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R&D Roundup: ‘Twisted light’ lasers, prosthetic vision advances and robot-trained dogs

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.

In this edition: a new type of laser emitter that uses metamaterials, robot-trained dogs, a breakthrough in neurological research that may advance prosthetic vision and other cutting-edge technology.

Twisted laser-starters

We think of lasers as going “straight” because that’s simpler than understanding their nature as groups of like-minded photons. But there are more exotic qualities for lasers beyond wavelengths and intensity, ones scientists have been trying to exploit for years. One such quality is… well, there are a couple names for it: Chirality, vorticality, spirality and so on — the quality of a beam having a corkscrew motion to it. Applying this quality effectively could improve optical data throughput speeds by an order of magnitude.

The trouble with such “twisted light” is that it’s very difficult to control and detect. Researchers have been making progress on this for a couple of years, but the last couple weeks brought some new advances.

First, from the University of the Witwatersrand, is a laser emitter that can produce twisted light of record purity and angular momentum — a measure of just how twisted it is. It’s also compact and uses metamaterials — always a plus.

The second is a pair of matched (and very multi-institutional) experiments that yielded both a transmitter that can send vortex lasers and, crucially, a receiver that can detect and classify them. It’s remarkably hard to determine the orbital angular momentum of an incoming photon, and hardware to do so is clumsy. The new detector is chip-scale and together they can use five pre-set vortex modes, potentially increasing the width of a laser-based data channel by a corresponding factor. Vorticality is definitely on the roadmap for next-generation network infrastructure, so you can expect startups in this space soon as universities spin out these projects.

Tracing letters on the brain-palm

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An eighth Amazon warehouse employee has died from COVID-19

An eighth Amazon employee has died of COVID-19. The news comes as the company is under scrutiny for failing to be more transparent about the wider number of infections among its warehouse workers.

A spokesperson confirmed the reports of the death, telling TechCrunch, “We are saddened by the loss of an associate who had worked at our site in Randall, Ohio. “Her family and loved ones are in our thoughts, and we are supporting her fellow colleagues.”

According to the company, the worker in North Randall, a village outside of Cleveland, was sent home from work on April 30. She received a positive test a little over a week later, on May 8. Amazon says it notified fellow employees of the death and has provided counseling to colleagues.

The overall number of Amazon workers who have tested positive for the virus remains a mystery. The company stands by its decision not to disclose such information. “We don’t think that number is super valuable,” it has said previously. In a statement provided to TechCrunch, it added: 

Our rates of infection are at or below the rates of the communities where we operate. We see that in our quarantine rates as well. Quarantine rates are a critical part to understanding what’s happening in the workplace – it shows that our hard work around social distancing is paying off. Unlike others who hide beyond HIPAA, we alert every person at the site anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis. This alert to employees is a direct text message noting when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building.

The lack of transparency is one of a number of sources of criticism surrounding Amazon’s COVID-19 response.

While the company has repeatedly maintained that it has done all it can to protect the employees in its fulfillment centers, potential exposure to the virus among warehouse workers is difficult to avoid, even with the proper PPE. Earlier this month, a letter from 13 state attorneys general demanded that Amazon disclose the number of workers who have been impacted by the virus.

“We have requested but not received information on how many of the Companies’ workers have been infected with COVID-19, and how many have died from it,” the letter reads. “Please provide a state-by-state breakdown for each Company with this information.”

Earlier this week, The New York Times noted one particularly hard hit warehouse in northeastern Pennsylvania, where more than 100 workers have apparently tested positive for the virus. The exact figure is unknown, as Amazon will not disclose it. Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that at least 30 workers at the nearby Kenosha warehouse have tested positive for the virus.

As more housebound Americans rely on Amazon for deliveries, workers have largely fallen under the “essential services” guidelines issued by many states. In mid-May, the company extended its $2 an hour “hazard pay bonuses” through the end of the month. Amazon confirmed that it will return to standard salaries, come June, stating: 

To thank employees and help meet increased demand, we’ve paid our team and partners nearly $800 million extra since COVID-19 started while continuing to offer full benefits from day one of employment. With demand stabilized, next month we’ll return to our industry-leading starting wage of $15 an hour.

The company has been subject to additional scrutiny over the firing of several employees that have raised public concerns over its treatment of workers during the crisis. While Amazon has repeatedly denied the firings were retaliation, the reports were enough to warrant another letter, this time from a number of high-profile senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

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Thriva raises £4M from Target in an era when at-home blood testing is more crucial than ever

Thriva emerged in 2016 as an at-home blood-testing startup allowing people to check, for instance, cholesterol levels. In the era of a pandemic, however, at-home blood testing is about to become quite a big deal, alongside the general trend toward people proactively taking control of their health.

