A bank for the creator economy, Karat Financial raises $26M in Series A funding

The creator economy is changing the way that people earn a living, whether you’re an Instagram influencer or a freelance graphic designer. But traditional banks haven’t caught up.

Take Alexandra Botez for example. The Stanford graduate earns six figures playing chess on Twitch, where she has 877,000 followers. But when she tried to apply for a business credit card, she was rejected twice. Meanwhile, when the creator behind TierZoo, a YouTube channel with 2.7 million subscribers, tried to rent an apartment, he was rejected because his landlord didn’t see his business as legitimate.

Eric Wei noticed this disconnect while he was a Product Manager at Instagram, where he helped build Instagram Live. With co-founder Will Kim, a previous investor with seed fund Lucky Capital, Wei launched Karat Financial, a better banking system for digital creators. Today, Karat Financial announced a $26 million Series A round led by Union Square Ventures with participation from GGV Capital and SignalFire.

“Banks need to understand you in order to trust you, and it’s only when they trust you that they’re willing to give you credit, process your payments, and hold your money,” Wei told TechCrunch. “If Alexandra Botez has 800,000 followers, and let’s say a tenth of them are paying a monthly subscription fee on Twitch, you can actually back into what these creators’ income streams are, and develop a better underwriting model than what the banks have today.”

But Karat isn’t solving a problem exclusive to the 1% of digital creators. Even for someone like a self-employed small business owner or a gig worker, it can be challenging to find a landlord that will rent an apartment without a proof of employment letter and regular paystubs. But the creator economy remains a fast-growing sector — more than two million creators make over $100,000 per year, and according to VC firm SignalFire, over 46.7 million people have enough of a following to monetize their content part-time.

“This whole industry exploded,” said Kim. “If it’s a flash in the pan, it’s a fifteen-year-old flash.”

Wei and Kim founded Karat in 2019, then earned a spot in Y Combinator’s Winter 2020 accelerator. By June 2020, Karat launched its first product, the Karat Black Card, a credit card for creators, and earned $4.6 million in seed funding from investors like Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin.

Image Credits: Karat

“Our vetting process is we try to evaluate creators as the businesses they are,” Wei said. The Karat Black Card doesn’t charge interest or fees, and only turns a marginal profit off of bank interchange fees. Karat will also advance credit for sponsorship payments at no cost to the creator. So if you’re an influencer and get paid $1,000 to make a video sponsored by a clothing company, it could take months to get paid. Karat will give you that $1,000 now, so long as you pay them back once the clothing company pays you.

Karat proved its concept with 50% growth from month to month and eight figures in transactions since launch last year. More than 30 creators have invested in Karat, including Jared Leto, 3LAU, Nas Daily, and Josh Richards — that’s all without any spending on influencer marketing.

“It turns out that when you do a good job for creators, they share you around with other people,” Wei said.

Since then, their portfolio of investors has grown to include YouTube co-founder Steven Chen, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Former TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer, and Former Wealthfront CEO Adam Nash, among others.

But Karat’s ultimate ambition isn’t to give creators a line of credit. They started out with the credit card to prove their concept, but in the long term, they hope to create a financial infrastructure for creators. That means helping them launch merchandise lines, incorporate their business, get a mortgage, take out business loans, and file their taxes. Wei says that would come after the company’s Series B, opening a more lucrative income stream than collecting bank interchange fees.

“We decided to roll Karat out with the same tried and true fintech playbook,” Wei said. “Start out with something simple before wedging and scaling into those other products. So for us, the card is just a means to an end. Our whole model is, we use the cards to develop our underwriting model and gain trust from creators, and eventually, we can build to be Square for creators.”

Already, Wei and Kim are getting texts from their internet celebrity clients, asking them to be their de-facto financial advisors.

“We’re just like, oh my gosh, we love you, but we’re not building those products yet,” Wei said. “We’ll do that when we hit our Series B, and yes, we’ll charge you fees, because we’re going to provide you with better service than what’s out there now.”

With the newly announced Series A round, Karat plans to double its staff with new hires and begin looking toward new product development.

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VividQ, which has raised $15M, says it can turn normal screens into holographic displays

VividQ, a UK-based deeptech startup with technology for rendering holograms on legacy screens, has raised $15 million to develop its technology for next-generation digital displays and devices. And it’s already lining up manufacturing partners in the US, China and Japan to do it.

The funding round, a Seed extension round, was led by UTokyo IPC, the venture investment arm for the University of Tokyo. It was joined by Foresight Williams Technology (a joint collaboration between Foresight Group and Williams Advanced Engineering), Japanese Miyako Capital, APEX Ventures in Austria, and the R42 Group VC out of Stanford. Previous investors University of Tokyo Edge Capital, Sure Valley Ventures, and Essex Innovation also participated.

The funding will be used to scale VividQ’s HoloLCD technology, which, claims the company, turns consumer-grade screens into holographic displays.

Founded in 2017, VividQ has already worked with ARM, and other partners, including Compound Photonics, Himax Technologies, and iView Displays.

The startup is aiming its technology at Automotive HUD, head-mounted displays (HMDs), and smart glasses with a Computer-Generated Holography that projects “actual 3D images with true depth of field, making displays more natural and immersive for users.” It also says it has discovered a way to turn normal LCD screens into holographic displays.

“Scenes we know from films, from Iron Man to Star Trek, are becoming closer to reality than ever,” Darran Milne, co-founder and CEO of VividQ, said. “At VividQ, we are on a mission to bring holographic displays to the world for the first time. Our solutions help bring innovative display products to the automotive industry, improve AR experiences, and soon will change how we interact with personal devices, such as laptops and mobiles.”



Mikio Kawahara, chief investment officer of UTokyo IPC, said, “The future of display is holography. The demand for improved 3D images in real-world settings is growing across the whole display industry. VividQ’s products will make the future ambitions of many consumer electronics businesses a reality.”

Hermann Hauser, APEX Ventures’ advisor, and co-founder of Arm added: “Computer-Generated Holography recreates immersive projections that possess the same 3D information as the world around us. VividQ has the potential to change how humans interact with digital information.”

Speaking on a call with me, Milne added: “We have put the technology on gaming laptops that can actually take make use of holographic displays on a standard LCD screen. So you know the image is actually extending out of the screen. We don’t use any optical trickery.”

“When we say holograms, what we mean is a hologram is essentially an instruction set that tells light how to behave. We compute that effect algorithmically and then present that to the eye, so it’s indistinguishable from a real object. It’s entirely natural as well. Your brain and your visual system are unable to distinguish it from something real because you’re literally giving your eyes the same information that reality does, so there’s no trickery in the normal sense,” he said.

If this works, it could certainly be a transformation, and I can see it being married very well with technology like UltraLeap.


#3d-imaging, #apex-ventures, #austria, #china, #display-technology, #emerging-technologies, #europe, #head-mounted-display, #himax, #holography, #japan, #science-and-technology, #stanford, #sure-valley-ventures, #tc, #technology, #united-states, #university-of-tokyo

Ditto raises $1.5 million to help teams collaborate on copy

Even as remote software uptake has boomed during the pandemic, certain workflows have gotten prioritized for specialized toolsets while other team members have been left piecemealing their productivity. Employees designing the copy that directs users and encapsulates company messaging have been particularly forgotten at times, say the founders of Ditto, a young startup building software focused on finding a “single source of truth” for copy.

The startup was in Y Combinator’s winter 2020 batch (we selected it as one of our favorites from the class), now Ditto’s founders tell TechCrunch the team has raised a $1.5 million seed round from investors including Greycroft, Y Combinator, Soma Capital, Decent Capital, Twenty Two VC, Holly Liu and Scott Tong, among others.

While copy workflows are often very messy when it comes to design and implementation, even the most-organized teams are often left scouring through meandering email threads, screenshot dumps and slack DMs with disparate teams. The founders behind Ditto hope that their software can give copy teams the home they deserve to keep everything organized and synced across projects and applications, ensuring that language is actually finalized and ready to ship when the time comes.

The company’s founders Jessica Ouyang and Jolena Ma were Stanford roommates who saw a lingering opportunity to build a toolset that prioritized copy as its own vertical.

“It’s so easy to couple text with where it lives, like you may think of it as part of the design so a lot of writers have to manage it inside toolsets for design or you may already think of it as part of development so writers end up having to go into the codebase and figure out how to code or manage JSON even though they’re content designers,” Ouyang tells TechCrunch.

Out of the gate, Ditto has been built for Figma, meaning users can easily export text blocks from designs in the app and rework them inside the Ditto web app, pushing updates without having to dig through the designs themselves. The founders say they are currently working on building out integrations for Sketch and Adobe XD as well. Inside the Ditto web app users can access change logs and update the status of particular pieces of text inside a project so that approvals are always certain.

“We find there’s a lot more opportunity to integrate into all of the places where copy is being worked on,” Ma tells us. “We have a lot more we’re hoping to do with our developer integrations and just integrating to all of those places where copy lives, places like A/B testing, internationalization, localization and other workflows.”

Copy development has plenty of stakeholders and the team is looking to experiment with pricing tiers that address that. For now they split up users into editors and commenters paying $15 and $10 monthly (priced annually) respectively on the startup’s Teams plan. Ditto has a free tier for teams of two as well and pricing designed for larger enterprise clients.


#adobe-xd, #computing, #ditto, #figma, #json, #operating-systems, #recent-funding, #sketch, #slack, #software, #soma-capital, #stanford, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch, #web-app, #y-combinator

For Trump and Facebook, judgment day is around the corner

Facebook unceremoniously confiscated Trump’s biggest social media megaphone months ago, but the former president might be poised to snatch it back.

Facebook’s Oversight Board, an external Supreme Court-like policy decision making group, will either restore Trump’s Facebook privileges or banish him forever on Wednesday. Whatever happens, it’s a huge moment for Facebook’s nascent experiment in outsourcing hard content moderation calls to an elite group of global thinkers, academics and political figures and allowing them to set precedents that could shape the world’s biggest social networks for years to come.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Trump’s suspension from Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol attack. It was initially a temporary suspension, but two weeks later Facebook said that the decision would be sent to the Oversight Board. “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in January.

Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, a former British politician, expressed hope that the board would back the company’s own conclusions, calling Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action.”

Trump inflamed tensions and incited violence on January 6, but that incident wasn’t without precedent. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by Minneapolis police, President Trump ominously declared on social media “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a threat of imminent violence with racist roots that Facebook declined to take action against, prompting internal protests at the company.

The former president skirted or crossed the line with Facebook any number of times over his four years in office, but the platform stood steadfastly behind a maxim that all speech was good speech, even as other social networks grew more squeamish.

In a dramatic address in late 2019, Zuckerberg evoked Martin Luther King Jr. as he defended Facebook’s anything goes approach. “In times of social turmoil, our impulse is often to pull back on free expression,” Zuckerberg said. “We want the progress that comes from free expression, but not the tension.” King’s daughter strenuously objected.

A little over a year later, with all of Facebook’s peers doing the same and Trump leaving office, Zuckerberg would shrink back from his grand free speech declarations.

In 2019 and well into 2020, Facebook was still a roiling hotbed of misinformation, conspiracies and extremism. The social network hosted thousands of armed militias organizing for violence and a sea of content amplifying QAnon, which moved from a fringe belief on the margins to a mainstream political phenomenon through Facebook.

Those same forces would converge at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 for a day of violence that Facebook executives characterized as spontaneous, even though it had been festering openly on the platform for months.


