These Johns Hopkins students are slashing breast cancer biopsy costs

Over 2 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. And while the diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence for women in countries like the United States, in developing countries three times as many women die from the disease.

Breast cancer survival rates range from 80% or over in North America, Sweden and Japan to around 60% in middle-income countries and below 40% in low-income countries, according to data provided the World Health Organization.

And the WHO blames these low survival rates in less developed countries on the lack of early detection programs, which result in a higher proporation of women presenting with late-stage disease. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of adequate diagnostic technologies and treatment facilities, according to the WHO.

A group of Johns Hopkins University undergraduates believe they have found a solution. The four women, none of whom are over 21-years-old, have developed a new, low-cost, disposable core needle biopsy technology for physicians and nurses that could dramatically reduce cost and waste, thereby increasing the availability of screening technologies in emerging markets.

They’ve taken the technology they developed at Johns Hopkins University and created a new startup called Ithemba, which means “hope” in Swahili, to commercialize their device. While the company is still in its early days, the women recently won the undergraduate Lemelson-MIT Student Prize competition, and has received $60,000 in non-dilutive grant funding and a $10,000 prize associated with the Lemelson award.

Students at Johns Hopkins had been working through the problem of developing low-cost diagnostic tools for breast cancer for the past three years, spurred on by Dr. Susan Harvey, the head of Johns Hopkins Section of Breast Imaging.

While Dr. Harvey presented the problem, and several students tried to tackle it, Ithemba’s co-founders — the biomedical engineering undergrads Laura Hinson, Madeline Lee, Sophia Triantis, and Valerie Zawicki — were the first to bring a solution to market.

Ithemba co-founders Laura Hinson, Madeline Lee, Valerie Zawicki and Sophia Triantis

The 21-year-old Zawicki, who grew up in Long Beach, Calif., has a personal connection to the work the team is doing. When she was just five years old her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the cost of treatment and toll it took on the family forced the family to separate. “My sister moved in with my grandparents,” Zawicki says, while her mother underwent treatment. “When I came to college I was looking for a way to make an impact in the healthcare space and was really inspired by the care my mom received.”

The same is true for Zawicki’s co-founder, Triantis.

“We have an opportunity to  solve problems that really need solving,” says Triantis, a 20-year-old undergraduate. “Breast cancer has affected so many people close to me… It is the most common cancer among women [and] the fact that women in low resource settings do not have the same standard of diagnostic care really inspired me to work on a solution.”

What the four women have made is a version of a core-needled biopsy that has a lower risk of contamination than the reusable devices that are currently on the market and is cheaper than the expensive disposable needles that are the only other option, the founders say.

We’ve designed a novel, disposable portion that attaches to the reusable device and the disposable portion has an ability to trap contaminants that would come back through the needle into the device,” says Triantis. “What we’ve created is a way to trap that and have that full portion be disposable and making the device as easy to clean as possible… with a bleach wipe.”

Ithemba’s low-cost reusable core-needle biopsy device

The company is currently in the process of doing benchtop tests on the device, and will look to file a 510K to be certified as a Class 2 medical device. Already a clinic in South Africa and a hospital in Peru are on board as early customers for the new biopsy tool.

At the heart of the new tool is a mechanism which prevents blood from being drawn back into a needle. The team argues it makes reusable needles much less susceptible to contamination and can replace the disposable needles that are too expensive for many emerging market clinics and hospitals.

Zawicki had been working on the problem for a while when Hinson, Lee, and Triantis joined up. “I joined the team when the problem was presented,” says Zawicki. “The project began with this problem that was pitched three years ago, but the four of us are really those that have brought this to life in terms of a device.”

Crucially for the team, Johns Hopkins was fully supportive of the women taking their intellectual property and owning it themselves. “We received written approval from the tech transfer office to file independently,” says Zawicki. “That is really unique.” 

Coupled with the Lemelson award, Ithemba sees a clear path to ownership of the intellectual property and is filing patents on its device.

Zawicki says that it could be anywhere from three to five years before the device makes it on to the market, but there’s the potential for partnerships with big companies in the biopsy space that could accelerate that time to market.

“Once we get that process solidified and finalize our design we will wrap up our benchtop testing so we can move toward clinical trials by next summer, in 2020,” Zawicki says.

