Health

DARPA wants smart bandages for wounded warriors

Posted by | artificial intelligence, DARPA, Gadgets, Government, hardware, Health, medical, medtech, science, TC | No Comments

Nowhere is prompt and effective medical treatment more important than on the battlefield, where injuries are severe and conditions dangerous. DARPA thinks that outcomes can be improved by the use of intelligent bandages and other systems that predict and automatically react to the patient’s needs.

Ordinary cuts and scrapes just need a bit of shelter and time and your amazing immune system takes care of things. But soldiers not only receive far graver wounds, but under complex conditions that are not just a barrier to healing but unpredictably so.

DARPA’s Bioelectronics for Tissue Regeneration program, or BETR, will help fund new treatments and devices that “closely track the progress of the wound and then stimulate healing processes in real time to optimize tissue repair and regeneration.”

“Wounds are living environments and the conditions change quickly as cells and tissues communicate and attempt to repair,” said Paul Sheehan, BETR program manager, in a DARPA news release. “An ideal treatment would sense, process, and respond to these changes in the wound state and intervene to correct and speed recovery. For example, we anticipate interventions that modulate immune response, recruit necessary cell types to the wound, or direct how stem cells differentiate to expedite healing.”

It’s not hard to imagine what these interventions might comprise. Smart watches are capable of monitoring several vital signs already, and in fact have alerted users to such things as heart-rate irregularities. A smart bandage would use any signal it can collect — “optical, biochemical, bioelectronic, or mechanical” — to monitor the patient and either recommend or automatically adjust treatment.

A simple example might be a wound that the bandage detects from certain chemical signals is becoming infected with a given kind of bacteria. It can then administer the correct antibiotic in the correct dose and stop when necessary rather than wait for a prescription. Or if the bandage detects shearing force and then an increase in heart rate, it’s likely the patient has been moved and is in pain — out come the painkillers. Of course, all this information would be relayed to the caregiver.

This system may require some degree of artificial intelligence, although of course it would have to be pretty limited. But biological signals can be noisy and machine learning is a powerful tool for sorting through that kind of data.

BETR is a four-year program, during which DARPA hopes that it can spur innovation in the space and create a “closed-loop, adaptive system” that improves outcomes significantly. There’s a further ask to have a system that addresses osseointegration surgery for prosthetics fitting — a sad necessity for many serious injuries incurred during combat.

One hopes that the technology will trickle down, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s all largely theoretical for now, though it seems more than possible that the pieces could come together well ahead of the deadline.

Powered by WPeMatico

Juul Labs hires former Apple employee to lead the fight against counterfeits

Posted by | adrian punderson, altria group, Gadgets, Health, juul, juul labs, Personnel, Startups, TC | No Comments

Juul Labs, the e-cig company under fire for its product’s popularity with young people, has brought on a new VP of Intellectual Property Protection with Adrian Punderson, formerly of PwC and Apple.

Punderson’s job is all about working alongside government agencies, as well as Juul Labs Intellectual Property VP Wayne Sobon, to combat the sale of counterfeit and infringing products. These can range from copycat vapes and pods that are actually marketed as Juul products all the way to products that are designed specifically to be Juul compatible without using the trademark.

These counterfeit and infringing products pose a serious threat to the company. Of course, no business wants its products infringed or its market share stolen.

With Juul, however, it’s far more complicated. Juul Labs is currently under heavy FDA scrutiny over the popularity of its products with minors.

“As you start to enforce generally on the sale of these types of products to youth, oftentimes they are going to look for another seller or distribution point of this product,” said Punderson. “The challenge is that oftentimes they’re going to platforms or places for this and you have no idea what the origin of the product is. A lot of it is counterfeit. So they get something they believe is Juul only to find out they have a counterfeit device or pod.”

He went on to say that, for Juul, a top priority is identifying counterfeit sellers and quickly putting that information into the hands of law enforcement. To the extent that they can’t take action, said Punderson, Juul will take civil action.

Part of the concern is that there is zero transparency into what ingredients are being used in infringing products, whereas Juul’s recipe at least meets the legal requirements for disclosure as it seeks full FDA approval.

Juul doesn’t currently have data around the scale of infringing products on the market, but counterfeit Juul products may inaccurately increase sales figures, intensifying scrutiny from the FDA.

Juul has already taken legal action against many infringing manufacturers and distributors, but Punderson aims to take Juul’s efforts against infringing products to a new level.

He sees the issue as threefold: Juul Labs must work to stop these products from being manufactured in the first place, ensure they aren’t allowed across borders into the country and take action against retailers who sell infringing products and remove them from the market.

“This isn’t a problem where there is only a production problem but there isn’t really a distribution or consumption problem,” said Punderson. “We don’t have the luxury of looking at the problem singly-faceted. From a global perspective, we want to stop the production and distribution of infringing products around the world, and we’ll work closely with government agencies attempting to stop illicit distribution of goods.”

Punderson previously served as managing director of IP Protection at PriceWaterhouse Coopers, VP of Global Anti-Counterfeiting/Anti-Diversion at Oakley and worked at Apple on the Intellectual Property Enforcement team.

Juul is currently viewed by many as a Facebook-ified, 2018 version of Marlboro. Notably, Juul Labs recently closed a $12.8 billion investment from Altria Group, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes. When asked why he chose to work for Juul, Punderson said his initial reaction was no. But after he did some research around the mission of the company, and thought of his own personal experience losing his father to emphysema, he came around quickly.

