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YC startup Felix wants to replace antibiotics with programmable viruses

Right now the world is at war. But this is no ordinary war. It’s a fight with an organism so small we can only detect it through use of a microscope — and if we don’t stop it, it could kill millions of us in the next several decades. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, though that organism is the one on everyone’s mind right now. I’m talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, more than 700,000 people died globally from bacterial infections last year — 35,000 of them in the U.S. If we do nothing, that number could grow to 10 million annually by 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The problem? Antibiotic overuse at the doctor’s office or in livestock and farming practices. We used a lot of drugs over time to kill off all the bad bacteria — but it only killed off most, not all, of the bad bacteria. And, as the famous line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park goes, “life finds a way.”

Enter Felix, a biotech startup in the latest Y Combinator batch that thinks it has a novel approach to keeping bacterial infections at bay – viruses.

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

It seems weird in a time of widespread concern over the corona virus to be looking at any virus in a good light but as co-founder Robert McBride explains it, Felix’s key technology allows him to target his virus to specific sites on bacteria. This not only kills off the bad bacteria but can also halt its ability to evolve and once more become resistant.

But the idea to use a virus to kill off bacteria is not necessarily new. Bacteriophages, or viruses that can “infect” bacteria, were first discovered by an English researcher in 1915 and commercialized phage therapy began in the U.S. in the 1940’s through Eli Lilly and Company. Right about then antibiotics came along and Western scientists just never seemed to explore the therapy further.

However, with too few new solutions being offered and the standard drug model not working effectively to combat the situation, McBride believes his company can put phage therapy back at the forefront.

Already Felix has tested its solution on an initial group of 10 people to demonstrate its approach.

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

“We can develop therapies in less time and for less money than traditional antibiotics because we are targeting orphan indications and we already know our therapy can work in humans,” McBride told TechCrunch . “We argue that our approach, which re-sensitizes bacteria to traditional antibiotics could be a first line therapy.”

Felix plans to deploy its treatment for bacterial infections in those suffering from cystic fibrosis first as these patients tend to require a near constant stream of antibiotics to combat lung infections.

The next step will be to conduct a small clinical trial involving 30 people, then, as the scientific research and development model tends to go, a larger human trial before seeking FDA approval. But McBride hopes his viral solution will prove itself out in time to help the coming onslaught of antibiotic resistance.

“We know the antibiotic resistant challenge is large now and is only going to get worse,” McBride said. “We have an elegant technological solution to this challenge and we know our treatment can work. We want to contribute to a future in which these infections do not kill more than 10 million people a year, a future we can get excited about.”

New York’s Governor Cuomo requires insurers to waive cost sharing for COVID-19 tests

In a move that other states might want to emulate, New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said that the state’s Department of Financial Services is requiring health insurers in the state to waive cost sharing associated with testing for the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

The initiative paves the way for low-cost emergency room, urgent care, and hospital visits for patients worried that they may have contracted the virus.

The Governor also said that New Yorkers receiving Medicaid coverage will not be expected to pay a co-pay for any testing related to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The steps are designed to ensure that residents of the state won’t have to worry about cost as an obstacle for getting tested. Any tests that are being conducted at the State’s Wadsworth Lab are fully covered.

Cuomo’s administration also outlined other actions health insurers are either going to be required or advised to take — including informing New Yorkers of available benefits, offering telehealth medical advice and treatment, and preparing insurers to cover the costs of COVID-19 immunizations if a vaccine becomes available.

“We have the best health-care system in the world, and we are leveraging that system including our state-of-the-art Wadsworth testing lab to help contain any potential spread of the novel coronavirus in New York,” Governor Cuomo said, in a statement. “Containing this virus depends on us having the facts about who has it – and these measures will break down any barriers that could prevent New Yorkers from getting tested.”

The state’s initiative will prevent insurers from forcing cost-sharing on in-network provider office visits or urgent care visits, when the purpose is a test for the novel COVID-19 coronavirus. The initiative is also designed to ensure that New Yorkers receiving Medicaid coverage have their costs covered.

Employees who are in self-funded employer-based plans not regulated b ERISA statutes need to contact employers to see how the new regulations will effect them.

The State is also requiring insurers to devote resources to inform consumers of available benefits; provide and promote telehealth services; encourage and verify whether provider networks are adequately prepared to handle potential increases in demand for services including offering access to out-of-network services; covering the costs of immunizations if they become available; expand access to prescription drugs; and ensure proper emergency care.

Fiddler Labs, SRI and Berkeley experts open up the black box of machine learning at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

As AI permeates the home, work, and public life, it’s increasingly important to be able to understand why and how it makes its decisions. Explainable AI isn’t just a matter of hitting a switch, though; Experts from UC Berkeley, SRI, and Fiddler Labs will discuss how we should go about it on stage at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3.

What does explainability really mean? Do we need to start from scratch? How do we avoid exposing proprietary data and methods? Will there be a performance hit? Whose responsibility will it be, and who will ensure it is done properly?

On our panel addressing these questions and more will be two experts, one each from academia and private industry.

Trevor Darrell is a professor at Berkeley’s Computer Science department who helps lead many of the university’s AI-related labs and projects, especially those concerned with the next generation of smart transportation. His research group focuses on perception and human-AI interaction, and he previously led a computer vision group at MIT.

Krishna Gade has passed in his time through Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Microsoft, and has seen firsthand how AI is developed privately — and how biases and flawed processes can lead to troubling results. He co-founded Fiddler as an effort to address problems of fairness and transparency by providing an explainable AI framework for enterprise.