Twitter launches new search features to stop the spread of misinformation about vaccines

As measles outbreaks in the United States and other countries continue to get worse, Twitter is introducing new search tools meant to help users find credible resources about vaccines. It will also stop auto-suggesting search terms that would lead users to misinformation about vaccines.

In a blog post, Twitter vice president of trust and safety Del Harvey wrote “at Twitter, we understand the importance of vaccines in preventing illness and disease and recognize the role that Twitter plays in disseminating important public health information. We think it’s important to help people find reliable information that enhances their health and well-being.”

When users search for keywords related to vaccines, they will see a prompt that directs them to resources from Twitter’s information partners. In the U.S., this is Vaccines.gov, a website by the Department of Health and Human Services. A pinned tweet from one of Twitter’s partners will also appear.

One of Twitter's new tools to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation

One of Twitter’s new tools to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation

In addition to the U.S., the vaccine information tools will also appear on Twitter’s iOS and Android apps and its mobile site in Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

Harvey wrote that Twitter’s vaccine information tools are similar to ones it launched for suicide and self-harm prevention last year. The company plans to launch similar features for other public health issues over the coming months, she added.

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said measles cases in the U.S. had increased to 839. Cases have been reported in 23 states this year, with the majority—or almost 700—in New York.

Social media platforms have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the spread of misinformation about vaccines and, as measles cases began to rise, started taking measures. For example, YouTube announced earlier this year that it is demonetizing all anti-vaccine videos, while Facebook began downranking anti-vaccine content on its News Feed and hiding it on Instagram.

As a founder, I mistook my work for self-worth

These days, most days are good days. My clients are founder and executives, I set my own schedule, and I live in a city I love. As an executive coach and advisor, I work with founders and CEOs of companies who have raised more than $100M. Like any enterprise, it’s taken a lot of building, planning, and failing for me to get where I am.

What I’m supposed to tell you is that I worked hard and persevered – and I did.

But what I’m not supposed to tell you is how it felt to do all that failing, and above all how, for years, shame was the primary emotion that guided my life and career. How, at my lowest point, I felt worthless. How I even contemplated self-harm.

It takes a herculean energy to start a company, which is maybe why, so often, our stories sound like myths. Mine went something like this: If I could just raise money from a top-tier VC, get to $1M in revenue, and sell the business for more than $5M, then I’d be good enough. I’d be the successful young adult I wanted to be. Then, once I had made my first million, I could take a swing and start a billion-dollar company.

The fact that I didn’t feel worthy of love, that I lacked inherent value, drove my decisions. My failure to reach the goals I set reinforced the belief I that I was unworthy. Luckily, I eventually found the self-awareness to realize that blindly pursuing goals I couldn’t achieve was unhealthy.

But I didn’t expect that walking away from my job as CEO would break me, nor did I realize how far I would sink.

I thought that if I was “successful,” people would see that I wasn’t flawed, and I’d finally be worth something.

After extensive therapy, it’s easy for me to see how misguided I was from the outset. Shame, most of the time, is a thing of the past. But for a long time, it fueled every decision I made yet never seemed to exhaust itself – there was always more. In the business world, this is more common than we’re led to think — almost every entrepreneur I meet shares an experience “otherness.” We glorify failure, but we don’t have the patience to honor the pain that turns into the shame of feeling “I’m not good enough.”

We are supposed to be resolute, driven, and resilient. To that end, I want to share what I’ve learned so others who struggle with worthlessness know they aren’t alone, and that happiness – and enjoying success – is still possible.

Accidentally Starting a Company

At 19, I didn’t have a grand plan to change higher education. I was simply a pissed off freshman in college. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Young asked me: what would I do with UnCollege, the site I’d just put online?

UnCollege was a fledgling website I’d created out of my frustration in college. It was designed to create a community of people who were frustrated with the status quo in higher education. In that pivotal moment, when Young asked about my plans for the site, I immediately tied my self-worth to its future. It was, after all, the reason I was being interviewed by a major publication. I had to turn UnCollege into something, or else I’d be a failure – and worse, everyone would know it, because now it was public.

From then on, I started a mental list of what I needed to do to be a successful entrepreneur. My list grew quickly and each item carried a familiar caveat. I must write a book or I’m worthless. I must start a company and raise $1M or I’m worthless I must speak at conferences around the world or I’m worthless.

