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Ava launches a wearable to help couples conceive


Tracking your period, peeing on a stick and carrying around a thermometer have been the dominant technologies over the past 20 years to help families conceive. If it sounds outdated, that’s because it is.

TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield alum Ava is hoping to change that with a wearable that helps couples pinpoint when a woman is in her fertile window and the time is right to conceive a child. The company is today announcing a $2.6 million investment to help bring their wearable to market.

But does it actually work?

Ava points to a clinical trial conducted at the University Hospital of Zurich with a group of 41 healthy women with ages ranging from 20-40. The women had no infertility indications and were not participating in any hormonal treatment. Women were followed for one year, giving the team approximately 180 menstrual cycles to observe.

Ava’s fertility tracker looks for the gradual rise in estradiol levels at the beginning of the fertile window that signal the body is preparing for ovulation, and the rise in progesterone levels a few days to a week or so later that signify ovulation is complete.

Hormones urinary LH and estrogen-3-glucuronide (metabolite of estrogen) were tracked along with physiological parameters, including bioimpedance (an approximation for body fat), pulse rate, breathing rate, sleep, movement, heart rate variability, skin temperature, heat loss and perfusion(the movement of blood from capillaries into tissue).

Ava’s fertility tracking bracelet is worn only while a woman is sleeping and automatically collects these data points and uses them to predict her fertile window. The results of the Zurich study show that the Ava device detects an average of 5.3 fertile days per cycle with 89 percent accuracy.

While dated technologies like temperature and period tracking have been shown to be effective methods, Ava’s bracelet and mobile app approach could resonate with the Fitbit generation. It also serve to eliminate issues of human error — measuring temperature incorrectly or just forgetting to track at all.

The Ava fertility tracker also was recently approved as a Class One medical device by the FDA. In the future, Ava will look to complete trials with women with fertility issues, such as PCOS — polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Ava’s target market is generally women 30 and above who have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child for a few cycles, but haven’t yet hit the magic one year mark that typically warrants a visit to the OB and/or Reproductive Medicine physician. The company has also received interest from women in their 20s and 30s who are not trying to conceive, but are currently focused on the fertility space.

In November 2015, the company announced that they had raised a $2.6 million venture round led by Swisscom and ZKB. The Ava fertility tracking bracelet has been available for pre-order since last fall, but today, the product is ready to ship and is available for $199.

Ava - 08

We’re thrilled to share another Startup Battlefield success story with the launch of Ava, and can’t wait to see what the next batch of Battlefield participants has in store for us at Disrupt SF 2016, which takes place September 12-14 at San Francisco’s Pier 48.

Tickets to Disrupt SF 2016 are still available; get your hands on tickets here.

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What Peter Thiel doesn’t understand about US innovation


The don of the PayPal mafia gave a Trump-esque plea to make innovation great again last week at the Republican National Convention.

Thiel sees the American government locking down innovation and keeping it out of the hands of the American everyman. Instead of innovation for all, he described a dystopian world of governmental incompetence and stifled innovation. But Thiel is wrong. Our government is more innovative now than it has ever been, and inventiveness is on the rise.

Peter Thiel grew up in a time when the United States was winning World’s Fairs and conquering outer-space. To Thiel, innovation is about the freedom to dream, and anything short is a disappointment. He assured the crowd at the RNC that Trump would lead America toward a “bright future,” but the reality is that his vision of technology is a romanticized relic, a nostalgic memory of a kid in front of a TV set watching the Jetsons.

“In 1968, the world’s high tech capital wasn’t just one city,” Thiel told the crowd at the RNC, citing exploration of Mars as an area where government has fallen behind. “All of America was high tech. It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech too.”

Thiel’s narrative is a potent one for those left out of the Silicon Valley gold rush. But Americans should be confident in technology. 90 percent of US states have seen an increase in patent output per capita since Thiel’s ideal benchmark of 1968. Thiel himself has profited off investments in companies that wouldn’t exist if not for government contracts and subsidies.

Thiel fetishized the 1960s in his speech while ignoring the immense progress that has been made in years sense. “Opportunity was everywhere, my dad studied engineering at Case Western Reserve University just down the road from where we are now.”

