If Facebook Messenger’s redesign succeeds, you won’t really notice it even happened. I hardly did over the past week of testing. There’s just a subtle sense that the claustrophobia has lifted. Perhaps that’s why Facebook decided to throw a big breakfast press event with 30 reporters today at its new downtown San Francisco office, complete with an Instagram-worthy donut wall. Even though the changes are minimal — fewer tabs, color gradients thread backgrounds, and a rounder logo — Facebook was eager to trigger an unequivocally positive news cycle.
Old Messenger vs New Messenger
In the seven years since Facebook acquired group chat app Beluga and turned it into Messenger, it’s done nothing but cram in more features. With five navigation bar options, nine total tabs, Stories, games, and businesses, Messenger’s real purpose — chatting with your friends — started to feel buried. “You build a feature, and then you build another feature, and they are piling up” says Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. “We either continue to pile on, or we build a foundation that will allow us to build simplicity and powerful features on top of something new that goes back to its roots.”
But suddenly uprooting the old design with a massive overhaul wasn’t an option. “It’s impossible to launch something for 1.3 billion people that will not piss people off” Chudnovsky told me. “It takes so much time to test things out and make sure you’re not doing something that will prevent people from doing things that are really, really important to them. At the end of the day, no one really likes change. People generally want things the way they are.”
So starting today, Messenger is globally rolling out an understated redesign globally over the next few weeks. It’s got a simpler interface with a lot more white space, a little less redundancy, and a casual vibe. Here’s a comparison of the app before and after.
Previously, there were five main navigation buttons along the bottom of the app. Between the actually useful Chats section that’d been invaded by Stories and the chaotic People section, there were tabs for calls, group chats, active friends, . Between then a camera button that aggressively beckoned you to post Stories, a dedicated Games tab, and a Discover tab for finding businesses and utility app.
In Messenger v4, now there are just three navigation buttons. The camera button has been moved up next to the chat composer inside the Chat section above Stories, People now contains the Active list as well as all Stories by friends, and Discover combines games and businesses. The fact that Stories is in both the Chats and People section make it seem that the company wants a lot more than the existing 300 million users across Facebook and Messenger opening its Snapchat copycat.
While there 10 billion conversations with businesses and 1.7 billion games sessions happen on Messenger each month, and both hold opportunities for monetization, they’re not the app’s purpose so they got merged. And though 400 million people — nearly a third of all Messenger users — make a video or audio call each month, those typically start from a button inside chat threads so Facebook nixed the Calls tab entirely.
All the old features are still available, just not quite as prominent as before. The one new feature is several color gradients you can use to customize specific chat threads. If you rapidly scroll through the messages, you’ll see the bubble background colors fade through the gradient. And one much-requested feature still on the way is Dark Mode, which Facebook says will launch in the next several weeks to reduce glare and make night-time usage easier on the eyes.
Finally, Messenger has a softer new logo. The sharp edges have been rounded off the quote bubble and lightning insignia. It seems designed to better compete with Snapchat and remind users that Messenger is fun and friendly as well as fast.
Inside The Messenger War Room
With the company’s downward scandal spiral of breaches, election interference, and fake news-inspired violence, it’s not just Messenger that’s a mess. It’s all of Facebook, both literally and metaphorically. Cleaning up, fighting back — those are the messages the company wants to drive home.
Facebook scored a win on this front last week by getting dozens of journalists (myself included) to breathlessly cover its election “war room”, until everyone realized they’d played themselves for page views. Today’s Messenger event felt a little like deja-vu as Facebook drilled the word “simple” into our heads. Chudnovsky even acknowledged that Facebook had already milked the redesign for a press hit back in May. “We previewed this at F8 but that was when the work was just beginning.”
Hopefully, this will be the start of a company wide interface cleanup. Facebook’s main app is full of cruft, especially with products like Facebook Watched stuffed in the nav bar despite lukewarm user interest. Messenger did a good job of ceasing to shoehorn the camera and games into our chat behavior, though Stories still appear twice in the app even if some wish they disappeared permanently. The world would benefit from a Facebook more concerned with what users want than what it wants to show them.