It has secured a £4 million extension to its Series A funding round from Berlin-based VC Target Global . The investment takes Thriva’s total funding to £11 million. The investment comes from Target Global’s new Early Stage Fund II and will top up the £6 million Series A raised in 2019. Existing investors include Guinness Asset Management and Pembroke VCT.

Thriva has processed more than 115,000 at-home blood tests since 2016. Interestingly, these customers actually use the information to improve their health, with 76% of Thriva users achieving an improvement in at least one of their biomarkers between tests.

The startup has also launched personalized health plans and high-quality supplements, scaling up its partnerships with hospitals and other healthcare providers.

Founded by Hamish Grierson, Eliot Brooks and Tom Livesey, it claims to be growing 100% year-on-year and has expanded its team to 50 members in the company’s London headquarters.

In a statement Grierson said: “As the world faces unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis, we have all been forced to view our health, and our mortality, in a new light.”

Speaking to TechCrunch he added: “While there are other at-home testing companies, we don’t see them as directly competitive. Thriva isn’t a testing company. Our at-home blood tests are an important data point but they’re just the beginning of the long-term relationships we’re creating with our customers. To deliver on our mission of putting better health in your hands, we not only help people to keep track of what’s really happening inside their bodies, we actually help them to make positive changes that they can see the effects of over time.”

Dr. Ricardo Schäfer, partner at Target Global said: “When we first met the team behind Thriva, we were immediately hooked by their mission to allow people to take health into their own hands.”

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Spotify will let employees work from home through the end of year

Spotify this week joined a growing number of tech giants expanding their work from home policies as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on. While not as radical as Twitter’s recent decision to let staff work from home forever, the music streaming service’s move does represent increased openness to the arrangement.

First noted by Variety, the new policy allows staff to continue working from home through the end of the year. The new edict covers all employees across the globe. The streaming service is headquartered in Stockholm, with a number of regional offices, including New York, London and Tokyo. Spotify operates in 79 countries around the world.

A spokesperson for the company confirmed the move with TechCrunch,

Earlier today, we announced the extension of our work-from-home arrangement for all Spotify employees globally. We will continue to track local government guidelines city-by-city and take a phased approach of opening our offices when we deem it safe to do so. Our employees’ health and safety is our top priority. No employee will be required to come into the office and can choose to work from home through the end of the year.

The announcement follows similar moves from tech giants, like Facebook and Google. Many have long weighed the ups and downs of a remote workforce, but COVID-19 has caused an acceleration in that way of thinking. These past few months have been a kind of trial by fire for the model.

Even as many regions have begun to reopen, however, the potential for additional waves of the virus have made the option that much more appealing.

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Hims & Hers launch Spanish language telemedicine services

Hims & Hers, the startup focused on providing access to elective treatments for things like hair loss, skin care and erectile disfunction and online telemedicine services, is expanding its services to include a Spanish language option, the company said.

After Mexico, the U.S. has the second-largest Spanish speaking population in the world, with an estimated 41 million U.S. residents speaking Spanish at home. The population also prefers to receive healthcare information and frequent facilities that offer resources in Spanish.

Now, with a shortage looming in primary care physicians for rural areas and inner cities and a sky-high rate of Hispanics living without any form of healthcare coverage (roughly 15.1%, according to data provided by the company), Hims & Hers is pitching its telemedicine offering as an option.

“Language, cost, and location should not be barriers to receiving quality care, which is why we are launching a Spanish offering on our telemedicine platform,” the company said in a statement.

The company’s $39 primary care consultations at its Hims and its Hers websites will be in Spanish. That will include everything from communications like the patient intake form and instructions to prepare for an online consultation along with a connection to Spanish-speaking healthcare provider.

“The reason we created Hims & Hers was to break down barriers and provide more people with access to quality and convenient care,” the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Andrew Dudum, said in a statement. “As a telemedicine company, we recognize the need and understand the importance of serving the Spanish-speaking population. We hope those seeking access to care in Spanish find our platform to be a welcoming, inclusive, quality experience.”