“I would do anything to get two or three more years with my dad, who was a lifelong smoker,” said Punderson. “[…] We’re trying to do good things here, move people away from tobacco and give them an alternative. To me, it’s a valuable, noble cause that’s worth being involved in and I’m proud to be here.”

It remains to be seen just how big of an issue infringing products are for Juul and other above-board e-cig makers, but Juul is ramping up its efforts to combat copycats from getting into the hands of consumers.

Powered by WPeMatico

This wristband detects an opiate overdose

Posted by | america, carnegie mellon, Gadgets, Health, medicine, pittsburgh, TC, Wearables | No Comments

A project by students at Carnegie Mellon could save lives. Called the HopeBand, the wristband senses low blood oxygen levels and sends a text message and sounds an alarm if danger is imminent.

“Imagine having a friend who is always watching for signs of overdose; someone who understands your usage pattern and knows when to contact [someone] for help and make sure you get help,” student Rashmi Kalkunte told IEEE. “That’s what the HopeBand is designed to do.”

The team won third place in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Opioid Challenge at the Health 2.0 conference in September and they are planning to send the band to a needle exchange program in Pittsburgh. They hope to sell it for less than $20.

Given the more than 72,000 overdose deaths in America this year, a device like this could definitely keep folks a little safer.

Powered by WPeMatico

Iota Biosciences raises $15M to produce in-body sensors smaller than a grain of rice

Posted by | funding, Gadgets, hardware, Health, implants, iota biosciences, science, TC, ultrasound | No Comments

Fitness trackers and heart-rate monitors are all well and good, but if you want to track activity inside the body, the solutions aren’t nearly as convenient. Iota Biosciences wants to change that with millimeter-wide sensors that can live more or less permanently in your body and transmit wirelessly what they detect, and a $15 million Series A should put them well on their way.

The team emerged from research at UC Berkeley, where co-founders Jose Carmena and Michel Maharbiz were working on improving the state of microelectrodes. These devices are used all over medical and experimental science to monitor and stimulate nerves and muscle tissues. For instance, a microelectrode array in the brain might be able to help detect early signs of a seizure, and around the heart one could precisely test the rhythms of cardiac tissues.

But despite their name, microelectrodes aren’t really small. The tips, sure, but they’re often connected to larger machines, or battery-powered packs, and they can rarely stay in the body for more than a few weeks or months due to various complications associated with them.

Considering how far we’ve come in other sectors when it comes to miniaturization, manufacturing techniques and power efficiency, Carmena and Maharbiz thought, why don’t we have something better?

“The idea at first was to have free-floating motes in the brain with RF [radio frequency] powering them,” Carmena said. But they ran into a fundamental problem: RF radiation, because of its long wavelength, requires rather a large antenna to receive them. Much larger than was practical for devices meant to swim in the bloodstream.

“There was a meeting at which everything died, because we were like two orders of magnitude away from what we needed. The physics just weren’t there,” he recalled. “So were like, ‘I guess that’s it!’ ”

But some time after, Maharbiz had a “eureka” moment — “as weird as it sounds, it occurred to me in a parking lot. You just think about it and all these things align.”

His revelation: ultrasound.

Power at the speed of sound

You’re probably familiar with ultrasound as a diagnostic tool, for imaging inside the body during pregnancy and the like — or possibly as a range-finding tool that “pings” nearby objects. There’s been a lot of focus on the venerable technology recently as technologists have found new applications for it.

In fact, a portable ultrasound company just won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in Lagos:

Iota’s approach, however, has little to do with these traditional uses of the technology. Remember the principle that you have to have an antenna that’s a reasonable fraction of an emission’s wavelength in order to capture it? Well, ultrasound has a wavelength measured in microns — millionths of a meter.

So it can be captured — and captured very efficiently. That means an ultrasound antenna can easily catch enough waves to power a connected device.

Not only that, but as you might guess from its use in imaging, ultrasound goes right through us. Lots of radiation, including RF, gets absorbed by the charged, salty water that makes up much of the human body.

“Ultrasound doesn’t do that,” Maharbiz said. “You’re just Jell-O — it goes right through you.”

The device they put together to take advantage of this is remarkably simple, and incredibly tiny. On one side is what’s called a piezoelectric crystal, something that transforms force — in this case, ultrasound — into electricity. In the middle is a tiny chip, and around the edge runs a set of electrodes.

It’s so small that it can be attached to a single nerve or muscle fiber. When the device is activated by a beam of ultrasound, voltage runs between the electrodes, and this minute current is affected by the electrical activity of the tissue. These slight changes are literally reflected in how the ultrasonic pulses bounce back, and the reader can derive electrophysiological voltage from those changes.

Basically the waves they send power the device and bounce back slightly changed, depending on what the nerve or muscle is doing. By sending a steady stream of pulses, the system collects a constant stream of precise monitoring data simply and non-invasively. (And yes, this has been demonstrated in vivo.)

Contained inside non-reactive, implant-safe containers, these microscopic “motes” could be installed singly or by the dozen, doing everything from monitoring heart tissue to controlling a prosthesis. And because they can also deliver a voltage, they could conceivably be used for therapeutic purposes, as well.

And to be clear, those purposes won’t be inside the brain. Although there’s no particular reason this tech wouldn’t work in the central nervous system, it would have to be smaller and testing would be much more complicated. The initial applications will all be in the peripheral nervous system.

At any rate, before any of that happens, they have to be approved by the FDA.

The long medtech road

As you might guess, this isn’t the kind of thing you can just invent and then start implanting all over the place. Implants, especially electronic ones, must undergo extreme scrutiny before being allowed to be used in even experimental treatment.

