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Meet IV: Helen Hsieh

Lateral flow tests, when used to diagnose the presence of infectious diseases, are relatively inexpensive and elegantly simple to use. They involve applying a biological sample—of blood or urine, for instance—to one end of a test strip. As the sample flows up the strip, it encounters various reagents, which are designed to produce a chemical reaction when they come in contact with a particular target, such as a protein, bacteria, parasite or virus. If your target is present, you’ll get a clear visual signal, an “aha” moment, like seeing a bar appear on a pregnancy test moments after peeing on a stick. 

Meet IV: Helen Hsieh

The key to this technology—and what makes it especially crucial for the developing world—is all the research that goes into it behind the scenes to make it so portable, affordable and easy to use at the point of execution. That’s precisely the legwork that a number of scientists at the IV Lab are putting in “under the hood,” says Helen Hsieh, a research scientist who works in the Flow-based Diagnostics group (also known as FlowDx).

Helen came to Intellectual Ventures about three years ago after spending more than 20 years with Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), a medical technology company that manufactures and sells medical devices, instrument systems and reagents. Today, she’s part of a team focused largely on increasing the sensitivity of diagnostic tests for malaria and tuberculosis. The more sensitive the tool, the sooner you can pick up the disease before it has further multiplied. That can make a huge difference in treatment, and also make you more certain you aren’t missing any patients who carry the pathogen at lower levels (Helen was lead author on a paper about some of this LFA research published last year).

In addition to its impact on global health, Helen’s role features two of her other favorite things—lots of creative troubleshooting and “cool shiny instruments”—and feeds her lifelong belief that science should be fun!   

Cross-Country Career Shift
Helen, who split her childhood between Pennsylvania and Alabama, studied chemistry as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and then again for her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina (UNC). She developed expertise in both biological and physical chemistry along the way, and that experience, as Helen was wrapping up her doctoral program, helped her land the position with BD at its research center in Research Triangle Park, just down the road from UNC.

She would end up working for BD for two decades, with her research focused on developing diagnostic tests for infectious and chronic diseases. One of her favorite projects was the BD ProbeTec ET™, a nucleic acid amplification system used to detect chlamydia, gonorrhea and other STDs. “A lot of times you work on something and it doesn’t actually go anywhere,” says Helen, “so that was nice in that it became a product.”

After relatives in Seattle coaxed Helen to add the Pacific Northwest to her search list for new job opportunities, Helen discovered an intriguing opening in the FlowDx group at IV Lab, which was hiring several scientists with experience developing assays—laboratory procedures, in this case, designed to detect malaria or TB. It was a perfect fit for her.

Helen has thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far, very much including the collaborative atmosphere at the Lab. “I like that everybody is willing to share knowledge and advice,” she says. “You have such a different group of people—biologists with experience in tissue culture, and engineers—and the engineers will suggest something that the biologist just wouldn’t have thought of, and vice versa. You’ve got that cross-pollination. Because the engineers are in the building with us, you’ve got that conversation going.”

Life at the Lab has also rekindled the more playful side of science for Helen—the simple joy of discovery, she says, you often see in 8-year-olds when you’re explaining something cool. “There’s a giant [Babbage] calculator downstairs, there’s literally a rocket engine, there’s the [dino] tail. Sometimes science is just fun!”


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Intellectual Ventures Develops the First Offline Virtual Malaria Microscopy Training Course

The World Health Organization-approved eLearning tool can be used regardless of Internet access.

Intellectual Ventures Develops the First Offline Virtual Malaria Microscopy Training Course

There are more than 200 million cases of malaria worldwide every year, with roughly half a million deaths. While some populations are equipped to confront the malaria threat, many countries still face significant barriers in both early detection and healthcare provider training and support. Intellectual Ventures’ Global Good Fund is using science and technology to invent new solutions to reduce barriers to global health, especially in the fight against malaria.

To address a need for accurate malaria diagnosis, we are pleased to be working with Amref Health Africa, the largest Africa-based nonprofit organization delivering health services to over 30 countries on the continent, to provide a new accessible tool for laboratory professionals and health workers: the Worldwide E-Learning Course on Malaria Microscopy (WELCOMM).

As microscopy remains a major method for identifying malaria parasites in patients’ blood, continuing education is essential for microscopists to improve their skills to achieve accurate results and to prepare for WHO certification exams. Classes are traditionally delivered through in-person re-training courses, which can be difficult to access for health workers from remote, rural areas and technicians in busy laboratories.

In 2017 Global Good partnered with microscope industry leader Motic to develop the EasyScan Go, an internet-networked, artificially intelligent microscope that automatically scans, identifies and counts malaria parasites. The EasyScan Go is expected to help healthcare workers manage malaria through accurate Plasmodium parasite detection and monitoring during treatment.

To implement the project, the Global Good team -- with generous contributions from malaria research partners across the globe -- compiled a large digital library of malaria microscope slides to train the EasyScan Go’s core machine-learning algorithm. And now microscopists across the world can use images from that same library within a self-directed eLearning course incorporating virtual microscopy software provided by PathXL, a leading virtual microscopy development group.  

This in-service eLearning course is available on a standard USB drive, so microscopists can access it regardless of geography or ability to access the Internet. All they need is access to a computer.