With the news going live just an hour after the event ended, many reporters stayed, writing their posts about Facebook while still inside Facebook. Chudnovsky admitted that beyond educating users via the press, the event was designed to celebrate the team that had labored over each pixel. “You can imagine at a company like ours, how many conversations you have to have about changing the logo.”
Apptopia raises $20M to expand its competitive intelligence business beyond mobile – TechCrunch
Boston-based Apptopia, a company providing competitive intelligence in the mobile app ecosystem, has closed on $20 million in Series C funding aimed at fueling its expansion beyond the world of mobile apps. The new financing was led by ABS Capital Partners, and follows three consecutive years of 50% year-over-year growth for Apptopia’s business, which has been profitable since the beginning of last year, the company says.
Existing investors, including Blossom Street Ventures, also participated in the round. ABS Capital’s Mike Avon, a co-founder of Millennial Media, and Paul Mariani, are joining Apptopia’s board with this round.
The funding follows what Apptopia says has been increased demand from brands to better understand the digital aspects of their businesses.
Today, Apptopia’s customers include hundreds of corporations and financial institutions, including Google, Visa, Coca-Cola, Target, Zoom, NBC, Unity Technologies, Microsoft, Adobe, Glu, Andreessen Horowitz and Facebook.
In the past, Apptopia’s customers were examining digital engagement and interactions from a macro level, but now they’re looking to dive deeper into specific details, requiring more data. For example, a brand may have previously wanted to know how well a competitor’s promotion fared in terms of new users or app sessions. But now they want to know the answers to specific questions — like how many unique users participated, whether those users were existing customers, whether they returned after the promotion ended, and so on.
The majority of Apptopia’s business is now focused on delivering these sorts of answers to enterprise customers who subscribe to Apptopia’s data — and possibly, to the data from its competitors like Sensor Tower and App Annie, with the goal of blending datasets together for a more accurate understanding of the competitive landscape.
Apptopia’s own data, historically, was not always seen as being the most accurate, admits Apptopia CEO Jonathan Kay. But it has improved over the years.
Kay, previously Apptopia COO, is now taking over the top role from co-founder Eliran Sapir, who’s transitioning to chairman of the board as the company enters its next phase of growth.
Apptopia’s rivals like Sensor Tower and App Annie use mobile panels to gather app data, among other methods, Kay explains. These panels involve consumer-facing apps like VPN clients and ad blockers, which users would download not necessarily understanding that they were agreeing to having their app usage data collected. This led to some controversy as the app data industry’s open secret was exposed to consumers by the media, and the companies tweaked their disclosures, as a result.
But the practice continues and has not impacted the companies’ growth. Sensor Tower, for example, raised $45 million last year, as demand for app data continued to grow. And all involved businesses are expanding with new products and services for their data-hungry customer bases.
Apptopia, meanwhile, decided not to grow its business on the back of mobile panels. (Though in its earlier days it did test and then scrap such a plan.)
It gains access to data from its app developer customers — and this data is already aggregated and anonymized from the developers’ Apple and Google Analytics accounts.
Initially, this method put Apptopia at a disadvantage. Rivals had more accurate data from about 2016 through 2018 because of their use of mobile panels, Kay says. But Apptopia made a strategic decision to not take this sort of risk — that is, build a business that Apple or Google could shut off at any time.
“Instead, what we did is we spent years investing into data science and algorithms,” notes Kay. “We figured out how to extract an equal or greater signal from the same data set that [competitors] had access to.”
Using what Kay describes as “huge, huge amounts of historical data,” Apptopia over time learned what sort of signals went into an app’s app store ranking. A lot of people still think an app’s rank is largely determined by downloads, but there are now a variety of signals that inform rank, Kay points out.
“Really, a rank is just an accumulation of analytical data points that Apple and Google give points for,” he explains. This includes things like number of sessions, how many users, how much time is spent in an app, and more. “Because we didn’t have these panels, we had to spend years figuring out how to do reverse engineering better than our competitors. And, eventually, we figured out how to get the same signal that they could get from the panel from rank. That’s what allowed us to have such a fast-growing, successful business over the past several years.”
As Apptopia was already profitable, it didn’t need to fundraise. But the company wanted to accelerate its expansion into new areas, including its planned expansion outside of mobile apps.
