Watts Towers (spark.ucla.edu)
18 February 2014. University of California at Los Angeles today started a crowdfunding platform to finance research and service projects by faculty and students. The platform, called UCLA Spark, began with five appeals including research projects in engineering and public health.
Crowdfunding, according to the technology Web site Mashable, “describes the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their resources, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations. ” In 2012, according to an analysis by the industry research company Massolution, the crowdfunding industry raised some $2.7 billion in more than 1 million campaigns worldwide, with volumes expected to hit $5.1 billion in 2013..
Entrepreneur Chance Barnett says crowdfunding raises funds through two models: donations and equity investments. The two leading crowdfunding sites — Kickstarter and Indiegogo — use the donation model. For equity investors, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in October 2013 released proposed rules for comment implementing the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act that makes it possible for to offer and sell stock in companies through crowdfunding.
UCLA Spark is based on the donation model and built on ScaleFunder software. Individuals or groups making appeals through UCLA Spark post a written fundraising appeal and video. Campaigns also offer a graduated set of premiums ranging from a thank-you note or photo for small donations to guided tours or special receptions for top-level gifts. UCLA Spark, like other donation-based crowdfunding sites, use social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Thunderclap — a social site designed to help organize action for causes — to amplify the appeals.
One of the early UCLA Spark campaigns seeks support for an engineering project to help preserve the the Watts Towers, 17 large sculptures in Los Angeles, from 17 to 30 meters high, made of structural steel and covered with mortar, and decorated with a diverse mosaic of broken glass, sea shells, generic pottery and tile, as well as 19th and 20th-century American ceramics. The towers were created by a single artist, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, between 1921 and 1955, and are a National Historic Landmark.
Over the years, both the elements and seismic activity caused cracks and deterioration in the structures. A team led by UCLA engineering professor Ertugrul Taciroglu, aims to take a mass of sensor data being collected on the site, generate a structural simulation model to better understand current rates of deterioration, and help plan for catastrophic events like earthquakes or extreme Santa Ana winds. The goal of $15,000 would support the work of a graduate student and acquire more monitoring equipment.
A second Spark campaign seeks $10,000 for students in UCLA’s business school to help relieve a significant shortage of cancer care staff and facilities in Ethiopia, where today only four oncologists serve the nation’s population of 90 million people. The funds would support the students’ work in East Africa, including Ethiopia, where they would analyze the cancer care market and recommend a sustainable development model for addressing the shortage.
The students, working with faculty from UCLA, Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, and Hawassa College of Medicine and Health Sciences in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, plan to present the results of their work at the Ethiopian Oncology Conference, and expect their model to apply to other developing countries.
On the day of UCLA Spark’s launch, the Watts Towers and Ethiopia cancer campaigns each raised about 1 percent of their funding goals, from 8 and 5 donors respectively. However, another crowdfunding campaign, to support the UCLA Sex Squad that teaches about HIV and AIDS in Los Angeles high schools raised on its first day some 58 percent of its $10,000 goal. A $50 donation to this cause gets the donor a “personalized Haiku hand-typed on a vintage typewriter.”
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(Navidea Biopharmaceuticals Inc.)
18 February 2014. Navidea Biopharmaceuticals Inc. in Dublin, Ohio, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is giving the company’s diagnostic agent Lymphoseek priority review for detecting the spread of head and neck cancers to lymph nodes. FDA granted the accelerated review as part of its acceptance of Navidea’s supplemental new drug application to expand the coverage of Lymphoseek from its currently approved scope of breast cancer and melanoma.
Lymphoseek detects the spread of cancer from the initial tumor to the lymph nodes, the organs in the body that collect lymph fluids for the transfer of glucose, oxygen, and nutrients to cells, as well as disposal of waste products from bacteria and viruses. Lymph nodes are also part of the immune system, where B- and T-type lymphocytes reside that monitor lymph fluids for invaders and activate an immune response.
Since many types of cancer spread through the lymph system, detecting cancer in the lymph nodes is an early indicator that a cancer is spreading. Lymphoseek targets receptors in sentinel lymph nodes, the first lymph nodes where a cancer spreads, with a radioactive compound that binds to these receptors and illuminate lymph nodes with cancer in diagnostic imaging. The company says Lymphoseek makes it possible to identify cancerous sentinel lymph nodes in as little as 10 minutes, and for as long as 30 hours.
