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June 16, 2019
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Biofourmis raises $35M to develop smarter treatments for chronic diseases

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Biofourmis, a Singapore-based startup pioneering a distinctly tech-based approach to the treatment of chronic conditions, has raised a $35 million Series B round for expansion.

The round was led by Sequoia India and MassMutual Ventures, the VC fund from Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. Other investors who put in include EDBI, the corporate investment arm of Singapore’s Economic Development Board, China-based healthcare platform Jianke and existing investors Openspace Ventures, Aviva Ventures and SGInnovate, a Singapore government initiative for deep tech startups. The round takes Biofourmis to $41.6 million raised to date, according to Crunchbase.

This isn’t your typical TechCrunch funding story.

Biofourmis CEO Kuldeep Singh Rajput moved to Singapore to start a PhD, but he dropped out to start the business with co-founder Wendou Niu in 2015 because he saw the potential to “predict disease before it happens,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

AI-powered specialist post-discharge care

There are a number of layers to Biofourmis’ work, but essentially it uses a combination of data collected from patients and an AI-based system to customize treatments for post-discharge patients. The company is focused on a range of therapeutics, but its most advanced is cardiac, so patients who have been discharged after heart failure or other heart-related conditions.

With that segment of patients, the Biofourmis platform uses a combination of data from sensors — medical sensors rather than consumer wearables, which are worn 24/7 — and its tech to monitor patient health, detect problems ahead of time and prescribe an optimum treatment course. That information is disseminated through companion mobile apps for patients and caregivers.

Bioformis uses a mobile app as a touch point to give patients tailored care and drug prescriptions after they are discharged from hospital

That’s to say that medicine works differently on different people, so by collecting and monitoring data and crunching numbers, Biofourmis can provide the best drug to help optimize a patient’s health through what it calls a ‘digital pill.’ That’s not Matrix-style futurology, it’s more like a digital prescription that evolves based on the needs of a patient in real-time. It plans to use a network of medical delivery platforms, including Amazon-owned PillPack, to get the drugs to patients within hours.

Yes, that’s future tense because Biofourmis is waiting on FDA approval to commercialize its service. That’s expected to come by the end of this year, Singh Rajput told TechCrunch. But he’s optimistic given clinical trials, which have covered some 5,000 patients across 20 different sites.

On the tech side, Singh Rajput said Biofourmis has seen impressive results with its predictions. He cited tests in the U.S. which enabled the company to “predict heart failure 14 days in advance” with around 90 percent sensitivity. That was achieved using standard medical wearables at the cost of hundreds of dollars, rather than thousands with advanced kit such as Heartlogic from Boston Scientific — although the latter has a longer window for predictions.

The type of disruption that Biofourmis might appear to upset the applecart for pharma companies, but Singh Rajput maintains that the industry is moving towards a more qualitative approach to healthcare because it has been hard to evaluate the performance of drugs and price them accordingly.

“Today, insurance companies are blinded not having transparency on how to price drugs,” he said. “But there are already 50 drugs in the market paying based on outcomes so the market is moving in that direction.”

Outcome-based payments mean insurance firms reimburse all outcomes based on the performance of the drugs, in other words how well patients recover. The rates vary, but a lack of reduction in remission rates can see insurers lower their payouts because drugs aren’t working as well as expected.

Singh Rajput believes Biofourmis can level the playing field and added more granular transparency in terms of drug performance. He believes pharma companies are keen to show their products perform better than others, so over the long-term that’s the model Biofourmis wants to encourage.

Indeed, the confidence is such that Biofourmis intends to initially go to market via pharma companies, who will sell the package into clinics bundled with their drugs, before moving to work with insurance firms once traction is gained. While the Biofourmis is likely to be bundled with initial medication, the company will take a commission of 5-10 percent on the recommended drugs sold through its digital pill.

Biofourmis CEO and co-founder Kuldeep Singh Rajput dropped out of his PhD course to start the company in 2015

Doubling down on the US

With its new money, Biofourmis is doubling down on that imminent commercialization by relocating its headquarters to Boston. It will retain its presence in Singapore, where it has 45 people who handle software and product development, but the new U.S. office is slated to grow from 14 staff right now to up to 120 by the end of the year.

“The U.S. has been a major market focus since day one,” Singh Rajput said. “Being closer to customers and attracting the clinical data science pool is critical.”