How the Oversight Board works

Facebook’s Oversight Board began reviewing its first cases last October. Facebook can refer cases to the board, like it did with Trump, but users can also appeal to the board to overturn policy decisions that affect them after they exhaust the normal Facebook or Instagram appeals process. A five member subset of its 20 total members evaluate whether content should be allowed to remain on the platform and then reach a decision, which the full board must approve by a majority vote. Initially, the Oversight Board was only empowered to reinstate content removed on Facebook and Instagram, but in mid-April began accepting requests to review controversial content that stayed up.

Last month, the Oversight Board replaced departing member Pamela Karlan, a Stanford professor and voting rights scholar critical of Trump, who left to join the Biden administration. Karlan’s replacement, PEN America CEO Susan Nossel, wrote an op-ed in the LA Times in late January arguing that extending a permanent ban on Trump “may feel good” but that decision would ultimately set a dangerous precedent. Nossel joined the board too late to participate in the Trump decision.

The Oversight Board’s earliest batch of decisions leaned in the direction of restoring content that’s been taken down — not upholding its removal. While the board’s other decisions are likely to touch on the full spectrum of frustration people have with Facebook’s content moderation preferences, they come with far less baggage than the Trump decision. In one instance, the Oversight Board voted to restore an image of a woman’s nipples used in the context of a breast cancer post. In another, the board decided that a quote from a famous Nazi didn’t merit removal because it wasn’t an endorsement of Nazi ideology. In all cases, the Oversight Board can issue policy recommendations, but Facebook isn’t obligated to implement them — just the decisions.

Befitting its DNA of global activists, political figures and academics, the Oversight Board’s might have ambitions well beyond one social network. Earlier this year, Oversight Board co-chair and former Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt declared that other social media companies would be “welcome to join” the project, which is branded in a conspicuously Facebook-less way. (The group calls itself the “Oversight Board” though everyone calls it the “Facebook Oversight Board.”)

“For the first time in history, we actually have content moderation being done outside one of the big social media platforms,” Thorning-Schmidt declared, grandly. “That in itself… I don’t hesitate to call it historic.”

Facebook’s decision to outsource some major policy decisions is indeed an experimental one, but that experiment is just getting started. The Trump case will give Facebook’s miniaturized Supreme Court an opportunity to send a message, though whether the takeaway is that it’s powerful enough to keep a world leader muzzled or independent enough to strike out from its parent and reverse the biggest social media policy decision ever made remains to be seen.

If Trump comes back, the company can shrug its shoulders and shirk another PR firestorm, content that its experiment in external content moderation is legitimized. If the board doubles down on banishing Trump, Facebook will rest easy knowing that someone else can take the blowback this round in its most controversial content call to date. For Facebook, for once, it’s a win-win situation.


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Education non-profit Edraak ignored a student data leak for two months

Edraak, an online education non-profit, exposed the private information of thousands of students after uploading student data to an unprotected cloud storage server, apparently by mistake.

The non-profit, founded by Jordan’s Queen Rania and headquartered in the kingdom’s capital, was set up in 2013 to promote education across the Arab region. The organization works with several partners, including the British Council and edX, a consortium set up by Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

In February, researchers at U.K. cybersecurity firm TurgenSec found one of Edraak’s cloud storage servers containing at least tens of thousands of students’ data, including spreadsheets with students’ names, email addresses, gender, birth year, country of nationality, and some class grades.

TurgenSec, which runs Breaches.UK, a site for disclosing security incidents, alerted Edraak to the security lapse. A week later, their email was acknowledged by the organization but the data continued to spill. Emails seen by TechCrunch show the researchers tried to alert others who worked at the organization via LinkedIn requests, and its partners, including the British Council.

Two months passed and the server remained open. At its request, TechCrunch contacted Edraak, which closed the servers a few hours later.

In an email this week, Edraak chief executive Sherif Halawa told TechCrunch that the storage server was “meant to be publicly accessible, and to host public course content assets, such as course images, videos, and educational files,” but that “student data is never intentionally placed in this bucket.”

“Due to an unfortunate configuration bug, however, some academic data and student information exports were accidentally placed in the bucket,” Halawa confirmed.

“Unfortunately our initial scan did not locate the misplaced data that made it there accidentally. We attributed the elements in the Breaches.UK email to regular student uploads. We have now located these misplaced reports today and addressed the issue,” Halawa said.

The server is now closed off to public access.

It’s not clear why Edraak ignored the researchers’ initial email, which disclosed the location of the unprotected server, or why the organization’s response was not to ask for more details. When reached, British Council spokesperson Catherine Bowden said the organization received an email from TurgenSec but mistook it for a phishing email.

Edraak’s CEO Halawa said that the organization had already begun notifying affected students about the incident, and put out a blog post on Thursday.

Last year, TurgenSec found an unencrypted customer database belonging to U.K. internet provider Virgin Media that was left online by mistake, containing records linking some customers to adult and explicit websites.

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Apple-funded Stanford study concludes Apple Watch can be used to measure frailty

Close-up photo of a black smartwatch on a wood table.

Enlarge / Buttons on the side of an Apple Watch Series 3. (credit: Valentina Palladino / Ars Technica)

A new study on the effectiveness of the Apple Watch and iPhone as tools for measuring functional capacity in patients with cardiovascular disease (CVD) has been published by researchers at Stanford University.

The study, which involved 110 participants, found that the health-monitoring capabilities in these products could supplement or replace in-clinic tests for “frailty” in patients with CVD.

Frailty in this case is measured in terms of the distance a patient can travel in a six-minute walk. This is normally tested with a six-minute walk test (6MWT), and frailty was defined in the study “as walking <300m on an in-clinic 6MWT.”

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#apple, #apple-watch, #cardiovascular-disease, #cvd, #stanford, #study, #tech, #wearables

Planting seed investments on tech’s frontiers nets KdT Ventures $50 million for its latest fund

Like other venture investors over the past year, Cain McClary, co-founder of the investment firm KdT Ventures, recently made the jump to Austin. But unlike the rest of them, he was coming from Black Mountain, NC.

McClary had spent the better part of the last three years with his co-founder Mack Healy building out a portfolio that would be the envy of almost any investor looking at financing startups whose businesses depend on innovations at the borders of current technological achievement.

Since 2017, when the firm closed on the first $3.5 million of what ended up being a $15 million fund (they had targeted $30 million), McClary and Healy managed to find their way onto the cap table of businesses like the green chemicals manufacturer, Solugen; health diagnostics technology developer, PathAI; the Nigerian genetic dataset developer, 54Gene; the novel biomaterials developer, Checkerspot; and the genetics-focused therapy company, Dyno Therapeutics. 

That portfolio — and the subsequent top decile performance that Cambridge Associates has said comes with it — has allowed McClary and Healy to close on an oversubscribed $50 million new fund to invest in promising startup companies.

KdT co-founders Cain McClary and Mack Healy. Image Credit: KdT Ventures

Hailing from a small Tennessee town outside of Leipers Fork (itself a small Tennessee town) McClary studied medicine at Tulane and business at Stanford where he linked up with Healy through a mutual friend.

Healy, who had done stints throughout big Bay Area startups like Airbnb, Databricks, and Facebook brought the software expertise (and some capital to stake the firm) while McClary provided the life sciences know-how.

Together the two men set out to hang their investment shingle at the intersection of software and life sciences that was proving to be fertile ground for new business creation. Each company in the firm’s portfolio depends on both the advances in understanding how to code computers and living cells.

McClary had left California for personal reasons when he launched the fund in 2017 and in 2020 relocated to Austin for professional ones. Healy had already set up shop in the city and it was easier, McClary said to fly out to San Francisco to look for companies from the Austin airport than it was from Ashville.

Also, both men were placing big bets on the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas to become the breeding ground for the type of entrepreneurs that the firm is looking to back.

Mack was there… the Dell Medical School and we think it’s going to be produce the types of entrpereneurs that we want to support. Houston has a med system. I firmly believe that texas has a place at the table in the future 

“The way that we define it is that we like to invest in the physical layer of the world,” said McClary. “That includes not only medicine, but chemicals and agriculture. All of that is driven by some of the things that we have this sourcecode for the physical world.”

Mapping the unmapped corners of the frontier tech startup world means that the firm not only has a presence in Austin, but has hired principals to scour Houston and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina for hot deals.

That doesn’t mean the firm is forsaking California though. One of the most recent deals in the KdT portfolio is Andes Ag, an Emeryville, Calif.-based startup that’s applying yield-boosting microbes directly to seeds in an effort to improve crop performance for farmers.

“The KdT team speaks the language of science, making them an outlier in this area of venture investing,” said JD Montgomery of Canterbury Consulting, a limited partner in KdT’s first and second fund. “They are passionate about building the science companies of the future that will tackle some of the significant challenges our world faces in the next decade and beyond.”

#54gene, #airbnb, #austin, #california, #cambridge-associates, #chemicals, #co-founder, #corporate-finance, #databricks, #dell, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #facebook, #finance, #fork, #houston, #money, #north-carolina, #partner, #pathai, #private-equity, #san-francisco, #solugen, #stanford, #startup-company, #tc, #texas, #tulane, #university-of-texas, #venture-capital

Will moving, ‘spacial video’ start to eat into square-box Zoom calls? SpatialChat thinks so

With most of us locked into a square video box on platforms like Zoom, the desire to break away and perhaps wander around a virtual space is strong. These new ways of presenting people – as small circles of videos placed in a virtual space where they can move around – has appeared in various forms, like ‘virtual bars’ for the last few months during global pandemic lockdowns. Hey, I even went to a few virtual bars myself! Although the drinks from my fridge could have been better…

The advantage of this spatial approach is it gives a lot more ‘agency’ to the user. You feel, at least, a bit more in control, as you can make a ‘physical’ choice as to where you go, even if it is only still a virtual experience.

Now SpatialChat, one of the first startups with that approach which launched on ProductHunt in April last year, is upping the game with a new design and the feature of persistent chats. The product debuted on ProductHunt on April 20, 2020, and rose to No. 3 app of the day. The web-based platform has been bootstrapped the founders with their own resources.

SpatialChat now adding a special tier and features for teams running town hall meetings and virtual offices, and says it now has more than 3,000 organizations as paying customers, with more than 200,000 total monthly active users.

The startup is part of a virtual networking space being populating by products such as
Teamflow, Gather, and Remo. Although it began as a online networking events service, its now trying to re-position as a forum for multi-group discussions, all the way up from simple stand-up meetings to online conferences.

SpatialChat uses a mix of ‘proximity’ video chats, screen sharing, and rooms for up to 50 people. It’s now putting in pricing plans for regular, weekly, and one-time use cases. It says it’s seen employees at Sony, Panasonic, Sega, LinkedIn, Salesforce, and McKinsey, as well as educators and staff at 108 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and MIT, use the platform.

Almas Abulkhairov, CEO and Co-founder of SpatialChat says: “Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams represent a virtual office for many teams but most of our customers say these apps aren’t a good fit for that. They don’t provide the same serendipity of thought you get working shoulder to shoulder and “Zoom fatigue” became a term for a reason. We want to bring the best from offline work.”

Konstantin Krasov, CPO at DataSouls, who used the platform, said: “We had 2500 people in attendance during a 2-day event that we hosted for our community of 50,000 Data Scientists. SpatialChat enabled us to make a cool networking event, Q/A and AMA with thought leaders in data science.”

#computing, #europe, #harvard, #linkedin, #mckinsey, #microsoft, #microsoft-teams, #mit, #panasonic, #salesforce, #software, #sony, #stanford, #tc, #web-conferencing, #workplace, #yale, #zoom

Toronto’s UHN launches a study to see if Apple Watch can spot worsening heart failure

A new study underway at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN), a group of working research hospitals in the city, could shift our approach to treatment in an area of growing concern in human health. The study, led by Dr. Heather Ross, will investigate whether the Apple Watch can provide early warnings about potentially worsening health for patients following incidents of heart failure.

