Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically at curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be colocated at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing – in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person – at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location-tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery, and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic, and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this – we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone – something that Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

An EU coalition of techies is backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

UK researchers develop new low-cost, rapid COVID-19 test that could even be used at home

A new type of test developed by UK researchers from the Brunel University London, Lancaster University and the University of Surrey can provide COVID-19 detection in as little as 30 minutes, using hand-held hardware that costs as little as £100 (around $120 USD) with individual swab sample kits that cost around $5 per person. The test is based on existing technology that has been used in the Philippines for testing viral spread in chickens, but it’s been adapted by researchers for use with COVID-19 in humans, and the team is now working on ramping mass production.

This test would obviously need approval by local health regulatory bodies like the FDA before it goes into active use in any specific geography, but the researchers behind the project are “confident it will respond well,” and say they could even make it available for use “within a few weeks.” The hardware itself is battery-operated and connects to a smartphone application to display diagnostic results and works with nasal or throat swabs, without requiring that samples be round-tripped to a lab.

There are other tests already approved for use that use similar methods for on-site testing, including kits and machines from Cepheid and Mesa Biotech. These require expensive dedicated table-top micro-labs, however, which is installed in dedicated healthcare facilities including hospitals. This test from UK scientists has the advantage of running on inexpensive hardware, with testing capabilities for up to six people at once, which can be deployed in doctor’s offices, hospitals and even potentially workplaces and homes for truly widespread, accessible testing.

Some frontline, rapid results tests are already in use in the EU and China, but these are generally serological tests that rely on the presence of antibodies, whereas this group’s diagnostics are molecular, so it can detect the presence of viral DNA even before antibodies are present. This equipment could even potentially be used to detect the virus in asymptomatic individuals who are self-isolating at home, the group notes, which would go a long way to scoping out the portion of the population that’s not currently a priority for other testing methods, but that could provide valuable insight into the true extend of silent, community-based transmission of the coronavirus.

Scanwell aims to launch at-home 15-minute coronavirus test, but it still needs FDA approval

At-home diagnostics startup Scanwell, which produces smartphone-based testing for UTIs, is working on getting at-home testing for the novel coronavirus into the hands of U.S. residents. The technology, which was developed by Chinese diagnostic technology company INNOVITA and has already been approved by China’s equivalent of the FDA and used by “millions” in China, can be taken at home in 15 minutes with the guidance of a medical professional via telehealth, and produces results in just hours.

Scanwell’s test will require FDA clearance, but the company tells me that it’s in the process of securing approval through the FDA’s accelerated emergency certification program. The FDA guidance says that this approval process should take 6-8 weeks (though that “could be faster,” Scanwell says), and Scanwell is aiming to be ready to go with shipping these as soon as it receives that approval. While the U.S. drug regulatory agency previously had only included PCR tests in its protocols, it updated that guidance to include serological tests earlier this week. Scanwell further says they “don’t anticipate any issues with FDA approval.”

The test that Scanwell is aiming to launch uses what’s called a ‘serological’ technique, which looks for antibodies in a patient’s blood. These are only present if someone has been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, since as of right now researchers haven’t found any evidence that natural antibodies to this particular virus exist without exposure. By contrast, the types of tests that are currently in use in the U.S. are “PCR” tests, which use a molecular-based approach to determine if the virus is present genetically in a mucus sample.

The PCR type of test is technically more accurate than the serological variety, but the serological version is much easier to administer, and produces results more quickly. It’s also still very accurate on the whole, and is much cheaper to produce than the PCR version. Plus, it could help expand efforts beyond testing only the most severe cases with symptoms present, and do a much better job of illuminating the full extent of the presence of the virus, including among people with mild cases who have already recovered at home, and those who are asymptomatic but carrying the virus with the possibility of infecting others.

Also, while other, PCR-based at-home testing options already exist, like one from Everlywell that will start going out on Monday, require round-tripping test samples, adding time, complexity and cost and relying on testing materials like swabs that are in short supply globally.

Once the test is available, people deemed eligible via Scanwell’s screening process in their Scanwell Health app will be sent the test via next-day delivery. They’ll be guided by telehealth partner Lemonade’s licensed doctors and nurse practitioners, and they’ll then receive results and further guidance about those results via the app within a few hours. The whole testing process will cost $70, which Scanwell says just covers its costs (it’s also looking at ways to provide free service to those who need it), and will be deployed first in Washington, California and New York, as well as other areas depending on the severity of their coronavirus situation.

That the tests will take potentially 6-8 weeks to come to market seems like a long time, given the current state of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation and testing. But we’ll likely still be very much in need of testing options at that time, especially ones that can serve people who aren’t necessarily meeting the criteria for other available testing resources.

