Watch biotech startups pitch at IndieBio’s demo day today

7 months, 11 days ago

IndieBio, the biotech startup accelerator that’s produced heaps of notable companies (including several that have graced the Startup Battlefield), is holding its twice-annual demo day today at 3PM Pacific Time. An even dozen young companies will be pitching their work, from AI-informed research to artificial meat, and you can watch them present live right here.

The IndieBio program is a four-month one that takes companies at the seed stage, often researchers straight out of graduate programs or university research groups, and gets them into shape for a proper Silicon Valley debut. Right now the companies get $250K in funding to take part, as well as plenty of resources, which parent VC firm SOSV can surely afford these days, what with raising $150 million last year.

Off the top of my head I remember two companies that competed at Disrupt SF 2016, Amaryllis Nucleics and mFluiDx, both very technical and highly talented teams. I’m always rooting for these kinds of wet lab companies, and it sounds like the current batch has plenty.

Watch the live pitches starting at 3PM below, and consult the list below the video for a summary of the companies presenting. We’ll be watching too!

New Age Meats: Pig farms are hell on earth. New Age Meats is a “cell-based meat company” that’s looking to replace animal-based pork sausage with a cleaner, more ethical grown alternative that goes just as well with pancakes.

NovoNutrients: Another non-traditional protein source, NovoNutrients uses industrial CO2 emissions to produce high-protein bacteria, which are harvested and sold as sustainable feed stock for aquaculture animals like fish.

BioRosa: An early detection method for autism spectrum disorders using blood tests that could shift diagnosis time to well before the current four years of age to potentially before the child is born.

Chronus Health: Hospitals need to do blood tests constantly, but often have to send samples to a central lab, which can take hours or days. Chronus has made a portable device they claim can provide complete blood count and metabolic panel tests essentially in real time.

Clinicai: Colorectal cancer, like other cancers, is best treated when detected early — and collecting and analyzing stool samples is a big part of that. These guys made a (prototype) device that attaches to ordinary toilets and non-invasively does what it needs to do, which could help people worldwide get proactive diagnosis and care.

Convalesce: Parkinson’s is a stubborn and tragic disease, but Convalesce is working on a treatment method involving injecting stem cells directly into areas affected by neurodegeneration.

Oralta: You can floss, brush, and rinse, but bad news bacteria are still going to take up residence in your mouth. Oralta hopes to combat them with good bacteria, reinforced by probiotic supplements. Fight fire with fire!

Ember: If someone is having a heart attack and it’ll take the EMTs 8-12 minutes to arrive, but your neighbor is a nurse trained in CPR, wouldn’t it be nice if they could stop by and help? That’s the idea with Ember, which hopes to improve outcomes by connecting patients with health professionals nearby.

Filtricine: The cancer treatment method being pursued by this company, instead of adding something lethal to cancer cells into the bloodstream, subtracts what they need to live while leaving normal cells unharmed. It could combine effectiveness with a blessed lack of side effects to become another tool in oncologists’ arsenals.

Serenity Bioworks: Gene therapy is another important therapeutic tool for a variety of problems, but some viral delivery methods can be fought by the body as if it’s fighting infection. Serenity is working on a system that suppresses that immune response and allows the friendly virus to deliver its payload.

Quartolio: So much scientific literature is published every year that there’s no way doctors and researchers can keep up. Quartolio aims to apply national language processing to journal articles to find connections and research opportunities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Stämm: Bioreactors are used in practically every branch of biotech, whether for testing or drug manufacturing. Stämm is advancing the art with a modular, scalable microfluidic platform with highly tunable physical and chemical parameters.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 review

10 months, 5 days ago

IDC’s latest tablet numbers tell a familiar story. Shipments are down yet again, a trend that shows no sign of abating. There is, however, one clear bright spot in all of this, bucking the trend.

Quarter after quarter, convertibles have continued to grow, as users have demanded more productivity than is traditionally possible with slates. It’s no surprise, then, that Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung are all vying for mindshare. The convertible segment may still be small, but at least it’s moving in the right direction.

Samsung’s shifted approaches a number of times over the years. Say what you will about the company’s approach to devices, but at least the company’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink model has allowed them to stay limber for such a hulking hardware behemoth. The Galaxy Tab S4 simultaneously finds the company building on existing technology, while attempting to reinvent the wheel in the process.