While he praised Singapore and said the company remains committed to the country — adding EDBI to its investors is certainly a sign — he admitted that Boston, where he once studied, is a key market for finding “data scientists with core clinical capabilities.”

That expansion is not only to bring the cardio product to market, but also to prepare products to cover other therapeutics. Right now, it has six trials in place that cover pain, orthopedics and oncology. There are also plans to expand in other markets outside of the U.S, and in particular Singapore and China, where Biofourmis plans to lead on Jianke.

Not lacking in confidence, Singh Rajput told TechCrunch that the company is on course to reach a $1 billion valuation when it next raises funding, that’s estimated as 18 months away and the company isn’t saying how much it is worth today.

Singh Rajput did confirm, however, that the round was heavily oversubscribed, and that the startup rebuffed investment offers from pharma companies in order to “avoid a conflict of interest and stay neutral.”

He is also eying a future IPO, which is tentatively set for 2023 — although by then, Singh Rajput said, Biofourmis would need at least two products in the market.

There’s a long way to go before then, but this round has certainly put Biofourmis and its digital pill approach on the map within the tech industry.

Backed by LG, AmazeVR is hoping to resurrect virtual reality’s consumer dreams

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For over 100 years entrepreneurs have come to Hollywood to try their luck in the dream factory and build an empire in the business of storytelling.

Propelled by new technologies, new businessmen have been landing in Los Angeles since the invention of the nickelodeon to create a studio that would dominate popular entertainment. Over the past five years, virtual reality was the latest new thing to make or break fortunes, and the founding team behind the Korean company AmazeVR are the latest would-be dream-makers to take their turn spinning the wheel for Hollywood fortunes.

Despite billions of dollars in investment, and a sustained marketing push from some of the biggest names in the technology industry, virtual reality still doesn’t register with most regular consumers.

But technology companies keep pushing it, driven in part by a belief that maybe this time the next advancement in hardware and services will convince consumers to strap a headset onto their face and stay for a while in a virtual world.

There are significant economic reasons for companies to persist. Sales of headsets in the fourth quarter of 2018 topped 1 million for the first time and new, low cost all-in-one models may further move the needle on adoption. Hardware makers have invested billions to improve the technology, and they’d like that money to not go to waste. At the same time, networking companies are spending billions to roll out new, high speed data networks and they need new data-hungry features (like virtual reality) to make a compelling case for consumers to upgrade to the newer, more expensive networking plans.

Sitting at the intersection of these two market forces are companies like AmazeVR, which is hoping to beat the odds.

Founded by a team of ace Korean technologists who won fame and fortune as early executives of the multi-billion dollar messaging service Kakao (it’s the Korean equivalent of WhatsApp or WeChat), AmazeVR is hoping it can succeed in a marketplace littered with production studios like Baobab Studios, Here Be Dragons, The Virtual Reality Company, and others.

The company was formed and financed with $6.3 million from its founding team of Kakao co-founder and co-chief executive, JB Lee, who serves as Amaze’s chief product officer; its head of strategy, Steve Lee, AmazeVR’s chief executive; Jeremy Nam, the chief technology officer at AmazeVR and the former senior software engineer of Kakao; and finally, Steve Koo, who led KakaoTalk’s messaging team and is now head of engineering at AmazeVR.

“What we saw as the problem is the content creation itself,” says Lee.

Encouraged by the potential uptake of the Oculus Go and spurred on by $7 million in funding led by Mirae Asset Group with participation from strategic investors including LG Technology Ventures, Timewise Investment, and Smilegate Investment, AmazeVR is looking to plant a flag in Hollywood to encourage producers and content creators to use its platform and get a significant library of content up and running. 

For LG, it’s strategically important to get some applications up on its newly launched 5G subscription network back in Korea, and AmazeVR is already rolling up new content for its VR platform.

In fact, AmazeVR has already partnered with LG U+, the telecommunications network arm of LG to produce virtual reality content. LG U+ will host AmazeVR content on its service use the company’s proprietary content generation tools to make VR production easier as it looks to roll out 1500 new pieces of virtual reality “experiences”.