The study, which is aiming to eventually span around 200 patients, and which already has a number of participants enrolled spanning ages from 25 to 90, and various demographics, will use the Apple Watch Series 6 and its onboard sensors to monitor signals including heart rate, blood oxygen, general activity levels, overall performance during a six minute walk test and more. Researchers led by Ross will compare this data to measurements taken from the more formal clinical tests currently used by physicians to monitor the recovery of heart failure patients during routine, periodic check-ups.

The hope is that Ross and her team will be able to identify correlations between signs they’re seeing from the Apple Watch data, and the information gathered from the proven medical diagnostic and monitoring equipment. If they can verify that the Apple Watch accurately reflects what’s happening with a heart failure patient’s health, it has tremendous potential for treatment and care.

“In the US, there are about six-and-a-half million adults with heart failure,” Ross told me in an interview. “About one in five people in North America over the age of 40 will develop heart failure. And the average life expectancy [following heart failure] is still measured at around 2.1 years, at a tremendous impact to quality of life.”

The stats point to heart failure as a “growing epidemic,” says Ross, at a cost of some “$30 billion a year at present in the U.S.” to the healthcare system. A significant portion of that cost can come from the care required when conditions worsen due to preventable causes – ones that can be avoided by changes in patient behavior, if only implemented at the right time. Ross told me that currently, the paradigm of care for heat failure patients is “episodic” – meaning it happens in three- or six-month intervals, when patients go into a physician’s office or clinic for a bevy of tests using expensive equipment that must be monitored by a trained professional, like a nurse practitioner.

“If you think about the paradigm to a certain degree, we’ve kind of got it backwards,” Ross said. “So in our thinking, the idea really is how do we provide a continuous style monitoring of patients in a relatively unobtrusive way that will allow us to detect a change in a patient status before they end up actually coming into hospital. So this is where the opportunity with Apple is tremendous.”

Ross said that current estimates suggest nearly 50% of hospitalizations could be avoided altogether through steps taken by patients including better self-care, like adhering to prescribed medicinal regimens, accurate symptom monitoring, monitoring dietary intake and more. Apple Vice President of Health Dr. Sumbul Desai echoed the sentiment that proactivity is one of the key ingredients to better standards of care, and better long-term outcomes.

“A lot of health, in the world of medicine, has been focused on reactive responses to situations,” she said in an interview. “The idea to get a little more proactive in the way we think about our own health is really empowering and we’re really excited about where that could take us. We think starting with these studies to really ground us in the science is critical but, really, the potential for it is something that we look forward to tackling.”

Desai, has led Apple’s Health initiatives for just under four years, and also spent much of her career prior to that at Stanford (where she remains an associate professor) working on both the academic and clinical side. She knows first-hand the value of continuous care, and said that this study is representative of the potential the company sees in Apple Watch’s role in the daily health of individuals.

“The ability to have that snapshot of an individual as they’re living their everyday life is extremely useful,” she said. “As a physician, part of your conversation is ‘tell me what’s going on when you’re not in the clinic.’ To be able to have some of that data at your fingertips and have that part of your conversation really enhances your engagement with your patients as well. We believe that can provide insight in ways that has not been done before and we’re really excited to see what more we’re learning in this specific realm but we already hearing from both users and physicians how valuable that is.”

Both Ross and Desai highlighted the value of Apple Watch as a consumer-friendly device that’s easy to set up and learn, and that serves a number of different purposes beyond health and fitness, as being key ingredients to its potential in a continuous care paradigm.

“We really believe that people should be able to play a more active role in managing their well-being and Apple Watch in particular, we find to be — and are really proud of — a powerful health and wellness tool because the same device that you can connect with loved ones and check messages also supports safety, motivates you to stay healthy by moving more and provides important information on your overall wellness,” Desai said.

“This is a powerful health care tool bundled into a device that people just love for all the reasons Sumbul has said,” Ross added. “But this is a powerful diagnostic tool, too. So it is that consumer platform that I think will make this potentially an unstoppable tool, if we can evaluate it properly, which we’re doing in this partnership.”

The study, which is targeting 200 participants as mentioned, and enrolling more every day, will span three months of active monitoring, followed by a two-year follow up to investigate the data collected relative to patient outcomes. All data collected is stored in a fully encrypted form (Ross pointed to Apple’s privacy track record as another benefit of having it as a partner) and anyone taking part can opt-out at any point during the course of the research.

Even once the results are in, it’ll just be the first step in a larger process of validation, but Ross said that the hope is to ultimately “to improve access and equitable care,” by changing the fundamental approach to how we think about heart failure and treatment.

#anatomy, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-watch, #biotech, #hardware, #health, #heart, #north-america, #physician, #science, #self-care, #stanford, #tc, #toronto, #united-states

SESO Labor is providing a way for migrant farmworkers to get legally protected work status in the U.S.

As the Biden Administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.

SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.

Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.

At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.

SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.

America’s complicated history of immigration and agricultural labor

The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.

Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).

H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.

For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.

“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.

As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”

Opening borders even as they remain closed

Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.

In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.

Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.

Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.

“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.

“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”

Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.

Protecting agricultural workers through better paperwork

Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.

Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.

Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.

“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.” 

Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.

“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”

Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.

“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”

#america, #banking, #biden-administration, #california, #congress, #founder, #founders-fund, #funding, #fundings-exits, #healthcare, #immigration, #labor, #nfx, #oklahoma, #pete-flint, #stanford, #startups, #tc, #trulia, #trump-administration, #u-s-department-of-labor, #united-states

Immunai raises $60M as it expands from improving immune therapies to discovering new ones, too

Just three years after its founding, biotech startup Immunai has raised $60 million in Series A funding, bringing its total raised to over $80 million. Despite its youth, Immunai has already established the largest database in the world for single cell immunity characteristics, and it has already used its machine learning-powered immunity analysts platform to enhance the performance of existing immunotherapies, but aided by this new funding, it’s now ready to expand into the development of entirely new therapies based on the strength and breadth of its data and ML.

Immunai’s approach to developing new insights around the human immune system uses a ‘multi-omic’ approach – essentially layering analysis of different types of biological data, including a cell’s genome, microbiome, epigenome (a genome’s chemical instruction set) and more. The startup’s unique edge is in combining the largest and richest data set of its type available, formed in partnership with world-leading immunological research organizations, with its own machine learning technology to deliver analytics at unprecedented scale.

“I hope it doesn’t sound corny, but we don’t have the luxury to move more slowly,” explained Immunai co-founder and CEO Noam Solomon in an interview. “Because I think that we are in kind of a perfect storm, where a lot of advances in machine learning and compute computations have led us to the point where we can actually leverage those methods to mine important insights. You have a limit or ceiling to how fast you can go by the number of people that you have – so I think with the vision that we have, and thanks to our very think large network between MIT, and Cambridge to Stanford in the Bay Area, and Tel Aviv, we just moved very quickly to harness people to say, let’s solve this problem together.”

Solomon and his co-founder and CTO Luis Voloch both have extensive computer science and machine learning backgrounds, and they initially connected and identified a need for the application of this kind of technology in immunology. Scientific co-founder and SVP of Strategic Research Danny Wells then helped them refine their approach to focus on improving efficacy of immunotherapies designed to treat cancerous tumors.

Immunai has already demonstrated that its platform can help identify optimal targets for existing therapies, including in a partnership with the Baylor College of Medicine where it assisted with a cell therapy product for use in treating neuroblastoma (a type of cancer that develops from immune cells, often in the adrenal glands). The company is now also moving into new territory with therapies, using its machine learning platform and industry-leading cell database to new therapy discovery – not only identifying and validating targets for existing therapies, but helping to create entirely new ones.

“We’re moving from just observing cells, but actually to going and perturbing them, and seeing what the outcome is,” explained Voloch. This, from the computational side, later allows us to move from correlative assessments to actually causal assessments, which makes our models a lot more powerful. Both on the computational side and on the on the lab side, this is really bleeding edge technologies that I think we will be the first to really put together at any kind of real scale.”

“The next step is to say ‘Okay, now that we understand the human immune profile, can we develop new drugs?’,” said Solomon. “You can think about it like we’ve been building a Google Maps for the immune system of a few years – so we are mapping different roads and paths in the in the immune system. But at some point, we figured out that there are certain roads or bridges that haven’t been built yet. And we will be able to support building new roads and new and new bridges, and hopefully leading from current states of disease or cities of disease, to building cities of health.”

#artificial-intelligence, #biotech, #biotechnology, #cambridge, #cancer-immunotherapy, #funding, #health, #life-sciences, #machine-learning, #machine-learning-technology, #mit, #recent-funding, #science, #stanford, #startups, #tc, #tel-aviv

Prime Movers Lab raises $245 million for second fund to invest in early stage science startups

After revealing its first fund just last year, a $100 million pool of investment capital dedicated to early stage startups focusing on sustainable food development, clean energy, health innovation and new space technologies, Prime Movers Lab is back with a second fund. Prime Movers Lab Fund II is larger, with $245 million committed, but it will pursue the same investment strategy, albeit with a plan to place more bets on more companies, with an expanded investment team to help manage the funds and portfolio.

“There are a lot of VCs out there,” explained founder and general partner Dakin Sloss about the concept behind the fund. “But there aren’t many VCs that are focused exclusively on breakthrough science, or deep tech. Even though there are a couple, when you look at the proportion of capital, I think it’s something like less than 10% of capital is going to these types of companies. But if you look at what’s meaningful to the life of the average person over the next 30 years, these are all the companies that are important, whether it’s coronavirus vaccine,s or solar energy production, or feeding the planet through aquaponics. These are the things that are really meaningful to to making a better quality of life for most people.”

Sloss told me that he sees part of the issue around why the proportion of capital dedicated to solving these significant problems is that it requires a lot of deep category knowledge to invest in correctly.

“There’s not enough technical expertise in VC firms to choose winners intelligently, rather than ending up with the next Theranos or clean tech bubble,” he said. “So that’s the first thing I wanted to solve. I have a physics background, and I was able to bring together a team of partners that have really deeply technical backgrounds.”

As referenced, Sloss himself has a degree from Stanford in Mathematics, Physics and Philosophy. He was a serial entrepreneur before starting the fund, having founded Tachyus, OpenGov and nonprofit California Common Sense. Other Partners on the team include systems engineer Dan Slomski, who previously worked on machine vision, electro-mechanical systems and developing a new multi-phase flow fluid analyzer; Amy Kruse, who holds a PhD in neuroscience and has served as an executive in defence technology and applied neuroscience companies; and Carly Anderson, a chemical engineer who has worked in biomedicine and oil & gas, and who has a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering. In addition to core partners with that kind of expertise, Prime Movers Lab enlists the help of venture partners and specialist advisors like former astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Having individuals with deep field expertise on the core team, in addition to supplementing that with top-notch advisors, is definitely a competitive advantage, particularly when investing in the kinds of companies that Prime Movers Lab does early on in their development. There’s a perception that companies pursuing these kinds of hard tech problems aren’t necessarily as viable as a target for traditional venture funding, specifically because of the timelines for returns. Sloss says he believes that’s a misperception based on unfortunate past experience.

“I think there are three big myths about breakthrough science or hard tech or deep tech,” he said. “That it takes longer, that it’s more capital intensive, and that it’s higher risk. And I think the reason those myths are out there is people invested in things like Theranos, and the clean tech bubble. But I think that there were fundamental mistakes made in how they underwrote risk of doing that.”

