With iOS 15, Apple reveals just how far Health has come — and how much further it can go

Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote was packed with new features for iPhones, Macs and iPads — and like it has done pretty consistently since the debut of its original ‘Health’ app in 2014, those included updates focused on personal health and wellness. Often, it’s impossible to assess the impact of the work Apple is doing in these areas in the moment, and health-related feature announcements aren’t generally as splashy as user interface overhauls for Apple’s device software, for instance. But viewed as a whole, Apple has built probably the most powerful and accessible suite of personal health tools available to an individual, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

I spoke with Apple Vice President of Technology Kevin Lynch who actually demonstrated the Apple Watch for the first time on the world stage during Apple’s September 2014 keynote event. Lynch has seen Apple Watch grow considerably during his time at the company, but he’s also been integral to the evolution of the its health initiatives. He explained how it became what it is today and provided some hints as to where it might go in the future.

“It’s been amazing how much it’s evolved over time,” Lynch said, referring to the original Health app. “It actually started from Apple Watch, where we were capturing heart rate data for calorimetry activity, and [Activity] ring closure, and we needed a place to put the heart rate data. So we created the Health app as a place to store the data.”

Apple Health began as a simple companion app to store activity data from the Apple Watch in 2014.

From there, Lynch says Apple realized that once you had this centralized location, they could develop a system that could store other data types, as well, and create an API and architecture that allowed developers to store related data there, as well, in a privacy-respecting way. In the early days, the Health app was still essentially a passive storehouse, providing users one touchpoint for various health-related information, but the company soon began thinking more about what else it could offer, and inspiration came from users.

User-guided evolution

A key turning point for Apple’s approach to health came when the company saw that users were doing more with features available via the Apple Watch than the company ever intended, Lynch said.

“We were showing people their heart rate, and you could look at it — we were using it for calorimetry,” he told me. “But some users actually were looking at their heart rate when they weren’t working out, and noticed it was high. […]They would go talk to their doctor, and the doctor would find a heart issue, and we would start getting letters about this. We still get letters today about our work in the space, which is amazing. But some of those early letters were clueing us into ‘Wait, we could actually look for that ourselves in the background.”

Apple then developed its high heart rate alert notifications, which can tell users when Apple Watch detects an unusually high heart rate that occurs when they aren’t moving around very much. High resting heart rates are good indicators of potential issues, and Apple also later added notifications for unusually low heart rates. This was all data that was already available to the user, but Apple saw that it could proactively provide it to users, providing the benefits already enjoyed by the most vigilant of all Apple Watch owners.

Apple Watch introduced high heart rate notifications in 2017.

From there, Apple started investing more heavily in thinking about more areas where it could glean similar insights. Rather than waiting for user behavior to identify new areas to explore (though Lynch says that’s still important to the team), the company started hiring more clinicians and medical researchers to chart the path forward for Health.

One example of where that led was announced at WWDC: Walking steadiness, a new metric that provides a simple score of how stable a Watch wearer’s average gait is.

“Walking steadiness […] actually came from fall detection,” Lynch said. We were working on fall detection, and and that’s been really awesome, but as we’re working on it, we’re brainstorming about how we can actually help people not fall, rather than just detecting that they fell. It’s pretty tricky to do that in the moment — there’s not much you could do once that’s actually happening.”

Lynch is referring to the fall detection feature that Apple introduced in 2018, which could use motion sensor data to detect what was likely a sudden and severe fall, and provide emergency alerts to hopefully render aid to the wearer who had fallen. Apple was able to look at fall detection data for users in its 100,000-participant strong Heart and Movement study and combine that with data gathered from the iPhone in the same study about walking metrics.

“[The Heart and Movement study data] has been super helpful in some of the work here on machine learning,” Lynch said. “And then we did a focus study of particularly around falls with walking steadiness, where we used [as] the source of truth a set of traditional measurements of walking steadiness; so questionnaires, clinical observation, people meeting with doctors and they’re observing the person walking. And then as over the period of a year or two, as people in that study happened to fall, we were able to look at all their metrics ahead of that and understand, ‘What are the real predictors here of potential fall?’ Then we were able to build a model around that.”