I did raise money. I did start the company. I got to $1M in revenue. Each time I checked one of these boxes, I wasn’t happier. I started to be afraid I would never feel I was enough. I didn’t feel “successful,” especially in the way I saw success portrayed by others, both online and in the industry.

I thought that if I was “successful,” people would see that I wasn’t flawed, and I’d finally be worth something. What I didn’t know is that each time I checked something off my mental checklist, I’d be consumed with shame and insecurity, needing to check the next item off the list in order to feel worthy.

Instead, I felt trapped. I didn’t yet know that self-worth must come from within.

Mistaking my work for self-worth

I realized quickly that I’d committed myself to starting a company because I was afraid of failure, not because I had carefully considered what problem I wanted to dedicate the next ten years of my life to solving. Nonetheless, UnCollege enrolled its first students in September 2013.

That fall, I began to suspect I’d made a mistake. But I was afraid to tell my investors, and those that had supported me to get the business this far. My survival skill was to smile and act like I knew better than everyone else. If only I’d had the courage to sincerely ask for advice.

One consequence of not asking for help was I had to let go of two of the first people I hired, and layoff two more because we didn’t have the cash.

The first cohort was a disaster. I hadn’t designed a properly structured curriculum, and students were dissatisfied. The students liked the community of self-directed learners, but the company wasn’t delivering value beyond the community. Two weeks before the end of the semester, the students declared mutiny and demanded to know what we were going to do to improve the program.

I was terrified and wanted to leave, but we’d already taken money for the next cohort of students. I believed I didn’t have any other choice. We created a coaching program, hired coaches, built two dozen new workshops, and started working to get students placed into internships. The coaching model we built worked, and we spent the next two years improving it.

In the spring of 2015, I called my lead investor, my voice shaking. He knew that I had my share of fear and insecurity, but I told him clearly that day “I can’t do this anymore. It’s going to break me.”

Ignoring my feelings was a survival skill as child. Ignoring the doubt and anxiety caused by early critics allowed me to push through and launch a company. But it was also my achilles heel.

At the same time I was experiencing burnout, the company was pivoting from a college alternative into a pre-college program. The board agreed: it was time to hire a CEO.

After hiring a CEO, it became more difficult to motivate myself to go to work every day. Getting out of bed became a chore. One morning, after a breakfast with a prospective investor at the Four Seasons, I sat down on a bench outside and began to cry. Looking up, I saw one of our previous students waving at me, and quickly wipe away my tears to give him a faint smile.

I felt embarrassed, weak, and helpless.

Deriving identity from my work wasn’t working, and I knew I had to put an end to it. But what were my alternatives?

I was excited for my company and its new leadership, but I was anxious. I was empty. I didn’t know where the company stopped and I began. At my 25th birthday dinner, I couldn’t eat. I was consumed by shame, by fear. I managed to hold off all through dinner, but as soon as I arrived home I broke down sobbing.

Shame is a Habit

In December, I was no longer CEO of my own company. Six months later, I couldn’t get out of bed.

Those first few months I spent catching my breath. I was still on the board of the company, but I didn’t control it. As I began constructing a life post-UnCollege, I had no idea where to start. I didn’t yet realize it, but I needed to go through the individuation process – to figure out who I was and what I believed, independent of my family of origin. Already 25, I’d managed to avoid these questions. The irony is not lost on me that most of my peers faced them in college.

Shame is a consumptive state of being. The longer I went without answers to questions tied to my selfhood, the more shame ate me up. What did I care about? Did I make the right choice? Was the sacrifice I’d made to start this company worth it? Had I taken the wrong path? Was all the pain I’d been through a waste? Would I ever learn to feel happy again? I was beginning to feel as if I had no self at all.

Without a job to make me feel useful, I spent most days drinking at Dolores Park in San Francisco. I knew this wasn’t healthy, but I convinced myself I deserved it after years of hard work. Again, I was only 25. Life had lost its color. Things that once brought me joy no longer did. I could no longer grin and bear the pain. Believing my own bullshit about how I was going to be OK was no longer working. The more this cycle continued, the stronger it got, and the weaker I felt – all the more trapped.