AmazeVR sells its content as a $7 per-month subscription, with 3 month bundles for $18 and 6 month bundles for $24. So far, they’ve got more than 1,000 subscribers and expect to add more as consumers start opening their wallets to pick up more devices. The company already has 20 different interactive virtual reality experiences available and is in Los Angeles to connect with top talent for additional productions, the company said.

“We believe cloud-based VR is the future, and AmazeVR has developed elegant technology that enables users to create and share interactive content very easily,” said Dong-Su Kim, CEO of LG Technology Ventures, in a statement. “We are incredibly excited about how the AmazeVR platform will enable innovative, quality content to be generated at unprecedented scale and speed.”

AmazeVR uses a proprietary backend to stitch 360-degree video and provide editing and production tools for content creators in addition to building its own cameras for video capture, the company said.

As it builds out its library, AmazeVR is giving video creators a cut of the sales from the company’s subscriptions and individual downloads of their virtual reality experiences.

“We see no reason that VR content shouldn’t be compelling enough to support a Netflix model. To get there, we must devise mechanisms to inspire, assist, and reward content creators,” said Steve Lee, CEO of AmazeVR. “Our approach, commitment to quality, industry-leading technology, and strategic investors provide a path forward to make VR/AR the next great frontier for entertainment and personal displays.”

Facebook still a great place to amplify pre-election junk news, EU study finds

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A study carried out by academics at Oxford University to investigate how junk news is being shared on social media in Europe ahead of regional elections this month has found individual stories shared on Facebook’s platform can still hugely outperform the most important and professionally produced news stories, drawing as much as 4x the volume of Facebook shares, likes, and comments.

The study, conducted for the Oxford Internet Institute’s (OII) Computational Propaganda Project, is intended to respond to widespread concern about the spread of online political disinformation on EU elections which take place later this month, by examining pre-election chatter on Facebook and Twitter in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, and Swedish.

Junk news in this context refers to content produced by known sources of political misinformation — aka outlets that are systematically producing and spreading “ideologically extreme, misleading, and factually incorrect information” — with the researchers comparing interactions with junk stories from such outlets to news stories produced by the most popular professional news sources to get a snapshot of public engagement with sources of misinformation ahead of the EU vote.

As we reported last year, the Institute also launched a junk news aggregator ahead of the US midterms to help Internet users get a handle on manipulative politically-charged content that might be hitting their feeds.

In the EU the European Commission has responded to rising concern about the impact of online disinformation on democratic processes by stepping up pressure on platforms and the adtech industry — issuing monthly progress reports since January after the introduction of a voluntary code of practice last year intended to encourage action to squeeze the spread of manipulative fakes. Albeit, so far these ‘progress’ reports have mostly boiled down to calls for less foot-dragging and more action.

One tangible result last month was Twitter introducing a report option for misleading tweets related to voting ahead of the EU vote, though again you have to wonder what took it so long given that online election interference is hardly a new revelation. (The OII study is also just the latest piece of research to bolster the age old maxim that falsehoods fly and the truth comes limping after.)

The study also examined how junk news spread on Twitter during the pre-EU election period, with the researchers finding that less than 4% of sources circulating on Twitter’s platform were junk news (or “known Russian sources”) — with Twitter users sharing far more links to mainstream news outlets overall (34%) over the study period.

Although the Polish language sphere was an exception — with junk news making up a fifth (21%) of EU election-related Twitter traffic in that outlying case.

Returning to Facebook, while the researchers do note that many more users interact with mainstream content overall via its platform, noting that mainstream publishers have a higher following and so “wider access to drive activity around their content” and meaning their stories “tend to be seen, liked, and shared by far more users overall”, they also point out that junk news still packs a greater per story punch — likely owing to the use of tactics such as clickbait, emotive language, and outragemongering in headlines which continues to be shown to generate more clicks and engagement on social media.

It’s also of course much quicker and easier to make some shit up vs the slower pace of doing rigorous professional journalism — so junk news purveyors can get out ahead of news events also as an eyeball-grabbing strategy to further the spread of their cynical BS. (And indeed the researchers go on to say that most of the junk news sources being shared during the pre-election period “either sensationalized or spun political and social events covered by mainstream media sources to serve a political and ideological agenda”.)

“While junk news sites were less prolific publishers than professional news producers, their stories tend to be much more engaging,” they write in a data memo covering the study. “Indeed, in five out of the seven languages (English, French, German, Spanish, and Swedish), individual stories from popular junk news outlets received on average between 1.2 to 4 times as many likes, comments, and shares than stories from professional media sources.