The America of today is building pocket sized satellites, creating spider silk, and designing autonomous vehicles. Since 1968, every state but five has increased its patent output per capita.


Patents Issued Per 100k 1968-2015

Created by John Mannes using data from the USPTO and the US Census

Even though Thiel credits Silicon Valley as a leader of invention, California doesn’t lead the pack when it comes to patents — Washington state, home of Amazon, is number one. While states that have seen the greatest increases in output efficiency are weighted towards the West Coast, states like Minnesota in the mid-west and New Hampshire in the north-east are surprisingly not far behind.

Of course, not every patent gets spun up into an invention, and the patent system itself is in need of reform. But university research spending is up, our universities are more diverse, VC investment is up, and public-private partnerships are all the rage.

T1eTvB0WToday’s realities of global warning and a failing healthcare system don’t reward the superfluous inventions that inspired us in the Jetsons. Why bankroll apartments that soar above the clouds when we may not have clouds in a few centuries. Thiel himself has been chastised for his similar grandiose visions of offshore sea colonies. Thiel is making a Jetsons appeal to a world fearing a Wall-E reality. But just because innovation means solving dirty problems — it’s not just landing a rocket on the moon— doesn’t mean that incredible things are not happening.

When Thiel discredits the startup scenes in Austin, Denver, and Detroit, he is alienating the same folks he hopes to help. There are a lot of places in America that don’t look like Silicon Valley, but the solution isn’t to force them to look like Silicon Valley. Thiel is trapped inside the very Silicon Valley bubble he claims to have escaped.

While the “hacker” mindset may be limited to a minority of Americans, tech hacks of the last five decades have touched every soul. Most of us have internet access and a smart phone to conduct business. A subscription to Amazon Web Services is a click away. Inventions have allowed US real GDP per capita to double since 1968.

Americans universally hate their government and Thiel was happy to fill the role of roaster at the RNC. “The future felt limitless, but today, our government is broken,” said Thiel. “Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say that the government software works poorly, because most of the time it doesn’t even work at all.”

Public sector adoption of technology has lagged well behind the private sector, but labeling government as broken is nothing more than a platitude. Not only has the Obama administration taken huge strides in its creation of the US Digital Service, the administration has taken a stab at growing Silicon Valley hustle in a city of bureaucrats with 18F. For the first time in history, our government is hosting hackathons, utilizing accelerators, and leveraging open-source technology.

Interestingly, our society appears to no longer champion progress nationalistically. Rather than chanting “USA” for every tech unicorn born, corporations and founders are idealized. Notably, Steve Jobs has been responsible for not one but four movies in the last three years. We are all due for a reminder of just what the US is capable of in a script that doesn’t involve Jason Bourne or Edward Snowden.

Today we have a US Chief Technology Officer and a US Chief Data Scientist. Open-data has powered countless municipal data projects. In New York City, shops can retrieve pedestrian foot-traffic data right from their government. We have a long way to go, but in 1968, interacting with your government meant taking out a pen and paper, licking an envelope, and hoping for the best.

Our government has taken an activist stance on fostering innovation, and Thiel’s projects have benefited from it. Thiel’s own Founders Fund has bankrolled SpaceX, a company whose success has critically depended on government support. SpaceX received a $20 million tax break to construct a launch facility in Texas. The $5.5 billion worth of government contracts that SpaceX has easily dwarf Thiel’s own contribution. To date, SpaceX has raised $1.25 billion from Founders Fund and others.

It’s slightly ironic that Thiel would make such a claim about government software given that he himself is in the business of selling software to the government. Thiel founded Palantir back in 2004 to help the government, especially intelligence communities, make sense of big data.  It would be foolish to argue that the public sector has been as innovative as the private sector over the last 47 years, but arguing that government is less innovative than 1968 is ill-founded.

But heck if we want to play the anecdote game, the US spent millions building a flying saucer in the 1950s that couldn’t fly higher than three feet. Rain issues aside, even the F-35 can beat that.

Featured Image: Buyenlarge / Contributor/Getty Images (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

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Lifting children’s economic prospects through technology


In March 2016, Forbes reported there were 159 technology billionaires, and four of the 10 richest people in the world made their money in the tech sector. We believe there are opportunities for these technology developers to play a differential role in philanthropy — one that brings together their ability to invest wisely and their acumen for using technology to change the world.

