This bioengineer figured out how to handle a key challenge facing biotech startups.
Your company makes a test that can measure protein levels in single cells. Why is this important?
Proteins are the functional molecules of the cell. Measuring them is vital to understanding and targeting disease. But they’re much more challenging to measure than DNA because they can’t be amplified—you have to measure the molecules that are actually in the cell.
Measuring proteins in single cells could help us understand a tumor. Are all the cells in a tumor going to be targeted by a drug, or do some of them lack the drug target? Which cells will metastasize?
Who uses your test?
Right now we’re focused on the research market. Before we started our product development, we interviewed over 100 biomedical researchers to find out what applications people were interested in, and designed our hardware to meet that need.
You say you followed the “lean startup” model, which comes from the software industry. Why did you adopt it?
You see a lot of academic publications that are innovative, but they never make it out of the lab. One barrier is the willingness of investors to fund early-stage biotech companies. Life sciences startups can be incredibly expensive. We did it with only $1.8 million in private and public funding and seven employees. We were acquired by ProteinSimple [a division of a public company called Bio-Techne] this spring, after two and a half years.
Are you already antsy to start another company?
I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and in the Bay Area it’s hard not to be distracted by shiny things. But it’s important for me to make sure this technology is successful.
Cheap hormone tests could begin to address gender disparities in health care.
“There are significant differences in the ways that men and women experience many diseases and drugs, and until this problem is solved, women will be forced to make do with therapies that may be of limited benefit,” says Heather Bowerman.
For example, hormones cause plaque to form differently in the arteries of men and women. Yet drugs to treat cardiovascular disease are tested disproportionately on men, and as one consequence, their death rates from that illness are declining faster than women’s. Detailed hormonal data could help doctors tailor drugs and treatment regimens so that they work better for women.
Bowerman is CEO of a startup, Dot Laboratories, that is developing a cheap and easy way to test female sex hormone levels and track them online. A patient spits into a tube at specific times and mails the tubes to Dot Laboratories. The company then delivers data on hormone levels in an app for the woman or her doctor to review. It’s still in a beta test; the company plans to publish data on the efficacy of its methods and release the diagnostic product in 2017.
Developing more drugs that take hormonal changes into account will take time. Even so, Anula Jayasuriya, a doctor who invests in life sciences companies, says such tests will help end the “sex bias in basic research and clinical medicine.”
An augmented-reality dreamer tries to turn his vision into a business.
Meron Gribetz has a hard time sitting down when he’s talking about his augmented-reality startup, Meta. Grinning, he stands or paces as he explains that he had always wanted to create a way to bring digital information into the real world to make it easier to absorb. Then in 2011, sunlight shimmering through an airplane window hit the lens of his sunglasses and made him realize how he would do it.
Since then, he’s managed to raise $73 million in funding to go up against rivals like Microsoft and its HoloLens device. Why the excitement?
This year, Gribetz unveiled the company’s latest headset, the Meta 2, which sells for less than a third of what the HoloLens headset is going for. It lets you do things like grab and prod 3-D imagery with your hands, or conduct a video call with another Meta user, who can hand you a virtual object that you can then inspect from any angle.
Both the Meta and the HoloLens are aimed at software developers, who will have to come up with applications. But Gribetz, who was raised in Israel by American parents, is aggressively optimistic about the technology because he thinks it will let us ditch devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets for one super-mobile package. Within five years, he imagines, AR headsets will be reduced to a strip of glass over your eyes that’s “nearly invisible.”
Meta is building software meant to be more intuitive to navigate than windows and icons. Gribetz believes so deeply in AR’s promise, in fact, that he’s pushing his own employees to stop using computer monitors and mouses with their laptops by next spring; instead, the company will rely on Meta 2 and its hand-tracking capabilities to help them get their work done.
Her startup is commercializing thin, flexible, printable batteries that she developed at UC Berkeley.
You say we’ll want Imprint Energy’s zinc batteries for wearable electronics, health-monitoring patches, and small sensors. Why can’t we put existing batteries into such devices?
A lot of these batteries need a lot of plastic housing or metal housing. They need protective circuitry. Because you’re doing everything you can to tame a very, very wild and reactive system. What’s interesting about Imprint’s approach is we’re using an inherently more stable chemistry that doesn’t need that hermetic sealing. [That results in] the packaging being much more simplistic and thinner. What’s nice about zinc batteries is the materials are really cost-effective and easy to acquire. They’re also nontoxic.