Image Credits: Momentus

To avoid making those kinds of mistakes, Sloss says that Prime Movers Lab views prospective investments from the perspective of a “spectrum of risk,” which includes risk of the science itself (does the fundamental technology involve actually work), engineering risk (given the science works, can we make it something we can sell) and finally, commercialization or scaling risk (can we then make it and sell it at scale with economics that work). Sloss says that if you use this risk matrix to assess investments, and allocated funds to address primarily the engineering risk category, concerns around timeframes to return don’t really apply.

He cites Primer Movers Lab’s Fund I portfolio, which includes space propulsion company Momentus, heading for an exit to the public markets via SPAC (the company’s Russian CEO actually just resigned in order to smooth the path for that, in fact), and notes that of the 15 companies that Fund I invested in, four are totally on a path to going public. That would put them much faster to an exit than is typical for early stage investment targets, and Sloss credits the very different approach most hard science startups take to IP development and capital.

“The inflection points in these types of companies are actually I think faster to get to market, because they’ve spent years developing the IP, staying at relatively low or attractive valuations,” he said. “Then we can kind of come in, at that inflection point, and help them get ready to commercialize and scale up exponentially, to where other investors no longer have to underwrite the difference between science and engineering risk, they can just see it’s working and producing revenue.”

Companies that fit this mold often come directly from academia, and keep the team small and focused while they’re figuring out the core scientific discovery or innovation that enables the business. A prime example of this in recent memory is Wingcopter, a German drone startup that developed and patented a technology for a tilt-wing rotor that changes the economics of electric autonomous drone flight. The startup just took its first significant startup investment after bootstrapping for four years, and the funds will indeed be used to help it accelerate engineering on a path towards high-volume production.

While Wingcopter isn’t a Prime Movers Lab portfolio company, many of its investments fit the same mold. Boom Aerospace is currently working on building and flying its subscale demonstration aircraft to pave the way for a future supersonic airliner, while Axiom Space just announced the first crew of private tourists to the International Space Station who will fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 for $50 million a piece. As long as you can prove the fundamentals are sound, allocating money turning it into something marketable seems like a logical strategy.

For Prime Movers Lab’s Fund II, the plan is to invest in around 30 or so companies, roughly doubling the number of investments from Fund I. In addition to its partners with scientific expertise, the firm also includes Partners with skill sets including creative direction, industrial design, executive coaching and business acumen, and provides those services to its portfolio companies as value-add to help them supplement their technical innovations. Its Fund I portfolio includes Momentus and Axiom, as mentioned, as well as vertical farming startup Upward Farms, coronavirus vaccine startup Covaxx, and more.

#advisors, #articles, #astronaut, #business-incubators, #ceo, #chris-hadfield, #clean-energy, #corporate-finance, #deep-tech, #entrepreneurship, #executive, #falcon, #finance, #funding, #international-space-station, #machine-vision, #momentus, #money, #neuroscience, #oil, #prime-movers-lab, #private-equity, #serial-entrepreneur, #stanford, #startup-company, #startups, #tc, #theranos, #venture-capital, #wingcopter

Senti Bio raises $105 million for its new programmable biology platform and cancer therapies

Senti Biosciences, a company developing cancer therapies using a new programmable biology platform, said it has raised $105 million in a new round of financing led by the venture arm of life sciences giant, Bayer.

The company’s technology uses new computational biological techniques to manufacture cell and gene therapies that can more precisely target specific cells in the body.

Senti Bio’s chief executive, Tim Lu, compares his company’s new tech to the difference between basic programming and object oriented programming. “Instead of creating a program that just says ‘Hello world’, you can introduce ‘if’ statements and object oriented programming,” said Lu.

By building genetic material that can target multiple receptors, Senti Bio’s therapies can be more precise in the way they identify genetic material in the body and deliver the kinds of therapies directly to the pathogens. “”Instead of the cell expressing a single receptor… now we have two receptors,” he said.

The company is initially applying its gene circuit technology platform to develop therapies that use what are called chimeric antigen receptor natural killer (CAR-NK) cells that can target cancer cells in the body and eliminate them. Many existing cell and gene therapies use chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, which are white blood cells in the body that are critical to immune response and destroy cellular pathogens in the body.

However, T-cell-based therapies can be toxic to patients, stimulating immune responses that can be almost as dangerous as the pathogens themselves. Using CAR-NK cells produces similar results with fewer side effects.
That’s independent of the gene circuit,” said Lu. “The gene circuit gets you specificity… Right now when you use a CAR-T cell or a CAR-NK cell… you find a target and hope that it doesn’t affect normal cells. We can build logic in our gene circuits in the cell that means a CAR-NK cell can identify two targets rather than one.”

That increased targeting means lower risks of healthy cells being destroyed alongside mutations or pathogens that are in the body.

For Lu and his co-founders — fellow MIT professor Jim Collins, Boston University professor, Wilson Wong, and longtime synthetic biology operator, Phillip Lee — Senti Bio is the culmination of decades of work in the field.

“I compare it to the early days of semiconductor work,” Lu said of the journey to develop this gene circuit technology. “There were bits and pieces of technology being developed in research labs, but to realize the scale at which you need, this has to be done at the industrial level.”

So licensing work from MIT, Boston University and Stanford, Lu and his co-founders set out to take this work out of the labs to start a company.

When the company was started it was a bag of tools and the know-how on how to use them,” Lu said. But it wasn’t a fully developed platform. 

That’s what the company now has and with the new capital from Leaps by Bayer and its other investors, Senti is ready to start commercializing.

The first products will be therapies for acute myeloid leukemia, hepatocellular carcinoma, and other, undisclosed, solid tumor targets, the company said in a statement.

“Leaps by Bayer’s mission is to invest in breakthrough technologies that may transform the lives of millions of patients for the better,” said Juergen Eckhardt, MD, Head of Leaps by Bayer. “We believe that synthetic biology will become an important pillar in next-generation cell and gene therapy, and that Senti Bio’s leadership in designing and optimizing biological circuits fits precisely with our ambition to prevent and cure cancer and to regenerate lost tissue function.”

Lu and his co-founders also see their work as a platform for developing other cell therapies for other diseases and applications — and intend to partner with other pharmaceutical companies to bring those products to market.  

“Over the past two years, our team has designed, built and tested thousands of sophisticated gene circuits to drive a robust product pipeline, focused initially on allogeneic CAR-NK cell therapies for difficult-to-treat liquid and solid tumor indications,” Lu said in a statement. “I look forward to continued platform and pipeline advancements, including starting IND-enabling studies in 2021.”

The new financing round brings Senti’s total capital raised to just under $160 million and Lu said the new money will be used to ramp up manufacturing and accelerate its work partnering with other pharmaceutical companies.

The current timeframe is to get its investigational new drug permits filed by late 2022 and early 2023 and have initial clinical trials begun in 2023.

Developing gene circuits is new and expanding field with a number of players including Cell Design Labs, which was acquired by Gilead in 2017 for up to $567 million. Other companies working on similar therapies include CRISPR Therapeutics, Intellius, and Editas, Lu said.

#bayer, #biology, #biotechnology, #boston-university, #cancer, #crispr-therapeutics, #emerging-technologies, #gilead, #head, #jim-collins, #manufacturing, #mit, #pharmaceutical, #semiconductor, #stanford, #synthetic-biology, #tc

Deep Vision announces its low-latency AI processor for the edge

Deep Vision, a new AI startup that is building an AI inferencing chip for edge computing solutions, is coming out of stealth today. The six-year-old company’s new ARA-1 processors promise to strike the right balance between low latency, energy efficiency and compute power for use in anything from sensors to cameras and full-fledged edge servers.

Because of its strength in real-time video analysis, the company is aiming its chip at solutions around smart retail, including cashier-less stores, smart cities and Industry 4.0/robotics. The company is also working with suppliers to the automotive industry, but less around autonomous driving than monitoring in-cabin activity to ensure that drivers are paying attention to the road and aren’t distracted or sleepy.

Image Credits: Deep Vision

The company was founded by its CTO Rehan Hameed and its Chief Architect Wajahat Qadeer​, who recruited Ravi Annavajjhala, who previously worked at Intel and SanDisk, as the company’s CEO. Hameed and Qadeer developed Deep Vision’s architecture as part of a Ph.D. thesis at Stanford.

“They came up with a very compelling architecture for AI that minimizes data movement within the chip,” Annavajjhala explained. “That gives you extraordinary efficiency — both in terms of performance per dollar and performance per watt — when looking at AI workloads.”

Long before the team had working hardware, though, the company focused on building its compiler to ensure that its solution could actually address its customers’ needs. Only then did they finalize the chip design.

Image Credits: Deep Vision

As Hameed told me, Deep Vision’s focus was always on reducing latency. While its competitors often emphasize throughput, the team believes that for edge solutions, latency is the more important metric. While architectures that focus on throughput make sense in the data center, Deep Vision CTO Hameed argues that this doesn’t necessarily make them a good fit at the edge.

“[Throughput architectures] require a large number of streams being processed by the accelerator at the same time to fully utilize the hardware, whether it’s through batching or pipeline execution,” he explained. “That’s the only way for them to get their big throughput. The result, of course, is high latency for individual tasks and that makes them a poor fit in our opinion for an edge use case where real-time performance is key.”

To enable this performance — and Deep Vision claims that its processor offers far lower latency than Google’s Edge TPUs and Movidius’ MyriadX, for example — the team is using an architecture that reduces data movement on the chip to a minimum. In addition, its software optimizes the overall data flow inside the architecture based on the specific workload.

Image Credits: Deep Vision

“In our design, instead of baking in a particular acceleration strategy into the hardware, we have instead built the right programmable primitives into our own processor, which allows the software to map any type of data flow or any execution flow that you might find in a neural network graph efficiently on top of the same set of basic primitives,” said Hameed.

With this, the compiler can then look at the model and figure out how to best map it on the hardware to optimize for data flow and minimize data movement. Thanks to this, the processor and compiler can also support virtually any neural network framework and optimize their models without the developers having to think about the specific hardware constraints that often make working with other chips hard.

“Every aspect of our hardware/software stack has been architected with the same two high-level goals in mind,” Hameed said. “One is to minimize the data movement to drive efficiency. And then also to keep every part of the design flexible in a way where the right execution plan can be used for every type of problem.”

Since its founding, the company raised about $19 million and has filed nine patents. The new chip has been sampling for a while and even though the company already has a couple of customers, it chose to remain under the radar until now. The company obviously hopes that its unique architecture can give it an edge in this market, which is getting increasingly competitive. Besides the likes of Intel’s Movidius chips (and custom chips from Google and AWS for their own clouds), there are also plenty of startups in this space, including the likes of Hailo, which raised a $60 million Series B round earlier this year and recently launched its new chips, too.

#artificial-intelligence, #ceo, #cloud, #computing, #cto, #developer, #energy-efficiency, #intel, #sandisk, #stanford, #startups, #tc

Pixie Labs raises $9.15M Series A round for its Kubernetes observability platform

Pixie, a startup that provides developers with tools to get observability into their Kubernetes-native applications, today announced that it has raised a $9.15 million Series A round led by Benchmark, with participation from GV. In addition, the company also today said that its service is now available as a public beta.

The company was co-founded by Zain Asgar (CEO), a former Google engineer working on Google AI and adjunct professor at Stanford, and Ishan Mukherjee (CPO), who led Apple’s Siri Knowledge Graph product team and also previously worked on Amazon’s Robotics efforts. Asgar had originally joined Benchmark to work on developer tools for machine learning. Over time, the idea changed to using machine learning to power tools to help developers manage large-scale deployments instead.