Apple's Walking Steadiness metric in Apple Health in iOS 15.

Apple’s Walking Steadiness metric in Apple Health in iOS 15.

Apple actually accomplished something with its Walking Steadiness feature that is very rare in the health and fitness industry: It created a clinically validated, meaningful new metric around individual health. The Health app assigns a score from Very Low to Low or OK, based on motion-sensing data passively gathered through Apple’s iPhone sensors (the phone is better able to detect these metrics since it’s positioned on your hip, Lynch says). Perhaps best of all, according to Lynch, the data is actually something people can use to make real improvements.

“The other compelling thing is that it’s actionable,” he said. “Some of these things can be harder to change. But with walking steadiness, there are exercises you can do to improve your walking steadiness. And so we built those into the Health app. You can watch the videos and do the exercises and work to improve your steadiness ahead of falling.”

Walking steadiness is perhaps the best expression yet of an area of increased focus for Apple when it comes to health: Turning the devices you carry with you into an ambient protector of sorts.

‘The Intelligent Guardian’

Apple’s Health app provides a good overview of the metrics that you might want to keep track of, and the company has steadily built out a library of vetted contextual information to make it easier to understand what you’re seeing (including through new updated lab displays that translate results into plain language in iOS 15). But one of the areas where it’s in a unique position to innovate is in proactive or preventative health. Lynch pointed out that the walking steadiness feature is a progression of those efforts.

“The walking steadiness work is in this category that we think of as ‘Intelligent Guardian’; it’s ‘How can we help watch out for people with data that they may not otherwise be even looking at or aware of, and let them know of potential changes,” he said.

Lynch admits that the ‘Intelligent Guardian’ category wasn’t something that was initially really part of the plan for Apple Watch and health.

In the early days, we weren’t as onto this line of thinking about ‘Intelligent Guardian, as we are now,” he said. “Those early letters were really inspiring in terms of [pointing out] we could actually let people know these things that are really meaningful.”

Fal detection on Apple Watch.

Those letters still inspire the team working on health features and help motivate the team and validate their work. Lynch cites one Apple received where a person had purchased an Apple Watch for their father, and while his father was out biking he got thrown off the bike and fell into a gully. Apple Watch detected the fall, and also that he was unconscious, and the Watch was luckily set up to notify emergency contacts and 911, and did both. It provided the son with a location on a map, so his son rushed to the spot, but found paramedics on scene already loading his father (who ended up being okay) into an ambulance.

“Now, there’s a lot of thought that we put into ‘What are the other things that we could maybe sense about someone and let them know about?'” he said. “Our work on health very much involves this ongoing discussion of, from a clinical perspective, what is really interesting to know about somebody? Then from a science perspective, what do we think that we can sense about somebody? It’s this intersection of what might we be able to know and extract from the data that we gather, or are their new sensors that we might be able to build to get some data that could answer the questions that, clinically, we think would be really valid.”

A community approach to individual health

Another big change coming in iOS 15 for Apple Health is sharing. Apple will allow private, secure sharing of health data from users to loved ones and caregivers, including doctors. Users can choose exactly what health data to share, and can revoke access at any time. Apple itself never sees that data, and it’s encrypted locally on your device and then decrypted in local memory on the receiving device.

Apple Health Sharing on iOS 15.

Apple Health Sharing on iOS 15.

Health sharing is a natural extension of Apple’s work with the ‘Intelligent Guardian’ since it elevates personal health care into what it always has been — something managed by a network of connected individuals — but augmented by modern technology and sensing capabilities.

“The other person you’re watching out for can see that information, and be notified of changes, and you can see a little dashboard of the data,” Lynch said. “That’s going to be super helpful, we hope, for people, especially as you’re caring for an older adult, or caring for a partner of yours — that’s going to basically enable people to do that kind of mutual support on their health journey.”

Lynch points out that it’s not just about surfacing data that people might not otherwise find, but it’s actually about opening the door for more communication around health between families and personal networks that typically might never happen.