Navidea tested Lymphoseek in a late-stage clinical trial, results of which were provided to FDA as part of the company’s supplemental new drug application. The trial enrolled some 80 patients with squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, on their heads or necks, and of those patients, 39 were also found with cancer in their lymph nodes, indicating the cancer had started spreading. Those 39 patients were given injections of Lymphoseek.
Radiological imaging of the 39 patients given Lymphoseek accurately identified the cancerous sentinel lymph nodes in all but one of the cases, giving a false negative rate of 2.6 percent, below the predefined threshold of unacceptable performance. In addition, the use of Lymphoseek sharply reduced the need for surgical removal of lymph nodes for biopsies on or near the heads and necks of patients. Of the total patients in the clinical trial, an average of 38 lymph nodes per patient were removed for biopsies, while for those receiving Lymphoseek, only four lymph nodes were removed per patient.
Priority review is one of FDA’s procedures to accelerate the review process of new drugs. The agency grants priority review for new drugs that show increased effectiveness in treating or diagnosing a disorder, sharply reduce adverse reactions to drugs, improve patients compliance with treatments or diagnostics,or expand safety or effectiveness to more types of patients.
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16 February 2014. Alan Alda told scientists and colleagues that researchers need to change the way they communicate with non-scientists, to emphasize the stories behind their work, and in personal terms. The award-winning actor, writer, and director gave these words of advice at yesterday’s plenary session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago.
Alda came to the meeting with many more science communications credentials than most Hollywood personalities. He’s a visiting professor of journalism at Stony Brook University in New York, where he established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. In addition, Alda hosted the series Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for 13 years and wrote a play about the life of Marie Curie.
Too often, said Alda, scientists fail to connect with their audiences — including people funding their research — when telling about their studies. He urged scientists to put their research ideas into story form. He noted the mantra of Don Hewitt, the television news producer who created the 60 Minutes series on CBS: “Tell me a story.” 60 Minutes, said Alda, is the most successful news show on television because it tells compelling stories.
The failure of many scientists to connect with their audiences, said Alda, begins with their body language. Many talks by scientists are given behind lecterns, which act as a psychological barrier between scientists and the people they’re trying to reach. (Alda walked around on the AAAS stage with a wireless microphone.) And too often scientists also fail to create eye contact with people sitting a short distance away.
Alda said the stories scientists need to tell should have more than a beginning, middle, and end. Stories have drama. At Stony Brook, said Alda, they use techniques learned from improvisational comedy or Improv, where stand-up comedians create whole stories from a few clues, to teach students how to create stories with drama. The stories, like Improv, should reach into scientists’ personal experiences to illustrate complex and abstract concepts.
Alda’s center at Stony Brook holds an annual contest for scientsts to explain ordinary scientific phenomena to 11 year-olds, called the Flame Challenge; in the first of contest, contestants had to describe a flame. This year’s challenge is “What is color?”. The deadline for submissions is 1 March 2014.
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Larry Smarr (Calit2.net)
15 February 2014. Research on black holes in space by a University of Illinois physicist led to development of an early Web browser on which much of today’s browsers are based. That physicist, Larry Smarr, now at University of California in San Diego, is the first 2014 winner of the Golden Goose award to recognize obscure federally-funded research that led to wide practical applications.
The award, announced today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, also underscored that basic research in Congress has bipartisan support, although both representatives Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) stressed that support is fragile and needs more vocal support from scientists themselves.
Smarr in the 1980s was conducting research in gravitational physics at University of Illinois in Champaign, which required enormous computing power, beyond the ability of his campus to provide. National Science Foundation was funding Smarr’s research, so he turned to NSF to argue for a national supercomputing center, much like those at the time in Europe . Smarr’s campaign resulted in the first National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Champaign, led by Smarr, and funded by NSF.
The team at the new NCSA site still had to make it possible for researchers to interact with the site’s computing power, which led to Smarr forming a software development team led by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina that in 1993 started work on what became NCSA Mosaic, an early Web browser. Mosaic was a cross-platform browser that displayed text and images written in HTML, but it allowed users to access Web documents without writing code.
The developers of Mosaic soon recognized the larger potential of their creation, and began offering the browser free of charge from NCSA, and the number of downloads quickly exceeded 5,000 per month. Andreessen went on to start Netscape, a browser and company that helped make the Web a commercial and media undertaking as well as an academic tool. Andreessen later founded the venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz that today financing an array of technology start-ups.