“We saw data systems, this move to the edge, and we felt like this old cloud 1.0 model of manually collecting data and shipping it to databases in the cloud seems pretty inefficient,” Mukherjee explained. “And the other part was: I was on call. I got gray hair and all that stuff. We felt like we could build this new generation of developer tools and get to Michael Jordan’s vision of intelligent augmentation, which is giving creatives tools where they can be a lot more productive.”

Image Credits: Pixie

The team argues that most competing monitoring and observability systems focus on operators and IT teams — and often involve a long manual setup process. But Pixie wants to automate most of this manual process and build a tool that developers want to use.

Pixie runs inside a developer’s Kubernetes platform and developers get instant and automatic visibility into their production environments. With Pixie, which the team is making available as a freemium SaaS product, there is no instrumentation to install. Instead, the team uses relatively new Linux kernel techniques like eBPF to collect data right at the source.

“One of the really cool things about this is that we can deploy Pixie in about a minute and you’ll instantly get data,” said Asgar. “Our goal here is that this really helps you when there are cases where you don’t want your business logic to be full of monitoring code, especially if you forget something — when you have an outage.”

Image Credits: Pixie

At the core of the developer experience is what the company calls “Pixie scripts.” Using a Python-like language (PxL), developers can codify their debugging workflows. The company’s system already features a number of scripts written by the team itself and the community at large. But as Asgar noted, not every user will write scripts. “The way scripts work, it’s supposed to capture human knowledge in that problem. We don’t expect the average user — or even the way above average developer — ever to touch a script or write one. They’re just going to use it in a specific scenario,” he explained.

Looking ahead, the team plans to make these scripts and the scripting language more robust and usable to allow developers to go from passively monitoring their systems to building scripts that can actively take actions on their clusters based on the monitoring data the system collects.

“Zain and Ishan’s provocative idea was to move software monitoring to the source,” said Eric Vishria, General Partner at Benchmark. “Pixie enables engineering teams to fundamentally rethink their monitoring strategy as it presents a vision of the future where we detect anomalous behavior and make operational decisions inside the infrastructure layer itself. This allows companies of all sizes to monitor their digital experiences in a more responsive, cost-effective and scalable manner.”

#artificial-intelligence, #benchmark, #ceo, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #engineer, #eric-vishria, #free-software, #general-partner, #google, #kubernetes, #linux, #machine-learning, #michael-jordan, #pixie, #stanford, #tc

Incredible Health updates its healthcare career platform to help nurse hiring cope with COVID

The healthcare industry, even prior to the current pandemic, has never looked much like other industries when it comes to hiring and career management. That was the impetus behind Incredible Health, a startup founded by medical doctor Iman Abuzeid and Amazon alum Rome Portlock. The platform Incredible Health built is all about connecting nurses with jobs – but it goes above and beyond your typical online job board in order to provide better service both to job seekers and hospitals, and to help nurses throughout the course of their careers.

I spoke to Abuzeid, who serves as Incredible Health’s CEO, about some new features that Incredible Health has just introduced, in part to address the particular needs of nurses and hospitals considering the constraints of COVID-19 and the ongoing challenges it presents. She first explained why Incredible is a unique platform to begin with, among a sea of relatively undifferentiated job search products.

“There are three unique things about the platform,” she said. “The first is that the employers apply to the nurses instead of the other way around – which we can do because of this huge supply-demand imbalance. The second is that we’ve automated the screening and pre-vetting of the nurses, so we’re able to automatically verify things like licenses and certifications, and experiences and so on, because we’ve integrated with so many databases. And the third thing we do is custom matching algorithms.”

That means Incredible Health provides hospitals with only matches that meet their exact needs for a specific position requirement, rather than forcing them to wade through large numbers of potential applicants who might not have the skills they need. In a field like nursing, which has a lot of specific professional designations and certifications, specificity actually helps both sides quite a bit.

“The end result of all of that is hires that happen at least three or four times faster,” Abuzeid told me. “Our average right now is 13 days, and the efficiency is about 30 times more efficient than a standard job board. Really, some of the biggest impacts we have are financial – we save on average, each hospital we work with, about $2 million per year. We do that by reducing their travel nurse budget, because they don’t have to use as many contract workers when they’re permanently staffed. And we also reduce their overtime costs, and their HR costs.”

Abuzeid also told me that nurses hired through Incredible Health tend to stick around longer. The startup only has about a year of historical data to check against so far, but she said that so far, they’re seeing about 25% percent higher retention vs. the industry average. She added that they suspect this is due largely to the fact that nurses are able to consider multiple offers and hospital options on the platform, since there are often multiple employers vying to hire the same employee, especially in the case of specialization like ICU nurses.

As for what’s new to Incredible Health, the company has introduced automated interview scheduling. Abuzeid says that has led to 70% of interviews being scheduled via automation within 36 hours on the platform currently. The platform has also introduced remote interviewing for safely distanced pre-hiring interactions, and in-app chat between potential employers and nurses right in the iOS, Android and web apps that Incredible Health offers. Profiles for nurses on the platform also now list socialites and skills, from a pre-set catalog of 45 specialities and 250 skills that are specific to the nursing field, like ICU or OR expertise. Abuzeid said that most of these were fast-tracked due to significant changes they were seeing in the hiring process as a result of the COVID pandemic.

“We saw several impacts,” she told me. “First is like the number of offers that started to go out – we see one go out every few hours now. And the number of interview requests is up to one being sent every few minutes. So it’s really accelerated, and that’s been a combination of two things. One is just that we made the software better and more efficient – but the other thing is the urgency also increased on the hospital end given the pandemic.”

Aside from improving the process of hiring vs. traditional methods, and supporting more remote hiring and onboarding workflows, Incredible Health also addresses some of the diversity gaps in the current healthcare industry hiring process. Abuzeid explained that that’s due in part to built-in features of the platform like salary estimate calculators, and adds that some tweaks have been created intentionally to level the playing field.

“30% of nurses identity in the U.S. identify as minorities, so we take diversity pretty seriously because that’s a huge chunk of our user base,” she said. “By giving nurses salary data, it democratizes that and makes you more informed. We also provide talent advocates who are also nurses on our team that support every single nurse, helping them almost as career coach to support them throughout the hiring process.”

Incredible Health also takes steps to ensure the product isn’t itself reinforcing any existing biases that may be present, consciously or otherwise, on the part of hiring parties.

“We random sort the list of the list of nurses as they’re displayed in front of employers and the application, or we use avatars instead of profile pictures,”  We’re also constantly monitoring the data that that that’s in the platform. So for example, we noticed that recruiters were biasing against nurses that lived further away. And so we just removed the current location of the nurse, we just stopped displaying that, and that bias went away. So it’s really important that the software and our algorithms actually counter human bias.”

So far, Incredible Health has raised $17 million in funding, including a Series A last year led by Jeff Jordan at Andreessen Horowitz. The company is already in use at over 200 hospitals across the U.S., as well as at a number of the largest health care networks in the country, like HCA and Baylor, and at academics medical centres including Cedar Sinai and Stanford as well. The startup is growing quickly by addressing a long-standing need with software designed specifically to the challenge, and looks poised for even more future growth as the demand for qualified, well-supported healthcare professionals grows.

#amazon, #andreessen-horowitz, #career-coach, #ceo, #health, #health-care, #healthcare-industry, #iman-abuzeid, #incredible-health, #jeff-jordan, #nursing, #stanford, #startups, #tc, #united-states, #web-apps

Founded by an Impossible Foods, and Google data scientist, Climax Foods raises $7.5 million to tackle the cheesiest market

Oliver Zahn began his professional career studying the stars. The founder of Climax Foods, a startup that’s using data science to replace animal proteins with plant-based substitutes, spent years at the University of California at Berkeley with his eyes fixed firmly toward the heavens before taking up with Pat Brown and Impossible Foods as the company’s leading data scientist.

That experience focused Zahn on more terrestrial concerns and undoubtedly led the founder down the path to launching Climax Foods.

Now with $7.5 million in financing from investors including At One Ventures, founded by the GoogleX co-founder Tom Chi, along with Manta Ray Ventures, S2G Ventures, Valor Siren Ventures, Prelude Ventures, ARTIS Ventures, Index Ventures, Luminous Ventures, Canaccord Genuity Group, Carrot Capital and Global Founders Capital, Zahn is ready to take on the future of food.

The pitch to investors is similar to the one that Josh Tetrick made at Just Food (the company formerly known as Hampton Creek). It’s elegant in its simplicity — scan the natural world for proteins that have the same or better characteristics than those that are currently made by animals and make products with them.

By looking at what makes animal products so delicious, the company will find their plant-based analogs and start producing.

As with most things that depend on data science, the taxonomy is the key. So Climax Foods is building machine learning algorithms that will process and cross-reference molecular structures to find the best fit. It’s starting with cheese.

While, the replacing the humble wheel of cheese may not seem like a worthy adversary for an astrophysicist, companies have already raised hundreds of millions to defeat the big dairy industry.

“We are at a pivotal time where industrialization enabled explosive population growth and consumption of animal products. Today, more than 90% of all mammalian animals and more than 70% of all birds on the planet exist for the sole purpose of metabolizing plants and being turned into food,” said Zahn in a statement. “This industry is complex and wasteful, creating as much climate change as all modes of transportation combined, and using more than a third of the earth’s water and usable land. By speeding up food science innovation, Climax Foods is able to convert plants into equally craveable foods without the environmental impact.”

Joining Zahn on this quest to conquer the cheese industrial complex and its milk-made monstrousness are a few seasoned industry veterans including co-founder, Caroline Love, the company’s chief operating officer and former sales and operations executive from JUST foods, and Pavel Aronov, a Stanford-educated chemist who previously worked at the chemicals giant thermo-Fisher.

“Climax Foods is tackling the same opportunity to change the market and the food system, but they are doing it with an entirely novel technological approach. They are using data science to produce a new category of foods that will not merely compete with, but out-compete, animal products in terms of taste, nutritional density, and price,” said Sanjeev Krishnan, one of the largest investors in the plant protein space and Chief Investment Officer of S2G Ventures. “The machine intelligence approach Climax Foods is pioneering is critical for harnessing the vast number of ways raw ingredients and natural processes can be used to create the ultimate digital recipes.”

Krishnan would know. He’s an investor in Beyond Meat, the most successful public offering of a plant-based protein replacement company.

#beyond-meat, #california, #chemicals, #chief-operating-officer, #co-founder, #executive, #food, #food-and-drink, #founder, #global-founders-capital, #hampton-creek, #impossible-foods, #josh-tetrick, #just, #luminous-ventures, #manta-ray-ventures, #meat-substitutes, #prelude-ventures, #protein, #s2g-ventures, #stanford, #tc, #thermo-fisher, #university-of-california, #valor-siren-ventures

Our 11 favorite companies from Y Combinator’s S20 Demo Day: Part I

Startup incubator and investment group Y Combinator today held the first of two demo days for founders in its Summer 2020 batch.

So far, this cohort contains the usual mix of bold, impressive, and, at times, slightly wacky ideas young companies so often show off.

This was Y Combinator’s second online demo day, its first all-virtual class and the first time that it held live, remote pitches. The event largely went well, with founders dialing in from around the globe to share a few paragraphs of notes and a single slide. There were few technical hiccups, given the sheer number of startups presenting.

But if you are not in the mood to parse through dozens (and dozens) of entries detailing each startup that showed off its problem, solution, and growth, the TechCrunch crew has collected our own favorites based on how likely a company seems to succeed and how impressed we were with the creativity of their vision. For each entry, one staffer made the call that the startup in question was among their favorites.