Which types of technology-enabled interventions and tools most help to support healthy development and are worth big philanthropic bets is the subject of our latest research. We are advocating for targeted investments of $1 billion that can have profound social impacts — in this case, boosting early childhood education (ECE) to bolster upward mobility. From our research, early returns on some ECE tech-supported programs are promising, and the need for such solutions clear.

The early childhood development crisis facing the United States

Nationwide, 5.8 million children, from birth to age five, are not on track to succeed when they begin kindergarten. Put another way, in any given year, 1 million low-income five-year-olds are not fully ready when they arrive at kindergarten. They lack the cognitive skills, physical development and social and emotional maturity to succeed in a formal learning environment. Many come from English learner households and lack fluency in their language of instruction, and fall short on literacy, which impacts learning mindsets.

Starting from behind makes it much harder to catch up. Children who enter kindergarten developmentally ready are significantly more likely to master basic skills by the third grade than those who are not school ready (82 percent versus 45 percent). This is the beginning of a yawning outcome gap over a lifetime. Performing at grade level by the third grade makes it more likely that the child will go on to graduate from high school.

While socioeconomic status is the primary determinant of a child’s kindergarten readiness, race and ethnicity compound a low-income child’s disadvantage. The two groups facing the greatest disadvantages in math and reading are black students and Hispanic English language learners, where differences in cultural perception can affect how parents and teachers view a child’s social and emotional skills.

How technology can improve early childhood outcomes

There are significant bodies of research that tell us a great deal about what it takes to ensure that a child is ready for kindergarten. Children from birth to age five should have positive, caring interactions and relationships with the adults in their lives in every setting — from home to community to school. Adults in all of these settings should know what an individual child needs, and have the capacity to help that child fully develop. Adults also should work together across all settings to ensure a cohesive, shared approach to supporting that child.

This is a tall order, but the benefits to children — and the country — would be immense.

Some promising tech solutions include the kind of text-messaging services that young mothers in underprivileged situations have already begun to use. For instance, Text4baby is a free educational mobile-phone service sponsored by the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. It works with some 700 partners, including an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, to promote its use.

Pregnant women and new mothers receive tips three times a week on how to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. The text messages are timed to the pregnant woman’s due date or the baby’s birth date. Subjects cover a gamut: breastfeeding, car-seat safety, developmental milestones, emotional well-being, exercise and fitness, immunizations, labor and delivery, nutrition, prenatal care, safe sleep and smoking cessation. The text messages also provide 1-800 numbers and other resources to learn more. Rolled out in 2010, more than 281,000 women had enrolled within the first two years and 96 percent said they’d recommend the service to a friend.

For moms with preschoolers there’s Ready4K, another text-messaging service that’s targeted at helping parents prepare their children for kindergarten. Each week during the school year, parents receive a trio of texts about important kindergarten readiness skills.

The text provider cites the following example script:

FACT: Bath time is great for teaching your child important skills for K. Start by asking: What are the things we need for bath time? Why?

TIP: When you’re bathing your child, point out the letters on shampoo bottles. Ask your child to name them the sounds they make.

GROWTH: Keep using bath time to prepare your child 4K! Ask: What rhymes with tub (cub, rub), soap (rope, hope), bubble (double, trouble)?

Developed at Stanford University, the Ready4K text messages are based on child development research and linked to state educational standards. They are also effective. In a San Francisco study, parents using Ready4K text messages engaged far more frequently in learning activities at home with their children than parents who did not receive the texts. Ready4K parents were also more involved at school, according to teachers. Overall, a 2014 York Loeb study found that children of parents who received Ready4K texts gained two to three additional months of learning in important areas of literacy.

Why now is the time for philanthropists to invest in early childhood technologies

Evidence shows that such high-quality tech-enabled tools, if used correctly, can indeed improve a student’s cognitive skills, and thus academic performance, by 0.21 standard deviations on average. The Social Genome Model has calculated that if a kindergartener improves their basic cognitive level by this amount, they will see an increase in lifetime family income of $15,800.