Smarr will receive his 2014 Golden Goose award , with other winners in September. The Golden Goose award was thought up by Rep. Cooper as a way of highlighting the important role played by basic research, which sometimes is the subject of attacks by members of congress, who express outrage at obscure or strange-sounding studies funded by federal dollars. The name is in part a reaction to the much publicized Golden Fleece awards begun by the late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin that often ridiculed individual research grants.
At the AAAS meeting, Cooper pointed out that support for funding basic science is not a partisan issue, and attracts support from current and former members of the House and Senate as ideologically diverse as former conservative House Speaker Newt Gingrich and progressive Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. Hultgren, whose district includes Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, will present the award to Smarr in September.
A protein from jellyfish
But he and Republican colleague Hultgren noted that support needs constant reminders from scientists and their supporters outside the Beltway. Cooper said scientists must do a better job in telling their stories on Capitol Hill, adding, “We need your stories for science to come alive in Washington.”
Some of those stories were told at the meeting by Leslie Tolbert, a neuroscientist and former vice-president for research at University of Arizona, and Martin Chalfie, a biologist at Columbia University. Tolbert described how the research process is unpredictable, with findings taking unanticipated turns, and like Smarr discovered, creating enterprises having little to do with the original funding goals.
Chalfie told how early research in Japan, by accident, discovered the underlying biology causing fluorescence in jellyfish. Later studies by Chalfie discovered what became known as green fluorescent protein from jellyfish, a discovery for which he shared the 2008 Nobel prize in chemistry.
Green fluorescent protein became an ubiquitous tool in biology, cited in some 160,000 papers for its ability to illuminate and track dynamic processes, such as gene expression and interactions between microorganisms. Chalfie noted that green fluorescent protein is also used by the biotechnology industry for drug discovery and biosensors.
Chalfie outlined some lessons from his work with green fluorescent protein. Many, if not most, discoveries in science are accidental, he said, and scientific progress is cumulative, with grant and university support crucial to its success. He also noted that grad students and postdoctoral researchers are often the innovators in science labs.
“Basic research is essential,” Chalfie concluded. “That’s where it all begins.”
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Han Cao (A. Kotok)
14 February 2014. Three entrepreneurs starting companies based on science described how they got their businesses off the ground, with ground-breaking science in many cases more important than a large stash of venture capital. San Diego entrepreneurs John Newsam, Irwin Jacobs, and Han Cao told of their start-up business experiences today at a session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago.
Han Cao, founder of BioNano Genomics, showed the value of a blockbuster idea in launching a new enterprise. BioNano Genomics develops a technology that combines genomics with microfluidics and nanotechnology to provide an up-close map of the human genome.
That technology offers a molecule-by-molecule analysis of long DNA strands — down to 2 nanometers in resolution. In fact, Cao was running between meeting presentations at AAAS in Chicago and the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conference in Florida, where BioNano Genomics is demonstrating the visualization of DNA sequencing in real time, to which the AAAS audience was given a peek during the meeting.
BioNano Genomics, where Cao is chief scientist, is a spin-off company from the Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. Cao’s research at Princeton combined molecular biology with electrical engineering where he developed the science behind BioNano’s systems being demonstrated in Florida. Those discoveries became valuable intellectual property, which enabled Cao to attract $10 million, first from angel investors and government agency grants, and eventually venture capital, to build his company.
Cao started the company in Princeton, and didn’t even have an office; he told the AAAS audience he held so many meetings in coffee shops that he started to get sick from drinking too much coffee. Cao later moved BioNano to San Diego to be part of the large talent pool in that region’s genomics community, especially the sequencing technology company Illumina Inc. His company now has 60 employees.
Companies spinning off companies
Winning ideas also enabled John Newsam to to start several companies, but in each case using what he calls an organic model to build the companies, without large amounts of venture capital. The organic model, says Newsam, generates income from early sales of services and grants to match outlays, while the company develops its key products and services.
Newsam, trained as a materials scientist in the U.K., says generating these revenues requires a strong scientific idea and top-flight team, as well as a unique value proposition. He described how these principles made it possible to start a number of companies, including three enterprises involving chemicals or materials science that spun-off their successors.
The first of these enterprises is hte AG; hte stands for high-throughput experimentation. The company, based in Germany, discovers and develops chemical catalysts, but early on marketed its research services for revenues to create its key products. Newsam admitted hte did attract venture capital later, with the company being acquired by chemical giant BASF.