Even the most successful people carry trauma, and often lash themselves onward with its whip

One Monday in October, I found myself completely unable to function. Alone in my house, I realized I hadn’t gotten out of bed or eaten a meal for several days. I was supposed to get on a plane to fly to Minneapolis, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I called my dad, who encouraged me to message my doctor and say, “I think I might be depressed.” I was still too scared to pick up the phone, and it would be another few months before I uttered those words out loud. I started therapy, but things got worse before they got better.

Beyond “I’m sad that my company didn’t turn into what I wanted,” I didn’t have names for my emotions. A lightbulb moment came when my therapist asked, “When have you felt anxiety?” The only example I could think of was the time my company was only a few days from running out of cash.

“Have you ever considered that you only feel your emotions at extremes – a 20, for example, on a 1-10 scale? It’s human to feel anxiety in day-to-day life.”

That opened a door. I wasn’t just sad about leaving my company: I felt shame that I wasn’t “successful.” It wasn’t only my identity I’d tied to the business, but my self-worth. Deep down, my core belief that I – myself – wasn’t good enough. This is shame by definition: a hole that forms in our deepest selves we can never fill because it seems permanent; it seems, by nature, that this is who we are, not what we have done.

Shame often comes from feeling different as a child. In my case, I stuttered as a child. My voice was too ugly to be heard, so I concealed it. I used synonyms to avoid the sounds I couldn’t make. I did this because I couldn’t handle the intense shame of not being able to say my own last name without stuttering. In doing so, I learned to ignore, to numb those intense feelings of shame. I coped, and because I learned to cope so early in life, I learned to numb the rest of my feelings along with it.

By the time I launched a company, all those feelings that tell us “something’s wrong” – sadness, exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, and so on – were so buried and so unnamed that I could only tell myself “You are what’s wrong” when I hit a block, when I encountered the normal and natural failures that entrepreneurs face every day, no matter how successful in the long run.

Ignoring my feelings was a survival skill as child. Ignoring the doubt and anxiety caused by early critics allowed me to push through and launch a company. But it was also my achilles heel. It led me to derive my identity and self-worth from my work.

A CEO, the story goes, has it all together: a CEO is a visionary who sees around corners without any help. Because of this, I couldn’t give myself permission to ask for help, and when I left the company, I lacked the vocabulary or awareness to describe my feelings. My perfectionism, which long ago enabled me to ignore my stuttering, had associated help with failure, and failure with shame.

All these years later, I still couldn’t allow myself to ask for help.

Learning to tame trauma

Stress, overwhelm, burnout: these were the closest words I had to describe my feelings. This is startup lingo for things you cycle through now and again, and the story goes that we push past them and keep working. But these aren’t emotions. They are coverups for feelings of pain and shame. Ultimately, they describe trauma.

When most people think of trauma they imagine a car crash, or maybe a natural disaster or physical assault. An event that curtails your ability to function entirely. But trauma is simply a piece of the past we carry with us in the present that shapes us — in both positive and negative ways.

In my coaching career, I’ve worked with entrepreneurs and executives who felt too pretty, too ugly, too gay, too fat, too foreign, too dumb, too smart, too dark, or too light. These were the holes of shame they couldn’t fill and believed would always be there. They weren’t by any means failures: even the most successful people carry trauma, and often lash themselves onward with its whip. But shame is something even the best of us can’t outrun. Eventually it catches up with you. It took me years to understand this, and being compassionate towards myself will be a lifelong journey.

Once I had the vocabulary to separate my self-worth from my professional ambitions, UnCollege was a failure I could be proud of, not to mention a learning experience I could bring to my next project: Helping others learn to love themselves, and as a result, build wildly successful companies.

Flaws in a popular GPS tracker leak real-time locations and can remotely activate its microphone

A popular GPS tracker — used as a panic alarm for elderly patients, to monitor kids, and track vehicles — contains security flaws, which security researchers say are so severe the device should be recalled.

The Chinese manufactured white-label location tracker, rebranded and sold by over a dozen companies — including Pebbell by HoIP Telecom, OwnFone Footprint, and SureSafeGo — uses a SIM card to connect to the 2G/GPRS cell network. Although none of the devices have internet connectivity and won’t be found on exposed device database sites like Shodan, they can still be remotely accessed and controlled by SMS.

Researchers at U.K. cybersecurity firm Fidus Information Security say the device can be tricked into turning over its real-time location simply by anyone sending it a text message with a  keyword. Through another command, anyone can call the device and remotely listen in to its in-built microphone without alerting anyone.