“In the German sphere, for instance, interactions with mainstream stories averaged only 315 (the lowest across this sub-sample) while nearing 1,973 for equivalent junk news stories.”

To conduct the research the academics gathered more than 584,000 tweets related to the European parliamentary elections from more than 187,000 unique users between April 5 and April 20 using election-related hashtags — from which they extracted more than 137,000 tweets containing a URL link, which pointed to a total of 5,774 unique media sources.

Sources that were shared 5x or more across the collection period were manually classified by a team of nine multi-lingual coders based on what they describe as “a rigorous grounded typology developed and refined through the project’s previous studies of eight elections in several countries around the world”.

Each media source was coded individually by two separate coders, via which technique they say was able to successfully label nearly 91% of all links shared during the study period. 

The five most popular junk news sources were extracted from each language sphere looked at — with the researchers then measuring the volume of Facebook interactions with these outlets between April 5 and May 5, using the NewsWhip Analytics dashboard.

They also conducted a thematic analysis of the 20 most engaging junk news stories on Facebook during the data collection period to gain a better understanding of the different political narratives favoured by junk news outlets ahead of an election.

On the latter front they say the most engaging junk narratives over the study period “tend to revolve around populist themes such as anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiment, with few expressing Euroscepticism or directly mentioning European leaders or parties”.

Which suggests that EU-level political disinformation is a more issue-focused animal (and/or less developed) — vs the kind of personal attacks that have been normalized in US politics (and were richly and infamously exploited by Kremlin-backed anti-Clinton political disinformation during the 2016 US presidential election, for example).

This is likely also because of a lower level of political awareness attached to individuals involved in EU institutions and politics, and the multi-national state nature of the pan-EU project — which inevitably bakes in far greater diversity. (We can posit that just as it aids robustness in biological life, diversity appears to bolster democratic resilience vs political nonsense.)

The researchers also say they identified two noticeable patterns in the thematic content of junk stories that sought to cynically spin political or social news events for political gain over the pre-election study period.

“Out of the twenty stories we analysed, 9 featured explicit mentions of ‘Muslims’ and the Islamic faith in general, while seven mentioned ‘migrants’, ‘immigration’, or ‘refugees’… In seven instances, mentions of Muslims and immigrants were coupled with reporting on terrorism or violent crime, including sexual assault and honour killings,” they write.

“Several stories also mentioned the Notre Dame fire, some propagating the idea that the arson had been deliberately plotted by Islamist terrorists, for example, or suggesting that the French government’s reconstruction plans for the cathedral would include a minaret. In contrast, only 4 stories featured Euroscepticism or direct mention of European Union leaders and parties.

“The ones that did either turned a specific political figure into one of derision – such as Arnoud van Doorn, former member of PVV, the Dutch nationalist and far-right party of Geert Wilders, who converted to Islam in 2012 – or revolved around domestic politics. One such story relayed allegations that Emmanuel Macron had been using public taxes to finance ISIS jihadists in Syrian camps, while another highlighted an offer by Vladimir Putin to provide financial assistance to rebuild Notre Dame.”

Taken together, the researchers conclude that “individuals discussing politics on social media ahead of the European parliamentary elections shared links to high-quality news content, including high volumes of content produced by independent citizen, civic groups and civil society organizations, compared to other elections we monitored in France, Sweden, and Germany”.

Which suggests that attempts to manipulate the pan-EU election are either less prolific or, well, less successful than those which have targeted some recent national elections in EU Member States. And logic would suggest that co-ordinating election interference across a 28-Member State bloc does require greater co-ordination and resource vs trying to meddle in a single national election — on account of the multiple countries, cultures, languages and issues involved.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the study’s findings.

The company has put a heavy focus on publicizing its self-styled ‘election security’ efforts ahead of the EU election. Though it has mostly focused on setting up systems to control political ads — whereas junk news purveyors are simply uploading regular Facebook ‘content’ at the same time as wrapping it in bogus claims of ‘journalism’ — none of which Facebook objects to. All of which allows would-be election manipulators to pass off junk views as online news, leveraging the reach of Facebook’s platform and its attention-hogging algorithms to amplify hateful nonsense. While any increase in engagement is a win for Facebook’s ad business, so er…

On the Internet of Women with Moira Weigel

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“Feminism,” the writer and editor Marie Shear famously said in an often-misattributed quote, “is the radical notion that women are people.” The genius of this line, of course, is that it appears to be entirely non-controversial, which reminds us all the more effectively of the past century of fierce debates surrounding women’s equality.