Fortunately for Iota, their devices have a lot of advantages over, say, a pacemaker with a radio-based data connection and five-year battery. The only transmission involved is ultrasound, for one thing, and there are decades of studies showing the safety of using it.

“The FDA has well-defined limits for average and peak powers for the human body with ultrasound, and we’re nowhere near those frequencies or powers. This is very different,” explained Maharbiz. “There’s no exotic materials or techniques. As far as constant low-level ultrasound goes, the notion really is that it does nothing.”

And unlike a major device like a medication port, pump, stint, pacemaker or even a long-term electrode, “installation” is straightforward and easily reversible.

It would be done laparoscopically, or through a tiny incision. said Carmena. “If it has to be taken out, it can be taken out, but it’s so minimally invasive and small and safe that we keep it,” he said.

These are all marks in Iota’s favor, but testing can’t be rushed. Although the groundwork for their devices was laid in 2013, the team has taken a great deal of time to advance the science to the point where it can be taken out of the lab to begin with.

In order to get it now to the point where they can propose human trials, Iota has raised $15 million in funding; the round was led by Horizons Ventures, Astellas, Bold Capital Partners, Ironfire and Shanda. (The round was in May but only just announced.)

The A round should get the company from its current prototype phase to a point, perhaps some 18 months distant, when they have a production-ready version ready to present to the FDA — at which point more funding will probably be required to get through the subsequent years of testing.

But that’s the game in medtech, and all the investors know it. This could be a hugely disruptive technology in a number of fields, although at first the devices need to be approved for a single medical purpose (one Iota has decided on but can’t disclose yet).

It’s a long road, all right, but at the end of it is the fulfillment of a promise straight out of sci-fi. It may be years before you have microscopic, ultrasound-powered doodads swimming around inside you, but that future is well on its way.

Powered by WPeMatico

Google & Facebook fed ad dollars to child porn discovery apps

Posted by | admob, Advertising Tech, Apps, child exploitation, Facebook, Facebook Audience Network, Google, Health, Mobile, Policy, privacy, Security, TC, WhatsApp, WhatsApp Child Exploitation | No Comments

Google has scrambled to remove third-party apps that led users to child porn sharing groups on WhatsApp in the wake of TechCrunch’s report about the problem last week. We contacted Google with the name of one of these apps and evidence that it and others offered links to WhatsApp groups for sharing child exploitation imagery. Following publication of our article, Google removed from the Google Play store that app and at least five like it. Several of these apps had more than 100,000 downloads, and they’re still functional on devices that already downloaded them.

A screenshot from earlier this month of now-banned child exploitation groups on WhatsApp . Phone numbers and photos redacted

WhatsApp failed to adequately police its platform, confirming to TechCrunch that it’s only moderated by its own 300 employees and not Facebook’s 20,000 dedicated security and moderation staffers. It’s clear that scalable and efficient artificial intelligence systems are not up to the task of protecting the 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp community, and companies like Facebook must invest more in unscalable human investigators.

But now, new research provided exclusively to TechCrunch by anti-harassment algorithm startup AntiToxin shows that these removed apps that hosted links to child porn sharing rings on WhatsApp were supported with ads run by Google and Facebook’s ad networks. AntiToxin found six of these apps ran Google AdMob, one ran Google Firebase, two ran Facebook Audience Network and one ran StartApp. These ad networks earned a cut of brands’ marketing spend while allowing the apps to monetize and sustain their operations by hosting ads for Amazon, Microsoft, Motorola, Sprint, Sprite, Western Union, Dyson, DJI, Gett, Yandex Music, Q Link Wireless, Tik Tok and more.

The situation reveals that tech giants aren’t just failing to spot offensive content in their own apps, but also in third-party apps that host their ads and that earn them money. While these apps like “Group Links For Whats” by Lisa Studio let people discover benign links to WhatsApp groups for sharing legal content and discussing topics like business or sports, TechCrunch found they also hosted links with titles such as “child porn only no adv” and “child porn xvideos” that led to WhatsApp groups with names like “Children 💋👙👙” or “videos cp” — a known abbreviation for “child pornography.”

In a video provided by AntiToxin seen below, the app “Group Links For Whats by Lisa Studio” that ran Google AdMob is shown displaying an interstitial ad for Q Link Wireless before providing WhatsApp group search results for “child.” A group described as “Child nude FBI POLICE” is surfaced, and when the invite link is clicked, it opens within WhatsApp to a group used for sharing child exploitation imagery. (No illegal imagery is shown in this video or article. TechCrunch has omitted the end of the video that showed a URL for an illegal group and the phone numbers of its members.)

Another video shows the app “Group Link For whatsapp by Video Status Zone” that ran Google AdMob and Facebook Audience Network displaying a link to a WhatsApp group described as “only cp video.” When tapped, the app first surfaces an interstitial ad for Amazon Photos before revealing a button for opening the group within WhatsApp. These videos show how alarmingly easy it was for people to find illegal content sharing groups on WhatsApp, even without WhatsApp’s help.

Zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero illegal content

In response, a Google spokesperson tells me that these group discovery apps violated its content policies and it’s continuing to look for more like them to ban. When they’re identified and removed from Google Play, it also suspends their access to its ad networks. However, it refused to disclose how much money these apps earned and whether it would refund the advertisers. The company provided this statement:

Google has a zero tolerance approach to child sexual abuse material and we’ve invested in technology, teams and partnerships with groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to tackle this issue for more than two decades. If we identify an app promoting this kind of material that our systems haven’t already blocked, we report it to the relevant authorities and remove it from our platform. These policies apply to apps listed in the Play store as well as apps that use Google’s advertising services.

