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This blog is dedicated to exploring new data and trends in economic development.
By: Katharine Gammon
This flu season has been a particularly bad one. But an innovative method for making vaccines promises an easier and quicker response to pandemics—thanks to good ol’ tobacco. Sounds healthy, right? Currently, the majority of the 130 million seasonal flu vaccine doses administered in the US every year are made using live chicken embryos. But the process is costly, time-consuming, and requires a lot of eggs.
So Medicago, a Canadian pharmaceutical company, is testing a new idea: Coax tobacco plants into expressing the proteins to make vaccines. Last year Darpa challenged the firm to make 10 million doses in a month. Medicago succeeded, proving it can respond quickly to a new outbreak—much faster than the six months required for egg-based vaccines. This is how the tobacky gets wacky.
By: Marcus Wohlsen
PayPal co-founder Max Levchin faced some flak recently when he announced he was starting a new company in the already crowded field of digital payments. Levchin is one of several Silicon Valley luminaries who have talked big about the tech industry’s timidity. So starting yet another payments company seemed decidedly unambitious.
Yet plenty of companies out there are still taking a run at the next moonshot. Their technologies don’t let you share photos or offer you a deal on your next manicure. Instead, these companies could change the world in deep ways by solving tough problems, rather than the kind of “problems” too many startups make up as justifcations for the “solutions” they’re trying to sell. Not that photo-sharing isn’t great (Levchin did that, too). Unlike what the companies that follow are trying to do, however, it’s not exactly shooting for the moon.
Above: Emotiv Lifescience
You don’t get much closer to a moonshot than “let’s build a machine that reads people’s minds.” Even if Emotiv Lifescience’s brainwave scanner was just for use as a videogame controller, the company’s aspirations would still be ambitious. But when you start talking about a brain-controlled wheelchair, you’re entering the territory of technology that matters.
While still a grad student, Immumetrix scientist Christina Fan developed a way to diagnose Down syndrome in a fetus through a simple test of the mother’s blood, rather than the far riskier, unpleasant use of amniocentesis. She and her colleagues are working to perfect the technique, as well as developing ways to use high-speed DNA sequencing to analyze individuals’ immune systems for the eventual development of custom treatments.
Fan says: “In the far future, knowledge about the immune repertoire could even inform genetic engineering to give a person super-immunity or to reverse immune disorders.”
Wind and solar power are great, except when it’s not sunny or windy. But wunderkind Danielle Fong, who graduated from college at 17, has developed a new way to store green energy that claims new benchmarks for efficiency. Her system uses compressed air and a fine mist of water to pump electricity back into the grid during times of peak demand. LightSail backers Peter Thiel, Vinod Khosla and Bill Gates have poured more than $37 million so far into the Berkeley-based company.
Photo: Sam Howzit/Flickr
Unlike most companies on this list, Huawei is anything but a scrappy startup. The one-time importer of Hong Kong telephone equipment has grown into a telecom giant and one of the world’s leading smartphone makers. Though not widely known in the U.S. (yet), Huawei has succeeded not because of its phones’ features but the lack of them.
Huawei’s low-priced Android handsets are a key reason smartphones have become less of a luxury and more of a commodity in China and other parts of the world. According to one recent estimate, about one-seventh of the world’s population uses smartphones. Imagine what happens when the other six billion do.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired
In much of the developing world, credit and debit cards have never caught on, since the telecom networks needed to support their use doesn’t exist. In those same places, however, mobile phone use has exploded. In a phenomenon known as “leapfrogging,” the wires needed to power traditional card-based transactions might never get installed, since everyone will just use their phones instead.
In Kenya, mobile operator Safaricom has developed M-PESA, a way to transfer money and make microloans using text messages — no bank account required. Unlike in, say, the U.S., mobile payments have taken off in Kenya thanks to M-PESA, with millions of users. The company is working on rolling out the service to other countries where a lack of financial and technological infrastructure could cease to be a barrier to joining the 21st-century economy.