“It enables conversations, where maybe people wouldn’t maybe naturally talk about how much they’ve been walking lately or how their sleep’s been going,” he said. “If you’re up for sharing that, then it can be a conversation that maybe you otherwise wouldn’t have had. And then it’s the same with doctor interactions; when you’re interacting with a doctor, they may not have a great view of your daily health. They have these little silo views of blood pressure at the time and stuff like that, so how can we help you tell your whole story when you’re talking with your doctor and make that conversation even richer than it would have been otherwise, in a very quick period of time?”

Sharing with a doctor relies on integrating with a healthcare provider’s electronic healthcare records (EHR) system, but Lynch notes that it’s using all interoperable standards to make this work, and they have a range of providers with large footprints in the U.S. already lined up to participate at launch. Healthcare professionals using this feature will be able to see data users share with them in a web view in their EHR system, and while that data is only shared ephemerally, they can easily annotate and store specific readings in their permanent EHR for a patient should they require it to back up a diagnosis or course of treatment.

I asked Lynch about the state of EHR, which has had a tricky history in terms of adoption and interoperability, and he said that it’s true that this is something they initially started working on years ago, at a time when making it work would have required a much more massive technical undertaking on Apple’s side to make it actually work. Luckily, the industry in general has been trending toward adopting more open standards.

“There really has been a change in how you can connect to the EHRs in a more standardized way,” he said. “And certainly, we’ve been working with and across all of them to help get this mature.”

Benefits of a long-term user relationship

One of the biggest potential benefits for both users and their doctors of Apple Health is just how much data they can gain access to over time. Apple users who have stuck with the platform and used Health have now been tracking at least heart rate data for around seven years. That’s why another iOS 15 feature, Health Trends, has even more potential future impact.

Apple Health Trends in iOS 15

Apple Health Trends in iOS 15

“Trends is looking at the longer term changes, and starting to identify what may be statistically significant changes in those areas,” Lynch explained. “There are about 20 areas that we’re starting with to do this, and if we start seeing those notable trends, then we can highlight those to you and show you how, for instance, your resting heart rates change now, you know, versus a year ago.”

This is once again the result of the Apple Heart and Movement study and the insights that the company continues to derive from that work. During the study, Apple focused a lot on how to fine-tune insight delivery, so as to ensure that it was providing users with information they could use, but at the same time avoiding any kind of overload or generating more confusion.

“When you work on something like trends, we don’t want to overwhelm people with insights, if you will, but we also don’t want to like not have, you know, if there’s something relevant to show, we don’t want to suppress that. How do we tune that in? So we did a lot of that tuning with the data that we have in the Heart and Movement study, and we’re excited to see how it goes with the with public launch, and we’ll keep iterating on it. We think this is going to be a really powerful way for people to understand long-term changes.”

The future is fusion

Apple’s health story to date is largely one made up of realizations that the sensors the iPhone and Apple Watch carry, originally for other purposes, can provide tremendous insights into our health on a continuous basis — something that previously just hasn’t been possible or practical. That evolved into an intentional strategy of seeking out new sensor technologies to integrate into Watch and other Apple devices to address even more daily health concerns, and Apple continues to figure out new ways to use the sensors that are there already — the addition of respiratory rate measurement during sleep in iOS 15 is a prime example — while working on what new hardware comes next to do even more.

Perhaps one place to look for even more potential in terms of future health capabilities lies in sensor fusion, however. Walking steadiness is the result of not just the iPhone or the Apple Watch acting independently, but of what’s possible when the company can use them in combination. It’s another place where Apple’s tight integration of software and hardware give it an edge, and it multiplies as Apple’s ecosystem of devices, and the sensors they carry, continues to grow.

I ended our interview by asking Lynch about what kind of possibilities might open up when you consider that AirPods, too, contain their own sensors and gather different data that could complement that monitored by the iPhone and Apple Watch in terms of health.

“We already do sensor fusion across some devices today, and I think there’s all kinds of potential here,” he said.

Scale AI CEO Alex Wang weighs in on software bugs and what will make AV tech good enough

Scale co-founder and CEO Alex Wang joined us at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility 2021 this week to discuss his company’s role in the autonomous driving industry and how it’s changed in the five years since its founding. Scale helps large and small AV players establish reliable “ground truth” through data annotation and management, and along the way, the standards for what that means have shifted as the industry matures.