App Developer Ad Network Estimated Installs   Last Day Ranked
Unlimited Whats Groups Without Limit Group links   Jack Rehan Google AdMob 200,000 12/18/2018
Unlimited Group Links for Whatsapp NirmalaAppzTech Google AdMob 127,000 12/18/2018
Group Invite For Whatsapp Villainsbrain Google Firebase 126,000 12/18/2018
Public Group for WhatsApp Bit-Build Google AdMob, Facebook Audience Network   86,000 12/18/2018
Group links for Whats – Find Friends for Whats Lisa Studio Google AdMob 54,000 12/19/2018
Unlimited Group Links for Whatsapp 2019 Natalie Pack Google AdMob 3,000 12/20/2018
Group Link For whatsapp Video Status Zone   Google AdMob, Facebook Audience Network 97,000 11/13/2018
Group Links For Whatsapp – Free Joining Developers.pk StartAppSDK 29,000 12/5/2018

Facebook, meanwhile, blamed Google Play, saying the apps’ eligibility for its Facebook Audience Network ads was tied to their availability on Google Play and that the apps were removed from FAN when booted from the Android app store. The company was more forthcoming, telling TechCrunch it will refund advertisers whose promotions appeared on these abhorrent apps. It’s also pulling Audience Network from all apps that let users discover WhatsApp Groups.

A Facebook spokesperson tells TechCrunch that “Audience Network monetization eligibility is closely tied to app store (in this case Google) review. We removed [Public Group for WhatsApp by Bit-Build] when Google did – it is not currently monetizing on Audience Network. Our policies are on our website and out of abundance of caution we’re ensuring Audience Network does not support any group invite link apps. This app earned very little revenue (less than $500), which we are refunding to all impacted advertisers.” WhatsApp has already banned all the illegal groups TechCrunch reported on last week.

Facebook also provided this statement about WhatsApp’s stance on illegal imagery sharing groups and third-party apps for finding them:

WhatsApp does not provide a search function for people or groups – nor does WhatsApp encourage publication of invite links to private groups. WhatsApp regularly engages with Google and Apple to enforce their terms of service on apps that attempt to encourage abuse on WhatsApp. Following the reports earlier this week, WhatsApp asked Google to remove all known group link sharing apps. When apps are removed from Google Play store, they are also removed from Audience Network.

An app with links for discovering illegal WhatsApp Groups runs an ad for Amazon Photos

Israeli NGOs Netivei Reshet and Screen Savers worked with AntiToxin to provide a report published by TechCrunch about the wide extent of child exploitation imagery they found on WhatsApp. Facebook and WhatsApp are still waiting on the groups to work with Israeli police to provide their full research so WhatsApp can delete illegal groups they discovered and terminate user accounts that joined them.

AntiToxin develops technologies for protecting online network harassment, bullying, shaming, predatory behavior and sexually explicit activity. It was co-founded by Zohar Levkovitz, who sold Amobee to SingTel for $400 million, and Ron Porat, who was the CEO of ad-blocker Shine. [Disclosure: The company also employs Roi Carthy, who contributed to TechCrunch from 2007 to 2012.] “Online toxicity is at unprecedented levels, at unprecedented scale, with unprecedented risks for children, which is why completely new thinking has to be applied to technology solutions that help parents keep their children safe,” Levkovitz tells me. The company is pushing Apple to remove WhatsApp from the App Store until the problems are fixed, citing how Apple temporarily suspended Tumblr due to child pornography.

Ad networks must be monitored

Encryption has proven an impediment to WhatsApp preventing the spread of child exploitation imagery. WhatsApp can’t see what is shared inside of group chats. Instead, it has to rely on the few pieces of public and unencrypted data, such as group names and profile photos plus their members’ profile photos, looking for suspicious names or illegal images. The company matches those images to a PhotoDNA database of known child exploitation photos to administer bans, and has human moderators investigate if seemingly illegal images aren’t already on file. It then reports its findings to law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Strong encryption is important for protecting privacy and political dissent, but also thwarts some detection of illegal content and thereby necessitates more manual moderation.

With just 300 total employees and only a subset working on security or content moderation, WhatsApp seems understaffed to manage such a large user base. It’s tried to depend on AI to safeguard its community. However, that technology can’t yet perform the nuanced investigations necessary to combat exploitation. WhatsApp runs semi-independently of Facebook, but could hire more moderators to investigate group discovery apps that lead to child pornography if Facebook allocated more resources to its acquisition.

WhatsApp group discovery apps featured Adult sections that contained links to child exploitation imagery groupsGoogle and Facebook, with their vast headcounts and profit margins, are neglecting to properly police who hosts their ad networks. The companies have sought to earn extra revenue by powering ads on other apps, yet failed to assume the necessary responsibility to ensure those apps aren’t facilitating crimes. Stricter examinations of in-app content should be administered before an app is accepted to app stores or ad networks, and periodically once they’re running. And when automated systems can’t be deployed, as can be the case with policing third-party apps, human staffers should be assigned despite the cost.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that social networks and ad networks that profit off other people’s content can’t be low-maintenance cash cows. Companies should invest ample money and labor into safeguarding any property they run or monetize, even if it makes the opportunities less lucrative. The strip-mining of the internet without regard for consequences must end.