Photo: Sipa via AP Images
Saving energy is good. Saving energy without having to think about it is better. The buildings we inhabit are among the greatest sources of greenhouse gases. Nest’s smart thermostats seek to shrink this carbon footprint by learning our habits to automate indoor climate control.
The design software juggernaut Autodesk recently partnered with Organovo to make human organs designed by computer and printed by machines a future reality. Already, Organovo’s 3-D bioprinters are being used by medical researchers to print tissues for experimentation. Organovo co-founder Andras Forgacs went on to start Modern Meadow, a company developing printable meat and leather.
Photo: Dave Bullock / Wired
Few startups have had as much success in the war on cancer as Plexxikon. The company has shown dramatic results with a compound that targets a mutation found in many advanced-stage melanoma tumors (above, seen under a microscope). The next time you try to talk yourself down from work stress by saying “It’s not like we’re curing cancer,” remember: These guys actually are.
Photo: Pulmonary Pathology/Flickr
In much of the world, mosquitoes remain one of the most virulent vectors for infectious diseases. Oxitec’s genetically altered bugs fight Dengue fever by passing down a lethal gene to their offspring that kills them before they can reach adulthood. Curbing an entire species has raised concerns about unintended ecological consequences. But the use of genetic engineering as a public health tool is only likely to grow if Oxitec’s modified mosquitoes help eradicate this deadly disease.
Forget about the moonshot. How about a Mars shot? Of all the members of the PayPal mafia, which includes Levchin and Thiel, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has done the most to chase innovation on a truly grand scale. Musk not only wants to put humans on Mars; he wants 80,000 of us to live in a Martian colony. And SpaceX is his launching pad.
In the meantime, the company is busy making privatized space travel a reality. Most recently, SpaceX showcased a rocket that takes off and lands vertically—just like the ships in every sci-fi movie ever. Another SpaceX craft just docked with the International Space Station.
Photo: Space X
By: Ben Johnson
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has discovered a way to make desalination 100 times more efficient. And that could have a big impact on bringing clean drinking water to the developing world.
The process is called reverse osmosis, and the material used is graphene — a lot like the stuff you smudge across paper with your pencil.
“This stuff is so thin and so strong, it’s a remarkable compound, it is one atom thick,” says Lockheed Martin senior engineer John Stetson. “If you have a piece of paper that represents the thickness of graphene, the closest similar membrane is about the height of a room.”
The new material essentially acts as a sieve, allowing water to pass though while salts remain behind. Graphene could make for smaller, cheaper plants that turn salt water into drinking water, but it could also have uses in war zones as a portable water desalinator.
“Lockheed really is concerned with the broadest aspects of global security [and] maintaining safe environments and that includes water,” says Stetson.
To hear about more graphene applications, click on the audio player above.
By: Nathan Yau
Via: Flowing Data
In a collaboration between PEER 1 Hosting, Steamclock Software, and Jeff Johnston, the Map of the Internet app provides a picture of what the physical Internet looks like.
“Users can view Internet service providers (ISPs), Internet exchange points, universities and other organizations through two view options — Globe and Network. The app also allows users to generate a trace route between where they are located to a destination node, search for where popular companies and domains are, as well as identify their current location on the map.”
I can’t say how accurate it is or if the described mechanisms are accurate, but it sure is fun to play with. The view above and a globe are placed a three-dimensional space, and you can zoom and rotate as you please. There’s also a time slider, so you can see changes to the Internet over the years.
Get it for free on iTunes.
A CNNMoney segment of the app in action:
By: James B. Stewart
Via: The New York Times
After Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, ordered employees working from home to show up at the office for work, there was speculation that she was emulating Google, her previous employer.
Yahoo employees should be so lucky.