Today, consumers use “apps” on their computers, on their smartwatches and on their TV, in addition to their phones and tablets. And businesses no longer want to know just what’s happening on mobile — they want the full picture of “app” usage.
“We figured out a way to do that that doesn’t rely on any of what our competitors have done in the past,” says Kay. “So, we will not be using any apps to spy on people,” he states.
However, the company was not prepared to offer further details around its future product plans at this time. But Kay said Apptopia would not rule out partnerships or being acquisitive to accomplish its goals going forward.
Apptopia also sees a broader future in making its app data more accessible. Last year, for instance, it partnered with Bloomberg to bring mobile data to investors via the Bloomberg App Portal on the Bloomberg Terminal. And it now works with Amazon’s AWS Data Exchange and Snowflake to make access to app data available in other channels, as well. Future partnerships of a similar nature could come into play as another means of differentiating Apptopia’s data from its rivals.
The company declined to offer its current revenue run rate or valuation, but notes that it tripled its valuation from its last fundraise at the end of 2019.
In addition to product expansions, the company plans to leverage the funds to grow its team of 55 by another 25 in 2021, including in engineering and analysts. And it will grow its management team, adding a CFO, CPO, and CMO this year.
To date, Apptopia has raised $30 million in outside capital.
When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working – TechCrunch
The internet is now our nervous system. We are constantly streaming and buying and watching and liking, our brains locked into the global information matrix as one universal and coruscating emanation of thought and emotion.
What happens when the machine stops though?
It’s a question that E.M. Forster was intensely focused on more than a century ago in a short story called, rightly enough, “The Machine Stops,” about a human civilization connected entirely through machines that one day just turn off.
Those fears of downtime are not just science fiction anymore. Outages aren’t just missing a must-watch TikTok clip. Hospitals, law enforcement, the government, every corporation — the entire spectrum of human institutions that constitute civilization now deeply rely on connectivity to function.
So when it comes to disaster response, the world has dramatically changed. In decades past, the singular focus could be roughly summarized as rescue and mitigation — save who you can while trying to limit the scale of destruction. Today though, the highest priority is by necessity internet access, not just for citizens, but increasingly for the on-the-ground first responders who need bandwidth to protect themselves, keep abreast of their mission objectives, and have real-time ground truth on where dangers lurk and where help is needed.
While the sales cycles might be arduous as we learned in part one and the data trickles have finally turned to streams in part two, the reality is that none of that matters if there isn’t connectivity to begin with. So in part three of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, we’re going to analyze the changing nature of bandwidth and connectivity and how they intersect with emergencies, taking a look at how telcos are creating resilience in their networks while defending against climate change, how first responders are integrating connectivity into their operations, and finally, exploring how new technologies like 5G and satellite internet will affect these critical activities.
Wireless resilience as the world burns
Climate change is inducing more intense weather patterns all around the world, creating second- and third-order effects for industries that rely on environmental stability for operations. Few industries have to be as dynamic to the changing context as telecom companies, whose wired and wireless infrastructure is regularly buffeted by severe storms. Resiliency of these networks isn’t just needed for consumers — it’s absolutely necessary for the very responders trying to mitigate disasters and get the network back up in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, no issue looms larger for telcos than access to power — no juice, no bars. So all three of America’s major telcos — Verizon (which owns TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media, although not for much longer), AT&T and T-Mobile — have had to dramatically scale up their resiliency efforts in recent years to compensate both for the demand for wireless and the growing damage wrought by weather.
Jay Naillon, senior director of national technology service operations strategy at T-Mobile, said that the company has made resilience a key part of its network buildout in recent years, with investments in generators at cell towers that can be relied upon when the grid cannot. In “areas that have been hit by hurricanes or places that have fragile grids … that is where we have invested most of our fixed assets,” he said.
Like all three telcos, T-Mobile pre-deploys equipment in anticipation for disruptions. So when a hurricane begins to swirl in the Atlantic Ocean, the company will strategically fly in portable generators and mobile cell towers in anticipation of potential outages. “We look at storm forecasts for the year,” Naillon explained, and do “lots of preventative planning.” They also work with emergency managers and “run through various drills with them and respond and collaborate effectively with them” to determine which parts of the network are most at risk for damage in an emergency. Last year, the company partnered with StormGeo to accurately predict weather events.
