Health

Juul launches a pilot program that tracks how Juul devices get in the hands of minors

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

Juul Labs is today launching a pilot for its new Track & Trace program, which is meant to use data to identify exactly how Juul devices wind up in the hands of minors.

Juul vaporizers all have a serial number down at the bottom, by the Juul logo. However, it wasn’t until recently that Juul had the capability to track those serial numbers through every step of the process, from manufacture to distribution to retail to sale.

With Track & Trace, Juul is calling upon parents, teachers and law enforcement officials to come to the Juul Report web portal when they confiscate a device from a minor and input the serial number. Each time a device is input in the Track & Trace system, Juul will open an investigation to understand how that minor wound up with that device.

In some cases, it may be an issue with a certain retail store knowingly selling to minors. In others, it may be a case of social sourcing, where someone over 21 years of age buys several devices and pods to then sell to minors.

Juul will then take next steps in investigating, such as talking to a store manager about the issue. It may also enhance its secret shopper program around a certain store or distributor where it sees there may be a spike in sale/distribution, to youth to identify the source of the problem. To be clear, Track & Trace only tracks and traces the devices themselves, and does not use personal data about customers.

Juul isn’t yet widely publicizing Track & Trace (thus, the “Pilot” status), but it is focusing on Houston as a testing ground with banner ads targeted at older individuals (parents, teachers, etc.) pointing them to the portal. Of note: The ad campaign is geofenced to never be shown in or around a school, hopefully keeping the program a secret from young people illegally using Juul.

The company wants to learn more about how people use the portal and test the program in action before widening the campaign around Track & Trace. That said, the Report portal is not limited to Houston residents — anyone who confiscates a Juul can report it through the portal and trigger an investigation.

“It’s important to note that the pilot is an opportunity for us to learn how the technology is working and optimize the technology,” said Chief Administrative Officer Ashley Gould. “It’s not just at the retailer level. It’s a whole process through the supply chain to track that device and find out if everyone who is supposed to be scanning it is scanning it, and the software that we’ve created to track that serial number through the supply chain to the retail store is working. The only way we’re going to know that is when someone puts in the serial number and we see if we have all the data we need to track it.”

According to Juul, every device in production will be trackable in the next few weeks. In other words, Juul vapes that are years old are likely not fully traceable in the program, but those purchased more recently should work with the system.

Juul has been under scrutiny from the FDA and a collection of Democratic Senators due to the device’s rise in popularity among young people. Outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called it “an epidemic” and enforced further restrictions on sales of e-cig products.

Juul has also made its own effort, removing non-tobacco and non-menthol flavored pods from all physical retail stores, enhancing their own purchasing system online to ensure online buyers are 21+ and not buying in bulk, going after counterfeits and copycats posing as Juul products and exiting its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

But Juul Labs also committed to build technology-based solutions to prevent youth use of the product. Co-founder and CPO James Monsees told TechCrunch at Disrupt SF that the company is working on Bluetooth products that would essentially make the Juul device as smart as an iPhone or Android device, which could certainly help lock out folks under 21.

However, the Track & Trace program is the first real technological step taken by the e-cig company. And it has been an expensive one. The company has spent more than $30 million to update its packaging, adjust printing standards, change manufacturing equipment and integrate the data and logistics software systems.

For now, Track & Trace is only applicable to Juul vaporizers, but it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that the company was working on a similar program for its Juul Pods.

Editor’s Note: This article mistakenly said that Republican senators were scrutinizing Juul. It has been edited for accuracy.

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Democratic senators question Juul about its Altria deal

Posted by | altria group, ecigarettes, Gadgets, Government, Health, juul labs, Startups, TC | No Comments

Eleven democratic senators, led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), have penned a letter to Juul Labs, asking a series of questions around the product’s marketing, its effectiveness as a tool to help people quit smoking combustible cigarettes, sales figures and, perhaps most importantly, more information on the deal that gave Altria a minority stake in Juul Labs.

“The corporate marriage between two companies that have been the most prolific at marketing highly addictive nicotine products to children is alarming from a public health standpoint and demonstrates, yet again, that JUUL is more interested in padding its profit margins than protecting our nation’s children,” writes Sen. Durbin in the letter.