The Tab S4 isn’t a radical departure from its predecessor, save for one key thing: DeX. The brand, which previously referred to smartphone docking stations for Galaxy handsets, is now the name of the custom desktop version of Android Samsung built. The change clearly hasn’t fully taken, however — Samsung’s official DeX site has yet to reflect the move as of this writing. But, then, the company’s clearly been busy these past few weeks.

Porting it over to the tablet means the company can offer a device that’s capable of doing double duty as both a standard slate tablet and a makeshift laptop. It’s also a roundabout of way of not relying on Windows 10 on the Galaxy line. After all, the ability to switch modes has long been the operating system’s raison d’être, so this really feels like a thumb in the eye of Microsoft. Given the recent well-received launch of the Surface Go, however, I suspect the company’s not really sweating the slight.

I didn’t get a great justification from Samsung as to the motivation behind the move ahead of launch. I suspect the whole thing boils down to control — something you’re afforded a lot more of when you work with Android vs. Windows. There’s also the fact that Windows 10 doesn’t have nearly the selection of apps you get with Android — definitely a major factor if you’re working with the more locked down/tablet-friendly 10 S.

DeX in effect

The result is something of a mixed bag. I will say that the DeX layout looks better on the 10.5-inch display, rather than the big, curved DeX docking monitor, where the Android icons feel entirely out of place.

For the most part, the DeX version of Android operates the same as the standard tablet version, allbeit with smaller icons. The desktop features three by default: My Files, Gallery and Settings. With the latter, you can adjust the DeX settings, so the OS automatically switches to the mode when you plug the tablet into the keyboard dock (though not the other way around, oddly).

I’d prefer it if the DeX settings were more easily accessible in the drop down menu, but one gets the impression that Samsung’s still working out some of the kinks on this one. Also, while it’s possible to get it to auto switch, the tablet screen always switches off when removed from the dock. A slight nuisance, but not the end of the world.

The biggest nuisance is, predictably, the same issue you run into on ChromeOS ever since Google allowed Play Store access. There simply aren’t that many apps optimized for the mode. You can access them through the Apps for Samsung Desk header located in the familiar Android apps menu. The company didn’t disclose the number of compatible apps for good reason. There are like 16. On the upside, the company teamed with Microsoft for Word/PowerPoint/Excel — all important inclusions when you’re pushing productivity on your shiny new device.

There are some other big names here, like Amazon WorksSpaces and The New York Times. There’s also Deezer, which seems to be eager to get on any operating system that will have them, bless their hearts. There’s also TripAdvisor and Craigslist, neither of which I would honestly put on my list of must-need desktop apps.

The main issue with the unoptimized apps is scalability — and the fact that they’re not designed to work well with the mouse input (which is, admittedly, optional). They do run, but opening them to full screen size requires restarting the app every time. One assumes, however, that more companies will get on board if the new Tab proves a hit for the company.

I’m not really convinced that DeX was the right choice over Android here, but at the very least, it gives the company room to grow on that side of things. It also offers an important differentiator over the iPad Pro, which has introduced some desktop-like functionality, but still relies on standard iOS. Apple’s been wary to blur the lines between desktop and laptop too much, relinquishing the upper hand to Samsung here.

Just in case

Here’s a bit of a shocking admission: I actually kind of like the keyboard case. I didn’t expect to. I don’t really ever like keyboard cases. They’re one of the bigger barriers between me and the possibility of ever taking convertibles too seriously as a potential laptop replacement. The keys on the S4 are plasticky, sure, but I prefer them to the standard keyboard case found on products like the Surface Go, which basically feels like typing on felt.

That said, there’s really no getting around how cramped the keyboard is, when designed for a 10-inch tablet. I considered pulling the Tab out for meetings multiple times this week, but ultimately thought better of it. I’m sure I’d be able to ramp up my speed given enough time with the system, but it ultimately wasn’t worth the potential of missing some important points, as my fingers struggled to keep up.

The lack of a trackpad feels like a glaring omission. Granted, it’s not exactly standard on keyboard cases these days, but Microsoft certainly demonstrated that it’s possible on a small scale with the Surface Go. And given the prominence of desktop mode here, one expects to be using the cursor as much as touch here. You can always use the S-Pen or buy a bluetooth mouse, but it seems a shame to have to add that cost on top of the keyboard case’s $149 asking price.

Bonus points, however, for including an S-Pen slot in the keyboard case for those of us who would lose our heads if they weren’t attached. The magnetic Microsoft pen that sticks to the side of the Surface is still the one to beat, but the holster does the trick, too.