We’re not investors, so we’re not pretending to sort the unicorns from the goats. But if what you need is a digest of some of the day’s best companies to get a good taste of what founders are building, we have your back.

ZipSchool and Hellosaurus

Natasha Mascarenhas

The next wave of edtech startups is entering a market that demands a better remote-learning solution for younger learners. But that’s the obvious product gap, one that is already being tackled by the biggest names in the booming category.

The non-obvious product-market deficit is how teachers, also impacted by the pandemic, are searching for new ways to interact with students. Teachers are collaborating and cross-pollinating on successful lesson plans that work across stale Zoom screens, so why not monetize that same content?

#ecommerce, #education, #entrepreneurship, #femtech, #finance, #health, #online-classes, #online-learning, #payments, #stanford, #startups, #tc, #teacher, #video, #y-combinator, #yc-demo-day

This looping aquatic treadmill lets tiny ocean creatures swim forever under the microscope

Observing the microscopic creatures that fill our oceans is important work, but keeping your eye on one in the wild is practically impossible — and doing so in a dish isn’t the same. This ‘hydrodynamic treadmill’ however provides the best of both worlds: An unending water column for the creatures to swim in, without ever leaving the watchful eye of an automated microscope.

The Gravity Machine, as it’s called, is the brainchild of Stanford researchers under bioengineering professor Manu Prakash. He and some students, during a research trip to Madagascar, had built a slightly clunky meter-long tube with an attached microscope that could follow a creature as it moved up and down. But these microorganisms sometimes travel hundreds of meters a day to chase the sun or nutrients in the water.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to observe this life in its own habitat… or the last 200 years, we’ve been doing microscopy with confinement. You’d have to have a kilometer-long tube if you wanted to track an organism over a kilometer,” Prakash said. “While we were thinking about this problem, it dawned on us — there was this ‘aha!’ moment where we thought, instead of a long tube, what if the two ends of the tube were connected?”

Image Credits: Stanford University

The gadget is, in retrospect, almost obvious. Instead of having a microscope pointing downwards at a dish where the creatures swim around in a shallow pool of water — nothing like their natural environment — you have one pointed sideways at a closed glass loop filled with water and the organisms of interest. They can swim freely up and down, and as they do so the loop slowly spins to keep them within the frame of the microscope.

A computer vision system attached to the 3D microscope carefully tracks the location of the target creature and keeps it in focus, while auxiliary systems note the exact distances traveled and other metrics.

The team has used the device to capture all manner of beautiful and scientifically interesting behaviors by microscopic organisms.

“It’s fair to say that every time we have put an organism into this instrument, we have discovered something new,” Prakash said.

One such novelty is the fact — obvious upon inspecting these creatures in this way — that despite living in a fluid environment and at a scale of microns, gravity is a major factor in their lives. “They’re all aware of gravity, and they all care about gravity,” said Prakash. Exactly how would be very difficult to say until the creation of this machine, which lets the scientists observe these behaviors directly — hence the name.

A close-up of a microorganism being tracked by the circular microscope.

Image Credits: Stanford University

A close-up of a microorganism being tracked by the circular microscope.

Image Credits: Stanford University

The imagery produced by the instrument is visually arresting and interesting even to a layperson, as well — and capturing the interest of the general public is remarkably difficult to do when it comes to the field of marine microbiology. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you talk about the diurnal migratory habits of dinoflagellates, but seeing one of these beautiful creatures up close and in focus, doing what it does best (whatever that is), is simply fascinating.

While the water stays in the loop (ideally — “we do explode wheels in our lab,” noted Prakash) that doesn’t mean that it’s a totally closed system.

“We can introduce things based on what the creature is doing,” said grad student Deepak Krishnamurthy. “We can introduce nutrients, tie the light intensity to it —  it’s a feedback loop between the organism and its environment. We’re also working on doing that with pressure, temperature, and other aspects of the ocean.”

I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d seen something like this before, and well into development of the Gravity Machine, Prakash himself came across a similar idea from the ’50s, a much larger loop that a marine biologist named Hardy used to allow jellies to swim endlessly in a similar fashion. Of course the present device could only happen with the advance machine learning and robotics tech that we have today, but as Prakash said, “the historic context is quite beautiful, actually. We got a big kick out of that in the lab.”

Stanford’s Gravity Machine wasn’t quite the first, then, and the team means to make sure it isn’t the last, either, by publishing all the details on how to build and run the instrument.

“We were careful to make it as open as possible, and that affected our choices of harware and software,” said Krishnamurthy. “The intention is for it to be completely open source for research purposes. We use open source algorithms for tracking, we wrote our own for the controls that keep it in focus, the UI for watching and collecting data.”

“We’ll be putting instructions for people to build this on the gravitymachine.org site itself,” added Prakash. An ordinary microscope can be used with some modification and a few easy to get parts, and ultimately it’s no more than a lab might do to create or customize its own equipment anyway. He even hinted at a “home edition” that could show a curious user what critters in the endless water column were up to. Sort of like having your sea monkeys live on TV.

The exact specifications of the Gravity Machine will be published soon, as will the team’s first paper using the device to discover something new and extremely weird: diatoms that can voluntarily control their own density to rise or fall in the water column. You can read more about the device at its site or this Stanford news post.

#artificial-intelligence, #biology, #gadgets, #hardware, #robotics, #science, #stanford, #stanford-university, #tc

Mission Bio raises $70 million to help scale its tech for improving the development of targeted cancer therapies

California-based startup Mission Bio has raised a new $70 million Series C funding round, led by Novo Growth and including participating from Soleus Capital and existing investors Mayfield, Cota and Agilent. Mission Bio will use the funding to scale its Tapestri Platform, which uses the company’s work in single-cell multi-omics technology to help optimize clinical trials for targeted, precision cancer therapies.

Mission Bio’s single-cell multi-omics platform is unique in the therapeutic industry. What it allows is the ability to zero in on a single cell, observing both genotype (fully genetic) and phenotype (observable traits influenced by genetics and other factors) impact resulting from use of various therapies during clinical trials. Mission’s Tapestri can detect both DNA and protein changes within the same single cell, which is key in determining effectiveness of targeted therapies because it can help rule out the effect of other factors not under control when analyzing in bulk (ie. across groups of cells).

Founded in 2012 as a spin-out of research work conducted at UCSF, Mission Bio has raised a total of $120 million to date. The company’s tech has been used by a number of large pharmaceutical and therapeutic companies, including Agios, LabCorp and Onconova Therapeutics, as well as at cancer research centers including UCSF, Stanford and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

In addition to helping with the optimization of clinical trials for treatments of blood cancers and tutors, Mission’s tech can be used to validate genome editing – a large potential market that could see a lot of growth over the next few years with the rise of CRISPR-based therapeutic applications.

#articles, #biology, #biotech, #biotechnology, #california, #cancer, #cancer-research, #crispr, #drugs, #health, #labcorp, #life-sciences, #science, #stanford, #stem-cells, #tc, #ucsf

Recruiting for diversity in VC

Like many industries with a high concentration of wealth — and the careers that help professionals accumulate it — investment firms have a severe dearth of diversity in their ranks.

Regardless of whether the focus is venture capital, private equity or any other investment asset class, the firms are replete with white men. Though there have been some modest efforts of late to push for diversity, particularly in VC, these have yielded single digit percentage changes at best — and nothing at worst. Only 9% of investment decision makers in VC today are women; just 2% are Black.

Some firms have made reasonable inroads on this problem with good intentions. Based on my search experience recruiting investment professionals, I would guess that at least half of those searches were for clients with a strong preference to hire a “diverse” candidate. The Black Lives Matter movement has recently advanced the dialogue even further and has shined a light on underrepresentation in VC more than ever. “How do we increase our pipeline of diverse candidates?” is a question I heard frequently before 2020, but in past weeks this has become a chorus. Unfortunately, if solving this problem were as easy as telling a recruiter you want more diversity, it might have been solved long ago.

Below are a few common pitfalls we see in our searches with VC firms in particular, as well as some thoughts on how firms can improve their hiring processes, in order to work toward having more diverse representation within their investing teams.

Job description: Great comes in many forms

The most common reason I see for hiring processes leading to a slate with primarily white male candidates is because the criteria my client views as required almost completely precludes the possibility that the candidate slate will be diverse.

Taken as a given that women and minority men are not well-represented at senior levels in VC, any job spec that asks for a candidate to have seven to 10 years of experience in the industry, or a large number of board seats or investments led, will mean that the pool of “qualified” candidates will consist of mostly white men. This has historically been referred to as the “pipeline problem” and it’s an increasingly well-studied concept that academic literature is beginning to point to as a bias that pushes the onus of hiring minorities away from the hiring manager and on to the candidate pool. Even for firms that remain committed to hiring underrepresented groups without making adjustments to their criteria, the result is a zero-sum game where proven minority investors rotate from firm to firm, and an outcome that does not increase diversity in the industry as a whole.

VC firms seeking to improve their diversity have to recognize that great comes in many forms. By crafting broader specs and really thinking about the qualifications for their investing roles, a whole new talent pool opens up. To see that new pool of talent though, firms must first determine what characteristics are relevant to the role, and avoid tenure (or other tenure stand-ins) as the main criteria. VC investing is as much an art as a science; firms should decide what personal traits make somebody strong in their organization and why. How would a different viewpoint be additive to sourcing or diligence discussions?

Firms then need to commit to interviewing for those traits and perspectives, and assessing candidates along those same lines. One VC firm I worked with interviewed dozens of candidates before they realized that their process focused too much on financial acumen and not enough on the other factors they felt would make somebody a strong venture capitalist, resulting in a final slate of safe, “qualified,” and mostly nonminority candidates.

We reworked our process, and theirs, to interview for different criteria moving forward. We asked about overcoming hardships and about risks taken, and we got a sense for what type of impact that person made in whatever organization they came from rather than just asking about deals and transactions. It should be no surprise that the candidates with noninvesting backgrounds are performing much better in the process now, and the value they’d add to the organization more clear, even though the interviewers and the roles are the same.

Affinity bias: Go beyond what’s familiar

A broad spec and a team committed to hiring diverse talent, and interviewing appropriately, are great starting points. But then there is much more to do. Affinity bias is a well-known phenomenon that many investors are likely aware of, but it is pernicious in hiring settings and can be a serious challenge to overcome. Affinity bias in hiring is when a person or group of people prefer a candidate who looks, talks, acts or has a similar background to them.

In the case of hiring candidates with diverse backgrounds, affinity bias may be the tallest hurdle. In VC, the job is in many ways to seek common ground with the people you talk to. Good VCs are relationship builders — with entrepreneurs, other VCs and strong executives they want to recruit into their portfolio companies. But most investors are white people from affluent communities who attended elite universities and have worked at top-tier banks or consulting firms. In some cases there may have been a stint at another top-tier institution, be it a technology company or another investment firm.

White men are more likely to have these backgrounds. In a hiring process, white male VCs will naturally find ways to connect with candidates with similar backgrounds (i.e., other white men), in contrast to candidates with none of those same experiences, even when the candidates with other backgrounds are equally qualified for the role.

Affinity bias can be very subtle. It is human nature to feel the conversation was easier with somebody who in many ways has led the same life you did. It can feel somewhat logical even: The critique of the nonwhite or nonmale candidate is never as obvious as “They didn’t go to Stanford” or “They don’t belong to my country club.” Rather, it is often expressed as something softer and subjective — a seldom-articulated criteria of cultural fit. “Our culture is different from the place they work” is the most common. “I’m not sure they have the drive” is another, or “They don’t have an X-factor.” Now, these critiques can be completely legitimate.