Whatever else might be said about Yahoo’s workplace, it’s a long way from Google’s, as I discovered this week when I dropped in at Google’s East Coast headquarters, a vast former Port Authority shipping complex that occupies a full city block in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Yahoo set off a nationwide debate about workplace flexibility, productivity and creativity last month after a memo with the directive surfaced on the Internet. “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together,” read the memo from Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s director of human resources, which went viral after Kara Swisher posted it on AllThingsD.
The discussion may have been all the more heated since the ban was imposed by one of the relatively few female chief executives, one who had a nursery built near the executive suite after she gave birth last year.
Google’s various offices and campuses around the globe reflect the company’s overarching philosophy, which is nothing less than “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world,” according to a Google spokesman, Jordan Newman. But do its unorthodox workplaces and lavish perks yield the kind of creativity it prides itself on, and Yahoo obviously hopes to foster?
Mr. Newman, 27, who joined Google straight from Yale, and Brian Welle, a “people analytics” manager who has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from New York University, led me on a brisk and, at times, dizzying excursion through a labyrinth of play areas; cafes, coffee bars and open kitchens; sunny outdoor terraces with chaises; gourmet cafeterias that serve free breakfast, lunch and dinner; Broadway-theme conference rooms with velvet drapes; and conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars.
The library looks as if Miss Scarlet (from the board game Clue) has just stepped out, leaving her incriminating noose (in the form of a necktie) prominently draped on the back of an oversize wing chair. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret room and even more private reading area. Next to the recently expanded Lego play station, employees can scurry up a ladder that connects the fourth and fifth floors, where a fiendishly challenging scavenger hunt was in progress. Dogs strolled the corridors alongside their masters, and a cocker spaniel was napping, leashed to a pet rail, outside one of the dining areas.
Google lets many of its hundreds of software engineers, the core of its intellectual capital, design their own desks or work stations out of what resemble oversize Tinker Toys. Some have standing desks, a few even have attached treadmills so they can walk while working. Employees express themselves by scribbling on walls. The result looks a little chaotic, like some kind of high-tech refugee camp, but Google says that’s how the engineers like it.
“We’re trying to push the boundaries of the workplace,” Mr. Newman said, in what seemed an understatement.
In keeping with a company built on information, this seeming spontaneity is anything but. Everything has been researched and is backed by data. In one of the open kitchen areas, Dr. Welle pointed to an array of free food, snacks, candy and beverages. “The healthy choices are front-loaded,” he said. “We’re not trying to be mom and dad. Coercion doesn’t work. The choices are there. But we care about our employees’ health, and our research shows that if people cognitively engage with food, they make better choices.”
So the candy (M&Ms, plain and peanut; TCHO brand luxury chocolate bars, chewing gum, Life Savers) is in opaque ceramic jars that sport prominent nutritional labels. Healthier snacks (almonds, peanuts, dried kiwi and dried banana chips) are in transparent glass jars. In coolers, sodas are concealed behind translucent glass. A variety of waters and juices are immediately visible. “Our research shows that people consume 40 percent more water if that’s the first thing they see,” Dr. Welle said. (Note to Mayor Bloomberg: Perhaps New York City should hide supersize sodas rather than ban them.)
Craig Nevill-Manning, a New Zealand native and Google’s engineering director in Manhattan, was the impetus behind the company’s decision to hire a cadre of engineers in New York, and he led an exodus to Chelsea from what was a small outpost near Times Square. “I lobbied for this building,” he told me. “I love the neighborhood. You can live across the street. There are bars and restaurants.”
He showed me a map of the city with dots indicating where each Google employee lives. They’re heavily concentrated in Manhattan below 34th Street, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, most within walking distance of Chelsea or a short subway ride away. “We inherited the informal work environment — the casual dress, the flexible hours — from Silicon Valley, but we adapted it to the East Coast urban environment,” he said. After the dot-com collapse in 2000, Manhattan was largely written off as a technology center. Since Google’s move, Chelsea is mentioned in the same breath as Silicon Valley. Google has turned over 22,000 square feet of its space, rent-free, to Cornell until its new technology campus can be built on Roosevelt Island.