Another command can remotely kill the cell signal altogether, rendering the device effectively useless.

Although the device can be protected with a PIN, it’s not enabled by default. Worse, the researchers found the device can be remotely reset without needing a PIN — opening up the device to further commands.

“This device is marketed at keeping the most vulnerable safe and yet anybody can locate and listen into thousands of people’s lives without their knowledge,” said Fidus’ Andrew Mabbitt, who wrote up the team’s findings. “This day and age, everything is connected one way or another and we seem to be leaving security behind; this isn’t going to end well.”

An attacker only requires the phone number of the device, Mabbitt told TechCrunch. His team showed it was easy to extrapolate hundreds of working phone numbers connected to vulnerable devices based off a single known device. “We made the assumption that these numbers were purchased in a batch,” said the team’s write-up.

The team bought a device and allowed TechCrunch to verify their findings. With a single command, we got a text message back in seconds with the precise co-ordinates of its location. We could also pull other information from the device, including its IMEI number and battery level.

The phone call trick, which Mabbitt called a “glorified wiretap,” also worked.

One text message to a vulnerable device, bought by the security researchers, allowed us to remotely grab its real-time coordinates. The geolocation was precise to a few meters. (Image: TechCrunch)

There are an estimated 10,000 devices are in the U.K. — and thousands more around the world. The team told several of the device makers of the flaws, but Mabbitt said there’s no way to fix the vulnerabilities without recalling every device.

“Fixing this broken security would be trivial,” said the team. “All they needed to do was print a unique code on each pendant and require that to be used to change configurations. The location and call functions could be locked down to calls and texts only from those numbers previously programmed in as emergency contacts.”

The U.K. just last week announced a proposed new cybersecurity law that would require connected devices to be sold with a unique password, and not a default.

None of the device sellers we contacted responded to a request for comment.

Read more:

Justice Department charges Chinese hacker for 2015 Anthem breach

U.S prosecutors have brought charges against a Chinese national for his alleged involvement of the 2015 data breach at health insurance giant Anthem, which resulted in the theft of 78.8 million records.

Fujie Wang, 32, and other unnamed members of a China-based hacking group, are charged with four counts of conspiracy to commit fraud, identity theft and computer hacking.

Names, addresses, dates of birth, employment and income data, Social Security numbers and highly sensitive medical information were stolen in the breach.

The hackers are also accused of breaking into three other businesses — a tech company, a basic materials firm, and a communications giant — none of which were not named in the indictment.

The FBI-issued wanted posted for Fujie Wang, a China resident. (Image: FBI)

Prosecutors said the hackers used “sophisticated techniques to hack into the computer networks of the victim businesses without authorization” — including spearphishing attacks. The hackers said to have “patiently waited months” after they broke into the health insurance giant’s systems before they stole data.

The hackers are said to have stolen the 78 million records over a month between October and November 2014 by transferring large archive files from Anthem’s data warehouse back to China.

Anthem disclosed the breach in February 2015. The company later paid $115 million to settle lawsuits relating to the breach.

“The allegations in the indictment unsealed today outline the activities of a brazen China-based computer hacking group that committed one of the worst data breaches in history,” said U.S. assistant attorney general Brian Benczkowski in remarks. “These defendants allegedly attacked U.S. businesses operating in four distinct industry sectors, and violated the privacy of over 78 million people by stealing their personal identifiable information.”

Wang is currently wanted by the FBI.

As concerns over medical device security rise, MedCrypt raises $5.3 million

As medical devices move to networked technologies, securing those devices becomes increasingly important.

Regulators, seemingly late to the threat that unsecured medical devices posed, only began requiring protections for medical devices like pacemakers and insulin pumps two years ago, and since then new technology companies have leapt into the breach to begin providing security services for the healthcare industry.

Most recently, MedCrypt, a graduate from the most recent batch of Y Combinator companies raised $5.3 million in a new round of funding, from investors led by Section 32, the investment firm founded by former Google Ventures partner Bill Maris.

Joining Maris’ firm were previous investors Eniac Ventures and Y Combinator itself.

“Internet-connected medical technology is entering the market at light speed, calling for devices to be secure by design, which leads to a heightened level of patient safety at all times,” said MedCrypt chief executive Mike Kijewski in a statement.