Powered by WPeMatico

How Juul made vaping viral to become worth a dirty $38 billion

Posted by | e-cigarettes, eCommerce, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Health, juul, nicotine, Opinion, Policy, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, tobacco, vaporizers | No Comments

A Juul is not a cigarette. It’s much easier than that. Through devilishly slick product design I’ll discuss here, the startup has massively lowered the barrier to getting hooked on nicotine. Juul has dismantled every deterrent to taking a puff.

The result is both a new $38 billion valuation thanks to a $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro Cigarettes-maker Altria this week, and an explosion in popularity of vaping amongst teenagers and the rest of the population. Game recognize game, and Altria’s game is nicotine addiction. It knows it’s been one-upped by Juul’s tactics, so it’s hedged its own success by handing the startup over a tenth of the public corporation’s market cap in cash.

Juul argues it can help people switch from obviously dangerous smoking to supposedly healthier vaping. But in reality, the tiny aluminum device helps people switch from nothing to vaping…which can lead some to start smoking the real thing. A study found it causes more people to pick up cigarettes than put them down.

Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How fast has Juul swept the nation? Nielsen says it controls 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market up from 27 percent in September last year. In the year since then, the CDC says the percentage of high school students who’ve used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days has grown 75 percent. That’s 3 million teens or roughly 20 percent of all high school kids. CNBC reports that Juul 2018 revenue could be around $1.5 billion.

The health consequences aside, Juul makes it radically simple to pick up a lifelong vice. Parents, regulators, and potential vapers need to understand why Juul works so well if they’ll have any hope of suppressing its temptations.

Shareable

It’s tough to try a cigarette for the first time. The heat and smoke burn your throat. The taste is harsh and overwhelming. The smell coats your fingers and clothes, marking you as smoker. There’s pressure to smoke a whole one lest you waste the tobacco. Even if you want to try a friend’s, they have to ignite one first. And unlike bigger box mod vaporizers where you customize the temperature and e-juice, Juul doesn’t make you look like some dorky hardcore vapelord.

Juul is much more gentle on your throat. The taste is more mild and can be masked with flavors. The vapor doesn’t stain you with a smell as quickly. You can try just a single puff from a friend’s at a bar or during a smoking break with no pressure to inhale more. The elegant, discrete form factor doesn’t brand you as a serious vape users. It’s casual. Yet the public gesture and clouds people exhale are still eye catching enough to trigger the questions, “What’s that? Can I try?” There’s a whole other article to be written about how Juul memes and Instagram Stories that glamorized the nicotine dispensers contributed to the device’s spread.

And perhaps most insidiously, vaping seems healthier. A lifetime of anti-smoking ads and warning labels drilled the dangers into our heads. But how much harm could a little vapor do?

A friend who had never smoked tells me they burn through a full Juul pod per day now. Someone got him to try a single puff at a nightclub. Soon he was asking for drag off of strangers’ Juuls. Then he bought one and never looked back. He’d been around cigarettes at parties his whole life but never got into them. Juul made it too effortless to resist.

Concealable

Lighting up a cigarette is a garish activity prohibited in many places. Not so with discretely sipping from a Juul.

Cigarettes often aren’t allowed to be smoked inside. Hiding it is no easy feat and can get you kicked out. You need to have a lighter and play with fire to get one started. They can get crushed or damp in your pocket. The burning tip makes them unruly in tight quarters, and the bud or falling ash can damage clothing and make a mess. You smoke a cigarette because you really want to smoke a cigarette.

Public establishments are still figuring out how to handle Juuls and other vaporizers. Many places that ban smoking don’t explicitly do the same for vaping. The less stinky vapor and more discrete motion makes it easy to hide. Beyond airplanes, you could probably play dumb and say you didn’t know the rules if you did get caught. The metal stick is hard to break. You won’t singe anyone. There’s no mess, need for an ashtray, or holes in your jackets or couches.

As long as your battery is charged, there’s no need for extra equipment and you won’t draw attention like with a lighter. Battery life is a major concern for heavy Juulers that smokers don’t have worry about, but I know people who now carry a giant portable charger just to keep their Juul alive. But there’s also a network effect that’s developing. Similar to iPhone cords, Juuls are becoming common enough that you can often conveniently borrow a battery stick or charger from another user. 

And again, the modular ability to take as few or as many puffs as you want lets you absent-mindedly Juul at any moment. At your desk, on the dance floor, as you drive, or even in bed. A friend’s nieces and nephews say that they see fellow teens Juul in class by concealing it in the cuff of their sleeve. No kid would be so brazen as to try smoke in cigarette in the middle of a math lesson.

Distributable

Gillette pioneered the brilliant razor and blade business model. Buy the sometimes-discounted razor, and you’re compelled to keep buying the expensive proprietary blades. Dollar Shave Club leveled up the strategy by offering a subscription that delivers the consumable blades to your door. Juul combines both with a product that’s physically addictive.

When you finish a pack of cigarettes, you could be done smoking. There’s nothing left. But with Juul you’ve still got the $35 battery pack when you finish vaping a pod. There’s a sunk cost fallacy goading you to keep buying the pods to get the most out of your investment and stay locked into the Juul ecosystem.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of Juul’s sole virality disadvantages compared to cigarettes is that they’re not as ubiquitously available. Some stores that sells cigs just don’t carry them yet. But more and more shops are picking them up, which will continue with Altria’s help. And Juul offers an “auto-ship” delivery option that knocks $2 off the $16 pack of four pods so you don’t even have to think about buying more. Catch the urge to quit? Well you’ve got pods on the way so you might as well use them. Whether due to regulation or a lack of innovation, I couldn’t find subscription delivery options for traditional cigarettes.