Predictive AI for disasters is also a critical need for AT&T. Jason Porter, who leads public sector and the company’s FirstNet first-responder network, said that AT&T teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory to create a climate-change analysis tool to evaluate the siting of its cell towers and how they will weather the next 30 years of “floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.” “We redesigned our buildout … based on what our algorithms told us would come,” he said, and the company has been elevating vulnerable cell towers four to eight feet high on “stilts” to improve their resiliency to at least some weather events. That “gave ourselves some additional buffer.”
AT&T has also had to manage the growing complexity of creating reliability with the chaos of a climate-change-induced world. In recent years, “we quickly realized that many of our deployments were due to weather-related events,” and the company has been “very focused on expanding our generator coverage over the past few years,” Porter said. It’s also been very focused on building out its portable infrastructure. “We essentially deploy entire data centers on trucks so that we can stand up essentially a central office,” he said, empathizing that the company’s national disaster recovery team responded to thousands of events last year.
Particularly on its FirstNet service, AT&T has pioneered two new technologies to try to get bandwidth to disaster-hit regions faster. First, it has invested in drones to offer wireless services from the sky. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana last year with record-setting winds, our “cell towers were twisted up like recycled aluminum cans … so we needed to deploy a sustainable solution,” Porter described. So the company deployed what it dubs the FirstNet One — a “dirigible” that “can cover twice the cell coverage range of a cell tower on a truck, and it can stay up for literally weeks, refuel in less than an hour and go back up — so long-term, sustainable coverage,” he said.
Secondly, the company has been building out what it calls FirstNet MegaRange — a set of high-powered wireless equipment that it announced earlier this year that can deploy signals from miles away, say from a ship moored off a coast, to deliver reliable connectivity to first responders in the hardest-hit disaster zones.
As the internet has absorbed more of daily life, the norms for network resilience have become ever more exacting. Small outages can disrupt not just a first responder, but a child taking virtual classes and a doctor conducting remote surgery. From fixed and portable generators to rapid-deployment mobile cell towers and dirigibles, telcos are investing major resources to keep their networks running continuously.
Yet, these initiatives are ultimately costs borne by telcos increasingly confronting a world burning up. Across conversations with all three telcos and others in the disaster response space, there was a general sense that utilities just increasingly have to self-insulate themselves in a climate-changed world. For instance, cell towers need their own generators because — as we saw with Texas earlier this year — even the power grid itself can’t be guaranteed to be there. Critical applications need to have offline capabilities, since internet outages can’t always be prevented. The machine runs, but the machine stops, too.
The trend lines on the frontlines are data lines
While we may rely on connectivity in our daily lives as consumers, disaster responders have been much more hesitant to fully transition to connected services. It is precisely in the middle of a tornado and the cell tower is down that you realize a printed map might have been nice to have. Paper, pens, compasses — the old staples of survival flicks remain just as important in the field today as they were decades ago.
Yet, the power of software and connectivity to improve emergency response has forced a rethinking of field communications and how deeply technology is integrated on the ground. Data from the frontlines is extremely useful, and if it can be transmitted, dramatically improves the ability of operations planners to respond safely and efficiently.
Both AT&T and Verizon have made large investments in directly servicing the unique needs of the first responder community, with AT&T in particular gaining prominence with its FirstNet network, which it exclusively operates through a public-private partnership with the Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority. The government offered a special spectrum license to the FirstNet authority in Band 14 in exchange for the buildout of a responder-exclusive network, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which found that first responders couldn’t communicate with each other on the day of those deadly terrorist attacks. Now, Porter of AT&T says that the company’s buildout is “90% complete” and is approaching 3 million square miles of coverage.
Why so much attention on first responders? The telcos are investing here because in many ways, the first responders are on the frontiers of technology. They need edge computing, AI/ML rapid decision-making, the bandwidth and latency of 5G (which we will get to in a bit), high reliability, and in general, are fairly profitable customers to boot. In other words, what first responders need today are what consumers in general are going to want tomorrow.