Securing patient data has been a longtime requirement for health technology companies, but both patient records and hospital networks are dangerously vulnerable to cyberattacks.

In 2018, over 6 million patient records in the U.S. were exposed thanks to network intrusions and cyberattacks, according to the publication Health IT Security. And those were just in the ten largest security breaches.

The healthcare industry has only managed to achieve 72% compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule for protecting patient data, according to an April report from CynergisTek.

Investors have recognized the problem and are investing more into companies focused on the healthcare market specifically. MedCrypt’s competition for these security dollars include companies like Medigate, which raised $15 million earlier this year.

While Medigate focuses on network security, MedCrypt is focused on securing devices themselves. Both security functions are critical, according to investors.

“With regulators appropriately taking a hard look at medical device security and the sheer growth in the number of devices being added to already complex clinical networks,” there is a significant opportunity for companies tackling medical device security, according to a statement from Dr. Jonathan Root who has led several IT-enabled healthcare investments for USVP.

Journey launches its real-time group “Peloton For Meditation”

Sitting silently with your eyes closed isn’t fun but it’s good for you…so you probably don’t meditate as often as you’d like. In that sense it’s quite similar to exercise. But people do show up when prodded by the urgency and peer pressure of scheduled group cycling or aerobics classes. What’s still in the way is actually hauling your lazy butt to the gym, hence the rise of Peloton’s in-home stationary bike with attached screen streaming live and on-demand classes. My butt is particularly lazy, but I’ve done 80 Peloton rides in 4 months. The model works.

Now that model is coming to mindfulness with the launch of Journey LIVE, a subscription iOS app offering live 15-minute group meditation classes. With sessions starting most waking hours, instructors that interact with you directly, and a sense of herd mentality, you feel compelled to dedicate the time to clearing your thoughts. By video and voice, the teachers introduce different meditation theories and practices, guide you through, and answer questions you can type in. Each day, Journey also provides a newly recorded on-demand session in case you need a class on your own schedule.

“‘I tried Headspace’ or ‘I tried Calm’ . With a lot of the current meditation apps, people go on but they drop off very quickly” says Journey founder and CEO Stephen Sokoler. “It means that there’s an interest in meditating and having a better life but people fall off because meditating alone is hard, it’s confusing, it’s boring. Meditating with a live teacher who can connect with you and say your name, who makes you feel seen and heard makes huge difference.”

Journey subscriptions start at $19.99 per month after a week-long free trial. That feels a bit steep, but prices drop to $7.99 if paid annually with the launch discount, or you can dive in with a $399 lifetime pass. The challenge will be keeping users from abandoning meditation and then their subscription without resorting to growth hacking and annoying notifications that are antithetical to the whole concept. Journey has now raised a $2.4M seed round led by Canaan and joined by Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Betaworks, and more to get the company rolling.

Sokoler’s own journey could set an example of the possibilities of sticking with it. “Meditation changed my life. I was fortunate enough to move to Australia, find a book on Buddhism, and then I had the willpower to start practicing meditation every day” he tells me. “I lost 85 pounds. People ask me how I lost the weight and they expect me to say a diet like keto or Atkins, but it was because of the program I was in.” Suddenly able to sit quietly with himself, Sokoler didn’t need food to stay occupied or feel at ease.

The founder saw the need for new sources of happiness while working in employee rewards and recognition for 12 years. He built up a company that makes momentos for commemorating big business deals. Meditation proved to him the value of developing inner quiet, whether to inspire happiness, calm, focus, or deeper connections to other people and the world. Yet the popular meditation apps ignored thousands of years of tradition when meditation would be taught in groups that give a naturally ethereal activity more structure. He founded Journey in 2015 to bring meditation to corporate environments, but now is hoping to democratize access with the launch of Journey LIVE.

“You could think of it as a real-life meditation community or studio in the palm of your hand” Sokoler explains. Instructors greet you when you join a session in the Journey app and can give you a shout-out for practicing multiple days in a row. They help you concentrate on your breath while giving enough instruction to keep you from falling asleep. You can see or hide a list of screen names of other participants that make you feel less isolated and encourage you not to quit.

Finding a market amidst the popular on-demand meditation apps will be an uphill climb for Journey LIVE. While classes recorded a long time ago might not be as engaging, they’re convenient and can dig deep into certain styles and intentions. Calm and Headspace run around $12.99 per month, making them cheaper than Journey LIVE and potentially easier to scale.

