from the likes of NASA and funding approval from the United States Congress:

1. An ice drill to search for aquatic life on Europa

Following last year’s announcement NASA had confirmed volcanic water plumes on Jupiter’s moon of Europa, interest has spiked in the idea to explore the world. Europa constitutes the best candidate for discovering concurrent life on another body in the Solar System with its theoretical-though-all-but-confirmed worldwide ocean of liquid water beneath a global ice sheath 60 kilometers thick.

The upcoming 2022 multiorbital mission to the Jovian satellite (“Jovian” is the adjectival form of “Jupiter”) to upgrade the primary mission to search for life after years of cuts impacting NASA’s planetary research division. will be called Europa Clipper

“The mission launching after 2022 is under very early study. We do know we want to get to the surface and grab a nice, fresh sample and analyze with instruments that are very well suited,” NASA team leader Dr. Curt Niebur told Geektime last September. “Plumes are great, but they are no substitute to getting into the ocean.”

Multiple people have suggested, worked on designs, and built prototypes for heated drills specially manufactured to burrow through the Europan surface and take the plunge into literal alien waters. The clear hope is the discovery of extraterrestrial (extra-aquative?) life swimming around. Stone Aerospace has produced and already tested (with NASA’s help) the VALKYRIE, a high-energy-laser-infused heat drill designed explicitly for exploring Europa.

They have some major support from one of America’s most famous scientists: Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Europa’s Ocean May Support… by FORAtv

2. A low-atmosphere drone for Venus

The Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) of NASA’s planetary science division is fighting for a little attention. There are a couple of major proposals that could put Earth’s cosmic sister back in the headlines.

Northrop Grumman is designing a new kind of plane designed to fly through the sweltering, poisonous skies of Venus. The idea is simple: the ground is too hot for conventional metallic gears and machinery, so let’s stay in the air. Northrop calls it VAMP — the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform — and it was part of the 2016 NASA New Frontiers competition to develop new concepts and missions for the space agency.

Ronald Polidan, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems VAMP Project Scientist, introduced the project back in May 2015.

Northrop describes it as the first of a “Lifting Entry Atmospheric Flight (LEAF) family of vehicles” and more succinctly as “an aeroshell-less hypersonic entry vehicle that transitions to a semi-buoyant, maneuverable, solar powered air vehicle for flight in Venus’ atmosphere. VAMP AV will be transported to Venus by a carrier/orbiter spacecraft. Once the spacecraft is safely in Venus’ orbit, VAMP AV is deployed while still attached to spacecraft.”

After a 3-6 month journey to Venus, the ship would insert itself into Venusian orbit, separating the LEAF vehicle from a satellite that would remain circling around the planet.

3. Venus In Situ Explorer

Flying the skies is one thing, but getting to the surface is another entirely. The Soviet Union managed to get several landers to the surface in the 1970s and 1980s, which took the only photos from the Venusian surface in existence. The problem with those landers is they did not last more than two hours, literally melting away as their electronics fried and the machines died.

Venus In Situ concept (public domain)

It was first proposed by the Planetary Science Decadal Survey back in 2003 and is now a candidate via the aforementioned NASA New Frontiers program to head to the second rock from the sun in 2024.

Any working probe would have to withstand the suffocating temperatures on the ground through some sort of combo of advanced cooling mechanisms, advanced materials, or both.

“Feasibility is assessed through a launch-to-landing mission design study where the Venus Intrepid Tessera Lander (VITaL), a VISE science payload designed to inform the Decadal Survey results, is repackaged from a rigid aeroshell into the ADEPT decelerator,” explains an abstract description of the concept written by Brandon Smith, Ethiraj Venkatapathy, and Paul Wercinski. ADEPT — Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology — is meant to reduce risk to the probe.

“It is shown that ADEPT reduces the deceleration load on VITaL by an order of magnitude relative to a rigid aeroshell. The more benign entry environment opens up the VISE mission design environment for increased science return, reduced risk, and reduced cost.”

4. Moons of Saturn: the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF)

Artist’s impression of possible hydrothermal activity on Enceladus (public domain, NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon and resembles Europa in many ways. NASA announced in 2015 its probe Cassini uncovered more evidence of a subsurface ocean on the Hoth-like mini moon

It’s an ice world that also contains geysers spewing water vapor into space, which in turn is entering an icy ring around its parent planet. The ELF mission would analyze the vapor searching for evidence that methane present in the plumes was produced by organisms living close to under-water vents.