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COVID-19 exposure notification settings begin to go live for iOS users with new update

Apple has released iOS 13.5, which includes support for the Exposure Notification API that it co-created with Google to support public health authorities in their contact tracing efforts to combat COVID-19. The API requires third-party apps developed by public health authorities for use, and none have yet been released, but iOS device users already have access to COVID-19 Exposure Logging global settings.

As previewed in the beta release, you can access the Exposure Logging settings under the Settings app, then navigating to the ‘Privacy’ subsection. From there, you can select the ‘Health’ submenu and find the COVID-19 Exposure Logging setting, which will be off be default. It can’t be turned on at all until you actually get an authorized app to enable them, at which point you’ll receive a pop-up asking you to authorize Exposure Notifications access. Once you do, you can return here to toggle notifications off, and also manually delete your device’s exposure log should you choose to opt out.

Apple and Google both have emphasized that they want as much user control and visibility into the Exposure Notification API as possible. They’re using randomized, temporary identifiers that are not centrally stored to do the exposure notification, and are also forbidding the simultaneous use of geolocation services and the Exposure Notification API within the same app. This manual control is another step to ensure that users have full control over what info they share to participate in the system, and when.

Contact tracing is a time-tested strategy for combating the spread of infectious disease, and has traditionally worked by attempting to trace potential exposure by interviewing infected individuals and leaning as much about their movements during their infectious period as possible. Modern connected devices mean that we can potentially make this far more efficient and accurate, but Google and Apple have worked with privacy experts to try to determine a way to make this happen without exposing users to privacy risks. Matching also happens locally on a user’s device, not in any centralized database.

Apple and Google are currently working with public health authorities who are building apps based on this API, and the companies also have noted that this is a temporary measure that has been designed from the beginning to be disabled once the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

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Byte projects $100 million in 2020 revenue without increasing marketing spend

One usual characteristic of a bootstrapped company is that its growth is slower than its VC-backed competitors. Bootstrapped marketing spend relies on revenue, revenue often relies on marketing spend, and the tension between the two can force slower growth. VC-backed companies, in contrast, can afford to spend ahead of revenue, often allowing them to grow more quickly.

Byte has found a much faster bootstrapped path to growth. The company, which was founded in 2017 and launched its products at the beginning of 2019, is on track to reach a $100 million revenue run rate in Q2 of this year, according to president Neeraj Gunsagar.

Unlike bootstrapped startups with first-time founders, byte (it’s officially lowercase) was founded by serial entrepreneurs Scott Cohen and Blake Johnson. Cohen founded his first company in 2011 (acquired by Deluxe Corporation in 2016) and his second company, Currency, alongside Blake Johnson in 2016, which sold to a private equity firm in 2019.

The duo brought on Gunsagar, formerly CMO at TrueCar where he spent eight years, to help lead the next phase of growth at the company and prepare the organization for international expansion and the next product rollout.

But let’s back up. Byte is an invisible-aligner-for-teeth company that has entered the ring with behemoths like Invisalign and SmileDirectClub, as well as a smattering of smaller at-home braces startups, like Candid. But there are several big differences between byte and its competition.

The first is its technology. Alongside impression kits and invisible aligners, byte also includes a device called HyperByte in all of its treatment plans. HyperByte is an extra in-mouth device that uses high-frequency vibrations (HFV) to send micropulses through the roots of the teeth and the surrounding bone, speeding up the process of alignment.

HFV treatment is FDA-approved and offered in orthodontist offices around the country, but usually at a steep price.

HyperByte comes included with the cost of using byte’s service, which comes out to $1,895. (Folks can also pay via payment plan, called BytePay, which comes out to $349 down and $83/month for a little over two years.) The company also includes a whitening solution that can be used in conjunction with aligners.

Byte’s treatment plans are overseen and reviewed by licensed orthodontists each and every time, and customers can be connected to an orthodontist or dentist should they run into any clinical issue during treatment.

In some cases, insurance may reimburse customers for their byte treatment.

In other words, byte is working to bring down both the cost of aligners and the time it takes to treat patients. Importantly, byte focuses exclusively on Phase 1 malocclusions, or small misalignments in the teeth like tiny gaps or slightly crooked teeth, and not complicated issues like overbites.

Most interestingly, byte saw explosive growth in the first quarter of 2020 — the company saw 10x revenue growth over the last three months, compared to the same period of 2019, and says that it is continuing at that 10x growth rate through Q2. Byte also told TechCrunch that it generated “positive EBITDA business pre-[COVID-19].” (As is the case with all private companies, these numbers come from byte and are not independently verified by TechCrunch.)