All work, no play?

I remain skeptical as ever that convertibles will serve as a sufficient replacement for both laptop and tablet. I’m certainly not in a rush to put my MacBook out to pasture. That said, the devices provide a nice supplemental function for those who don’t want to port their heavier PCs around.

The $649 Tab S4 certainly has solid specs, with 4GB of RAM and up to 256GB of storage (augmented via microSD). The 7,300mAh battery can’t compete with the iPad Pro’s 8,134, but it should get you through a day’s use, no problem. The screen is solid for movie playback, and ditto for those AKG-tuned speakers.

I liked the keyboard more than I thought I would, as well, though it’s a bit cramped and using a keyboard without a trackpad feels like relying on a phantom limb. The DeX desktop, meanwhile, is an interesting addition to the tightening convertible tablet race, though it’s got a ways to go before it feels as fully fleshed out Windows 10.

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Hands on with the Echo Dots Kids Edition

11 months, 12 days ago

Earlier this year, Amazon introduced an Echo Dot for kids, with its $80 Echo Dot Kids Edition device, which comes in your choice of a red, blue, or green protective case. The idea is to market a version of Amazon’s existing Dot hardware to families by bundling it with an existing subscription service, and by throwing in a few extra features – like having Alexa encourage kids to say “please” when making their demands, for example.

The device makes sense in a couple of scenarios – for helicopter parents who want to fully lock down an Echo device before putting it in a kid’s room, and for those who were in the market for a FreeTime Unlimited subscription anyway.

I’ve been testing out an Echo Dot Kids Edition, and ran into some challenges which I thought I’d share. This is not a hardware review – I’m sure you can find those elsewhere. 

Music Filtering

As a parent of an 8-year old myself, I’ve realized it’s too difficult to keep her from ever hearing bad words – especially in music, TV and movies – so I’ve just explained to her that while she will sometimes hear those words, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to say them. (We have a similar rule about art – sometimes people will be nude in paintings, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to walk around naked all the time.)

Surprisingly, I’ve been able to establish a level of shame around adult and inappropriate content to the point that she will confess to me when she hears it on places like YouTube. She will even turn it off without my instruction! I have a good kid, I guess.

But I understand some parents will only want kids to access the sanitized version of songs – especially if their children are still in the preschool years, or have a tendency to seek out explicit content because they’re little monsters.

Amazon FreeTime would be a good option in that case, but there are some caveats.

For starters, if you plan on using the explicit language filter on songs the Echo Dot plays, then you’re stuck with Amazon Music. While the Echo Dot itself can play music from a variety of services, including on-demand offerings from Pandora and Spotify, you can’t use these services when the explicit filter is enabled as “music services that do not support this filter will be blocked,” Amazon explains.

We’re a Spotify household, so that means my child’s favorite bedtime music playlist became unavailable when we swapped out her existing Echo Dot for the Kids Edition which had the explicit filter enabled.

Above: Parent Dashboard? Where? Maybe a link would help?

You can disable the explicit filter from the Parent Dashboard, but this option is inconveniently available just via the web. When you dig around in the Alexa app – which is where you’d think these controls would be found, there’s only a FreeTime On/Off toggle switch and instructions to “Go to the Parent Dashboard to see activity, manage time limits, and add content.”

It’s not even hyperlinked!

You have to just know the dashboard’s URL is (And not, by the way. That doesn’t work.)

Then to actually disable the filter, it’s several more steps.

You’ll click the gear icon next to the child’s name, click on “Echo Dot Kids Edition” under “Alexa Settings,” then click “Manage Music.” Here, you can turn the switch on or off.

If you don’t have a subscription music service, the Echo Dot Kids Edition also ships with access to ad-free kid-safe stations on iHeartRadio Family.

Whitelisting Alexa skills…well, some skills!

Another issue with the way FreeTime works with Alexa, is that it’s not clear that nearly everything your child accesses on the device has to be whitelisted.

This leads to a confusing first-time user workflow.

Likely, you’ll start by browsing in the Alexa app’s Skills section or the Skills Store on the web to find some appropriate kid-friendly skills for your child to try. For example, I found and enabled a skill called “Math Facts – Math Practice for Kids.”

But when I instructed “Alexa, open Math Facts,” she responded, “I can’t do that.”

She didn’t say why.