And for minors that want to buy Juuls or Juul pods illegally, their tiny size makes them easy to smuggle and resell. A recent South Park episode featured warring syndicates of fourth-graders selling Juul pods to even younger kids.

Dishonorable

Juul co-founder James Monsees told the San Jose Mercury News that “The first phase is proving the value and creating a product that makes cigarettes obsolete.” But notice he didn’t say Juul wants to make nicotine obsolete or reduce the number of people addicted to it.

Juul co-founder James Monsees

If Juul actually cared about fighting addiction, it’d offer a regimen for weaning yourself off of nicotine. Yet it doesn’t sell low-dose or no-dose pods that could help people quit entirely. In the US it only sells 5% and 3% nicotine versions. It does make 1.7% pods for foreign markets like Israel where that’s the maximum legal strengths, though refuses to sell them in the States. Along with taking over $12 billion from one of the largest cigarette companies, that makes the mission statement ring hollow.

Juul is the death stick business as usual, but strengthened by the product design and virality typically reserved for Apple and Facebook.

Powered by WPeMatico

Bellabeat’s new hybrid smartwatch tracks your stress…and goes with your outfit

Posted by | bellabeat, fitness, fitness tracker, Gadgets, Health, smartwatch, watch, Wearables, wellness, women | No Comments

Bellabeat, the company behind a variety of health and wellness wearable devices aimed at women, is now selling its first smartwatch. The device, which is simply called “Time,” was announced earlier this month right in the midst of holiday shopping season. Like other fitness trackers, the watch is capable of basic tasks like counting your steps, tracking sleep patterns and reminding you to move. But unlike traditional smartwatches — which, aesthetically, are still very much just a screen on your wrist — the Time is designed to look like jewelry.

The hybrid device looks like a watch — albeit not a very expensive one.

It’s squarely in the range of fashion jewelry, with either silver or rose gold stainless steel finishes to choose from, and a minimalist watch face that forgoes complications like the date or the moon phase, for example. It even lacks a second hand.

That said, I prefer its cleaner look-and-feel to the gaudier smartwatches put out by brands like Michael Kors and Fossil. (Plus, there’s no Android Wear/Wear OS to contend with here.)

As an analog watch, it has both its pros and cons.

It’s designed to be hypoallergenic so as not to irritate those with sensitive skin, and it has some water resistance. (ATM grade 3, meaning it can withstand a vigorous hand washing and the rain. You can’t swim, bathe or dive with it.)

You also don’t have to charge it, which makes it feel more like a “real” watch than a gadget.

However, there’s a potential downside here, too — the coin cell battery only lasts “up to” six months. You’ll then need to use the tiny tool it ships with to replace the old battery with a new one.

Of course, some will see a user-replaceable battery as a perk. I don’t, but that’s a personal preference on my part.

I much prefer just dropping my Apple Watch onto a charger rather than having to keep up with a small watch tool, which can be easy to lose or misplace in the time between repairs. I’m also not a fan of having to unscrew tiny screws and then finding some sort of small, sharp object to pop out the battery. Perhaps that’s because I have a child with a dozen or so battery-operated toys. I’m constantly unscrewing things to replace batteries, and frankly I don’t need another.

In any event, among the watch’s better aspects is the fact that it packages up fitness and wellness tracking in a device that passes as a regular — and even fairly attractive — piece of fashion jewelry. The Time will go better with some of your outfits where you just don’t think the Apple Watch works — even with one of Apple’s fancier bands.

Of course, it’s not as seamless to use Time as the Apple Watch, which has the Apple platform advantage. (Or an Android smartwatch paired with an Android phone, for that matter.)

Instead, you have to sync your activity between the watch and the third-party Bellabeat app to view things like the steps taken or hours slept. You do so by tapping a sync button in the app and double-tapping on the watch face.

The app can also serve as way to keep up with other aspects of your health and wellness, including your hydration goals, stress, meditation time and your period.

The stress metrics are calculated for you, based on factors like activity levels, sleep quality, reproductive health and meditation over the past week. But hydration and menstruation have to be logged manually (*unless you’re using Bellabeat Spring — see below.)

The mediation tracking only calculates your progress through the app’s own selection of more than 30 included exercises. While it’s nice to have access to those resources included in the app, many people are already using popular meditation apps like Calm or Headspace. An “import” option for externally logged “mindful minutes” would have been nice here.

One of Time’s better features are its silent alarms and inactivity alerts. Instead of pings and loud noises, the watch more calmly reminds you of things with vibrations you configure. There are also included alarms for waking up, taking your vitamins, taking your contraception pill and another general alarm setting, each with their own toggle switches and settings.

There is something to be said for a quieter smartwatch, especially if stress levels are a concern. (There’s also something to be said for a device that’s built by a woman with the needs of women in mind. Remember how long it took for Apple to realize period tracking was a thing?)

That said, it’s unfortunately becoming harder for smaller device makers to compete with the Apple Watch, which has now moved into advanced areas with its Series 4 line, with sports, life-saving ECG and fall detection features, along with smarter workout detection (and yes, you can still swim with it), plus its ability to work with the broader iOS app ecosystem in a more native way.

But the Apple Watch is pricier at $399 and up for current models. Bellabeat’s Time, by comparison, is $179.

The Bellabeat mobile app will work with other Bellabeat products, including its wellness tracker Leaf (which can be worn as a bracelet, necklace, clip, etc.), and $59 smart water bottle, Spring.