But Sokoler says his app’s beta testing saw better retention than competitors. “If you’ve ever been to the New York Public Library, there’s so many books versus going to a local curated bookstore where something is right there for you. This is much more approachable, much more accessible” Sokoler tells me. “There’s a paradox of choice and having so many options makes it hard for people to stick with it and come back every single day.”

With our phones and Netflix erasing the downtime we used to rely on to give our brain a break or reflect on our day, life is starting to feel claustrophobic. We’re tense, anxious, and easily overwhelmed. Meditation could be the antidote. Unlike with cycling or weightlifting, you don’t need some expensive Peloton bike or Tonal home gym. What you need is consistency, and an impetus to slow down for fifteen minutes you could easily squander. We’re a tribal species, and Journey LIVE group classes could use camaraderie to lure us into the satisfying void of nirvana.

Microbiome testing service uBiome puts its co-founders on administrative leave after FBI raid

The microbiome testing service uBiome has placed its founders and co-chief executives, Jessica Richman and Zac Apte, on administrative leave following an FBI raid on the company’s offices last week.

The company’s board of directors have named John Rakow, currently the company’s general counsel, as its interim chairman and chief executive, the company said in a statement.

Directors of the company are also conducting an independent investigation into the company’s billing practices, which is being overseen by a special committee of the board.

It was only last week that the FBI went to the company’s headquarters to search for documents related to an ongoing investigation. What’s at issue is the way that the company was billing insurers for the microbiome tests it was performing on customers.

“As interim CEO of uBiome, I want all of our stakeholders to know that we intend to cooperate fully with government authorities and private payors to satisfactorily resolve the questions that have been raised, and we will take any corrective actions that are needed to ensure we can become a stronger company better able to serve patients and healthcare providers,” Rakow said in a statement.

”My confidence is based on the significant clinical evidence and medical literature that demonstrates the utility and value of uBiome’s products as important tools for patients, health care providers and our commercial partners.” added Mr. Rakow.

It’s been a rough few weeks for consumer companies working on developing microbiome testing services and treatments based on those diagnosis. In addition to the FBI raid, the Seattle-based company, Arivale, was forced to shut down its “consumer program” after raising more than $50 million from investors, including Maveron, Polaris Partners and ARCH Venture Partners.

UBiome is backed by investors including Andreessen Horowitz, OS Fund, 8VC, Y Combinator, DNA Capital, Crunchfund, StartX, Kapor Capital, Starlight Ventures and 500 Startups.

UK health minister leans on social media platforms to delete anti-vax content

Social media-fuelled anti-vaxxer propaganda is the latest online harm the U.K. government is targeting.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning health secretary Matt Hancock said he will meet with representatives from social media platforms on Monday to pressure them into doing more to prevent false information about the safety of vaccinations from being amplified by their platforms.

“I’m seeing them on Monday to require that they do more to take down wrong — well lies essentially — that are promoted on social media about the impact of vaccination,” he said, when asked about a warning by a U.K. public health body about the risk of a public health emergency being caused by an increase in the number of British children who have not received the measles vaccination.

“Vaccination is safe; it’s very, very important for the public health, for everybody’s health and we’re going to tackle it.”

The head of NHS England also warned last month about anti-vaccination messages gaining traction on social media.

“We need to tackle this risk in people not vaccinating,” Hancock added. “One of the things I’m particularly worried about is the spread of anti-vaccination messages online. I’ve called in the social media companies like we had to for self-harming imagery a couple of months ago.”

Hancock, who between 2016 and 2018 served as the U.K.’s digital minister, prior to taking over the health brief, held a similar meeting with the boss of Instagram earlier this year.

That followed a public outcry over suicide content spreading on Instagram after a British schoolgirl was reported to have been encouraged to killed herself by viewing graphic content on the Facebook -owned platform.

Instagram subsequently announced a policy change saying it would remove graphic images of self harm and demote non-graphic self-harm images so they don’t show up in searches, relevant hashtags or the explore tab.

But it remains to be seen whether platforms will be as immediately responsive to amped up political pressure to scrub anti-vaccination content entirely given the level of support this kind of misinformation can attract among social media users.