“For life, you need certain amino acids, types of carbon, an abundance of methane to other hydrocarbons, and if all these are within a certain range, it’s pretty indicative of a biotic system,” Cornell University astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine, who proposed the idea, said back in 2015 during his first presentation.

NASA conducted a test run for this mission way back in 2008 when it flew the Cassini orbiter through a plume to confirm a host of organic compounds were contained within the water. The flyby found potassium and sodium consistent with the contents of Earth’s own salt water oceans.

Plumes on Enceladus taken by Cassini (Credit, NASA JPL-Caltech SSI)

ELF’s instruments would specifically look for amino acids (parts of proteins), carbon distribution, and ratios of hydrogen (and carbon) isotopes in comparison with methane.

5. EnEx: Enceladus Explorer

Enceladus (public domain, NASA JPL Space Science Institute)

The German Aerospace Center has also entered the fray to explore other worlds. The EnEx is a lander-satellite tandem that would reach Saturn using a nuclear electric proportion and ion thrusters. The lander, with an autonomous machine known as an IceMole on board, would land close to one the moon’s vaporous plumes. The IceMole, an upgraded version of a device used to analyze ice samples on Earth’s poles, would melt its way through the ice as far down as 200 meters to look for microorganisms and biosignatures.  The nuclear reactor would power the mole by cable.

A bigger drill similar to plans for Europa is also tantalizing. The subsurface ocean is thought to be 24 miles (39 kilometers) under the ice. That’s even thicker than the 10-15 miles NASA hypothesizes for Europa.

“If EnEx is deployed on Enceladus, it will have to find its way from the surface to a water-bearing region in the ice crust of the Saturnian moon completely autonomously,” DLR Project Manager Oliver Funke has said. “Furthermore, it will have to reliably identify obstructions in the body of ice, such as voids or meteorites, and make its way around them. This means that a robust, autonomous navigation process is a key technology for EnEx, the development of which is absolutely necessary for carrying out such a space mission in future.”

6. Moons of Saturn: Titan Mare explorer would look for life in methane lakes

Astrobiologists — yes, it’s a real profession and it’s pretty interesting — would be quick to throw cold methane on your dreams of finding non-water-dependent aliens, but they will also say it’s too early to dismiss the idea outright. Saturn’s main moon Titan recently got a visit by a robotic lander but didn’t show off much as the lander was limited in abilities. This mission would deliberately land on one of the moon’s methane lakes, where it could possibly, maybe, potentially find life teeming.

The Titan Mare Explorer (or TiME because every acronym has to resemble an actual word apparently) is an idea from Proxemy Research first pitched to NASA back in 2009. It lost out to the InSight mission to Mars during NASA’s Discovery Mission final. Congress declined to fund the project when it came up in 2013.

Methane is a known catalyst for life on earth at so-called Cold Seeps deep on the ocean floor, so it is considered a possibility but remote that such ecosystems could be found on a world that is relatively close to our own.

With other conditions in mind and accepting methane can actually sustain life, researchers including astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch rate Titan as the most hospitable world besides Earth in our solar system according to his Planet Habitability Index.

“There are all kinds of organic compounds that are falling out of the atmosphere into the sea – we’d love to learn more about the chemical reactions that take place,” TiME Principal Investigator Ellen Stofan said in 2012. “They will not be life as we know it, which is not viable in Titan’s seas. But there will be chemistry in the seas that may give us insight into how organic systems progress toward life.”

7. Twin probes to explore Neptune and Uranus

Concept of Triton Hopper (public domain, NASA NIAC Oleson)

You read that correctly. Setting a preliminary budget of $2 billion each, NASA Planetary Science Division Head Jim Green is leading a study into the feasibility of sending spacecraft to the two remaining worlds in the Solar System yet to be orbited by man-made objects. The study isn’t scheduled to finish until the early 2020s. According to Spaceflight Now‘s Stephen Clark, NASA’s budget can only support one major interplanetary mission at a time (presumably outside of plans for Mars), so only low-level research can be conducted right now until NASA miraculously sees its budget balloon.