Part of that profitability story is improving economics. Toward the end of 2019, byte’s cost to acquire customers (CAC) averaged $189 for initial impression kits, a figure that dropped to $88 by the end of April 2020.

The sharp CAC decline is due to several factors. According to Gunsagar, the price of Google keywords dropped dramatically in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the company has seen its direct and organic traffic double, perhaps driven by the coronavirus pandemic spurring increased interest in self-improvement.

Byte isn’t the only company caught in the self-improvement updraft. “There’s sort of this trend toward self-improvement and using this time constructively,” Jaimee Minney, SVP of marketing and PR at Rakuten Intelligence, told CNBC. “Book sales increase, games and puzzles, and we have seen health and beauty start to grow as well, especially when you look at it on a year-over-year basis. That’s one I might keep an eye on, the self-improvement piece.”

Gunsagar explained that, historically, other companies may have thrown even more marketing money at this type of environment to boost growth even more.

“We won’t sacrifice our customer experience and we won’t sacrifice profitability as we grow the business,” said Gunsagar. “We don’t want to have too many impression kits going through the system because we want to make sure we can support it from a technology and experience standpoint. Every dollar we spend is still super profitable. I could go spend more money and still stay below our CPC goal of $150 and blow past $100 million in revenue this year, but I just wouldn’t be super confident that our NPS score or our customer experience wouldn’t be penalized.”

In formulating this careful growth strategy, Gunsagar and byte aren’t just looking at the broader tech ecosystem, where we’ve seen growth at all costs backfire on companies. They can find examples in their own industry — SmileDirectClub grew fantastically ahead of its initial public offering in September of 2019 only to feel backlash from some customers who were reportedly asked for an NDA in exchange for a refund.

One other important piece of byte’s strategy is an upcoming bytePro launch in conjunction with dentists and orthodontists. The idea is to grow alongside the dental and orthodontic industry, rather than cut these healthcare professionals out of the food chain.

With bytePro, which launches next month, dentists and orthodontists are included even more in the process. Incoming clients can ask to work with their own dentist or orthodontist as they go through the byte aligner process, and even get their impression kits in their dentist’s office rather than order them online. On the other side, dentists and orthodontists can join the bytePro network to be matched with new patients. Moreover, folks that purchase byte show an increased interest in caring for their teeth year round, according to the company, whether that be cleanings or other dental work. Byte aims to connect those folks with a good dentist or orthodontist to protect the investment they’ve made in their new smile.

Though byte is not venture-backed, the company has taken a small investment from actress and investor Kerry Washington, who has also invested in The Wing and Community. Washington serves as Creative Director at byte.

“When I was looking at ways to continue growing my portfolio, I focused on companies that I can be really proud to be associated with, and that pride comes from the quality of the product and how it improves the quality of people’s lives,” said Washington. “The idea of having a voice is really important. With byte, I said really early on ‘if you can’t open your mouth, you can’t find your voice’ and when you hear the stories from real customers, people were afraid to smile and afraid to speak and that’s when I realized that this is a tool that can better people’s lives in so many ways.”

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Apple begins reopening some stores with temperature checks and other safeguards in place

In mid-March, Apple closed all of its stores outside of China “until further notice.” It was a sweeping — but necessary — move for a world facing down a growing pandemic. In a statement issued today until the title, “To our Customers,” Retail SVP Deirdre O’Brien offered insight into the company’s plans to reopen locations.

Nearly 100 stores have already resumed services, according to O’Brien — though the famously open retail spaces are taking on a new look in the face of the highly contagious novel coronavirus. “In every store, we’re focused on limiting occupancy and giving everybody lots of room, and renewing our focus on one‑on‑one, personalized service at the Genius Bar and throughout the store,” she writes.

A spokesperson for the company adds, “Next week we’ll continue our very gradual and thoughtful reopening of US stores, adding more than 25 locations in seven states. While we know many customers are eager for their local store to reopen, our commitment is to reopen our stores when we are confident the environment is safe. We miss our customers and look forward to seeing them again soon.”

As seen in the above image, face covers will be required for both employees and customers alike — already a legal requirement in many locales. More unusual for many retail establishments is the addition of temperature checks now conducted at the store’s entrance, coupled with posted health questions. Apple has also instituted deeper cleaning on all surfaces, including display products.

That last point is an important one, given how much of the company’s store layout revolves around hands-on products. Curb-side pick and drop off have been added, as well, for those who understandably would like to avoid the in-person experience.