Let’s push the math to assume that over the five formative years, the new suite of technology-enabled tools can reach the primary caregivers of 10 million children who are not on track to be kindergarten ready. If only 3.5-7 percent of these children achieve the necessary academic outcomes by kindergarten, approximately 350,000 to 700,000 more children would enter kindergarten ready to learn. Bottom line: a cumulative increase in lifetime earnings of $5.5 billion to $11 billion.

That’s a big payback from $1 billion, and we believe that philanthropy is ideally suited as the source. Private funders have the unique ability to provide the kind of high-risk initial capital that’s off limits to most government agencies. Such investments will require patient capital and funders with longer-term views.

Our hope is that more philanthropists see how they can create significant social change by investing in the very industry that brought them such success.

Editor’s note: The three authors co-authored or contributed to the study “Billion Dollar Bets” to Increase Early Childhood Development.

Featured Image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

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IPO on horizon, subprime lending startup Elevate adds $545M in credit from Victory Park Capital


With an IPO on the horizon, subprime lender Elevate will have an additional $545 million credit faculty to support its growing customers.

Elevate’s niche right now is providing loans to borrowers with creditscores between 575 and 625. As the company expands, it wants to provide loans to customers with even lower credit-scores.

Ken Rees, CEO of Elevate, is quick to note that 65 percent of Americans are underserved as a result of their low credit-scores. With additional lending data, it might just be possible to underwrite loans with confidence for these underserved customers. Previously, customers of Elevate would have been forced to take title or payday loans.

“20 percent of all title loans result in the customer losing their car,” noted Rees.

Elevate’s revenue run rate is hovering around $500 million even while average customer APR has been falling. The company has seen an 80 percent growth in loans outstanding over the last year, while charge-off rates have decreased from 17-20 percent in early 2014 to 10-15 percent today. Charge-off rates monitor loans that a company feels it can’t collect.

This news should help to ease analysts fears about predatory lending in the subprime space. Rees’ previous company, Think Finance, backed by Sequoia and TCV, got itself into legal troubles last year and was accused of racketeering and the collection of unlawful debt.

There are two key differences between Elevate and its predecessor Think Finance. First, Think Finance’s model was based on both direct to consumer and licensing to third party lenders. Payday lender Plain Green, LLC, named in the lawsuit as the originator of the bad loans, was a licensed third party lender with Think Finance. Elevate operates solely with a direct to consumer model. Second, Elevate has implemented sustainable lending practices in an effort to increase its borrowers financial health.

Elevate rewards borrowers for watching financial literacy videos with better interest rates on products like RISE that are targeted at financial progression. The company also offers free credit monitoring. The average weighted APR for RISE is a hefty 160 percent, but it’s relatively tame next to a traditional 500 percent APR payday loan. RISE loans drop by 50 percent APR after 24 months, and fall to a fixed 36 percent APR by 36 months.

Lending products Elastic and Sunny serve borrowers living paycheck to paycheck and in the UK respectively. Elastic is also built about pillars of financial sustainability. Borrowers also get access to financial literacy materials and are only charged when they draw funds.

Over 65 percent of Elevate borrowers have experienced a rate reduction. All of these lending practices have improved customer retention for the company, 60 percent of Elevate borrowers who payoff their loan will get another. Typically these new loans will be granted at even lower interest rates.

Elevate had previously considered an IPO but was forced to push-back. The stock market has been rather fintech-phobic in recent months. Lending Club, a peer to peer lending platform, has been the poster-child of the risk inherent in lending startups.

Rees doesn’t think it’s wise to compare his company to Lending Club. Elevate and its 400 employees have been functioning much like a public company, releasing regular information disclosures for almost a year.

“The main thing that the IPO does for us is reduce our reliance on debt financing,” added Rees. “Victory Park Capital has been a terrific partner but that debt isn’t free. Raising money in an IPO will support growth and drive down our cost of capital.”

Featured Image: Glowimages/Getty Images

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Everything you need to know about Apple’s huge third quarter


Apple’s third quarter results came out today. They’re pretty good!

Or, at least, not bad — and good enough to keep investors happy. Very happy, actually: the stock jumped more than 7%, recovering pretty much all of the value it lost when it reported a complete whiff of a second quarter. It’s no monster crash or jump like Twitter regularly experiences, but 7% is enough to move tens of billions of dollars.

