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June 17, 2019
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With $90 million in funding, the Ginkgo spinoff Motif joins the fight for the future of food

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Continuing its quest to become the Amazon Web Services for biomanufacturing, href=”http://ginkgobioworks.com/”>Ginkgo Bioworks has launched a new spinoff called Motif Ingredients with $90 million in funding to develop proteins that can serve as meat and dairy replacements.

It’s the second spinout for Ginkgo since late 2017 when the company partnered with Bayer to launch Joyn Bio, a startup researching and developing bacteria that could improve crop yields.

Now, with Motif, Ginkgo is tackling the wild world of protein replacements for the food and beverage industry through the spinoff of Motif Ingredients.

It’s a move that’s likely going to send shockwaves through several of the alternative meat and dairy companies that were using Ginkgo as their manufacturing partner in their quest to reduce the demand for animal husbandry — a leading contributor to global warming — through the development of protein replacements.

“To help feed the world and meet consumers’ evolving food preferences, traditional and complementary nutritional sources need to co-exist. As a global dairy nutrition company, we see plant- and fermentation-produced nutrition as complementary to animal protein, and in particular cows’ milk,” said Judith Swales, the Chief Operating Officer, for the Global Consumer and Foodservice Business, of Fonterra, an investor in Ginkgo’s new spinout.

To ensure the success of its new endeavor Ginkgo has raised $90 million in financing from industry insiders like Fonterra and the global food processing and trading firm Louis Dreyfus Co., while also tapping the pool of deep-pocketed investors behind Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the climate focused investment fund financed by a global gaggle of billionaires including Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, John Doerr, Vinod Khosla, Jack Ma, Neil Shen, Masayoshi Son, and Meg Whitman.

Leading Ginkgo’s latest spinout is a longtime veteran of the food and beverage industry, Jonathan McIntyre, the former head of research and development at another biotechnology startup focused on agriculture — Indigo Ag.

McIntyre, who left Indigo just two years after being named the company’s head of research and development, previously had stints at Monsanto, Nutrasweet, and PepsiCo (in both its beverage and snack divisions).

“There’s an opportunity to produce proteins,” says McIntyre. “Right now as population grows the protein supply is going to be challenged. Motif gives the ability to create proteins and make products from low cost available genetic material.”

Photo: paylessimages/iStock

Ginkgo, which will have a minority stake in the new company, will provide engineering and design work to Motif and provide some initial research and development work on roughly six to nine product lines.

That push, with the financing, and Ginkgo’s backing as the manufacturer of new proteins for Motif Ingredients should put the company in a comfortable position to achieve McIntyre’s goals of bringing his company’s first products into the market within the next two years. All Motif has to pay is cost plus slight overhead for the Ginkgo ingredients.

“We started putting Motif together around February or March of 2018,” says Ginkgo co-founder Jason Kelly of the company’s plans. “The germination of the business had its inception earlier though, from interacting with companies in the food and beverage scene. When we talked to these companies the strong sense we got was if there had been a trusted provider of outsourced protein development they would have loved to work with us.”

The demand from consumers for alternative sources of protein and dairy — that have the same flavor profiles as traditional dairy and meats — has reached an inflection point over the past few years. Certainly venture capital interest into the industry has soared along with the appetite from traditional protein purveyors like Danone, Tyson Foods, and others to take a bite out of the market.

Some industry insiders think it was Danone’s 2016 acquisition of WhiteWave in a $12.5 billion deal that was the signal which brought venture investors and food giants alike flocking to startups that were developing meat and dairy substitutes. The success of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods has only served to prove that a growing market exists for these substitutes.

At the same time, solving the problem of protein for a growing global population is critical if the world is going to reverse course on climate change. Agriculture and animal husbandry are huge contributors to the climate crisis and ones for which no solution has made it to market.

Investors think cultured proteins — fermented in tanks like brewing beer — could be an answer.

Photograph: David Parry/EPA

“Innovative or disruptive solutions are key to responding to changing consumer demand and to addressing the challenge of feeding a growing world population sustainably,” said Kristen Eshak Weldon, Head of Food Innovation & Downstream Strategy at Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC), a leading merchant and processor of agricultural goods. “In this sense, we are excited to partner with Motif, convinced that its next-generation ingredients will play a vital role.”

Breakthrough Energy Ventures certainly thinks so.