“Obviously, it’s not going to be easy to be able, even after we get Europa under our belt, to actually execute on the next large mission, but we need to make progress to understand our science priorities and look at this in a way that will prepare us for the next decade, but also utilize new technologies and capabilities that have come up (since the last decadal survey),” Green said in 2015. These worlds have only been viewed up close once, by the Voyager probes (it snapped pics of Uranus on December 16, 1986; Neptune on August 1, 1989).  Getting back there would likely include observation plans for the local collections of moons. Should a mission be successful, it might be worth incorporating concepts from the Triton Hopper, a mission proposed in 2015 that would collect frozen nitrogen samples on the surface of Neptune’s moon Triton to heat and use as fuel to bounce across the surface.

Just get there

What NASA, ESA, ISRO, large corporations, academies, or other space agencies conceive of is ambitious. These missions are all legitimate proposals whose rejection or viability was more challenged by other projects than undermined for being impractical. Human exploration of the Solar System would mean visiting dozens of celestial bodies and planting flags on every moon around the sun. How long will that take? With advances in technology, hopefully sooner than we think.


5 Silicon Valley startups who have gotten millions from ARPA-E, which Trump budget would defund


President Trump’s budget proposal for the 2018 fiscal year strips funds from most departments of the federal government, but reserves special negative treatment to the Department of Energy. The most categorical statement about the future of alternative energy programs funded by the DoE comes with this bulletpoint:

“Eliminates the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program, and the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program because the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies.”

What the budget fails to acknowledge is that ARPA-E actually funds many private companies’ research projects, including small technology startups located in Silicon Valley. Cutting to the chase, the budget eviscerates funding for alternative energy, which goes well beyond mere solar panels.

There is still plenty of funding in Silicon Valley, but government grants have been used as incentives to lure matching investments from the private sector for years not just in renewable energies but other sectors as well. To say that this budget will encourage private sector innovation blindly and perhaps willfully tries to cut off valuable resources to Big Oil competition.

Here are just six Bay Area companies on the receiving end of ARPA-E grant funding, all of whom have also received private sector investments.

1. AutoGrid (Redwood City)

Grant: $3,465,385
Project Term: 01/11/2012 to 03/31/2014

A project born out of the powerhouse that is Stanford University, AutoGrid grabbed a big grant in order to “design and demonstrate automated control software that helps manage real-time demand for energy across the electric grid,” ARPA-E’s database explains. They partnered with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Columbia University in order to pull off the project between 2012 and 2014.

Energy Impact Partners led a $20 million Series C funding round in the company last May. Overall, private investors have given them over $41 million, including the likes Xcel Energy, Foundation Capital, and Voyager Capital.

AutoGrid CEO Amit Narayan was optimistic when they raised their money last year, saying, “This investment underscores companies’ growing need to use the energy internet to optimise flexibility across a vast network of DERs if they hope to win in the new energy world.”

2. Calysta Energy (Menlo Park)

Grant: $797,646
Project Term: 01/06/2014 to 01/05/2015

Calysta Energy got its award to build a new kind of bioreactor technology “to enable the efficient biological conversion of methane into liquid fuels. While reasonably efficient, Gas-to-liquid (GTL) conversion is difficult to accomplish without costly and complex infrastructure.”

They raised $30 million in February 2016, bringing their total fundraising to $48 million in venture capital with backers like Pangaea Ventures and Cargill.

“Calysta is providing the aquaculture industry with a proprietary sustainable alternative to conventional fishmeal ingredients,” Calysta CEO and President Alan Shaw, Ph.D. said last year. “This in turn addresses the widely-recognized concern about a worldwide shortage of protein, a serious potential threat to global food security.”

3. Citrine Informatics (Redwood City)


Grant: $499,023
Project Term: 12/22/2015 to 03/21/2017

Citrine is actually a current grantee of ARPA-E with their project schedule set to end this month. With nearly $9 million in venture funding from the likes of XSeed Capital, AME Cloud Ventures, and David Chao, Citrine is working on a machine learning program that would ” intelligently guide the investigation of new solid ionic conductor materials,” in the words of ARPA-E. CB Insights named them to their AI 100 list of important contributors to new machine learning development.

“Materials and chemicals is a huge industry, ripe to benefit from artificial intelligence technologies, and Citrine is at the forefront of this change,” Citrine CEO Greg Mulholland said in January. “Core to our inclusion on this list was the understanding that our team is pushing the limits of what can be done today with materials and chemicals data, and our relentless pursuit of new AI and materials innovation.”