The next company founded by Newsam was Fqubed — pronounced “f-cubed” — that specialized in soft materials, such as foams and gels used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The company was a spin-off of hte, and thus was able to avoid significant start-up expenses. Fqubed generated early revenues through joint ventures and research collaborations, and was purchased later by Nuvo Research.
Newsam’s current company, Tioga Research Inc., is a spin-off from Fqubed. Tioga Research is a contract research and development company that builds on the high-throughput experimentation of hte and Fqubed. Newsam says Tioga Research has credibility in the market from the intellectual property, products, and talent established in its earlier incarnations.
Navigating competitors and regulators
Irwin Jacobs is the founder of the global mobile technologies company Qualcomm in San Diego, and also a serial entrepreneur who made the jump from an academic career to business. Jacobs was on the engineering faculty at MIT and later moved to University of California in San Diego. In San Diego, he founded Linkabit Corporation in 1969 that made satellite TV technology, including early home descramblers for satellite movie channels.
Jacobs founded Qualcomm in 1985 to get in on the emerging cellular telephone market, and was built on the company’s invention of code division multiple-access (CDMA) technology that uses scare telecommunications spectrum more efficiently than competitors. CDMA became the eventual framework for 3G mobile phone service in North America. He described how Qualcomm had to navigate around those competing technologies and still meet regulatory requirements to get CDMA started.
At one point, says Jacobs, Qualcomm had to put CDMA aside to develop a system for tracking long-haul trucks, well before the days of GPS. That system made it possible for Qualcomm to stay in business while the company established CDMA in the cellular marketplace.
Jacobs says Qualcomm’s business model early on was to license its CDMA technology to cellular handset manufacturers, getting fees upfront, which generated the revenues needed to keep CDMA as the leading cellular technology. Market requirements in some places forced Qualcomm to get in the handset business, in order to generate economies of scale and keep its market share.
Nonetheless, says Jacobs, Qualcomm stayed with the licensing model, which today enables the company to keep ahead of mobile market trends. Those trends, Jacobs says, include such high-growth areas as connected homes (i.e. Internet of things), wearable computing, and mobile health technologies. In addition, Jacobs noted, both Qualcomm and Linkabit were financed without venture capital.
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Phillip Sharp (A. Kotok)
13 February 2014. Phillip Sharp, professor of molecular biology at MIT and president of American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), underscored the tight connection between scientific advancement, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, in the opening plenary session of the AAAS annual conference in Chicago.
Sharp described the way scientific discovery feeds the economic engines of a society, with entrepreneurship serving as the link between scientific discovery and economic growth. He cited MIT as an example where one-third of MIT alumni started companies. In addition, MIT graduates are becoming entrepreneurs younger, with the average age of start-up founders falling to 28 in the 1990s, from 40 or older in the 1950s.
In and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, said Sharp, science-based start-ups are locating across the street from the university’s Kendall Square campus, to take advantage of graduates learning the latest advances. In addition, venture capital companies are also locating in the neighborhood. He said similar clusters of science-generated economic activity are happening in California, Ohio, and other locations in the U.S.
Sharp outlined two waves of innovation in the life sciences, beginning with discovery of DNA’s molecular structure by James Watson and Francis Crick in the 1950s, followed by the sequencing of the human genome in the 1990s. He said a third wave of innovation is developing with convergence of life sciences at the molecular level with engineering, the physical sciences, and mathematics.
Sharp’s research focuses on the molecular biology of gene expression related to cancer, and he shares the 1993 Nobel prize for physiology and medicine. Sharp is also co-founder of two biotechnology companies, Biogen (now Biogen Idec) and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.
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Termes robots (Eliza Grinnell, Harvard University)
13 February 2014. Computer scientists and bio-engineers at Harvard University created a system inspired by termites that controls the work of autonomous robots in complex construction tasks. The team led by computer scientist Radhika Nagpal published its findings in the new issue of the journal Science (paid subscription required), and will also be presented at this week’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Nagpal, with Harvard colleagues Justin Werfel and Kirstin Petersen, are building a social and technical system they call Termes for autonomous robots to collaborate on complex projects with minimal supervision. Systems with these characteristics say the authors could be deployed for building in environments considered too dangerous or remote for humans.
Werfel explains in a university statement that insects are able to build complex structures without a supervisor providing instructions. “In insect colonies, it’s not as if the queen is giving them all individual instructions,” notes Werfel. “Each termite doesn’t know what the others are doing or what the current overall state of the mound is.”