Combined, the Spring and Time could be a good entry point into the world of fitness and wellness trackers for those who never felt that wearables and trackers were right for them. Bellabeat’s line is more of a lifestyle choice based just as much on looks as on tech, if not more so.

The question now is whether or not Bellabeat can carve out a big enough slice of the smartwatch market, which continues to be dominated by Apple, to sustain itself in the years ahead.

Bellabeat was a Y Combinator 2014 grad founded by female entrepreneur Urska Srsen, and has raised ~$19 million to date, according to Crunchbase. It previously sold products for expectant mothers, as well, but those have been phased out. Bellabeat declined to share any user metrics or revenue figures, when asked.

Powered by WPeMatico

IBM Research develops fingerprint sensor to monitor disease progression

Posted by | Gadgets, Health, IBM, machine learning, Parkinson's Disease, TC | No Comments

IBM today announced that it has developed a small sensor that sits on a person’s fingernail to help monitor the effectiveness of drugs used to combat the symptoms of Parkinson’s and other diseases. Together with the custom software that analyzes the data, the sensor measures how the nail warps as the user grips something. Because virtually any activity involves gripping objects, that creates a lot of data for the software to analyze.

Another way to get this data would be to attach a sensor to the skin and capture motion, as well as the health of muscles and nerves that way. The team notes that skin-based sensors can cause plenty of other problems, including infections, so it decided to look at using data from how a person’s fingernails bend instead.

For the most part, though, fingernails don’t bend all that much, so the sensor had to be rather sensitive. “It turns out that our fingernails deform — bend and move — in stereotypic ways when we use them for gripping, grasping, and even flexing and extending our fingers,” the researchers explain. “This deformation is usually on the order of single digit microns and not visible to the naked eye. However, it can easily detect with strain gauge sensors. For context, a typical human hair is between 50 and 100 microns across and a red blood cell is usually less than 10 microns across.”

In its current version, the researchers glue the prototype to the nail. Because fingernails are pretty tough, there’s very little risk in doing so, especially when compared to a sensor that would sit on the skin. The sensor then talks to a smartwatch that runs machine learning models to detect tremors and other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. That model can detect what a wearer is doing (opening a doorknob, using a screwdriver, etc.). The data and the model are accurate enough to track when wearers write digits with their fingers.

Over time, the team hopes that it can extend this prototype and the models that analyze the data to recognize other diseases as well. There’s no word on when this sensor could make it onto the market, though.

Powered by WPeMatico

Juul Labs gets $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro maker Altria Group

Posted by | funding, Gadgets, Health, juul, juul labs, Startups, TC | No Comments

After a long year fighting underage use of its products, Juul Labs has today struck a deal with Altria Group, the owners of Philip Morris USA and makers of Marlboro cigarettes.

The deal values Juul at $38 billion, according to Bloomberg, and injects the company with a fresh $12.8 billion in exchange for a 35 percent stake in Juul Labs.

Here’s what Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns had to say in a prepared statement:

We understand the controversy and skepticism that comes with an affiliation and partnership with the largest tobacco company in the US. We were skeptical as well. But over the course of the last several months we were convinced by actions, not words, that in fact this partnership could help accelerate our success switching adult smokers. We understand the doubt. We doubted as well.

He goes on to explain the strict criteria Juul Labs had for a potential investor, particularly one from the Big Tobacco space. For one, Altria entered into a standstill agreement that limits to 35 percent the company’s ownership in Juul. Altria also must use its database and its distribution network to get out to current smokers the message of Juul.

For the past year, many have seen Juul as a dangerous toy for teenagers. In November, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced new measures for the e-cig industry meant to keep the products out of the hands of teens. One of those measures includes restricting the sale of flavored non-combustible tobacco products beyond the usual cigarette flavors of tobacco and menthol.

But after nearly a year of playing defense, this new deal marks a bit of an offensive push from Juul Labs. The company has always stressed that its main goal is to give smokers a meaningful alternative to combustible cigarettes. Partnering with Big Tobacco may not seem like the best way to do that, optically speaking. But Altria has agreed to a few measures that would get into the hands of actual smokers information about Juul, including:

  • providing Juul with access to its retail shelf space, meaning that Juul’s tobacco and menthol products will be merchandized right alongside Altria combustible cigarettes
  • Altria will include direct communications about Juul to adult smokers through cigarette pack inserts and mailings via Altria companies’ databases
  • Altria will support Juul via its logistics and distribution networks, as well as its sales team, which works with more than 230,000 retail locations

In the release, Altria said that part of the reason for the investment is simply that the organization understands change is coming to the tobacco industry.

Howard Willard, Altria’s chairman and chief executive officer, had this to say in a prepared statement:

We are taking significant action to prepare for a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose non-combustible products over cigarettes by investing $12.8 billion in JUUL, a world leader in switching adult smokers. We have long said that providing adult smokers with superior, satisfying products with the potential to reduce harm is the best way to achieve tobacco harm reduction. Through JUUL, we are making the biggest investment in our history to achieve that goal. We strongly believe that working with JUUL to accelerate its mission will have long-term benefits for adult smokers and our shareholders.

Altria has made a few big moves lately, including acquiring a 45 percent stake in cannabis company Cronos earlier this month. The company also announced this month that it would discontinue its own e-cig products, including all MarkTen and Green Smoke e-vapor products, and VERVE oral nicotine products.

“This decision is based upon the current and expected financial performance of these products, coupled with regulatory restrictions that burden Altria’s ability to quickly improve these products,” read the press release. “The company will refocus its resources on more compelling reduced-risk tobacco product opportunities.”