4. Alveo Energy (Palo Alto)

Grant: $4,599,935
Project Term: 02/21/2013 to 03/31/2016


Alveo is trying to amplify the conductive effects of a rather common dye called Prussian Blue, known primarily as the ink used to make blueprints. Its conductivity is relatively weak, but its high availability arguably makes it “a cost-effective and sustainable storage solution for years to come.”

Alveo is developing a grid-scale storage battery using Prussian Blue dye as the active material within the battery. Prussian Blue is most commonly known for its application in blueprint documents, but it can also hold electric charge. They have over $7.5 million in private investments.

5. NanoConversion Technologies (San Jose)

NanoConversion received $1.5 million from ARPA-E for “transformational energy technology,” specifically a “high-efficiency thermoelectric generator.” The company’s announcement concisely explains the grant wants to facilitate the development of “a Concentration-mode Thermoelectric converter (C-TEC) device, which converts heat directly into electricity.”

Their industry partners include Gas Technology Institute, North Carolina State University and General Electric (GE). This is undoubtedly a private effort benefiting from deliberately considered public finances.

“The C-TEC uses an array of electrochemical cells to produce electricity in a sodium ion expansion cycle driven by external combustion. The team will build and test a micro-CHP generator combining the C-TEC with an efficient natural gas burner. The superadiabatic gas burner, developed by partner Gas Technology Institute, provides a low-emissions heat source.”

New Uber science chief Zoubin Ghahramani faces daunting task as company IP is under scrutiny


Uber is appointing Zoubin Ghahramani as its new Chief Scientist, company CPO Jeff Holden announced on their official blog late Tuesday. Ghahramani came to Uber via the recent acquisition of Pittsburgh-based Geometric Intelligence, of which he was a co-founder, but this role ostensibly gives him even more power in the Silicon Valley titan.

“I have realized what a fantastic place Uber is for machine learning and AI researchers,” Ghahramani wrote in the post. “There are a huge number of opportunities for both near-term high-impact research and longer term challenges to work on; the resources both in terms of data and computation are plentiful; and there are many talented and brilliant colleagues to work with.”

No one can doubt Ghahramani’s influence on the world of machine learning and artificial intelligence. He is a founding member of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, founding director of the Alan Turing Institute, and a critical member of Carnegie Mellon’s headline-grabbing Machine Learning Department.

Wired reported in early December he was planning to split his time between the University of Cambridge and work hours for the startup colossus. The blog post here does not indicate a change in that plan. The Uber acquisition promised to keep all 15 staff members of Geometric Intelligence as the core of the company’s new AI Labs division. In short, Ghahramani was already extremely influential in the core department of Uber’s technology development.

His appointment is the first real good piece of public relations Uber has gotten since a deluge of scandals hit the company beginning in late February. In quick succession, Uber’s HR department was accused of covering up sexual harassment, the company was sued by Google subsidiary Waymo for allegedly stealing LiDAR designs, and Senior VP of Engineering Amit Singhal was forced to resign over undisclosed sexual harassment allegations back when he was with Google.

Ghahramani steps into an executive role as a definitely dignified replacement to Singhal, but Ghahramani was going to have influence on the company anyway. It also reassures investors on Uber’s own AI credentials following the risk of losing valuable IP in the lawsuit with Waymo.

Then again, Ghahramani faces a serious situation right now that perhaps only his own expertise can answer. Should Waymo’s injunction against Uber’s deployment of self-driving systems be honored by the court (and furthermore should Waymo ultimately defeat Uber and its subsidiary Otto), Uber will face an existential crisis. Uber will either have to pay out the nose both to license Waymo’s tech and pay settlement fees, or they will have to start virtually from scratch on an original autonomous concept (and pay settlement fees).

“We have to navigate around the real world, develop perception and action systems for our self-driving cars, and understand, predict, and make more efficient the experience for our riders and drivers, Ghahramani said in the announcement. “At a larger scale, we are trying to model and optimize entire cities, and reimagine the future of transportation through, for example, urban VTOL aviation.”

“The probabilistic ML approaches I work on are clearly useful for this, but we have assembled research talent across a much wider range of ML and AI approaches including deep learning, reinforcement learning, and optimization, as well as problem domains such as language and robotics. We are continuing to recruit across all these areas and more, for both talented researchers and engineers.”