Good data is the “good bones” of autonomous driving systems

Even if two algorithms in autonomous driving might be created more or less equal, their real-world performance could vary dramatically based on what they’re consuming in terms of input data. That’s where Scale’s value prop to the industry starts, and Wang explains why:

If you think about a traditional software system, the thing that will separate a good software system from a bad software system is the code, the quality of the code. For an AI system, which all of these self-driving vehicles or autonomous vehicles are, it’s the data that really separates an amazing algorithm from a bad algorithm. And so one thing we saw was that being one of the stewards and shepherds of high-quality data was going to be incredibly important for the industry, and that’s what’s played out. We work with many of the great companies in the space, from Aurora to Nuro to Toyota to General Motors, and our work with all of them is ensuring that they have really a solid data foundation, so they can build the rest of their stacks on top of it. (Time stamp: 06:24)

Rocket Lab to design two orbital spacecraft for NASA to study Mars

Rocket Lab is developing two spacecraft based on its Photon platform to orbit Mars, studying the planet’s magnetosphere in order to gain a better understanding of the ways in which Mars’ climate has changed over time. The science mission was awarded through NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, and will fly to Mars in 2024, aboard a yet-to-be-identified commercial lunch vehicle contracted by NASA as a rideshare rocket.

This is a noteworthy development for a few reasons, including that Rocket Lab will realize its earlier announced vision of using Photon as a platform for satellites that travel beyond Earth’s orbit. It’s also interesting because it will ostensibly mark the first decoupling of Rocket Lab’s launch and spacecraft services businesses.

Rocket Lab’s Photon is a satellite platform that includes the company’s Curie in-space propulsion system, and they’ll also be outfitted for this mission with star trackers and reaction wheels to make up a situational control system, as well as a deep space navigation system or way finding. The appeal of Photon is meant to be deep space exploration capability in a small, affordable and relatively low mass for launch package that could broaden access to interplanetary science for more organizations and institutions.

Next up for the Rocket Lab-supported Escapate mission that will use these two Mars-bound Photos is a design review in June, which will be followed up by a final confirmation review in July as a last check before the Photons are built, equipped and readied for their eventual flight.

How one founder is bringing the global corporate security industry out of the dark ages

When Cory Siskind finished school, she was dropped into a high-stakes job helping large multinational corporations manage their operational security in Mexico City, with almost no relevant lived experience. Eventually, she realized that this was more or less par for the course in the corporate security field, which lagged behind other mission-critical enterprise services, like information security.

The industry still relied on recent grads doing manual work like combing through blogs and local news reports, and on security industry veterans with contacts on the ground to build a sort of ‘whisper network’ of ground truth. Those things are obviously still valuable, but advancements in technology mean that there are many, many more sources of information that can provide valuable insight into the security situation in any particular country, region or even neighborhood, and machine learning has progressed to the point where it can do a lot of the legwork involved in helping analysts parse the data.

Cory tells us all about how she came to the conclusion that Base Operations needed to be built to bring modern tech to bear on the capabilities gap she saw in how companies manage their global security footprint, and how she set out getting the skills needed to build her startup as a sole founder. We talk about the challenges of fundraising in an area where most traditional VCs likely feel out of their depth, and building a sales operation that can handle big clients even very early on tin her startup’s life.

We loved our time chatting with Cory, and we hope love yours listening to the episode. And of course, we’d love if you can subscribe to Found in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Google Podcasts or in your podcast app of choice. Please leave us a review and let us know what you think, or send us direct feedback either on Twitter or via email. And please join us again next week for our next featured founder.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin auctions off seat on first human spaceflight for $28M

Blue Origin has its winning bidder for its first ever human spaceflight, and the winner will pay $28 million for the privilege of flying aboard the company’s debut private astronaut mission. The winning bid came in today during a live auction, which saw 7,600 registered bidders, from 159 countries compete for the spot.