Sony announces its first 5G flagship, the triple lens Xperia 1 II

Sony has announced its first 5G smartphone: The Xperia 1 II — which, for the curious and/or confused, is pronounced ‘Xperia One, Mark Two’. Which isn’t at all confusing, er.

“No one understands the entertainment experience better than Sony,” said president of mobile communications, Mitsuya Kishida, claiming the company is “uniquely positioned” in the era of 5G cellular technology to offer its target users an “enriched” experience thanks to Sony’s extensive content portfolio.

“Whether you are a broadcast professional who requires dynamic speed or an everyday user who desires enhanced entertainment Xperia with 5G takes your mobile experience to the next level,” he said.

As ever with Sony — a major b2b supplier of image sensors to other smartphone makers (rather than a major seller of its own phones) — it’s made the camera a huge focus for the new Android 10 flagship, which has a 6.5in 21:9 “CinemaWide” 4K HDR OLED (3840×1644) display and is powered by a Qualcomm 865 Snapdragon chip (with 8GB of RAM on board).

Round the back the Xperia 1II packs three lenses which offer a selection of focal lengths (16mm, 24mm and 70mm) for capturing different types of photos — from super wide angle to portraits.

All three rear lenses have a 12MP sensor, while round the front there’s an 8MP lens. Sony is also using Zeiss optics for the first time in a smartphone, expanding a long-running collaboration to a new device type.

Talking up the camera, Kishida touted ultrafast low light autofocus, noting too that it supports 20fps autofocus and auto-tracking burst (which he called a world first in a smartphone) — for capturing crisp action shots.

“Our new continuous auto focus keeps tracking moving subjects. What’s special about this is with 20fps it calculates the object 3x per frame — that’s 60x per second — capturing the very moment,” he said.

“With the power and speed of 5G you will be able to share those moments more quickly and more easily across the network,” he added.

Another photo-friendly feature is real-time eye auto focus. Sony demoed this by showing it working on a video of a cat playing with a toy. So, tl;dr, Sony has trained its model on data-sets of pets too, not just humans.

A ‘Photo Pro’ interface on the handset, meanwhile, has been designed to be familiar to users of Sony’s mirrorless Alpha cameras — letting photographers tune shots via access to tweakable parameters they’re used to using on Sony’s high end digital cameras.

Sony is paying the same mind to video makers, with a video editing interface on the device that offers features such as touch autofocus and custom white balance — which Kishida said will help “visual storytellers” control the camera more easily.

There’s also a noise reduction feature to improve audio capture.

Best of all, the Xperia 1II has a 3.5mm headphone jack — enabling audiophiles to enjoy the simple pleasure of plugging in their favorite pair of high-end wired headphones and tuning out everything else.

Kishida flagged the use of an AI technology, called DSEE Ultimate, which he said upscales the sound signal to “near high resolution audio” — including when streaming. “This the best on the go acoustic experience available,” he claimed.

On the games front he touted a collaboration that will let users of the device play a mobile optimized version of Call of Duty using Play Station 4’s Dualshock 4 wireless controller.

The handset, meanwhile, packs a 4,000mAh battery as well as fast wireless charging.

Per Kishida the Xperia 1II will start shipping from Spring onwards, though it’s not yet clear which markets Sony will be bringing the device to (last year the company’s mobile division was reported to have defocused most of the global market in a bid to focus on profitability).

The Xperia 1II may have a fairly niche target buyer, as Sony is a relative bit player in consumer smartphone sales vs giants like Samsung and Huawei, but is intended to act as a showcase for what the company’s camera technologies can offer other mobile makers.

Sony’s mobile chief was making the announcements at a virtual press conference screened via YouTube after the company became one of the first big companies to pull out of attending the Mobile World Congress tradeshow.

MWC’s organizer, the GSMA, subsequently cancelled the annual mobile industry event, which had been due to take place in Barcelona this week, after scores of exhibitors said they would not attend — citing public health concerns attached to the novel coronavirus.

MWC typically attracts more than 100,000 visitors across four days. So the sight of Sony’s press conference being streamed to an empty room — entirely devoid of cameras, claps or woos but still with built in pauses for the media to take photos of the new hardware — was more than a little surreal.

Kishida had another 5G handsets to tease: aka the Xperia Pro — a flagship handset aimed at video professionals. It features 5G mm wavelength technology for improved capability to stream high-resolution video, as well as a handy micro HDMI port for easy plugging in of other high end camera kit.

Sony touted tests it’s done with US carrier Verizon (aka TechCrunch’s parent company) to use the forthcoming 5G handset for live streaming of live sports events.

“Sony’s expertise and long history in providing profession digital imaging solutions is very unique,” added Kishida. “Only Sony has such deep and well established relationships and we are bringing decades of experience to an end-to-end solution — from professional content creation to mobile communications technology in 5G.”

There was a mid range smartphone announcement too, also shipping from Spring onwards: The Xperia 10 II packs a 6in display and also features a triple lens camera as well as water resistance.