Now we know that those opportunities look like an extra-long thumb drive called Juul.

Powered by WPeMatico

K Health raises $25M for its AI-powered primary care platform

Posted by | 14w, a.i., AI, Apps, artificial intelligence, Bessemer Venture Partners, boxgroup, Comcast Ventures, Community, consumer, Crowdfunding, doctors, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, health app, health apps, healthcare, K Health, lerer hippeau, machine learning, Mangrove Capital Partners, Mobile, primary ventures, Recent Funding, series B, Series B funding, Startups, TC, Venture Capital | No Comments

K Health, the startup providing consumers with an AI-powered primary care platform, has raised $25 million in Series B funding. The round was led by 14W, Comcast Ventures and Mangrove Capital Partners, with participation from Lerer HippeauBoxGroup and Max Ventures — all previous investors from the company’s seed or Series A rounds. Other previous investors include Primary Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners.

Co-founded and led by former Vroom CEO and Wix co-CEO Allon Bloch, K Health (previously Kang Health) looks to equip consumers with a free and easy-to-use application that can provide accurate, personalized, data-driven information about their symptoms and health.

“When your child says their head hurts, you can play doctor for the first two questions or so — where does it hurt? How does it hurt?” Bloch explained in a conversation with TechCrunch. “Then it gets complex really quickly. Are they nauseous or vomiting? Did anything unusual happen? Did you come back from a trip somewhere? Doctors then use differential diagnosis to prove that it’s a tension headache versus other things by ruling out a whole list of chronic or unusual conditions based on their deep knowledge sets.”

K Health’s platform, which currently focuses on primary care, effectively looks to perform a simulation and data-driven version of the differential diagnosis process. On the company’s free mobile app, users spend three-to-four minutes answering an average of 21 questions about their background and the symptoms they’re experiencing.

Using a data set of two billion historical health events over the past 20 years — compiled from doctors’ notes, lab results, hospitalizations, drug statistics and outcome data — K Health is able to compare users to those with similar symptoms and medical histories before zeroing in on a diagnosis. 

With its expansive comparative approach, the platform hopes to offer vastly more thorough, precise and user-specific diagnostic information relative to existing consumer alternatives, like WebMD or, what Bloch calls “Dr. Google,” which often produce broad, downright frightening and inaccurate diagnoses. 

Ease and efficiency for both consumers and physicians

Users are able to see cases and diagnoses that had symptoms similar to their own, with K Health notifying users with serious conditions when to consider seeking immediate care. (K Health Press Image / K Health / https://www.khealth.ai)

In addition to pure peace of mind, the utility provided to consumers is clear. With more accurate at-home diagnostic information, users are able to make better preventative health decisions, avoid costly and unnecessary trips to in-person care centers or appointments with telehealth providers and engage in constructive conversations with physicians when they do opt for in-person consultations.

K Health isn’t looking to replace doctors, and, in fact, believes its platform can unlock tremendous value for physicians and the broader healthcare system by enabling better resource allocation. 

Without access to quality, personalized medical information at home, many defer to in-person doctor visits even when it may not be necessary. And with around one primary care physician per 1,000 people in the U.S., primary care practitioners are subsequently faced with an overwhelming number of patients and are unable to focus on more complex cases that may require more time and resources. The high volume of patients also forces physicians to allocate budgets for support staff to help interact with patients, collect initial background information and perform less-demanding tasks.

K Health believes that by providing an accurate alternative for those with lighter or more trivial symptoms, it can help lower unnecessary in-person visits, reduce costs for practices and allow physicians to focus on complicated, rare or resource-intensive cases, where their expertise can be most useful and where brute machine processing power is less valuable.

The startup is looking to enhance the platform’s symbiotic patient-doctor benefits further in early-2019, when it plans to launch in-app capabilities that allow users to share their AI-driven health conversations directly with physicians, hopefully reducing time spent on information gathering and enabling more-informed treatment.

With K Health’s AI and machine learning capabilities, the platform also gets smarter with every conversation as it captures more outcomes, hopefully enriching the system and becoming more valuable to all parties over time. Initial results seem promising, with K Health currently boasting around 500,000 users, most having joined since this past July.

Using access and affordability to improve global health outcomes

With the latest round, the company has raised a total of $37.5 million since its late-2016 founding. K Health plans to use the capital to ramp up marketing efforts, further refine its product and technology and perform additional research to identify methods for earlier detection and areas outside of primary care where the platform may be valuable.

Longer term, the platform has much broader aspirations of driving better health outcomes, normalizing better preventative health behavior and creating more efficient and affordable global healthcare systems.

The high costs of the American healthcare system and the impacts they have on health behavior has been well-documented. With heavy co-pays, premiums and treatment cost, many avoid primary care altogether or opt for more reactionary treatment, leading to worse health outcomes overall.

Issues seen in the American healthcare system are also observable in many emerging market countries with less medical infrastructure. According to the World Health Organization, the international standard for the number of citizens per primary care physician is one for every 1,500 to 2,000 people, with some countries facing much steeper gaps — such as China, where there is only one primary care doctor for every 6,666.

The startup hopes it can help limit the immense costs associated with emerging countries educating millions of doctors for eight-to-10 years and help provide more efficient and accessible healthcare systems much more quickly.

By reducing primary care costs for consumers and operating costs for medical practices, while creating a more convenient diagnostic experience, K Health believes it can improve access to information, ultimately driving earlier detection and better health outcomes for consumers everywhere.

Powered by WPeMatico