Cory Davis, director of public safety strategy and crisis response at Verizon, explained that “more than ever, first responders are relying on technology to go out there and save lives.” His counterpart, Nick Nilan, who leads product management for the public sector, said that “when we became Verizon, it was really about voice [and] what’s changed over the last five [years] is the importance of data.” He brings attention to tools for situational awareness, mapping, and more that are a becoming standard in the field. Everything first responders do “comes back to the network — do you have the coverage where you need it, do you have the network access when something happens?”
The challenge for the telcos is that we all want access to that network when catastrophe strikes, which is precisely when network resources are most scarce. The first responder trying to communicate with their team on the ground or their operations center is inevitably competing with a citizen letting friends know they are safe — or perhaps just watching the latest episode of a TV show in their vehicle as they are fleeing the evacuation zone.
That competition is the argument for a completely segmented network like FirstNet, which has its own dedicated spectrum with devices that can only be used by first responders. “With remote learning, remote work and general congestion,” Porter said, telcos and other bandwidth providers were overwhelmed with consumer demand. “Thankfully we saw through FirstNet … clearing that 20 MHz of spectrum for first responders” helped keep the lines clear for high-priority communications.
FirstNet’s big emphasis is on its dedicated spectrum, but that’s just one component of a larger strategy to give first responders always-on and ready access to wireless services. AT&T and Verizon have made prioritization and preemption key operational components of their networks in recent years. Prioritization gives public safety users better access to the network, while preemption can include actively kicking off lower-priority consumers from the network to ensure first responders have immediate access.
Nilan of Verizon said, “The network is built for everybody … but once we start thinking about who absolutely needs access to the network at a period of time, we prioritize our first responders.” Verizon has prioritization, preemption, and now virtual segmentation — “we separate their traffic from consumer traffic” so that first responders don’t have to compete if bandwidth is limited in the middle of a disaster. He noted that all three approaches have been enabled since 2018, and Verizon’s suite of bandwidth and software for first responders comes under the newly christened Verizon Frontline brand that launched in March.
With increased bandwidth reliability, first responders are increasingly connected in ways that even a decade ago would have been unfathomable. Tablets, sensors, connected devices and tools — equipment that would have been manual are now increasingly digital.
That opens up a wealth of possibilities now that the infrastructure is established. My interview subjects suggested applications as diverse as the decentralized coordination of response team movements through GPS and 5G; real-time updated maps that offer up-to-date risk analysis of how a disaster might progress; pathfinding for evacuees that’s updated as routes fluctuate; AI damage assessments even before the recovery process begins; and much, much more. In fact, when it comes to the ferment of the imagination, many of those possibilities will finally be realized in the coming years — when they have only ever been marketing-speak and technical promises in the past.
We’ve been hearing about 5G for years now, and even 6G every once in a while just to cause reporters heart attacks, but what does 5G even mean in the context of disaster response? After years of speculation, we are finally starting to get answers.
Naillon of T-Mobile noted that the biggest benefit of 5G is that it “allows us to have greater coverage” particularly given the low-band spectrum that the standard partially uses. That said, “As far as applications — we are not really there at that point from an emergency response perspective,” he said.
Meanwhile, Porter of AT&T said that “the beauty of 5G that we have seen there is less about the speed and more about the latency.” Consumers have often seen marketing around voluminous bandwidths, but in the first-responder world, latency and edge computing tends to be the most desirable features. For instance, devices can relay video to each other on the frontlines, without necessarily needing a backhaul to the main wireless network. On-board processing of image data could allow for rapid decision-making in environments where seconds can be vital to the success of a mission.
That flexibility is allowing for many new applications in disaster response, and “we are seeing some amazing use cases coming out of our 5G deployments [and] we have launched some of our pilots with the [Department of Defense],” Porter said. He offered an example of “robotic dogs to go and do bomb dismantling or inspecting and recovery.”
Verizon has made innovating on new applications a strategic goal, launching a 5G First Responders Lab dedicated to guiding a new generation of startups to build at this crossroads. Nilan of Verizon said that the incubator has had more than 20 companies across four different cohorts, working on everything from virtual reality training environments to AR applications that allow firefighters to “see through walls.” His colleague Davis said that “artificial intelligence is going to continue to get better and better and better.”