This was the culmination of Blue Origin’s three part bidding process for the ticket, which included a blind auction first, followed by an open, asynchronous auction with the highest bid posted to the company’s website whenever it changed. This last live auction greatly ramped up the value of the winning bid, which was at just under $5 million prior to the event.

This first seat up for sale went for a lot more than what an actual, commercial spot is likely to cost on Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, which flies to suborbital space and only spends a few minutes there before returning to Earth. Estimates put the cost of a typical launch at someone under $1 million, likely closer to $500,000 or so. But this is the first, which is obviously a special distinction, and it’s also a trip that will allow the winning bidder to pretty much literally rub elbows with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who is going to be on the flight as well, along with his brother Mark, and a fourth passenger that Blue Origin says it will be announcing sometime in the coming “weeks,” ahead of the July 20 target flight date.

As for who won the auction, we’ll also have to wait to find that out, since the winner’s identity is also going to be “released in the weeks following” the end of today’s live bidding. And in case you thought that $28 million might represent a big revenue windfall for Blue Origin, which has spent years developing its human spaceflight capability, think again: The company is donating it to its Club for the Future non-profit foundation, which is focused on encouraging kids to pursue careers in STEM in a long-term bid to help Bezos’ larger goals of making humanity a spacefaring civilization.

You can re-watch the entire live bidding portion of the auction via the stream below.

Scale to launch a mapping product to address the changing needs of its autonomous driving customers

Solving the varied challenges that arise in autonomous driving is an incredibly complex task, but even attempting to get started means ensuring you have quality data that’s accurate and well-annotated. That’s where Scale comes in, having identified early on that the AV industry would require annotation of huge swaths of data, including specialized LiDAR imaging. Now, co-founder and CEO Alex Wang tells me at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 (ExtraCrunch subscription required) that it’s moving into mapping with a new product that’s coming later this month.

“Our role has continued to evolve,” Wang said, regarding how it works with its transportation industry partners, which include Toyota among many others. “You know, as we work with our customers, and we solved one problem for them around data and annotational data labeling, you know, it turns out they they come to us with other problems that we can then help solve as well around data management, we launched a product called Nucleus for that. A lot of our customers are thinking a lot about mapping, and how to deploy with more robust maps. So we’re built a product, I’m going to announce that probably later this month, but we’re helping to address that problem with our customers.”

Despite my prodding, Wang wouldn’t provide any specifics, but he did go into more detail about the challenges of mapping, and what’s lacking in existing maps available to companies working on integrating those with AV systems that include other signals, like sensor fusion and vehicle-to-infrastructure components.

“I think a big question for the overall space has been that historically, the industry has relied very, very heavily on mapping — we relied very, very heavily on very highquality, high definition maps,” he said. “The tricky thing about the world is that sometimes these maps are wrong, and how do you deal with that? […] How do you deal with kind of this challenge of robustness, or updates. Even, if you think about it, Google Maps, which is the best mapping infrastructure in the world, by a huge margin, you know they don’t update quickly enough for [human] drivers.”

Wang said that the challenge isn’t all that different from the one that Scale has been actively solving for most of its existence, which is that of the data flywheel. With autonomous driving, it’s of utmost importance to be able to collect and annotate data quickly and accurately, which results in ever better collection and annotation of future data, and more reliability for the assumptions the system is making about its environment.

“Figuring out how to deal with the real-time nature of how the world changes, is one really big, one really big component,” he said. While we still have to wait to see what exactly Scale has planned, it seems safe to assume that it’s all about building confidence in maps and mapping accuracy as a key ingredient in whatever they launch.

Virgin Orbit’s next launch at the end of June will be streamed live on YouTube

Virgin Orbit is getting great to launch its next mission to space, with a target window at the end of this month. This will be the first time Virgin Orbit is flying after its first successful orbital launch in January, and it’s carrying seven small satellites on behalf of clients including the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force. It’s also going to be the first time everyone can watch along live as Virgin Galactic makes the trip to space, since the company is streaming the mission via YouTube.

Previously, Virgin Orbit has opted not to provide live video of its flights, choosing instead to provide a feed of text updates via its social media channels. The YouTube stream should provide unprecedented views of the Virgin launch process, which includes transporting its small Launcher One rocket on to a high altitude for a mid-air launch from the wing of a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft.