“The philosophy is very simple,” Mr. Nevill-Manning said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk. Being on one floor here removed psychological barriers to interacting, and we’ve tried to preserve that.” Among innovations that sprang from seemingly chance office encounters are the Google Art Project, which is putting thousands of museum works online, and enhancements to the company’s AdSense and AdWords advertising platforms. Razor scooters make it easy to get around the huge floors (each covers five acres), which offer every conceivable gathering space, from large open spaces to tiny nooks with whimsical furniture. It was Mr. Nevill-Manning’s idea to install the ladder connecting floors, now that Google is too large to fit on one. He said he wouldn’t go so far as to say cost is no object, but software engineers “are incredibly productive on a square foot basis,” he said. “Their value is enormous. It doesn’t cost that much to make them happy.”
Allison Mooney, 32, joined Google two years ago from the advertising giant Omnicom Group, and the difference is “night and day,” she said. “I came here from the New York agency model, where you work constantly, 24/7. You answer every e-mail, nights and weekends. Here, you don’t have to show you’re working, or act like you’re working. The culture here is to shut down on weekends. People have a life.”
And the perks, she added, are “amazing.” In the course of our brief conversation, she mentioned subsidized massages (with massage rooms on nearly every floor); free once-a-week eyebrow shaping; free yoga and Pilates classes; a course she took called “Unwind: the art and science of stress management”; a course in advanced negotiation taught by a Wharton professor; a health consultation and follow-up with a personal health counselor; an author series and an appearance by the novelist Toni Morrison; and a live interview of Justin Bieber by Jimmy Fallon in the Google office.
This in addition to a full array of more traditional employee benefits. Curiously, there’s some exercise equipment but no fitness center (Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. has multiple state-of-the-art fitness centers) because Manhattan employees said they preferred joining health clubs to exercising with colleagues. (Google subsidizes the gym memberships.) And there’s no open bar, although alcohol is served at T.G.I.F. parties (now held on Thursdays), one of which featured a dating game.
After my visit, I spoke to Teresa Amabile, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of “The Progress Principle,” about creativity at work, and told her I had just been to Google. “Isn’t it fantastic?” she said. Some of her former students work there, and “they feel very, very fortunate to be there,” she said. As to the broader relationship between the workplace and creativity, “there’s some evidence that great physical space enhances creativity,” she said. “The theory is that open spaces that are fun, where people want to be, facilitate idea exchange. I’ve watched people interact at Google and you see a cross-fertilization of ideas.” That said, she added, “there isn’t a lot of research to support this. And none of this matters unless people feel they have meaningful work and are making progress at it. In over 30 years of research, I’ve found that people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”
Ben Waber, who has a Ph.D. from M.I.T. and is the author of “People Analytics,” is, at 29, the median age of Google employees. His company, Sociometric Solutions in Boston, uses data to assess workplace interactions. “Google has really been out front in this field,” he said. “They’ve looked at the data to see how people are collaborating. Physical space is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. And the data are clear that the biggest driver of performance in complex industries like software is serendipitous interaction. For this to happen, you also need to shape a community. That means if you’re stressed, there’s someone to help, to take up the slack. If you’re surrounded by friends, you’re happier, you’re more loyal, you’re more productive. Google looks at this holistically. It’s the antithesis of the old factory model, where people were just cogs in a machine.”
Both experts were critical of Yahoo’s plan to force employees into the office. “If you’re spying on them, monitoring them or coercing them, it will create a poisonous atmosphere,” Dr. Waber said.
Professor Amabile added: “Google doesn’t have to force people. Marissa Mayers’s mistake may have been not being more clear about the need to be together and to experience creative excitement. Taking a hard line is likely to have negative effects.”
A Yahoo spokeswoman responded: “We don’t discuss internal matters. This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo, right now.”