Termites use an implicit form of communication known as stigmergy, where they observe each changes to the environment made by other termites in the colony and adjust their actions based on those observations. Nagpal and colleagues devised a proof-of-concept system with small, simple, autonomous robots building a pre-designed structure with blocks.
The core of the system is algorithms that read sensing data from the robots’ environment and work collaboratively to build the structure. In the publication, the robot devices build a structure with four simple sensors and two actuators. The robots are able to climb the structure, and carry and attach the blocks with minimal controller overhead.
Petersen says the minimalist design simplifies the system’s development and operation. “Not only does this help to make the system more robust, it also greatly simplifies the amount of computing required of the onboard processor,” says Petersen. “The idea is not just to reduce the number of small-scale errors, but more so to detect and correct them before they propagate into errors that can be fatal to the entire system.”
The following video demonstrates the Termes robots at work.
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John Noseworthy (A. Kotok)
13 February 2014. Optum Labs, a partnership to increase sharing of solutions and data to improve health care, says seven more organizations from the private, university, and not-for-profit sectors became members of the collaboration. The new participants join current Optum Labs members Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, Mayo Clinic, and AARP.
The Optum Labs partnership aims to increase sharing of health claims and clinical data, with identifying information removed from the records. The shared data are expected to be enhanced with advanced analytics and data visualization tools. The collaborative also offers opportunities for prototyping and testing.
Optum Labs says it has 20 projects underway that compare results from randomized clinical trials to analyses of observational data and test the effectiveness of various medical devices. Other studies investigate geographic variation in care patterns and search for effective approaches to consumer engagement and treatment.
The new members include academic institutions and departments, health care providers, a pharmaceutical company, and industry organization:
- American Medical Group Association, in Alexandria, Virginia
- Boston University School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts
- Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, Pennsylvania
- Pfizer Inc. in New York, New York
- Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York
- Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts
- University of Minnesota School of Nursing in Minneapolis, Minnesota
“In addition to having access to large sources of clinical and claims information,” says Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy, “all partners will now benefit from the unique viewpoints that others bring as we work to transform health care in the U.S. and truly meet the needs of patients in this country.”
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12 February 2014. Starting tomorrow, Science & Enterprise will report directly from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago. Of course, I need to get there first, which in today’s climate-changed weather will be something of a challenge.
In the meantime, here’s a video (7 minutes) with some of the world’s greatest blues guitarists playing classic Chicago blues: Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Roger Cray, Hubert Sumlin, and Jimmie Vaughn. Doesn’t get much better than this.
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Adeno-associated virus (LBL.gov)
12 February 2014. Voyager Therapeutics, a new start-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts creating gene therapies for disorders of the central nervous system, gained $45 million in first-round financing. Third Rock Ventures, a venture capital company specializing in life science enterprises, provided the funds for the company founded by researchers at University of Massachusetts Medical School, University of California in San Francisco, and Stanford University.
Voyager Therapeutics is developing treatments for debilitating diseases of the central nervous system including Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare inherited disease causing damage to the nervous system and movement problems. The company is licensing the research of the company’s founders whose work covers technologies for harnessing viruses to deliver genetic therapeutics, and treatments using RNA interference to inhibit the expression of certain genes.
The founders of Voyager Therapeutics are:
- Guangping Gao, professor of microbiology at University of Massachusetts Medical School, whose work involves the discovery, development, and use of adeno-associated viruses for gene therapy of genetic diseases. Adeno-associated viruses can infect cells, but do not integrate with the cell’s genome or cause disease, and generate a mild immune response.
- Krystof Bankiewicz, professor of neurological surgery and neurology at the University of California (UC) in San Francisco, who is studying delivery of therapies to the brain using adeno-associated virus and MRI.
- Mark Kay, professor of pediatrics and genetics at Stanford University, who is studying adeno-associated virus variations and structures to better understand their properties in the delivery of gene therapies.
- Phillip Zamore, professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at University of Massachusetts Medical School, whose work studies RNA silencing pathways and the way small RNAs inhibit the expression of genes and viruses.
Voyager is licensing research discoveries from the founders’ institutions, which include an ongoing early-stage clinical trial of a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, with colleagues at UC-San Francisco. Development of therapies for ALS and Friedreich’s ataxia are in preclinical stages. The company is also collaborating with University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Third Rock Ventures is a venture capital company specializing in life science and health care enterprises. The company is providing Voyager’s management while the company gets off the ground, including Mark Levin as interim CEO and Philip Reilly as chief medical officer.
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