Questions in the letter include records around advertising and marketing spend for Juul products, as well as any changes that might have been made to Juul’s Youth Prevention Plan following the deal with Altria.

In late 2018, Juul announced it had sold a 35 percent minority stake of the company to Altria Group, makers of Marlboro cigarettes, for $12.8 billion. The company said that a partnership with Altria would help Juul market and distribute to currently addicted adult cigarette smokers.

In the letter, the senators cite the American Heart Association, which called the Altria/Juul deal “a match made in tobacco heaven.” Juul was already in hot water over its product’s popularity among young people, so it’s only expected that a partnership with traditional Big Tobacco would further fuel concerns among critics.

More from the letter:

JUUL’s decision to team up with Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, is also bad news for children considering that Altria has a long and sordid history of spending billions to entice children to smoke through targeted campaigns that intentionally lied about the science and health effects from cigarettes. And their efforts have clearly paid off. According to the CDC, Altria’s Marlboro cigarette continues to be the most popular cigarette brand among children in the United States, with 48.8 percent of high school smokers preferring Marlboro cigarettes. Further, the proportion of high school smokers who smoked Marlboro cigarettes increased dramatically between 2012 and 2016, by a whopping 27 percent. While JUUL has promised to address youth vaping through its modest voluntary efforts, by accepting $12.8 billion from Altria—a tobacco giant with such a disturbing record of deceptive marketing to hook children onto cigarettes—JUUL has lost what little remaining credibility the company had when it claimed to care about the public health.

A Juul Labs spokesperson had this to say in response to the letter:

We welcome the opportunity to share information regarding JUUL Labs’ commitment to curbing underage use of our products while fulfilling our mission to eliminate combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in our country. We agree that companies such as ours must step up with meaningful measures to limit access and appeal of vapor products to young people. That’s exactly what we’ve done, and we will do more to combat teen use to save the harm-reduction opportunity for the 34 million adult smokers in the United States. Don’t take our word for it — look at our actions. As part of our action plan deployed in November 2018 to keep JUUL products out of the hands of youth, we stopped the sale of certain flavored JUULpods to traditional retail stores, strengthened our retail compliance and secret shopper program, enhanced our online age-verification, exited our Facebook and Instagram accounts and are continuously working to remove inappropriate third-party social media content. We support the FDA’s draft guidance restricting the sale of certain flavored products, including JUULpods, at retail outlets and online, and will continue to work with FDA, Congress, state Attorneys General, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in combating underage use.

U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) joined Sen. Durbin in sending the letter. It comes just a month after the FDA proposed further regulations to the sale of flavored e-cig products.

Juul has until April 25 to provide answers and information in response to the letter.

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Torch takes $10M to teach empathy to executives

Posted by | Apps, Enterprise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, mental health, Mobile, Recent Funding, Startups, Talent, TC, therapy | No Comments

When everyone always tells you “yes,” you can become a monster. Leaders especially need honest feedback to grow. “If you look at rich people like Donald Trump and you neglect them, you get more Donald Trumps,” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough about our gruff president. His app wants to make executive coaching (a polite word for therapy) part of even the busiest executive’s schedule. Torch conducts a 360-degree interview with a client and their employees to assess weaknesses, lays out improvement goals and provides one-on-one video chat sessions with trained counselors.

“Essentially we’re trying to help that person develop the capacity to be a more loving human being in the workplace,” Yarbrough explains. That’s crucial in the age of “hustle porn,” where everyone tries to pretend they’re working all the time and constantly “crushing it.” That can leave leaders facing challenges feeling alone and unworthy. Torch wants to provide a private place to reach out for a helping hand or shoulder to cry on.

Now Torch is ready to lead the way to better management for more companies, as it’s just raised a  $10 million Series A round led by Norwest Venture Partners, along with Initialized Capital, Y Combinator and West Ventures. It already has 100 clients, including Reddit and Atrium, but the new cash will fuel its go-to market strategy. Rather than trying to democratize access to coaching, Torch is doubling-down on teaching founders, C-suites and other senior executives how to care… or not care too much.