The investment firm has been busy placing bets across a number of different biologically based solutions to reduce the emissions associated with agriculture and cultivation. Pivot Bio is a startup competing with Ginkgo’s own Joyn Bio to create nitrogen fixing techniques for agriculture. And earlier this month, the firm invested as part of a $33 million round for Sustainable Bioproducts, which is using a proprietary bacteria found in a remote corner of Yellowstone National Park to make its own protein substitute.

For all of these companies, the goal is nothing less than providing a commercially viable technology to combat some of the causes of climate change in a way that’s appealing to the average consumer.

“Sustainability and accessible nutrition are among the biggest challenges facing the food industry today. Consumers are demanding mindful food options, but there’s a reigning myth that healthy and plant-based foods must come at a higher price, or cannot taste or function like the animal-based foods they aim to replicate,” said McIntyre, in a statement. “Biotechnology and fermentation is our answer, and Motif will be key to propelling the next food revolution with affordable, sustainable and accessible ingredients that meet the standards of chefs, food developers, and visionary brands.”

AppOnboard raises $15 million to let Android users try before they buy apps on Google Play

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Pitching app developers with a new way to convert app browsers into actual customers, AppOnboard has raised $15 million in a new round of funding, the company said.

Based in Los Angeles, AppOnboard sees itself as one of a new breed of LA startup that’s steeping itself in the local ecosystem and trying to be one of the cornerstone’s for a new technology hub in the southern California region.

Company co-founder Jonathan Zweig has already had one hit as a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur. Zweig was one of the architects behind the success of AdColony, a startup which sold to Opera Software in 2014 for $350 million. It was an early success for the regional ecosystem and proved to be one of the most valuable exits (from a capital efficiency standpoint) for the year.

Now Zweig is back again… this time pitching app developers a tool that can help convert browsers into buyers for new applications in app stores around the world. As consumers sour on the free-to-use model (since that model depends on selling user information in order for “free” apps to make money), giving users a way to try before they buy makes sense.

Zweig claims that conversion rates have increased significantly for the companies that pay a fee for his company’s service. Play Store shoppers who engage with an app store demo before installing have higher retention and are more likely to become paying customers than those who install directly without playing or using a demo version, the company said.

That certainly aligns with the thinking of Paul Heydon, an investor at Breakaway Growth, which led the new round for AppOnboard. “The entire app store paradigm is about to change dramatically, and AppOnboard is perfectly positioned for this disruption,” said Heydon in a statement. “With its patented app demo technology and tools, users will now be able to experience their apps and games on-demand and without an install across various platforms, starting with Google .”

Zweig says that the service is the first from a third party to be directly integrated into a platform like Google’s Play store.

“Google has been a great partner for us,” Zweig says. And the company is in talks with other platforms, like the Apple Store, he said.

Now, with the additional cash in hand, Zweig says AppOnboard is ready to make some international expansion moves. The company already has offices in London and in cities across the U.S., but Zweig thinks there’s more room to grow.

“Our vision continues to be that every app and game will be instant and available for users to experience without a download. We look forward to continuing to work with global developers, Google, and partners to make this a reality for all mobile app users,” said Bryan Buskas, the chief operating officer of AppOnboard. As part of its new pitch, the company is offering a 30-day free trial for any App Store Demo.

Vishal Makhijani steps down as chief executive of Udacity

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Vishal Makhijani, the long time chief executive of online education company Udacity, is stepping down as its chief executive officer, TechCrunch has learned.

Makhijani first joined the company in 2013 as chief operating officer under Sebastian Thrun, the company’s founder and chief executive at the time.

In 2016, Thrun, the original architect of Alphabet’s self-driving car initiatives and a storied entrepreneur and engineer in Silicon Valley, handed the reins of his online education startup over to Makhijani, who assumed the mantle of CEO while Thrun became chairman and president of the company.

In an interview, Makhijani declined to disclose his next steps, but Thrun praised the executive for taking Udacity to new heights and hailed him as a key contributor to the company’s continuing growth.

As Thrun wrote in a blog post praising Makhijani for his tireless efforts.

Over the last five years, Vish worked with hundreds of tech companies to build curriculum focused on opening up new career opportunities for our students. Under Vish’s leadership, we launched more than thirty Nanodegree programs in areas such as Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, Self-Driving Cars, and Digital Marketing. We expanded our operations into China, India, Brazil, the Middle East, and Europe, and we started a fast-growing new enterprise division.