As I hadn’t used FreeTime in quite a while, it didn’t occur to me that each Alexa skill would have to be toggled on – just like the third-party apps, videos, books and audiobooks the child has access to that didn’t ship with FreeTime Unlimited itself.

Instead, I mistakenly assumed that skills from the “Kids” section of the Skills store would just work.

Again, you’ll have to know to go to to toggle things on.

And again, the process for doing so is too many clicks deep in the user interface to be immediately obvious to newcomers. (You click the gear by the kid’s name, then “Add Content” – not “Echo Dot Kids Edition” as you might think! Then, on the “Add Content” screen, click over to the “Alexa Skills” tab and toggle on the skills you want the child to use.)

The issue with this system is that it prevents Echo Dot Kids Edition users – kids and adults alike – from discovering and enabling skills by voice. And it adds an unnecessary step by forcing parents to toggle skills on.

After all, if the parents are the ones signing in when visiting the Skills store in-app or on the web, that means they’re the ones choosing to enable the Skills, too.

And if they’re enabling a skill from Kids section, one would assume it’s for their kids to use on their device!

The problem, largely, is that FreeTime isn’t really integrated with the Alexa app. All of this – from explicit content filters to whitelisting skills to turning on or off calling, messaging and drop-ins – should be managed from within the Alexa app, not from a separate website.

Amazon obviously did minimal integration work in order to sell parents a pricier Echo Dot.

To make matters more confusing is the fact that Amazon has partnered with some kids skill publishers, similar to how it partnered with other content providers for apps and movies. That means there’s a list of skills that don’t appear in your Parent Dashboard that also don’t require whitelisting.

This includes: Disney Stories, Loud House Challenge, No Way That’s True, Funny Fill In, Spongebob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, Word world, Ben ten, Classroom thirteen, Batman Adventures, and Climb the Beanstalk.

But it’s confusing that you can immediately use these skills, and not others clearly meant for kids. You end up feeling like you did something wrong when some skills don’t work, before you figure out this whole whitelisting system.

In addition, it’s not clear that these “Premium” skills come with the FreeTime subscription – most are not available in the Skills store. If your FreeTime subscription expires, it seems you’ll lose access to these, as well.

Overall, the FreeTime experience for Echo feels disjointed, and there’s a steep learning curve for new users.

Your FreeTime Unlimited 1-year Subscription

It’s also frustrating that there’s no information on the FreeTime Parents dashboard about the nature of your subscription.

You can’t confirm that you’re currently subscribed to the paid product known as FreeTime Unlimited. You can’t see when that subscription expires, or when your first free year is up. It’s unclear if you’ll just be charged, or when that will take place. And there’s no toggle to turn the subscription off if you decide you no longer need it.

Instead, you can only “modify” which credit card you use with Amazon’s 1-click. Seriously. That’s it.

Above: want to manage your subscription?

Below: hahaha, good luck with that!

I still don’t know where to turn this subscription off – I guess the option to disable it doesn’t even appear until your free year is up? (Even clicking on “FreeTime Unlimited” from’s subscription management page routes you back to this useless Parent dashboard page for managing your 1-Click settings.)

So, ask me in a year, maybe?

That said, if you are in the market for both a FreeTime Unlimited subscription and an Echo Dot, you may as well buy the Kids Edition.

FreeTime Unlimited works on Fire tablets, Android devices, Kindle, and as of this month, iOS devices, providing access to over 15,000 kid-safe apps, games, videos, books and educational content. On Amazon devices, parents can also set screen time limits and educational goals.

The service by itself is $2.99 per month for Prime members (for one profile) or $4.99 per month for non-members. It’s more if you buy the Family subscription. Meanwhile, the regular 2nd gen Echo Dot is currently $49.99. So you’re basically looking at $50 + $36/year for FreeTime Unlimited if you bought these things separately as a Prime member.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition comes with one year of FreeTime Unlimited and is $79.99. So you’re saving a tiny bit there. Plus, you can always turn FreeTime off on the device, if you’d rather just use the kids Echo Dot as a regular Echo Dot – while still getting a free year of FreeTime for another device, like the kid’s iPad.

Still, watch out because Echo Dot often goes on sale – and probably will be on sale again for Prime Day this summer. Depending on the price cut it gets, it may not be worth it to buy the bundle.

Other Perks

There are other perks that Amazon tries to use to sell the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families, but the most notable is “Magic Word.”