Blueforce is a company that went through the first cohort of the Lab. The company uses 5G to connect sensors and devices together to allow first responders to make the best decisions they can with the most up-to-date data. Michael Helfrich, founder and CEO, said that “because of these new networks … commanders are able to leave the vehicle and go into the field and get the same fidelity” of information that they normally would have to be in a command center to receive. He noted that in addition to classic user interfaces, the company is exploring other ways of presenting information to responders. “They don’t have to look at a screen anymore, and [we’re] exploring different cognitive models like audio, vibration and heads-up displays.”
5G will offer many new ways to improve emergency responses, but that doesn’t mean that our current 4G networks will just disappear. Davis said that many sensors in the field don’t need the kind of latency or bandwidth that 5G offers. “LTE is going to be around for many, many more years,” he said, pointing to the hardware and applications taking advantage of LTE-M standards for Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a key development for the future here.
Link me to the stars, Elon Musk
Michael Martin of emergency response data platform RapidSOS said that “it does feel like there is renewed energy to solve real problems,” in the disaster response market, which he dubbed the “Elon Musk effect.” And that effect definitely does exist when it comes to connectivity, where SpaceX’s satellite bandwidth project Starlink comes into play.
Satellite uplinks have historically had horrific latency and bandwidth constraints, making them difficult to use in disaster contexts. Furthermore, depending on the particular type of disaster, satellite uplinks can be astonishingly challenging to setup given the ground environment. Starlink promises to shatter all of those barriers — easier connections, fat pipes, low latencies and a global footprint that would be the envy of any first responder globally. Its network is still under active development, so it is difficult to foresee today precisely what its impact will be on the disaster response market, but it’s an offering to watch closely in the years ahead, because it has the potential to completely upend the way we respond to disasters this century if its promises pan out.
Yet, even if we discount Starlink, the change coming this decade in emergency response represents a complete revolution. The depth and resilience of connectivity is changing the equation for first responders from complete reliance on antiquated tools to an embrace of the future of digital computing. The machine is no longer stoppable.
Future of Technology and Disaster Response Table of Contents
Longevity startup Gero AI has a mobile API for quantifying health changes – TechCrunch
Sensor data from smartphones and wearables can meaningfully predict an individual’s ‘biological age’ and resilience to stress, according to Gero AI.
The ‘longevity’ startup — which condenses its mission to the pithy goal of “hacking complex diseases and aging with Gero AI” — has developed an AI model to predict morbidity risk using ‘digital biomarkers’ that are based on identifying patterns in step-counter sensor data which tracks mobile users’ physical activity.
A simple measure of ‘steps’ isn’t nuanced enough on its own to predict individual health, is the contention. Gero’s AI has been trained on large amounts of biological data to spots patterns that can be linked to morbidity risk. It also measures how quickly a personal recovers from a biological stress — another biomarker that’s been linked to lifespan; i.e. the faster the body recovers from stress, the better the individual’s overall health prognosis.
A research paper Gero has had published in the peer-reviewed biomedical journal Aging explains how it trained deep neural networks to predict morbidity risk from mobile device sensor data — and was able to demonstrate that its biological age acceleration model was comparable to models based on blood test results.
Another paper, due to be published in the journal Nature Communications later this month, will go into detail on its device-derived measurement of biological resilience.
The Singapore-based startup, which has research roots in Russia — founded back in 2015 by a Russian scientist with a background in theoretical physics — has raised a total of $5 million in seed funding to date (in two tranches).
Backers come from both the biotech and the AI fields, per co-founder Peter Fedichev. Its investors include Belarus-based AI-focused early stage fund, Bulba Ventures (Yury Melnichek). On the pharma side, it has backing from some (unnamed) private individuals with links to Russian drug development firm, Valenta. (The pharma company itself is not an investor).
Fedichev is a theoretical physicist by training who, after his PhD and some ten years in academia, moved into biotech to work on molecular modelling and machine learning for drug discovery — where he got interested in the problem of ageing and decided to start the company.
As well as conducting its own biological research into longevity (studying mice and nematodes), it’s focused on developing an AI model for predicting the biological age and resilience to stress of humans — via sensor data captured by mobile devices.