A candidate may indeed be a bad fit for the culture of the firm because, for example, their prior employer was a gigantic corporate machine reliant on extraneous processes and they are interviewing for a role at a small entrepreneurial organization. But sometimes, particularly when interviewing candidates from different backgrounds, culture fit is a mask for affinity bias, and VCs (like all interviewers) need to be conscious of this tendency.

Look in the right networks

Investment firms almost always try to make a hire through their own network before leading a full search, and even before posting a job as being open anywhere online. This has become such an ingrained behavior that it is often discussed as a best practice. Unfortunately, “hiring through our network” almost certainly means the slate of candidates that a firm considers at the outset is going to be heavily nondiverse. Unless a firm (or to broaden this guidance, an organization) is already diverse across multiple vectors, then beginning a search by canvasing the firm’s own network is highly unlikely to yield a “diverse” candidate. This seems innocuous but it can actually be harmful to the odds that the firm ever hires a candidate from an underrepresented group. Why? There is another bias at work, the status quo bias.

Studies have shown that people tend to make choices that favor the status quo. Creating a balanced slate of choices is critical to avoid disfavoring minority candidates inadvertently. One study showed that having multiple women or Black candidates on a finalist slate increased the odds that the selected would be a minority by 70x-100x. But if a group of interviewers meets five white men through their networks before they meet anybody else, it is going to take an disproportionate number of underrepresented minority candidates to overcome the group’s bias toward hiring the “status quo” of the white men they met at the outset of the search.

At True Search, we recently audited one of our own searches to look for candidate-selected markers of their identity. We compared our pool of candidates to the NVCA diversity data from 2018. Compared to the industry averages, our pool of candidates was half as white and twice as female as the industry at large. I am not sharing that data as an advertisement for True Search, and in fact we strive to do more and are working on multiple programs to increase our networks with diverse candidate pools. The point is, when a VC firm uses a search firm or any outside consultant for a search, the pool of candidates is going to be much more diverse than if that VC firm simply calls up the people in their network, who probably are not all that diverse.

Focus on inclusion

A commitment to hiring more talent with underrepresented backgrounds is great; actually doing it is even better. Many studies have shown that diversity improves the performance of a team, but the onus is on the organization to foster an environment where those viewpoints are appreciated. In my discussions with VCs who are minorities, they point out that once they are in the door of the firm they still face challenges that white male colleagues don’t.

They are less likely to have mentors who share their backgrounds, and investing is largely an apprenticeship business. If they did not come from Stanford or Harvard, they are less likely to see deals that come through the sorts of personal networks that the firm is likely accustomed to seeing. If they came from a noninvesting background, they may be taken less seriously when presenting investment ideas to the team of career investors. A firm has to support diversity of thought once it is in the door, or the contributions of those team members may be unappreciated.

Firms can do many things to foster strong talent from diverse backgrounds once they are in the organization. Minority investors have shared some great ideas with me as I was thinking through this article, so these suggestions aren’t just my own. Underrepresented groups have historically (in the short history of such groups having any significant representation in the investing world) formed mentorship networks that transcend the walls of a given firm, such as Latinx VC, BLCK VC and All Raise.

VC firms should build as much connectivity with those sort of networks as possible. This will not only increase the odds that a firm will see more candidates from underrepresented groups, but it will also mean that the firm can play a role in finding strong mentors for their diverse talent throughout their career. Those networks can be built through small individual actions like attending and sponsoring events, or sharing job postings in the firm and portfolio with those networks.

VC firms can also help to jump-start a hire’s network in venture. Imagine a scenario where a firm hires a noninvestor with a unique yet amazing background into an investing role. Their peers all went to Stanford or worked at Facebook and are sourcing their deals through those personal networks. VC firms can use their resources to help close that network gap, such as by setting aside small pools of capital for a seed fund to be deployed by new investors with diverse backgrounds, thereby giving them a boost in early network building. I’ve seen firms deploy this strategy as a way to keep tabs on high potential operators, or on partner-level candidates they want to get to know more before they commit to hiring full-time.

Firms can help train junior talent and better prepare them for future full-time roles in venture by running intern or analyst programs and emphasizing the hiring of underrepresented groups into those roles. Even a part-time gig in VC will give a candidate a leg up in future interview processes, and even if that person goes off to another firm for a full-time role, the network back to that person will remain and could be helpful as a source of (or mentor to) the diverse talent the firm hires in the future.

#column, #diversity, #entrepreneurship, #hiring, #inclusion, #nvca, #opinion, #recruitment, #stanford, #startups, #talent, #tc, #venture-capital

Stanford students are short-circuiting VC firms by investing in their peers

Stanford’s success in spinning out startup founders is a well-known adage in Silicon Valley, with alumni founding companies like Google, Cisco, Cloudflare, LinkedIn, Youtube, Snapchat, Instagram, and yes, even TechCrunch. And venture capitalists routinely back more founders coming out of the Stanford business program than any other university in the country.

One group of Stanford graduate students is well-aware of their favorable odds, and think that they should be able to cash in their classmates, too — not just accredited investors and the super-wealthy.

They have put together, Stanford 2020, a new fund created entirely by Stanford classmates to invest in their fellow students’ ventures.

The idea was spurred by six students, who after a year of working with Fenwick & West law firm to find a suitable legal structure landed on creating an investment club — multiple parties can invest together as long as they have some form of shared ties.

Steph Mui, a founding member of Stanford 2020 and former venture capital associate at VC firm NEA, formed the club in defiance of the inaccessibility of angel investing, which she described as an elite Silicon Valley status symbol.

“Especially in Silicon Valley where it seems kind of a status symbol and only accredited people can do it, it feels very elite” she said. “We started thinking more about if we can actually make this something that the whole class could participate in, or at least make it more accessible to more than just like these small pockets of people that do it behind closed doors?”

Stanford 2020 club members must put up a minimum of $3,000 to join the investment club, and any eventual returns will be distributed proportionally to the investment each makes. So far, Mui tells TechCrunch that $1.5 million has been raised across 175 investors, with 50 investors willing to give $500,000 on the waitlist. In fact, the club is so “oversubscribed” that it is working to give money back.

Mui estimates that roughly 40% of the class is participating in the club. The founding members are being defined as “board members” who were recruited for passion and for diversity in background, professional interests, and past leadership experience.

The group plans to invest $50,000 to $100,000 in startups depending on round size and valuation.

Mui thinks that Stanford 2020’s competitive advantage is largely the personal relationship it has with the companies it will invest in. After all, success might be just an arms reach away. Notoriously, Cloudflare, Rent the Runway, and Thredup were all born in the same classroom after being assigned a class project, according to Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince.

“We have such strong pre-existing relationships, we know what people are working on way before they even raise,” she said.

Anyone who has been part of a club or team before knows that loyalty runs deep, but we’ll see if that closeness is enough for a founder to dole out a stake in their company. While Stanford 2020 doesn’t take any management fee or carry, equity isn’t casual; in that vein, a famed Silicon Valley firm might be of better utility than your classmates.

Stanford 2020’s set up sounds similar to StartX, the university’s attempt at investing in its own, leafy backyard which shut down in 2019. Launched in 2013, StartX offered to invest money in exchange for equity in any startup that went through its auxiliary accelerator and has $500,000 from professional investors.

Looking at Stanford 2020’s set up, the rules are almost exactly the same. Mui tells TechCrunch that startups must fulfill two criteria in order to automatically invest: first, the co-founder must be a member of the class, and second, they must raise a round of $750,000 or more from a reputable institutional investor. They define reputable as a list of 80 investors they got guidance on from advisors in the industry.

The concept of a rule-based automatic investment strategy comes with a big red flag: what if the founder has a bad idea or is a bad person, and still meets the criteria?

“I actually literally can’t think of a single person and I’m like, that person is so bad or so immoral, that we wouldn’t invest in them,” Mui said. “That’s part of the benefit of investing only in your classmates.”

But in case a Stanford-born class does have a problematic founder, Stanford 2020 has a veto voting mechanism.

In the grand scheme of things, Stanford-born startups are in a better spot than most when it comes to securing cash. They don’t desperately need another fund to invest in them. Mui’s ambition for Stanford 2020 is that other schools can copy and paste the legal structure they took a year (and a lot of hard work) to figure out.

She says they’re already getting inbound from incoming Stanford classes, other Stanford Schools, and undergraduates. Now that it’s closed, she hopes they hear from other business schools, too .

#cloudflare, #fenwick, #nea, #rent-the-runway, #stanford, #startups, #startx, #tc

Zoom faces criticism for denying free users e2e encryption

What price privacy? Zoom is facing a fresh security storm after CEO Eric Yuan confirmed that a plan to reboot its battered security cred by (actually) implementing end-to-end encryption does not in fact extend to providing this level of security to non-paying users.

This Zoom ‘premium on privacy’ is necessary so it can provide law enforcement with access to call content, per Bloomberg, which reported on security-related remarks made by Yuan during an earnings call yesterday, when the company reported big gains thanks to the coronavirus pandemic accelerating uptake of remote working tools.

“Free users for sure we don’t want to give [e2e encryption] because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose,” Yuan said on the call.

Security experts took swiftly to Twitter to condemn Zoom’s ‘pay us or no e2e’ policy.

EFF associate research director, Gennie Gebhart, also critically discussed Zoom’s decision to withhold e2e encryption for free users in a Twitter thread late last month, following a feedback call with the company — criticizing it for spinning what she characterized as pure upsell as a safety consideration.

It’s a nuance-free cop-out to blanket-argue that ‘bad things happen on free accounts’, she suggested.

Fast forward to today and a tweet about the report of Yuan’s comments written by Bloomberg technology reporter, Nico Grant, triggered an intervention by none other than Alex Stamos — the former Facebook and Yahoo! security executive who signed up by as a consultant on Zoom’s security strategy back in April days after the company had been served with a class action lawsuit from shareholders for overstating security claims.

Stamos — who was CSO at Yahoo! during a period when the NSA was using a backdoor to scan user email and also headed up security at Facebook at a time when Russia implemented a massive disinformation campaign targeting the 2016 US presidential election — weighed in via Twitter to claim there’s a “difficult balancing act between different kinds of harms” which he said justifies Zoom’s decision to deny e2e encryption for all users.

Curiously, Stamos was also CSO at Facebook when the tech giant completed the roll out of e2e encryption on WhatsApp — providing this level of security to the then billion+ users of its free-to-use mobile messaging and video chat app.

Which might suggest that Stamos’ conception of online “harms” has evolved considerably since 2016 — after all, he’s since landed at Stanford as an adjunct professor (where he researches “safe tech”).

Although, in the same year (2016), Stamos defended his employer’s decision not to make e2e encryption the default on Facebook Messenger. So his unifying thread appears to be being paid to defend corporate decision-making while applying a gloss of ‘security expertise’.

Stamos’ latest Twit(n)ter-vention runs to type, with the security consultant now defending Zoom’s management’s decision not to extend e2e encryption to free users of the product.

But his tweeted defence of AES encryption as a valid alternative to e2e encryption has attracted some pointed criticism from the crypto community — as an attack on established standards.

Nadim Kobeissi, a Paris-based applied cryptography researcher — who told us that his protocol modelling and analysis software was used by the Zoom team during development of its proposed e2e encrypted system for (paid product) meetings — called out Stamos for “insisting that AES encryption, which can be bypassed by Zoom Inc. at will, qualifies as real encryption”.