Live streaming launches is pretty much de rigueur in the space industry at this point, especially among the crop of so-called ‘new space’ companies that includes SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Blue Origin. SpaceX has even been doing it throughout its Starship development process, which is unusual because it’s broadcast a number of failures on top of its successes.

Virgin Orbit’s novel aircraft-assisted launch process should mean its streams provide some unique perspective vs. the vertical take-off group, so it’s probably worth keeping an eye on this one.

Version One launches $70M Fund IV and $30M Opportunities Fund II

Early stage investor Version One, which consists of partners Boris Wertz and Angela Tran, has raised its fourth fund, as well as a second opportunity fund specifically dedicated to making follow-on investments. Fund IV pools $70 million from LPs to invest, and Opportunities Fund II is $30 million, both up from the $45 million Fund III and roughly $20 million original Opportunity Fund.

Version One is unveiling this new pool of capital after a very successful year for the firm, which is based in Vancouver and San Francisco. 2021 saw its first true blockbuster exit, with Coinbase’s IPO. The investor also saw big valuation boosts on paper for a number of its portfolio companies, including Ada (which raises at a $1.2 billion valuation in May); Dapper Labs (valued at $7.5 billion after riding the NFT wave); and Jobber (no valuation disclosed but raised a $60 million round in January).

I spoke to both Wertz and Tran about their run of good fortune, how they think the fund has achieved the wins it recorded thus far, and what Version One has planned for this Fund IV and its investment strategy going forward.

“We have this pretty broad focus of mission-driven founders, and not necessarily just investing in SaaS, or just investing in marketplaces, or crypto,” Wertz said regarding their focus. “We obviously love staying early — pre-seed and seed — we’re really the investors that love investing in people, not necessarily in existing traction and numbers. We love being contrarian, both in terms of the verticals we go in to, and and the entrepreneurs we back; we’re happy to be backing first-time entrepreneurs that nobody else has ever backed.”

In speaking to different startups that Version One has backed over the years, I’ve always been struck by how connected the founders seem to the firm and both Wertz and Tran — even much later in the startups’ maturation. Tran said that one of their advantages is following the journey of their entrepreneurs, across both good times and bad.

“We get to learn,” she said. “It’s so cool to watch these companies scale […] we get to see how these companies grow, because we stick with them. Even the smallest things we’re just constantly thinking about— we’re constantly thinking about Laura [Behrens Wu] at Shippo, we’re constantly thinking about Mike [Murchison] and David [Hariri] at Ada, even though it’s getting harder to really help them move the needle on their business.”

Wertz also discussed the knack Version One seems to have for getting into a hot investment area early, anticipating hype cycles when many other firms are still reticent.

“We we went into crypto early in 2016, when most people didn’t really believe in crypto,” he said. “We started investing pretty aggressively in in climate last year, when nobody was really invested in climate tech. Having a conviction in in a few areas, as well as the type of entrepreneurs that nobody else really has conviction is what really makes these returns possible.”

Since climate tech is a relatively new focus for Version One, I asked Wertz about why they’re betting on it now, and why this is not just another green bubble like the one we saw around the end of the first decade of the 2000s.

“First of all, we deeply care about it,” he said. Secondly, we think there is obviously a new urgency needed for technology to jump into to what is probably one of the biggest problems of humankind. Thirdly, is that the clean tech boom has put a lot of infrastructure into the ground. It really drove down the cost of the infrastructure, and the hardware, of electric cars, of batteries in general, of solar and renewable energies in general. And so now it feels like there’s more opportunity to actually build a more sophisticated application layer on top of it.”

Tran added that Version One also made its existing climate bet at what she sees as a crucial inflection point — effectively at the height of the pandemic, when most were focused on healthcare crises instead of other imminent existential threats.

I also asked her about the new Opportunity Fund, and how that fits in with the early stage focus and their overall functional approach.

“It doesn’t require much change in the way we operate, because we’re not doing any net new investments,” Tran said. “So we recognize we’re not growth investors, or Series A/Series B investors that need to have a different lens in the way that they evaluate companies. For us, we just say we want to double down on these companies. We have such close relationships with them, we know what the opportunities are. It’s almost like we have information arbitrage.”