“I came out of a tough family myself and I had to do a ton of therapy and a ton of meditation to emerge and be an effective leader myself,” Yarbrough recalls. “Philosophically, I care about personal growth. It’s just true all the way down to birth for me. What I’m selling is authentic to who I am.”

Torch’s co-founders met when they were in grad school for counseling psychology degrees, practicing group therapy sessions together. Yarbrough went on to practice clinically and start Well Clinic in the Bay Area, while Keegan Walden got his PhD. Yarbrough worked with married couples to resolve troubles, and “the next thing I know I was working with high-profile startup founders, who like anybody have their fair share of conflicts.”

Torch co-founders (from left): Cameron Yarbrough and Keegan Walden

Coaching romantic partners to be upfront about expectations and kind during arguments translated seamlessly to keep co-founders from buckling under stress. As Yarbrough explains, “I was noticing that they were consistently having problems with five different things:

1. Communication – Surfacing problems early with kindness

2. Healthy workplace boundaries – Making sure people don’t step on each others’ toes

3. How to manage conflict in a healthy way – Staying calm and avoiding finger-pointing

4. How to be positively influential – Being motivational without being annoying or pushy

5. How to manage one’s ego, whether that’s insecurity or narcissism – Seeing the team’s win as the first priority

To address those, companies hire Torch to coach one or more of their executives. Torch conducts extensive 360-degree interviews with the exec, as well as their reports, employees and peers. It seeks to score them on empathy, visionary thinking, communication, conflict, management and collaboration, Torch then structures goals and improvement timelines that it tracks with follow-up interviews with the team and quantifiable metrics that can all be tracked by HR through a software dashboard.

To make progress on these fronts, execs do video chat sessions through Torch’s app with coaches trained in these skills. “These are all working people with by nature very tight schedules. They don’t have time to come in for a live session so we come to them in the form of video,” Yarbrough tells me. Rates vary from $500 per month to $1,500 per month for a senior coach in the U.S., Europe, APAC or EMEA, with Torch scoring a significant margin. “We’re B2B only. We’re not focused on being the most affordable solution. We’re focused on being the most effective. And we find that there’s less price sensitivity for senior leaders where the cost of their underperformance is incredibly high to the organization.” Torch’s top source of churn is clients’ going out of business, not ceasing to want its services.

Here are two examples of how big-wigs get better with Torch. “Let’s say we have a client who really just wants to be liked all the time, so much so that they have a hard time getting things done. The feedback from the 360 would come back like ‘I find that Cameron is continually telling me what I want to hear but I don’t know what the expectations are of me and I need him to be more direct,’ ” Yarbrough explains. “The problem is those leaders will eventually fire those people who are failing, but they’ll say they had no idea they weren’t performing because he never told them.” Torch’s coaches can teach them to practice tough-love when necessary and to be more transparent. Meanwhile, a boss who storms around the office and “is super-direct and unkind” could be instructed on how to “develop more empathic attunement.”

Yarbrough specifically designed Torch’s software to not be too prescriptive and leave room for the relationship between the coach and client to unfold. And for privacy, coaches don’t record notes and HR only sees the performance goals and progress, not the content of the video chats. It wants execs to feel comfortable getting real without the worry their personal or trade secrets could leak. “And if someone is bringing in something about trauma or that’s super-sensitive about their personal life, their coach will refer them out to psychotherapists,” Yarbrough assures me.

Torch’s direct competition comes from boutique executive coaching firms around the world, while on the tech side, BetterUp is trying to make coaching scale to every type of employee. But its biggest foe is the stubborn status quo of stiff-upper-lipping it.

The startup world has been plagued by too many tragic suicides, deep depression and paralyzing burnout. It’s easy for founders to judge their own worth not by self-confidence or even the absolute value of their accomplishments, but by their status relative to yesterday. That means one blown deal, employee quitting or product delay can make an executive feel awful. But if they turn to their peers or investors, it could hurt their partnership and fundraising prospects. To keep putting in the work, they need an emotional outlet.