That’s “what’s truly misleading here”, Kobeissi tweeted.

In a phone call with TechCrunch, Kobeissi fleshed out his critique, saying he’s concerned, more broadly, that a current and (he said) much needed “Internet zeitgeist” focus on online safety is being hijacked by certain vested interests to push their own agenda in a way that could roll back major online security gains — such as the expansion of e2e encryption to free messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal — and lead to a general deterioration of security ideals and standards.

Kobeissi pointed out that AES encryption — which Stamos defended — does not prevent server intercepts and snooping on calls. Nor does it offer a way for Zoom users to detect such an attack, with the crypto expert emphasizing it’s “fundamentally different from snooping-resistant encryption”.

Hence he characterized Stamos’ defence of AES as “misleading and manipulative” — saying it blurs a clearly established dividing line between e2e encryption and non-e2e.

“There are two problems [with the Zoom situation]: 1) There’s no e2e encryption for free users; and 2) there’s intentional deception,” Kobeissi told TechCrunch.

He also questioned why Stamos has not publicly pushed for Zoom to find ways to safely implement e2e encryption for free users — pointing, by way of example, to the franking ‘abuse report’ mechanism that Facebook recently applied to e2e encrypted “Secret Conversations” on Messenger.

“Why not improve on Facebook Messenger franking,” he suggested, calling for Zoom to use its acquisition of Keybase’s security team to invest and do research that would raise security standards for all users.

Such a mechanism could “absolutely” be applied to video and voice calls, he argued.

“I think [Stamos] has a deleterious effect on the kind of truth that ends up being communicated about these services,” he added in further critical remarks about the former Facebook CSO, who he said comes across as akin to a “fixer” who gets called in “to render a company as acceptable as possible to the security community while letting it do what it wants”.

We’ve reached out to Zoom and Stamos for comment.

#aes, #alex-stamos, #cryptography, #e2e-encryption, #encryption, #eric-yuan, #keybase, #messenger, #online-safety, #privacy, #security, #stanford, #united-states, #yahoo, #zoom

Origin wants to make accessible physical therapy women’s new normal

“I spend a lot of time being angry — but I’m still hopeful. Gender bias in medicine is systemic,” says Carine Carmy, the fast-talking CEO and co-founder of Origin, during a condensed chat about her startup mission to make physical therapy for women and mothers accessible and affordable across the US, both online and through a network of physical clinics.

The unexpected arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic led the LA-based startup to rework and accelerate its original launch plan — shifting its first focus to getting a telehealth service up and running fast.

They launched a “virtual care” service at the end of last month — offering “non-invasive, affordable care for commonly overlooked health issues”, from painful sex to postpartum recovery, as they put it in a press release, all of which is currently being served up via socially distanced Zoom video chat, thanks to the coronavirus.

Early growth in visits is running at 100%, month over month, per Carmy.

“We had originally planned to spend more time with in person care and then actually launch our digital platform — telehealth — in 2021. But March hit and it was very clear that we were going to have to close our doors for some period of time. So we decided to accelerate, really dramatically, the launch of our virtual care,” she explains.

“We launched a telehealth product in 48 hours, we converted the majority of our visits for the next month in person online and we had really, really great feedback and customer response —  both in terms of adoption but repeat visits as well. And that gave us the confidence to really accelerate both the brand launch but also to be able to serve many more women with telehealth and then ultimately with other digital products down the line.”

Origin’s virtual care offering is nationwide in the sense of being available as a “touchpoint” to women across the U.S., though Carmy notes it’s only “in network” (i.e. accepted by some insurance providers) in California at this point. “That’s a goal of ours — to expand insurance coverage nationwide,” she says.

“We’re rapidly onboarding new providers across the country to be able to serve patients in a deeper way. Right now we offer one-on-one physical therapy online in California, and we’re offering health coaching in other states and are expanding our coverage in the coming weeks. We have folks lined up in New York and Texas and other states that we’re onboarding right now.”

The wider plan — coronavirus pandemic willing — is to start building out a network of physical clinics to go alongside the telehealth service, expanding out from the initial clinic in LA. She says the team is eyeing other locations in California to potentially open up later this year.

“Our model is both in person and online but obviously COVID has accelerated the online component,” Carmy tells TechCrunch. “But, at the core, physical therapy designed for women really means we were looking at women’s anatomy; the hormonal differences that affect women at unique stages in life; and often looking at the very prevalent but overlooked healthcare issues that women experience. So that’s the core of the care delivery that we’ve been tweaking with the team from a client experience perspective.

“That is going to stay the same but our goal is to build a network of practices across the country in partnership with the leading providers in each market. So we’re actually on track to open up San Francisco later this year… and have plans to expand within California and the country in person.”

On the tech side they’re focusing on building “customization around the care delivery experience” — which boils down to building a platform that serves the target female users with “the right education and fitness and exercise content”, as part of an overarching care delivery package.

Origin’s founder clinic is a long-standing LA business, called Bebé Physical Therapy. The team started working with this practice in late 2018, with a formal partnership following on last year. While the clinic’s original founder has left, the entire clinical team was retained — and Origin gained an existing loyal client base. (They say they’ve treated “thousands” of women in Los Angeles and have more than 250 referring providers, such as OB-GYNs, at this stage.)

“For us it was this really big moment of realizing there is this care delivery model that really works,” says Carmy, explaining the startup origin story. “The research shows that physical therapy is the first line of defense for every pelvic floor disorder. But there’s not enough access to these types of providers in a way that makes sense for the modern woman.”

“We really believe in building a clinical-first company,” she adds. “So for us it was really important to partner with really the best team in Los Angeles.”

Origin is angel funded at this stage, with the team taking an undisclosed amount of financing from investors including Assaf Wand, CEO and co-founder Hippo Insurance; Jenny Fleiss, co-founder of Rent the Runway; Josh Zad, founder & CEO of Alfred Inc.; and several others, including some individuals specifically focused on the healthcare space.

“Now profitability is sexy,” jokes Carmy, when asked about its approach to financing the business and whether it’s looking to go down a typical startup VC funding route or not. “For us, we’ve always wanted our locations to be profitable. I think it’s the most important thing to control your own destiny. Really focus on building a sustainable business from day one has been our goal.”

While bricks-and-mortar clinics where women can go for personal, physical, and potentially very intimate therapy are clearly a vital component of such a service, Carmy argues there’s plenty of good work that can be done virtually to support women with their health issues.

She says one major component to tackle when targeting women’s health is simply awareness and education — given how relatively overlooked the area is. And of course there’s no barrier to imparting knowledge over a Zoom call (albeit that particular videoconferencing tool’s platform’s security is something the Origin team may want to take a closer look at).

“So much of what we offer can be done remotely,” says Carmy. “And I think, especially if you’re a busy working mother, to be able to come into the clinic every week is not always feasible. So we do think you can actually achieve better outcomes and better adherence if we have continuous care online and in person.”

“A lot of patients are coming to us with issues that have never been named before,” she adds. “So some of the core value we offer is actually providing medical valuation — there’s a medical diagnosis and there’s a plan and there’s something we can do about it,” she adds.

“How women understand what’s going on with their bodies. And that’s not just in one session — that’s really over time, increasing body awareness and knowledge that women have so that they can also take care of themselves better in the future. That happens in every visit and can happen online.”

Carmy has a background in digital marketing but a very personal interest in women’s health after suffering painful sex during her twenties. She recounts the frustration of having to see multiple doctors before finally being able to get effective treatment for the problem.

While her long time friend and co-founder, Nona Farahnik Yadegar, suffered similar health issues after delivering her son — which led her to the Bebé Physical Therapy practice. Inspired, the friends joined forces to set up Origin, enlisting the help of Farahnik Yadegar’s husband, David, as their third co-founder.

“Pregnancy and postpartum, particularly postpartum, women’s needs are fundamentally ignored after they deliver,” Carmy continues. “We’re expected to just kind of ‘snap back’ — which is this huge fallacy which creates a whole set of other emotional issues and challenges as we try to live our lives.

“There’s a huge need. There’s a historical gender bias in medicine — but there has to be a way to solve this.”

It looks like a timely moment to build such a platform, with telehealth seeing a huge demand spike as a result of the coronavirus. While femtech, as a category, is now well established — commanding an increased share of attention from VCs who have historically lagged on understanding the opportunities for products and services that cater to women’s health (given their own gender bias problem).

Where women’s health is concerned the penny of opportunity does seem to be dropping. Not just for businesses narrowly focused on fertility, either, but for founders who are thinking far more holistically about women’s issues and well-being (including very overlooked yet universal transitions such as the menopause).

The Origin team’s decision to accelerate launching their telehealth platform actually occurred before a COVID-19 triggered shift in US regulations — which has nonetheless helped their accessibility mission by opening up digital healthcare platforms for insurance coverage, including for physical therapy.

“My hope is that this continues, even beyond whatever crisis period we’re in right now,” says Carmy, noting how physical therapy was one of the last areas to be covered for telehealth.

Origin contends that its approach to women’s health and physical therapy prevents and treats conditions that costs the system “billions of dollars across maternity and MSK” — by reducing unnecessary surgeries; improving musculoskeletal outcomes; and also by supporting women at work, thereby reducing absenteeism and promoting postpartum return.

“We’ve systemically ignored many parts of women’s bodies. There’s so much more research on erectile dysfunction than there is on female sexual pain,” Carmy adds, discussing why the insurance industry has also historically failed to pay proper attention to women’s health. (She notes, for example, that the Bebé Physical Therapy practice is an exception in Southern California in accepting insurance for this type of therapy.)

“If the medical community is telling you, through their actions, by only getting one visit six-weeks postpartum or by me needing to see six doctors to figure out what’s wrong with my pelvic floor, which is a large part of my body,  even I think that this is maybe ‘normal’ or not an issue.

“The number of women I’ve talked to who assume that leaking or incontinence is just something that happens to all women after they give birth and can’t be dealt with… So I think we’ve normalized what is probably one of the largest healthcare issues in the country. That is maybe not an acute issue causing a tonne of surgeries but it really is if you look at pelvic organ prolapse.

“One in two adult women experience some level of prolapse and surgery is still perceived to be ‘the option’. And even with surgery you need physical therapy so…”

There’s respected science underpinning physical therapy as an effective treatment for a range of women’s health issues (Carmy, for example, points to this Stanford study on pelvic floor dysfunction). But, at the same time, the historic failure of the medical research community to focus on women’s health issues means there’s an ongoing paucity of data — which is something Origin hopes to be able to treat in time.

“We’re one of the only practices, we’re seeing thousands of visits a months, so we’re able to actually have a very large population that, hopefully in partnership with a research institution, we can actually show the real value of what’s being done — especially from a prevention stand point,” says Carmy.

“I think that’s where healthcare is going,” she adds, on the dual-sided — online, offline — nature of the business: In person physical therapy supplemented by ongoing online care, where therapists treat patients in their homes (and can even, therefore get a peek at extra environmental context, by getting eyes on a patient’s surroundings, that might be useful for further customizing physical treatments).

“In the future we’re not going to call it ‘telehealth’ we’re going to call it healthcare… It’s really just the future of care delivery.”

Another healthcare trend that’s clearly signalled by a startup like Origin is that women are increasingly rejecting a male-skewed status quo within medicine — and making it their own business to take better care of women. 

#california, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #erectile-dysfunction, #femtech, #health, #healthcare, #los-angeles, #louisiana, #medicine, #origin, #physical-therapy, #rent-the-runway, #san-francisco, #stanford, #startups, #surgery, #telehealth, #texas, #united-states, #video-conferencing, #womens-health