The short story is that everything is more or less slowing down. The long answer is, there’s quite a bit of nuance in every part of Apple’s business, and sparks of light in some areas that seemed to be ripe to be completely ignored.

Photo: Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

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What the NTSB knows about the fatal Tesla crash, so far


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a preliminary report on the fatal crash involving a 2015 Tesla Model S and a 2014 Freightliner Cascadia truck in Williston, Florida in May.

Unfortunately, the report yields no major new insights.

The report confirms that the driver of the Tesla was going 74 miles per hour just prior to the crash, and on a highway where the speed limit was 65 miles per hour. It also confirms that he was using Tesla’s “advanced driver assistance features,” a.k.a. Autopilot, including “Traffic-Aware Cruise Control” and “Autosteer lane keeping assistance.”

The NTSB made no promises about when a final report will be issued, but noted that it typically takes a full year to complete data analysis and answer questions about the probable cause of a crash in such investigations.

A professor at George Washington University Law School, Wayne Cohen, who is also a founding partner of personal injury law firm Cohen Cohen, said fatality reports are usually investigated by state police, not federal authorities.

The Tesla crash in Williston, Florida has garnered federal intervention, he said, because, “We are in an environment with vehicles on the road using increasingly complex technology, artificial intelligence that goes beyond the cruise control and event data recorders we’ve had for decades. The waters are muddied and unchartered with this technology when it comes to civil and criminal liability.”

Results of investigations will help answer questions for the families of those harmed or killed in accidents, perhaps most importantly. But they will also help the U.S. establish a framework for law and legislation to bring those vehicles into everyday use domestically, Cohen suggested.

Tesla did not yet respond to inquiries about how it is working with the NTSB, NHTSA and Florida state police to complete their various investigations into the fatal crash.

Since the crash occurred, the company has been called upon by Consumer Reports to “disable” and rename its Autopilot feature until it is made safer.

Tesla responded with a resounding “no,” to Consumer Reports, and really all its critics, with this statement:

“Tesla is constantly introducing enhancements, proven over millions of miles of internal testing, to ensure that drivers supported by Autopilot remain safer than those operating without assistance. We will continue to develop, validate, and release those enhancements as the technology grows.”

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has also repeatedly pointed out that Tesla Motors vehicles have driven 130 million miles on Autopilot with one confirmed fatality, which is a safety record better than that of human drivers.

Last week, Musk published a “Master Plan” for Tesla’s future, including the goal of making Autopilot 10 times safer than traditional driving. In the plan, Musk said at the current rate, the company would see 6 billion miles driven by Tesla vehicles with Autopilot engaged in about 5.5 years. That’s the point at which he expects the technology will be ready for “global,” mainstream approval.

And of course, it’s not just Tesla’s technology that is under scrutiny. The company works with other vendors.

For example, it has used Mobileye image analysis processors to enable semi-autonomous driving. Today, Mobileye announced that partnership was coming to an end.

Featured Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Deep learning software knows that a rose is a rose is a rosa rubiginosa


We can’t all be botanists, unfortunately, but most of us do have smartphones, and that may be a start. A computer vision system built by Microsoft Research Asia can identify thousands of species of flowers with nothing but a picture.

The Smart Flower Recognition System (Microsoft always did have a way with branding) began serendipitously, with the chance meeting of MSRA’s Yong Rui and botanists from the Chinese Academy of Science at a seminar. Rui’s image analysis work was a perfect match for the botanists, who were trying to figure out how to sort through millions of publicly submitted images of local flowers.

Ah, spring! When a young researcher’s fancy turns to inter-disciplinary collaboration.

The system is built on – what else? – machine learning, specifically a Caffe convolutional neural network trained in 800,000 flower images. Different species of flowers are differentiated enough that, like faces, they can be told apart by running them through a series of filters made to highlight certain features.


Certain curves, certain dark spots, certain proportions – the subtle reasoning of the neural network mirrors our own intuitive recognition of familiar shapes and colors.

“The flower-recognition engine enables domain experts to acquire plant distribution in China in an efficient way. Not only that, this engine can help ordinary people who have a strong interest in flowers to gain more knowledge.”

I asked Rui when the Smart Flower Recognition System will make its way into some kind of web service or app, like so many other experimental machine learning systems. If I hear back, you’ll be the first to know.

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