It should probably be obvious at this juncture, but Google doesn’t require employees to work from the office. It doesn’t even keep track of who’s there. The notion seems to have never occurred to anyone. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a policy on that,” Mr. Newman said, but “we do expect employees to figure out a work schedule with their team and manager. It’s not a free-for-all.”
For a company with Google’s largess — and the profit margins that make it possible — it’s hardly necessary to require employees to be at the office. “People want to come in,” Ms. Mooney said. On average, she estimates she spends nine hours a day there, five days a week. She mentioned that she recently took a day off — and ended up at the office.
“I live in a studio apartment,” she explained. “And I don’t have free food.”
By: Matthew L. Wald
Via: The New York Times
The just-concluded annual meeting of ARPA-E, an agency founded to nurture interesting energy ideas that may or may not work, featured an exhibition hall with scores of displays staffed by hopeful entrepreneurs.
Many of them seemed to be Ph.D. engineers; in some cases, you needed a Ph.D. yourself to understand what was being presented. But here are three simpler ones that seemed enticing, even if their practicality has yet to be demonstrated.
Some bacteria and algae turn sunlight into oils that can be burned in a car engine or used as raw material at a refinery in place of crude oil. Yet production of reasonable quantities at a reasonable cost has so far been elusive. Tobacco, meanwhile, is easy to grow but has no healthy use. Can the two be merged?
The research consortium Folium (from the Latin word for leaf), which includes the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Kentucky, has taken genes from those types of bacteria and algae and inserted them into tobacco plants. In the first year of work, it produced a crop and then used organic solvents to extract the oils out of the leaves. (Check out the video above.)
Further work on the project, which received $4.8 million from ARPA-E, will determine whether the oils can be used directly as fuel or must go to a refinery. But the tobacco is already yielding one product that could substitute for diesel oil, said Peggy G. Lemaux, a researcher at Berkeley.
Making these oils from tobacco, as opposed to some other crops, would not interfere with food production, Dr. Lemaux noted. And tobacco is already in surplus because of the decline of the cigarette market, so a large infrastructure is already in place, she said.
Researchers have modified the plants so that they have less chlorophyll, the chemical that converts sunlight into stored energy. Normally, chlorophyll is helpful in photosynthesis and makes leaves dark enough that the area beneath them is in shadow, killing off competing species. But “that doesn’t make sense in a monoculture,’’ Dr. Lemaux said, so the chlorophyll is reduced. With less chlorophyll, light not absorbed by the top layer of leaves can penetrate down to lower levels.
Among the challenges, however, is raising the amount of oil produced per pound of tobacco.
In another project, Proton OnSite received $4.6 million to work on using electric current to break up water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
One of the problems with integrating renewable energy into the electric system is that wind and sun are intermittent, creating challenges for grid operators who need to provide a constant supply of electricity. Proton came up with a product that is the direct opposite of a fuel cell, which converts hydrogen to electric current and water. The oxygen and hydrogen atoms are instead split up in a chemical reaction, and the hydrogen can either be turned back into electricity in a fuel cell or used for industrial purposes.
Proton is currently is working with the town of Hilo in Hawaii on an installation that would make hydrogen for a bus powered by a fuel cell. But the Proton equipment would also be connected to the local grid: upon receiving a signal, it would pull more current from the grid, or less, to keep supply and demand exactly balanced.
The system could store energy produced by the wind and sun when the electricity wasn’t needed, and balance the system on a moment-to-moment basis.
At another booth, a company called Otherlab was showing off a concept for a different kind of vehicle tank to hold natural gas. Today’s tanks for compressed gases are almost always spheres or cylinders, a geometry that affords maximum space. But it can be hard to find space for a cylinder or a sphere on a car, where every inch of space is usually spoken for by some mechanical system.
So Otherlab, which received $250,000 from ARPA-E, proposes a “conformable tank,” meaning a coiled pipe that would store gas in a flat area. The company had an eye-catching display of a coiled tube storing an example of a large volume of material: the human gastrointestinal tract.<