Udacity now employs a team of 500 across the globe and its enterprise division, offering continuing education to workers through partners like PriceWaterhouseCoopers and other Fortune 1000 customers has become a new engine of revenue and growth for the company.

It also has more than 10 million students across its paid and free classes, with over 50,000 enrolled in its nanodegree programs.

The financials are also looking better for Udacity. The company saw revenue rise 100% in 2017 to $70 million and is on track for continued revenue growth this year.

A spokesperson for the company said that there were no complaints brought against Makhijani that would have pushed him to step down.

With the executive’s departure, the Udacity board is instituting a new search for chief executive led by director and Andreessen Horowitz general partner, Peter Levine .

“In the interim, as Udacity’s founder and now executive chairman, I will work closely with Udacity’s leadership team to run the business and collaborate on a search for our new CEO,” Thrun wrote in a blog post.

Shopify opens its first brick-and-mortar space in Los Angeles

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Shopify, the provider of payment and logistics management software and services for retailers, has opened its first physical storefront in Los Angeles.

The first brick and mortar location for the Toronto-based company, is nestled in a warren of downtown Los Angeles boutique shops in a complex known as the Row DTLA.

For Shopify, Los Angeles is the ideal place to debut a physical storefront showing off the company’s new line of hardware products and the array of services it provides to businesses ranging from newly opened startups to $900 million juggernauts like the Kylie Cosmetics brand.

The city is one of the most dense conglomerations of Shopify customers with over 10,000 merchants using the company’s technologies in the greater Los Angeles area. 400 of those retailers have each earned over $1 million in gross merchandise volume.

In the Los Angeles space, which looks similar to an Apple store, patrons can expect to see demonstrations and tutorials of how Shopify’s tools and features work. Showrooms displaying the work that Shopify does with some of its close partners will also show how business owners can turn their product visions into actual businesses.

Like Apple, Shopify is staffing its store with experts on the platform who can walk new customers or would-be customers through whatever troubleshooting they may need. While also serving as a space to promote large and small vendors using its payment and supply management solution.

“Our new space in downtown LA is a physical manifestation of our dedication and commitment to making commerce better for everyone. We’re thrilled to be able to take our proven educational, support, and community initiatives and put them to work in an always-on capacity,” said Satish Kanwar, VP of Product at Shopify, in a statement. “We know that making more resources available to entrepreneurs, especially early on, makes them far more likely to succeed, and we’re happy to now be offering that through a brick-and-mortar experience in LA.”

Kanwar and Shopify chief operating officer, Harley Finkelstein, envision the new Los Angeles space as another way to support new and emerging retailers looking for tips on how to build their business in the best possible way.

“The path to being your own boss doesn’t need to be lonely or isolating,” said Finkelstein, in a statement. “With Shopify LA we wanted to create a hub where business owners can find support, inspiration, and community. Most importantly, entrepreneurs at all stages and of all sizes can learn together, have first access to our newest products, and propel their entrepreneurial dreams.”

The reality of quantum computing could be just three years away

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Quantum computing has moved out of the realm of theoretical physics and into the real world, but its potential and promise are still years away.

Onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, a powerhouse in the world of quantum research and a young upstart in the field presented visions for the future of the industry that illustrated both how far the industry has come and how far the technology has to go.

For both Dario Gil, the chief operating officer of IBM Research and the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and Chad Rigetti, a former IBM researcher who founded Rigetti Computing and serves as its chief executive, the moment that a quantum computer will be able to perform operations better than a classical computer is only three years away.

“[It’s] generating a solution that is better, faster or cheaper than you can do otherwise,” said Rigetti. “Quantum computing has moved out of a field of research into now an engineering discipline and an engineering enterprise.”

Considering the more than 30 years that IBM has been researching the technology and the millions (or billions) that have been poured into developing it, even seeing an end of the road is a victory for researchers and technologists.

Achieving this goal, for all of the brainpower and research hours that have gone into it, is hardly academic.

The Chinese government is building a $10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information in Anhui province, which borders Shanghai and is slated to open in 2020. Meanwhile, the U.S. public research into quantum computing is running at around $200 million per year.