Earlier this year Facebook said it would downrank anti-vax content in the News Feed and hide it on Instagram in an effort to minimize the spread of vaccination misinformation.

It also said it would point users toward “authoritative” vaccine-related information — i.e. information that’s been corroborated by the health and scientific establishment.

But deleting such content entirely was not part of Facebook’s announced strategy.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for any response to Hancock’s comments.

In the longer term social media platforms operating in the U.K. could face laws that require them to remove content deemed to pose a risk to public health if ordered to by a dedicated regulator, as a result of a wide-ranging government plan to tackle a range of online harms.

Earlier this month the U.K. government set out a broad policy plan for regulating online harms.

The Online Harms Whitepaper proposes to put a mandatory duty of care on platforms to take reasonable steps to protect users from a range of harms — including those linked to the spread of disinformation.

It also proposes a dedicated, overarching regulator to oversee internet companies to ensure they meet their responsibilities.

The government is currently running a public consultation on the proposals, which ends July 1, after which it says it will set out any next actions as it works on developing draft legislation.

Scientists pull speech directly from the brain

In a feat that could eventually unlock the possibility of speech for people with severe medical conditions, scientists have successfully recreated the speech of healthy subjects by tapping directly into their brains. The technology is a long, long way from practical application but the science is real and the promise is there.

Edward Chang, neurosurgeon at UC San Francisco and co-author of the paper published today in Nature, explained the impact of the team’s work in a press release: “For the first time, this study demonstrates that we can generate entire spoken sentences based on an individual’s brain activity. This is an exhilarating proof of principle that with technology that is already within reach, we should be able to build a device that is clinically viable in patients with speech loss.”

To be perfectly clear, this isn’t some magic machine that you sit in and its translates your thoughts into speech. It’s a complex and invasive process that decodes not exactly what the subject is thinking but what they were actually speaking.

Led by speech scientist Gopala Anumanchipalli, the experiment involved subjects who had already had large electrode arrays implanted in their brains for a different medical procedure. The researchers had these lucky people read out several hundred sentences aloud while closely recording the signals detected by the electrodes.

The electrode array in question

See, it happens that the researchers know a certain pattern of brain activity that comes after you think of and arrange words (in cortical areas like Wernicke’s and Broca’s) and before the final signals are sent from the motor cortex to your tongue and mouth muscles. There’s a sort of intermediate signal between those that Anumanchipalli and his co-author, grad student Josh Chartier, previously characterized, and which they thought may work for the purposes of reconstructing speech.

Analyzing the audio directly let the team determine which muscles and movements would be involved when (this is pretty established science), and from this they built a sort of virtual model of the person’s vocal system.

They then mapped the brain activity detected during the session to that virtual model using a machine learning system, essentially allowing a recording of a brain to control a recording of a mouth. It’s important to understand that this isn’t turning abstract thoughts into words — it’s understanding the brain’s concrete instructions to the muscles of the face, and determining from those which words those movements would be forming. It’s brain reading, but it isn’t mind reading.

The resulting synthetic speech, while not exactly crystal clear, is certainly intelligible. And set up correctly, it could be capable of outputting 150 words per minute from a person who may otherwise be incapable of speech.

“We still have a ways to go to perfectly mimic spoken language,” said Chartier. “Still, the levels of accuracy we produced here would be an amazing improvement in real-time communication compared to what’s currently available.”

For comparison, a person so afflicted, for instance with a degenerative muscular disease, often has to speak by spelling out words one letter at a time with their gaze. Picture 5-10 words per minute, with other methods for more disabled individuals going even slower. It’s a miracle in a way that they can communicate at all, but this time-consuming and less than natural method is a far cry from the speed and expressiveness of real speech.

If a person was able to use this method, they would be far closer to ordinary speech, though perhaps at the cost of perfect accuracy. But it’s not a magic bullet.

The problem with this method is that it requires a great deal of carefully collected data from what amounts to a healthy speech system, from brain to tip of the tongue. For many people it’s no longer possible to collect this data, and for others the invasive method of collection will make it impossible for a doctor to recommend. And conditions that have prevented a person from ever talking prevent this method from working as well.

The good news is that it’s a start, and there are plenty of conditions it would work for, theoretically. And collecting that critical brain and speech recording data could be done preemptively in cases where a stroke or degeneration is considered a risk.