“Health of course is much more than one number,” emphasizes Fedichev. “We should not have illusions about that. But if you are going to condense human health to one number then, for a lot of people, the biological age is the best number. It tells you — essentially — how toxic is your lifestyle… The more biological age you have relative to your chronological age years — that’s called biological acceleration — the more are your chances to get chronic disease, to get seasonal infectious diseases or also develop complications from those seasonal diseases.”
Gero has recently launched a (paid, for now) API, called GeroSense, that’s aimed at health and fitness apps so they can tap up its AI modelling to offer their users an individual assessment of biological age and resilience (aka recovery rate from stress back to that individual’s baseline).
Early partners are other longevity-focused companies, AgelessRx and Humanity Inc. But the idea is to get the model widely embedded into fitness apps where it will be able to send a steady stream of longitudinal activity data back to Gero, to further feed its AI’s predictive capabilities and support the wider research mission — where it hopes to progress anti-ageing drug discovery, working in partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.
The carrot for the fitness providers to embed the API is to offer their users a fun and potentially valuable feature: A personalized health measurement so they can track positive (or negative) biological changes — helping them quantify the value of whatever fitness service they’re using.
“Every health and wellness provider — maybe even a gym — can put into their app for example… and this thing can rank all their classes in the gym, all their systems in the gym, for their value for different kinds of users,” explains Fedichev.
“We developed these capabilities because we need to understand how ageing works in humans, not in mice. Once we developed it we’re using it in our sophisticated genetic research in order to find genes — we are testing them in the laboratory — but, this technology, the measurement of ageing from continuous signals like wearable devices, is a good trick on its own. So that’s why we announced this GeroSense project,” he goes on.
“Ageing is this gradual decline of your functional abilities which is bad but you can go to the gym and potentially improve them. But the problem is you’re losing this resilience. Which means that when you’re [biologically] stressed you cannot get back to the norm as quickly as possible. So we report this resilience. So when people start losing this resilience it means that they’re not robust anymore and the same level of stress as in their 20s would get them [knocked off] the rails.
“We believe this loss of resilience is one of the key ageing phenotypes because it tells you that you’re vulnerable for future diseases even before those diseases set in.”
“In-house everything is ageing. We are totally committed to ageing: Measurement and intervention,” adds Fedichev. “We want to building something like an operating system for longevity and wellness.”
Gero is also generating some revenue from two pilots with “top range” insurance companies — which Fedichev says it’s essentially running as a proof of business model at this stage. He also mentions an early pilot with Pepsi Co.
He sketches a link between how it hopes to work with insurance companies in the area of health outcomes with how Elon Musk is offering insurance products to owners of its sensor-laden Teslas, based on what it knows about how they drive — because both are putting sensor data in the driving seat, if you’ll pardon the pun. (“Essentially we are trying to do to humans what Elon Musk is trying to do to cars,” is how he puts it.)
But the nearer term plan is to raise more funding — and potentially switch to offering the API for free to really scale up the data capture potential.
Zooming out for a little context, it’s been almost a decade since Google-backed Calico launched with the moonshot mission of ‘fixing death’. Since then a small but growing field of ‘longevity’ startups has sprung up, conducting research into extending (in the first instance) human lifespan. (Ending death is, clearly, the moonshot atop the moonshot.)
Death is still with us, of course, but the business of identifying possible drugs and therapeutics to stave off the grim reaper’s knock continues picking up pace — attracting a growing volume of investor dollars.
The trend is being fuelled by health and biological data becoming ever more plentiful and accessible, thanks to open research data initiatives and the proliferation of digital devices and services for tracking health, set alongside promising developments in the fast-evolving field of machine learning in areas like predictive healthcare and drug discovery.
Longevity has also seen a bit of an upsurge in interest in recent times as the coronavirus pandemic has concentrated minds on health and wellness, generally — and, well, mortality specifically.
Nonetheless, it remains a complex, multi-disciplinary business. Some of these biotech moonshots are focused on bioengineering and gene-editing — pushing for disease diagnosis and/or drug discovery.
Plenty are also — like Gero — trying to use AI and big data analysis to better understand and counteract biological ageing, bringing together experts in physics, maths and biological science to hunt for biomarkers to further research aimed at combating age-related disease and deterioration.