And what about in tech ethics? It would seem equally non-controversial that ethical tech is supposed to be good for “people,” but is the broader tech world and its culture good for the majority of humans who happen to be women? And to the extent it isn’t, what does that say about any of us, and about all of our technology?

I’ve known, since I began planning this TechCrunch series exploring the ethics of tech, that it would need to thoroughly cover issues of gender. Because as we enter an age of AI, with machines learning to be ever more like us, what could be more critical than addressing the issues of sex and sexism often at the heart of the hardest conflicts in human history thus far?

Meanwhile, several months before I began envisioning this series I stumbled across the fourth issue of a new magazine called Logic, a journal on technology, ethics, and culture. Logic publishes primarily on paper — yes, the actual, physical stuff, and a satisfyingly meaty stock of it, at that.

In it, I found a brief essay, “The Internet of Women,” that is a must-read, an instant classic in tech ethics. The piece is by Moira Weigel, one of Logic’s founders and currently a member of Harvard University’s “Society of Fellows” — one of the world’s most elite societies of young academics.

A fast-talking 30-something Brooklynite with a Ph.D. from Yale, Weigel’s work combines her interest in sex, gender, and feminism, with a critical and witty analysis of our technology culture.

In this first of a two-part interview, I speak with Moira in depth about some of the issues she covers in her essay and beyond: #MeToo; the internet as a “feminizing” influence on culture; digital media ethics around sexism; and women in political and tech leadership.

Greg E.: How would you summarize the piece in a sentence or so?

Moira W.: It’s an idiosyncratic piece with a couple of different layers. But if I had to summarize it in just a sentence or two I’d say that it’s taking a closer look at the role that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played in the so-called “#MeToo moment.”

In late 2017 and early 2018, I became interested in the tensions that the moment was exposing between digital media and so-called “legacy media” — print newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and Harper’s and The Atlantic. Digital media were making it possible to see structural sexism in new ways, and for voices and stories to be heard that would have gotten buried, previously.

A lot of the conversation unfolding in legacy media seemed to concern who was allowed to say what where. For me, this subtext was important: The #MeToo moment was not just about the sexualized abuse of power but also about who had authority to talk about what in public — or the semi-public spaces of the Internet.

At the same time, it seemed to me that the ongoing collapse of print media as an industry, and really what people sometimes call the “feminization” of work in general, was an important part of the context.

When people talk about jobs getting “feminized” they can mean many things — jobs becoming lower paid, lower status, flexible or precarious, demanding more emotional management and the cultivation of an “image,” blurring the boundary between “work” and “life.”

The increasing instability or insecurity of media workplaces only make women more vulnerable to the kinds of sexualized abuses of power the #MeToo hashtag was being used to talk about.

Reality Check: The marvel of computer vision technology in today’s camera-based AR systems

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British science fiction writer, Sir Arther C. Clark, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Augmented reality has the potential to instill awe and wonder in us just as magic would. For the very first time in the history of computing, we now have the ability to blur the line between the physical world and the virtual world. AR promises to bring forth the dawn of a new creative economy, where digital media can be brought to life and given the ability to interact with the real world.

AR experiences can seem magical but what exactly is happening behind the curtain? To answer this, we must look at the three basic foundations of a camera-based AR system like our smartphone.

  1. How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization + Mapping)
  2. How do computers understand what the world looks like? (Geometry)
  3. How do computers understand the world as we do? (Semantics)

Part 1: How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization)

Mars Rover Curiosity taking a selfie on Mars. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/msl/pia19808/looking-up-at-mars-rover-curiosity-in-buckskin-selfie/

When NASA scientists put the rover onto Mars, they needed a way for the robot to navigate itself on a different planet without the use of a global positioning system (GPS). They came up with a technique called Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) to track the rover’s movement over time without GPS. This is the same technique that our smartphones use to track their spatial position and orientation.

A VIO system is made out of two parts.

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