Source: Patin Informatics via Bloomberg News.

One of the reasons why governments, especially, are so interested in the technology is its potential to completely remake the cybersecurity landscape. Some technologists argue that quantum computers will have the potential to crack any type of encryption technology, opening up all of the networks in the world to potential hacking.

Of course, quantum computing is so much more than security. It will enable new ways of doing things we can’t even imagine because we have never had this much pure compute power. Think about artificial and machine learning or drug development; any type of operation that is compute-intensive could benefit from the exponential increase in compute power that quantum computing will bring.

Security may be the Holy Grail for governments, but both Rigetti and Gil say that the industrial chemical business will be the first place where the potentially radical transformation of a market will appear first.

What is quantum computing anyway?

To understand quantum computing it helps to understand the principles of the physics behind it.

As Gil explained onstage (and on our site), quantum computing depends on the principles of superposition, entanglement and interference.

Superposition is the notion that physicists can observe multiple potential states of a particle. “If you a flip a coin it is one or two states,” said Gil. Meaning that there’s a single outcome that can be observed. But if someone were to spin a coin, they’d see a number of potential outcomes.

Once you’ve got one particle that’s being observed, you can add another and pair them thanks to a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. “If you have two coins where each one can be in superpositions and then you can have measurements can be taken” of the difference of both.

Finally, there’s interference, where the two particles can be manipulated by an outside force to change them and create different outcomes.

“In classical systems you have these bits of zeros and ones and the logical operations of the ands and the ors and the nots,” said Gil. “The classical computer is able to process the logical operations of bits expressed in zeros and ones.”

“In an algorithm you put the computer in a super positional state,” Gil continued. “You can take the amplitude and states and interfere them and the algorithm is the thing that interferes… I can have many, many states representing different pieces of information and then i can interfere with it to get these data.”

These operations are incredibly hard to sustain. In the early days of research into quantum computing the superconducting devices only had one nanosecond before a qubit transforms into a traditional bit of data. Those ranges have increased between 50 and 100 microseconds, which enabled IBM and Rigetti to open up their platforms to researchers and others to conduct experimentation (more on that later).

The physical quantum computer

As one can imagine, dealing with quantum particles is a delicate business. So the computing operations have to be carefully controlled. At the base of the machine is what basically amounts to a huge freezer that maintains a temperature in the device of 15 millikelvin — near absolute zero degrees and 180 times colder than the temperatures in interstellar space.

“These qubits are very delicate,” said Gil. “Anything from the outside world can couple to it and destroy its state and one way to protect it is to cool it.”

Wiring for the quantum computer is made of superconducting coaxial cables. The inputs to the computers are microwave pulses that manipulates the particles creating a signal that is then interpreted by the computers’ operators.

Those operators used to require a degree in quantum physics. But both IBM and Rigetti have been working on developing tools that can enable a relative newbie to use the tech.

Quantum computing in the “cloud”

Even as companies like IBM and Rigetti bring the cost of quantum computing down from tens of millions of dollars to roughly $1 million to $2 million, these tools likely will never become commodity hardware that a consumer buys to use as a personal computer.

Rather, as with most other computing these days, quantum computing power will be provided as a service to users.

Indeed, Rigetti announced onstage a new hybrid computing platform that can provide computing services to help the industry both reach quantum advantage — that tipping point at which quantum is commercially viable — and to enable industries to explore the technologies to acclimatize to the potential ways in which typical operations could be disrupted by it.

“A user logs on to their own device and use our software development kit to write a quantum application,” said Rigetti. “That program is sent to a compiler and kicks off an optimization kit that runs on a quantum and classical computer… This is the architecture that’s needed to achieve quantum advantage.”

Both IBM and Rigetti — and a slew of other competitors — are preparing users for accessing quantum computing opportunities on the cloud.

IBM has more than a million chips performing millions of quantum operations requested by users in over 100 countries around the world.

“In a cloud-first era I’m not sure the economic forces will be there that will drive us to develop the miniaturized environment in the laptop,” Rigetti said. But the ramifications of the technology’s commercialization will be felt by everyone, everywhere.

“Quantum computing is going to change the world and it’s all going to come in our lifetime, whether that’s two years or five years,” he said. “Quantum computing is going to redefine every industry and touch every market. Every major company will be involved in some capacity in that space.”


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