Another recent example is AI startup Deep Longevity, which came out of stealth last summer — as a spinout from AI drug discovery startup Insilico Medicine — touting an AI ‘longevity as a service’ system which it claims can predict an individual’s biological age “significantly more accurately than conventional methods” (and which it also hopes will help scientists to unpick which “biological culprits drive aging-related diseases”, as it put it).
Gero AI is taking a different tack toward the same overarching goal — by honing in on data generated by activity sensors embedded into the everyday mobile devices people carry with them (or wear) as a proxy signal for studying their biology.
The advantage being that it doesn’t require a person to undergo regular (invasive) blood tests to get an ongoing measure of their own health. Instead our personal device can generate proxy signals for biological study passively — at vast scale and low cost. So the promise of Gero’s ‘digital biomarkers’ is they could democratize access to individual health prediction.
And while billionaires like Peter Thiel can afford to shell out for bespoke medical monitoring and interventions to try to stay one step ahead of death, such high end services simply won’t scale to the rest of us.
If its digital biomarkers live up to Gero’s claims, its approach could, at the least, help steer millions towards healthier lifestyles, while also generating rich data for longevity R&D — and to support the development of drugs that could extend human lifespan (albeit what such life-extending pills might cost is a whole other matter).
The insurance industry is naturally interested — with the potential for such tools to be used to nudge individuals towards healthier lifestyles and thereby reduce payout costs.
For individuals who are motivated to improve their health themselves, Fedichev says the issue now is it’s extremely hard for people to know exactly which lifestyle changes or interventions are best suited to their particular biology.
For example fasting has been shown in some studies to help combat biological ageing. But he notes that the approach may not be effective for everyone. The same may be true of other activities that are accepted to be generally beneficial for health (like exercise or eating or avoiding certain foods).
Again those rules of thumb may have a lot of nuance, depending on an individual’s particular biology. And scientific research is, inevitably, limited by access to funding. (Research can thus tend to focus on certain groups to the exclusion of others — e.g. men rather than women; or the young rather than middle aged.)
This is why Fedichev believes there’s a lot of value in creating a measure than can address health-related knowledge gaps at essentially no individual cost.
Gero has used longitudinal data from the UK’s biobank, one of its research partners, to verify its model’s measurements of biological age and resilience. But of course it hopes to go further — as it ingests more data.
“Technically it’s not properly different what we are doing — it just happens that we can do it now because there are such efforts like UK biobank. Government money and also some industry sponsors money, maybe for the first time in the history of humanity, we have this situation where we have electronic medical records, genetics, wearable devices from hundreds of thousands of people, so it just became possible. It’s the convergence of several developments — technological but also what I would call ‘social technologies’ [like the UK biobank],” he tells TechCrunch.
“Imagine that for every diet, for every training routine, meditation… in order to make sure that we can actually optimize lifestyles — understand which things work, which do not [for each person] or maybe some experimental drugs which are already proved [to] extend lifespan in animals are working, maybe we can do something different.”
“When we will have 1M tracks [half a year’s worth of data on 1M individuals] we will combine that with genetics and solve ageing,” he adds, with entrepreneurial flourish. “The ambitious version of this plan is we’ll get this million tracks by the end of the year.”
Fitness and health apps are an obvious target partner for data-loving longevity researchers — but you can imagine it’ll be a mutual attraction. One side can bring the users, the other a halo of credibility comprised of deep tech and hard science.
“We expect that these [apps] will get lots of people and we will be able to analyze those people for them as a fun feature first, for their users. But in the background we will build the best model of human ageing,” Fedichev continues, predicting that scoring the effect of different fitness and wellness treatments will be “the next frontier” for wellness and health (Or, more pithily: “Wellness and health has to become digital and quantitive.”)
“What we are doing is we are bringing physicists into the analysis of human data. Since recently we have lots of biobanks, we have lots of signals — including from available devices which produce something like a few years’ long windows on the human ageing process. So it’s a dynamical system — like weather prediction or financial market predictions,” he also tells us.
“We cannot own the treatments because we cannot patent them but maybe we can own the personalization — the AI that personalized those treatments for you.”
From a startup perspective, one thing looks crystal clear: Personalization is here for the long haul.
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