These specialized Africa VC funds are welcoming co-investors

For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.

Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.

VC in Africa

Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.

Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.

These specialized Africa VC funds are welcoming co-investors

For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.

Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.

VC in Africa

Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.

Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.

How companies are working around Apple’s ban on vaping apps

Apple banned vaping apps in November 2019. Since then, the company has said very little about its decision, leaving many companies upset and confused about its blanket prohibition.

Three months later, companies are working around Apple’s ban. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Apple’s wide-sweeping ban on vaping affected apps from Juul, Pax and many others, including apps that calculate electrical resistance because they can be used to build vape components. It appears to have hit the cannabis industry at a higher rate than tobacco, as few tobacco vapes have a companion application.

The removal was sudden but not unexpected, given the climate at the time. In 2019, the vaping industry suffered a crisis as the Centers for Disease Control stumbled through a health scare caused by illicit products. Industry experts quickly identified a filler additive as the source of the illnesses, but these reports were ignored for months, creating widespread panic. Consumer sentiment promptly settled on the conclusion that all vapes are harmful, even when clear data shows the opposite. Vapes sourced through legal means are proven to be safer alternatives than other consumption methods.

It’s important to note Apple didn’t disable the apps or force the removal from phones. Apps that had already been downloaded continued to work, though they could not be updated.

Noom competitor OurPath rebrands as Second Nature, raises $10M Series A

Back in 2018, OurPath emerged as a startup in the U.K. tackling the problem of diabetes. The company helped customers fight the disease, and raised a $3 million round of funding by combining advice from health experts with tracking technology via a smartphone app to help people build healthy habits and lose weight.

Now rebranded as Second Nature, it has raised a fresh $10 million in Series A funding.

New investors include Uniqa Ventures, the venture capital fund of Uniqa, a European insurance group, and the founders of mySugr, the digital diabetes management platform, which was acquired by health giant Roche .

The round also secured the backing of existing investors including Connect and Speedinvest, two European seed funds, and Bethnal Green Ventures, the early-stage Impact investor, as well as angels including Taavet Hinrikus, founder of TransferWise.

This new injection takes the total investment in the company to $13 million.

Competitors to the company include Weight Watchers and Noom, which provides a similar program and has raised $114.7 million.

Second Nature claims to have a different, more intensive and personalized approach to create habit change. The startup claims 10,000 of its participants revealed an average weight loss of 5.9kg at the 12-week mark. Separate peer-reviewed scientific data published by the company showed that much of this weight-loss is sustained at the six-month and 12-month mark.

Under its former guise as OurPath, the startup was the first “lifestyle change program” to be commissioned by the NHS for diabetes management.

Second Nature was founded in 2015 by Chris Edson and Mike Gibbs, former healthcare strategy consultants, who designed the program to provide people with personalized support in order to make lifestyle changes.

Participants receive a set of “smart” scales and an activity tracker that links with the app, allowing them to track their weight loss progress and daily step count. They are placed in a peer support group of 15 people starting simultaneously. Each group is coached by a qualified dietitian or nutritionist, who provides participants with daily 1:1 advice, support and motivation via the app. Throughout the 12-week program, people have access to healthy recipes and daily articles covering topics like meal planning, how to sleep better and overcoming emotional eating.

Gibbs said: “Our goal at Second Nature is to solve obesity. We need to rise above the confusing health misinformation to provide clarity about what’s really important: changing habits. Our new brand and investment will help us realize that.”

Philip Edmondson-Jones, investment manager at Beringea, who led the investment and joins the board of directors of Second Nature, said: “Healthcare systems are struggling to cope with spiraling rates of obesity and associated illnesses, which are projected to cost the global economy $1.2 trillion annually by 2025. Second Nature’s pioneering approach to lifestyle change empowers people to address these conditions.”

Will Apple, Facebook or Microsoft be the future of augmented reality?

Apple is seen by some as critical to the future of augmented reality, despite limited traction for ARKit so far and its absence from smartglasses (again, so far). Yet Facebook, Microsoft and others are arguably more important to where the market is today.

While there are more AR platforms than just these companies, they represent the top of the pyramid for three different types of AR roadmap. And while startup insurgents could make a huge difference, big platforms can exert disproportionate influence on the future of tech markets. Let’s see what this could mean for the future of AR.

 

Facebook: The messaging play

Facebook has talked about its long-term potential to launch smartglasses, but in 2020, its primary presence in the AR market is as a mobile AR platform (note: Facebook is also a VR market leader with Oculus). Although there are other ways to define them, mobile AR platforms can be thought of as three broad types:

  1. messaging-based (e.g. Facebook Messenger, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Line)
  2. OS-based (e.g. Apple ARKit, Google ARCore)
  3. web-based (e.g. 8th Wall, Torch, others)