That works well for all involved, including LPs, because Tran said that it’s appealing to them to be able to invest more in companies doing well without having to build a new direct relationship with target companies, or doing something like creating an SPV designated for the purpose, which is costly and time-consuming.

Looking forward to what’s going to change with this fund and their investment approach, Wertz points to a broadened international focus made possible by the increasingly distributed nature of the tech industry following the pandemic.

“I think that the thing that probably will change the most is just much more international investing in this one, and I think it’s just direct result of the pandemic and Zoom investing, that suddenly the pipeline has opened up,” he said.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot about ourselves over the past year and a half,” Tran added. “I mean, we’ve always been distributed, […] and being remote was one of our advantages. So we certainly benefited and we didn’t have to adjust our working style too much, right. But now everyone’s working like this, […] so it’s going to be fun to see what advantage we come up with next.”

Jeff Bezos and his brother will fly on Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight with auction winner

Jeff Bezos is going to be one of the passengers on his spaceflight company Blue Origin’s first ever human space launch on July 20. The Amazon founder announced the news via his Instagram on Monday morning, revealing that his brother Mark will also be coming along for the ride. Bezos and his brother will join the winner of an online auction Blue Origin is currently hosting, which currently stands at $2.8 million as the highest bid for that seat.

The Blue Origin launch of its suborbital, reusable New Shepard rocket on July 20 will be the first time it has ever flown with people on board. It’s unusual for a company to make its first ever human spaceflight a mission with a paying passenger, and now we know that it’s also going to be carrying one of the world’s richest people, another bold choice for a first human flight. Virgin Galactic, by contrast, has flown to space multiple times with test pilots and astronauts before its forthcoming trip with Sir Richard Branson.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard has flown plenty of times without people, however, and save for the first flight where the reusable booster was lost, has had a complete success for each of those 15 missions, including landing of the booster (except that first time) and recovery of the capsule (for all of the launches). The New Shepard rocket doesn’t go all the way to orbit, but instead flies to the edge of space, where passengers experience a few minutes of weightlessness and an unbeatable view of Earth through the capsules many windows, before returning to a parachute-assisted landing on the ground in Texas near Blue Origin’s launch site.

The auction for Blue Origin’s first paying customer seat currently sits at $2.8 million, and it’s been there for a while now after the price raised from $1.4 million when Blue Origin opened unsealed bidding on May 19. The final phase of the auction, set for June 12, will include live online bidding from remaining participants who bump their existing bid to match the high offer.

Virgin Galactic to fly Kellie Gerardi to space on a dedicated research mission

Virgin Galactic has a new customer: The International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), which will be flying researcher, citizen scientist and STEM influencer Kellie Gerardi on an upcoming dedicated Virgin Galactic launch. Gerardi will be conducing a range of experiments on her flight, focused on researching healthcare technologies including a new biomonitor system to study the effects of spaceflights on astronauts in real time.

Gerardi has flown on multiple previous parabolic research flights, which are high-altitude aircraft flights that simulate the reduced gravity environment of space. This will be her first trip to space proper, however, and that transition exemplifies the benefits Virgin Galactic hopes to be able to offer to researchers who previously conducted their work in simulated zero-G conditions.

Kellie Gerardi

Image Credits: Kellie Gerardi

The biomonitor system that Gerardi will be testing was developed by Canadian startup Hexoskin along with the Canadian Space Agency, and is a wearable array of sensors dubbed ‘Astroskin’ that’s intended to provide monitoring of the impact of launch, reduced gravity, re-entry and landing for those making trips to space. Another experiment Gerardi will perform will test fluid dynamics to inform the design of humidifiers and syringes designed for use in space.

Virgin Galactic has booked similar missions previously, including a dedicated flight for scientist Alan Stern, who will be performing experiments on behalf of NASA and the Southwest Research Institute. Much of the attention on the company has focused on its space tourism flights for paying private astronauts, but the potential for commercial research is another key ingredient in its overall business mix.