“We ultimately have to create this great software that super-powers human beings. People are not robots yet. They will be someday, but not yet,” Yarbrough concludes with a laugh. IQ alone doesn’t make people succeed. Torch can help them develop the EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient, they need to become a boss that’s looked up to.

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Gig workers need health & benefits — Catch is their safety net

Posted by | Apps, Catch, Collaborative Consumption, eCommerce, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, Mobile, nyca partners, payments, Personnel, Recent Funding, Startups, Talent, TC, Y Combinator | No Comments

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government,” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to become an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it has raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, and NYCA Partners. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance and more. Catch is part of a growing trend that sees the best Y Combinator startup fully funded before Demo Day even arrives.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity,” recalls Tyrrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy, where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet,” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance “paid” time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about which benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose which programs you want and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off and retirement balances up 300 percent in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income-smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way,” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. Twenty-one percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services, including NerdWallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club founder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brought on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

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Prototype prosthesis proffers proper proprioceptive properties

Posted by | EPFL, Gadgets, hardware, Health, medtech, prosthesis, Prosthetics, robotics, science, TC | No Comments

Researchers have created a prosthetic hand that offers its users the ability to feel where it is and how the fingers are positioned — a sense known as proprioception. The headline may be in jest, but the advance is real and may help amputees more effectively and naturally use their prostheses.

Prosthesis rejection is a real problem for amputees, and many choose to simply live without these devices, electronic or mechanical, as they can complicate as much as they simplify. Part of that is the simple fact that, unlike their natural limbs, artificial ones have no real sensation — or if there is any, it’s nowhere near the level someone had before.

Touch and temperature detection are important, of course, but what’s even more critical to ordinary use is simply knowing where your limb is and what it’s doing. If you close your eyes, you can tell where each digit is, how many you’re holding up, whether they’re gripping a small or large object and so on. That’s currently impossible with a prosthesis, even one that’s been integrated with the nervous system to provide feedback — meaning users have to watch what they’re doing at all times. (That is, if the arm isn’t watching for you.)

This prosthesis, built by Swiss, Italian and German neurologists and engineers, is described in a recent issue of Science Robotics. It takes the existing concept of sending touch information to the brain through electrodes patched into the nerves of the arm, and adapts it to provide real-time proprioceptive feedback.

“Our study shows that sensory substitution based on intraneural stimulation can deliver both position feedback and tactile feedback simultaneously and in real time. The brain has no problem combining this information, and patients can process both types in real time with excellent results,” explained Silvestro Micera, of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in a news release.

It’s been the work of a decade to engineer and demonstrate this possibility, which could be of enormous benefit. Having a natural, intuitive understanding of the position of your hand, arm or leg would likely make prostheses much more useful and comfortable for their users.

Essentially the robotic hand relays its telemetry to the brain through the nerve pathways that would normally be bringing touch to that area. Unfortunately it’s rather difficult to actually recreate the proprioceptive pathways, so the team used what’s called sensory substitution instead. This uses other pathways, like ordinary touch, as ways to present different sense modalities.

(Diagram modified from original to better fit, and to remove some rather bloody imagery.)

A simple example would be a machine that touched your arm in a different location depending on where your hand is. In the case of this research it’s much finer, but still essentially presenting position data as touch data. It sounds weird, but our brains are actually really good at adapting to this kind of thing.

As evidence, witness that after some training two amputees using the system were able to tell the difference between four differently shaped objects being grasped, with their eyes closed, with 75 percent accuracy. Chance would be 25 percent, of course, meaning the sensation of holding objects of different sizes came through loud and clear — clear enough for a prototype, anyway. Amazingly, the team was able to add actual touch feedback to the existing pathways and the users were not overly confused by it. So there’s precedent now for multi-modal sensory feedback from an artificial limb.

The study has well-defined limitations, such as the number and type of fingers it was able to relay information from, and the granularity and type of that data. And the “installation” process is still very invasive. But it’s pioneering work nevertheless: this type of research is very iterative and global, progressing by small steps until, all of a sudden, prosthetics as a science has made huge strides. And the people who use prosthetic limbs will be making strides, as well.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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