As for when each location reopens, Apple says it’s monitoring health trends and local/national guidance to determine the timeframe. You can check your local store’s status here. And as the conversation of secondary waves begin to become a reality in many areas, O’Brien says the company will close stores down again, if necessary. “These are not decisions we rush into,” she writes, “and a store opening in no way means that we won’t take the preventative step of closing it again should local conditions warrant.”

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The Great Reset

Talk of an economic downturn can be frightening, especially one precipitated by a pervasive health crisis. At times, I’m overwhelmed by the images of countless patients on life-support and the near-endless streams of statistics regurgitating bad news.

Having started in venture at the beginning of two recessions, I’ve seen how the startup industry functions during economic trouble. My second day of work at Charles River Ventures was September 11th, 2001. My first project, analyzing the VC industry, propelled the firm to return more than 60% of its fund to investors, going from a $1.2 billion fund to $450 million. In May 2008, Mike Maples and I founded Floodgate in the midst of the Great Recession. We learned that great founders won’t wait for a better economic moment to start a company.

While we are currently embroiled in personal and professional circumstances unimaginable even three months ago, these very challenges will form the basis of incredibly innovative ideas. In order for the world to move forward, we need our greatest minds to imagine a brighter future and create solutions to make it a reality.

When I analyze our society and novel health situation, one thing is certain: COVID-19 is a paradigm-shifting event, creating massively accelerated social and economic change.

The Great Reset is not just another economic event

Our current situation is unique. It’s not merely a cyclical economic event, nor is it a standalone health crisis. What we are experiencing is not just an inflection point: it’s a societal phase-change unlike anything we have ever seen. We face an epic choice of how we move forward, and the decisions we make today will shape an entire generation.

Here’s why: COVID-19 is prompting us to reset many of our most fundamental behaviors. These changes are impacting our financial system, with effects visible throughout our homes, businesses and even the concept of “workplace” itself.

COVID-19 is pervasive

As a global pandemic, the virus itself has spread to nearly every country in the world.

Between February 20 and March 26, 100% of the world’s 20 largest economies implemented government-mandated social distancing. Globally, the number of scheduled airline flights is down 64%. In some countries, like Spain and Germany, flight numbers are down by more than 90%.

Since the timeline for lifting government restrictions is unclear — and even then, scientists are uncertain how the virus will spread — the question lingers: How long will this go on?

COVID-19’s impact is uncertain, long-term and potentially undulating, affecting every facet of our lives. You can’t simply wait it out with the expectation that industries will rebound. In 2001, September 11 felt pervasive, but its economic impact ultimately stemmed from just one single incident and the resulting fear… and that one single incident still cost more than three trillion dollars. How much larger will COVID-19 be?

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Everlywell gains first FDA authorization for a standalone, at-home, COVID-19 test sample collection kit

Everlywell was one of the first startups to announce that it was working on a self-administered, at-home COVID-19 diagnostic kit, but it initially sought out to ship kits before regulators made clear that this was not in line with its guidelines. Everlywell then became intent on working with the FDA to secure a proper Emergency Use Authorization for its kits before sending any to consumers, and that approach has paid off with the U.S. drug regulator issuing an EUA for Everlywell’s tech today.

Everlywell‘s COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit is the first standalone sample collection kit to be granted a proper EUA by the FDA. Other kits have been in use through physician-prescribed and directed collection, and others still have been authorized specifically for use with one test (where provider of both kit and test are the same). This approval is unique because Everlywell is offering its sample kit independent of any specific testing lab, and can work with a variety of labs to potentially provide a broader testing footprint.

The test kits are then sent to one of two labs currently authorized under separate EUAs for COVID-19 testing, and the administration notes that this could expand to other test providers in future should they file for an EUA and provide the requisite data that goes along with the verification required for that emergency approval. The FDA cites Everlywell’s work in collecting and presenting data from studies including those supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to show that samples collected at home using its nasal swab collection method remain stable during shipping.

That data is also now available to others looking to provide similar test kit offerings, the FDA notes, which should reduce the burden of proof on anyone looking to gain authorization for a competing product. That could potentially open up testing even further, reducing a bottleneck that many public health professionals see as one of the key drivers of a successful recovery.

“The authorization of a COVID-19 at-home collection kit that can be used with multiple tests at multiple labs not only provides increased patient access to tests, but also protects others from potential exposure,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Today’s action is also another great example of public-private partnerships in which data from a privately funded study was used by industry to support an EUA request, saving precious time as we continue our fight against this pandemic.”

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