Moderating and taking part in the discussion will be SRI International’s Karen Myers, director of the research outfit’s Artificial Intelligence Center and an AI developer herself focused on collaboration, automation, and multi-agent systems.

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The Knight Foundation launches $750,000 initiative for immersive technology for the arts

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is looking for pitches on how to enhance and augment traditional creative arts through immersive technologies.

Through a partnership with Microsoft the foundation is offering a share of a $750,00 pool of cash and the option of technical support from Microsoft, including mentoring in mixed-reality technologies and access to the company’s suite of mixed reality technologies.

“We’ve seen how immersive technologies can reach new audiences and engage existing audiences in new ways,” said Chris Barr, director for arts and technology innovation at Knight Foundation, in a statement. “But arts institutions need more knowledge to move beyond just experimenting with these technologies to becoming proficient in leveraging their full potential.”

Specifically, the foundation is looking for projects that will help engage new audiences; build new service models; expand access beyond the walls of arts institutions; and provide means to distribute immersive experiences to multiple locations, the foundation said in a statement.

“When done right, life-changing experiences can happen at the intersection of arts and technology,” said Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts. “Our goal through this call is to help cultural institutions develop informed and refined practices for using new technologies, equipping them to better navigate and thrive in the digital age.”

Launched at the Gray Area Festival in San Francisco, the new initiative is part of the Foundation’s art and technology focus, which the organization said is designed to help arts institutions better meet changing audience expectations. Last year, the foundation invested $600,000 in twelve projects focused on using technology to help people engage with the arts.

“We’re incredibly excited to support this open call for ways in which technology can help art institutions engage new audiences,” says Mira Lane, Partner Director Ethics & Society at Microsoft. “We strongly believe that immersive technology can enhance the ability for richer experiences, deeper storytelling, and broader engagement.”

Here are the winners from the first $600,000 pool:

  • ArtsESP – Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Project lead: Nicole Keating | Miami | @ArshtCenter

Developing forecasting software that enables cultural institutions to make data-centered decisions in planning their seasons and events.

  • Exploring the Gallery Through Voice – Alley Interactive

Project lead: Tim Schwartz | New York | @alleyco@cooperhewitt@SinaBahram

Exploring how conversational interfaces, like Amazon Alexa, can provide remote audiences with access to an exhibition experience at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

  • The Bass in VR – The Bass

Project lead: T.J. Black | Miami Beach | @TheBassMoA

Using 360-degree photography technology to capture and share the exhibit experience in an engaging, virtual way for remote audiences.

  • AR Enhanced Audio Tour – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Project lead: Shane Richey | Bentonville, Arkansas | @crystalbridges

Developing mobile software to deliver immersive audio-only stories that museum visitors would experience when walking up to art for a closer look.

  • Smart Label Initiative – Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Project lead: Brian Kirschensteiner | East Lansing, Michigan | @msubroad

Creating a system of smart labels that combine ultra-thin touch displays and microcomputers to deliver interactive informational content about artwork to audiences.

  • Improving Arts Accessibility through Augmented Reality Technology – Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, in collaboration with People’s Light

Project lead: Lisa Sonnenborn | Philadelphia | @TempleUniv,@IODTempleU@peopleslight 

Making theater and performance art more accessible for the deaf, hard of hearing and non-English speaking communities by integrating augmented reality smart glasses with an open access smart captioning system to accompany live works.

  • ConcertCue – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology

Project lead: Eran Egozy | Cambridge, Massachusetts | @EEgozy,@MIT,@ArtsatMIT@MIT_SHASS

Developing a mobile app for classical music audiences that receives real-time program notes at precisely-timed moments of a live musical performance.

  • Civic Portal – Monument Lab

Project lead: Paul Farber and Ken Lum | Philadelphia | @monument_lab@PennDesign@SachsArtsPhilly@paul_farber

Encouraging public input on new forms of historical monuments through a digital tool that allows users to identify locations, topics and create designs for potential public art and monuments in our cities.

  • Who’s Coming? – The Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center

Project lead: Nina Simon | Santa Cruz, California | @santacruzmah@OFBYFOR_ALL

Prototyping a tool in the form of a smartphone/tablet app for cultural institutions to capture visitor demographic data, increasing knowledge on who is and who is not participating in programs.

  • Feedback Loop – Newport Art Museum, in collaboration with Work-Shop Design Studio

Project lead: Norah Diedrich | Newport, Rhode Island | @NewportArtMuse

Enabling audiences to share immediate feedback and reflections on art by designing hardware and software to test recording and sharing of audience thoughts.

  • The Traveling Stanzas Listening Wall – Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University Foundation

Project lead: David Hassler | Kent, Ohio | @DavidWickPoetry,@WickPoetry,@KentState@travelingstanza

Producing touchscreen installations in public locations that allow users to create and share poetry by reflecting on and responding to historical documents, oral histories, and multimedia stories about current events and community issues.

  • Wiki Art Depiction Explorer – Wikimedia District of Columbia, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution

Project lead: Andrew Lih | Washington, District of Columbia | @wikimedia@fuzheado

Using crowdsourcing methods to improve Wikipedia descriptions of artworks in major collections so people can better access and understand art virtually.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink looks to begin outfitting human brains with faster input and output starting next year

Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.

Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”

For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.

Neuralink1

Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.

The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.

Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time. The plan is also that the times electrodes implanted in the brain will be able to communicate wirelessly with chips outside the brain, providing real time monitoring with unprecedented freedom of motion, without any external wires or connections.

Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $100 million of the $158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.