This feature turns on when FreeTime is enabled, and thanks kids for saying “please” when they speak to Alexa. Yes, that seems like a small thing but it was something that a lot of parents were upset about. They thought kids were learning bad manners by barking commands at Alexa.

I don’t know about that. My kid seems to understand that we say “please” and “thank you” to people, but Alexa doesn’t get her feelings hurt by being told to “play Taylor Swift.” But to each their own!

This feature will thrill some parents, I’m sure.

Parents can also use FreeTime to pause the device or configure a bedtime so kids don’t stay up talking to Alexa, but honestly, LET ‘EM.

It’s far better than when they stall bedtime by badgering you for that extra glass of water, one more blanket, turn on that light, now crack the door…a little more…a little less…Honestly, escaping the kid’s room at bedtime is an art form.

If Alexa can keep them busy and less afraid of the dark, I’m calling it a win.

FreeTime with the Echo Dot Kids Edition also lets you set up “Character Alarms” – meaning, kids can configure Alexa to wake them up with an alarm click featuring characters from brands like Disney and Nickelodeon.

This is hilarious to me.

Because if you have a kid in the preschool to tween age range who actually requires an alarm clock to wake up in the morning instead of getting up at the crack of dawn (or maybe one who has gone through years of training so they DON’T ALSO WAKE YOU UP AT THE CRACK OF DAWN OH MY GOD) – then, I guess, um, enjoy character alarms?

I’m sorry, let me stop laughing….Hold on.

I’m sure somebody needs this.

Sorry for laughing. But please explain how you’ve taught your children to sleep in? Do they go to bed at a decent hour too? No seriously, email me. I have no idea.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition can also work as a household intercom, but so do regular Echo devices.

You can turn off voice purchasing on the Kids Edition, but you can do that on regular devices, too (despite what Amazon’s comparison chart says.)

Plus, kids can now control smart home devices with the Echo Dot Kids Edition – a feature that shamefully wasn’t available at launch, but is now.

And that cute protective case? Well, a regular Echo Dot is actually pretty sturdy. We’ve dropped ours probably a dozen times from dresser to floor (uncarpeted!) with no issues.

I like how Amazon tries to sell the case, though:

I guess if your kid plans to do CHEMISTRY EXPERIMENTS by the Echo Dot, you may need this.

In reality, the case is just cute – and can help the Echo better match the kid’s room.

The Echo Kids Edition, overall, is not a must-have device. You’ll have more flexibility with a regular Echo and a little old-school parenting.

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I would happily ditch the selfie camera for a full-screen phone

1 year, 16 days ago

Once a month or so, I’m reminded that my phone has a front-facing camera when I accidentally hit the toggle button, only to be greeted with a closeup image of my own, dumb face.

Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I used the thing — not intentionally, at least. I tried scrolling through my camera roll to locate the precise moment in which I felt compelled to take a selfie, but ultimately ended up getting tired of the exercise, giving up some time around May of last year.

I have no use for the front-facing camera. I don’t know, maybe I’m in the minority on this one, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Every time I see another phone with another notch or hear stories about companies frantically pushing for some workaround, I quietly wonder what it would be like to live in a world where that wasn’t an issue, because there was no camera getting in the way of that precious screen real estate.

I realize for most mainstream manufacturers, this is probably just a pipe dream. Too many companies have invested too much in the technology to make it appear unnecessary. In recent years, the device has taken on an importance beyond the selfie, including, most notably, the big push by Apple, Samsung and countless Android manufacturers to add face unlock.

There are the proprietary apps like FaceTime and Animoji and a powerful lobby of third-party social media companies that rely on the inclusion of as many cameras as humanly possible on a mobile device. I suppose I fall out of that target demographic. I don’t Snapchat or FaceTime, and when the Google app changed from Hangouts to Meet and I suddenly saw video of myself staring back, again, total freak-out.

Perhaps it’s best left to some smaller manufacturer looking to distinguish themselves from a million other Android manufacturers. Someone out there could be the first to go truly full screen, without a silly gimmick like the Vivo’s pop-up, or whatever eight million patents Essential has filed over the past couple of years. Full screen, without the inherent vanity of that unblinking eye staring back at you.

I’m not saying its enough for one company to get me to switch over, but it’s 2018 and 90 percent of smartphones look virtually identical. Why not at least give the consumer the ability to opt out, at least until phone manufacturers solve the notch?  

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