Why isn’t zinc already widely used to power electronics?
There’s usually a very nasty corrosive electrolyte used [with it]. Especially for on-body applications, you don’t want to put in something nasty like that. The other thing is, zinc is not traditionally a rechargeable system.
How did you get around those issues?
Batteries are stacked; they look like a stacked sandwich. The middle layer, like the jelly in the jelly sandwich, is called the electrolyte. What I realized was that if we eliminated that and replaced it with something that is stable with the zinc system and rechargeable, we could open up a whole new market space. I looked at lots of different materials, literally throwing everything in a bucket and hoping that it worked. We started to get some really interesting results with one of these material sets we were looking at. We could basically take this material and cast it into a solid film. So you could cut it, you could stretch it and whatnot, but inside it had ions that moved.
After greasing the wheels of India’s e-commerce boom, this executive eyes overseas expansion.
Homegrown e-commerce companies in India are slashing prices and delivery times as they battle to serve the country’s burgeoning middle class. Many of these companies are able to do it because of warehouse automation technologies developed by Samay Kohli and his team at the robotics firm GreyOrange.
GreyOrange sells swarms of “Butler” robots, which store products and bring shelves to human workers, and “Sorters,” which automatically scan and sort packages of any size or shape. The company boasts 92 percent of India’s warehouse automation market, a sector that Kohli thinks “can become humongous.”
With offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, the company isn’t content serving India alone. It plans to expand into the Middle East and China this year, and within two years Kohli expects to be exporting warehouse robots to Europe. He hopes to get a first-mover advantage over other robotics startups chasing the same opportunity—one that became even larger after Amazon bought the warehouse automation company Kiva Systems in 2012 and brought its technology in house rather than selling it to Amazon’s e-commerce rivals.
Kohli and his cofounder Akash Gupta launched the company in 2011, after developing, while in college, what they believe to be India’s first humanoid robot. Seeing China’s e-commerce boom, they spotted “an industry ripe for disruption,” says Kohli.
She sees a way to make Silicon Valley’s workforce look more like the rest of society.
When Stephanie Lampkin applied for an analytics job at a major tech company, she was offered a position in sales instead. To her, this was evidence of bias; she had a degree in management science and engineering from Stanford and had held other engineering positions. Whether or not her race or gender played a role (she is African-American), there’s evidence that recruiters often make initial judgments that have little to do with qualifications. A 2014 study concluded that a foreign-sounding name on a résumé could hurt the applicant’s chances of even getting an interview.
So Lampkin declined the sales job and sat down to code Blendoor, a job-search platform that hides the candidates’ names and photos during the initial stages of the process. So far more than 5,000 people have signed up, and the platform is being used by recruiters at Twitter, Airbnb, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Intel.
Lampkin hopes Blendoor chips away at the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley. “We’ve identified the greatest need with large tech companies,” she says. But while early users tend to be women and minorities, she says, “we want this to become a de facto recruiting tool for everyone.”
Why the future of communication could be on your wrist.
Ari Roisman clearly covets human connection. Minutes after meeting me, the 32-year-old CEO of Glide gladly settles into a conversation about the role of Judaism in his life and how he gave up a promising career in clean energy to move to Jerusalem. “My entire consciousness of this world is that it is a gift,” he says, intently.
Since 2012, Roisman has been striving to create a more human alternative to text messaging. Rather than typing short messages on tiny smartphone keys, sometimes adding emojis in a desperate stab to impart nonverbal emotion, you can use Glide’s app to send video messages with a single button push. To illustrate, Roisman shows a Glide message he sent to his mother, featuring his daughter singing at a kindergarten event with the seriousness of a brain surgeon. Mom quickly responded with a video of herself laughing at the performance. “If we’re going to be glued to these devices, at least we should be connected in a way that is more authentic,” he says.
A few million people are using Glide, he says, but that’s a pittance in social networking, especially as Instagram and Facebook pour millions into their own video-messaging plans. Glide laid off 25 percent of its staff this spring.
Roisman says he scaled back on marketing and customer service to ensure his startup’s staying power. He wants the company to focus on a technology he says will make visual messaging the primary mode of communication: the smart watch. He is convinced that having a small screen just a wrist away will do for video messaging what the PC did for e-mail.