The course is designed to be consistent with WHO standards, and incorporates instructional content in five modules:

  1. Introduction to malaria and global epidemiology
  2. Blood collection, preparation and staining of blood films
  3. Blood film examination, including all malaria species and other blood parasites
  4. Non-microscopic methods for diagnosing malaria
  5. Laboratory quality management systems.

Pre-testing was performed in 11 countries across Africa, Asia and South America, and our hope is that through partnerships with organizations like Amref Health Africa, this eLearning tool will make quality malaria services more accessible, no matter where a patient or provider is located.

For more information on the Worldwide E-Learning Course on Malaria Microscopy (WELCOMM), please visit www.amref.ac.ke.

Meet IV: Phillip Wallace

“For some reason, I’ve had an interest in politics since a very young age, even when I was a teenager,” says Phillip Wallace, who joined Intellectual Ventures (IV) as government relations manager in spring 2015. “When I was in high school, I was always in student government, I was my class president every year. I always enjoyed the student elections.”

Meet IV: Phillip Wallace

Phillip grew up in Baton Rouge, La., about an hour north of New Orleans, and he went on to study political science and economics at Southern University in his hometown. “Political science was a very natural choice for me,” he says. “I wasn’t one of the college students who struggled to find a major, or didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was interested in the political process.”

The logical next step for Phillip after he graduated was to move to the nerve center of national politics: Washington, D.C. His first job on Capitol Hill was with Senator Mary Landrieu from his home state, and then he decided to further his education by pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at George Washington University. “You don’t get much more political than being blocks away from the U.S. State Department and the White House,” he says, “having professors who’ve had distinguished careers in government and politics.”

His graduate school experience steered him to a position in the government affairs office with Hyundai Motor America, a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Company. Phillip enjoyed his role with Hyundai and stayed there for 2.5 years, but then he saw an opportunity with IV in 2015. “I knew that after working for such a large company,” he says, “I wanted to take advantage of a company that had greater flexibility, and those tend to be smaller companies, companies with 1,000 people or less. Their day-to-day business is innovation, they know how to be quick and adapt.”

That’s why the D.C.-based government relations office at IV felt like a great fit for him, and he now says—with his trademark sincerity—that his work has become “so natural that a lot of times what I do now doesn’t really feel like work.” 

At the Office
Today, Phillip’s role as senior manager of government relations takes many shapes. “I spend probably about 40 percent of my time doing what I consider retail lobbying: examining issues that are important to the business, whether it’s tax reform and tax policies, or whether we’re talking about patent reform, or looking at bills that impact the patent system.”

This sort of retail lobbying, says Phillip, often involves him going to Capitol Hill and meeting with members of Congress and their staff, occasionally meeting with regulatory officials in the new administration, and a range of other events and activities.

He then spends another 35 to 40 percent of his time making sure IV is visible in the right places, such as at industry conferences (when we caught up with him recently, he was at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property’s Fifth Annual Fall Conference, “Real Intellectual Property Reform”).

Another huge project for Phillip, starting in 2016, has been organizing the first two Intellectual Ventures Expos on Capitol Hill. “In an ideal world,” he says, “it would be perfect if we were able to get every member of Congress and their staffers over to the IV Lab in Bellevue to see what we do on a day-to-day basis. Obviously, that’s not feasible, so I said, ‘Well, the next best thing is to bring some of the Lab to D.C. and show them what we’ve got.’ So we did. We took up space in one of the larger ballrooms on Capitol Hill on the House side and literally flew in the photonic fence, technology from various spinouts like Evolv and Pivotal [Commware] and Kymeta and TerraPower, and in kind of a science fair expo format, opened it up to the entire Hill and the general public. And we had tremendous success.”

Both expos were filled to capacity, and that success was a big part of what earned Phillip one of IV’s annual awards recognizing employees in 2016. “Yeah, that was a great surprise to me,” he says. “I was not expecting that, and honestly, it’s really a team effort. It takes a lot of work to pull off bringing that kind of equipment to Capitol Hill. The security checkpoints, the protocol to follow—it’s really a gigantic team effort that involved a lot of people.”

The 2018 expo is coming up on May 10, and Phillip is looking forward to the ‘wow’ factor. “My favorite part of my work is wowing people,” he says. “We show someone the type of technology we’re working on, or are capable of, or something in our pipeline for commercialization, and people are like, ‘Wow.’ People literally say ‘wow.’ It’s just very innovative.”


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Meet IV: Megan Bettilyon

“Every single day, I am exposed to new information, new technology, new ideas, new ways of just thinking about a particular topic,” says Megan Bettilyon, director of inventive government solutions and Global Good special projects. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new.”

Meet IV: Megan Bettilyon

Nothing about Megan’s position is predictable, and that’s exactly how she likes it. She thrives on the diversity of her roles, from serving as field manager for the Arktek™ before its commercialization; to working with partners at the United Nations; to traveling to D.C. to collaborate with our government relations team on Capitol Hill; to managing IV’s programs that involve cooperation with the U.S. government; to other projects relating to climate change, nutrition and global health. “I get paid to learn,” she says. “I get paid to investigate and understand how these new technologies and these potential partners could have an immense impact on the work we’re doing in low-resources nations. And that is extremely exciting for me.”

Beyond the excitement of her work, though, is a more fundamental connection with the culture at Intellectual Ventures (IV). There’s a palpable energy, Megan says, that drives the people and research here—a shared personality and mission, a sense of being surrounded by kindred, curious, creative spirits. “I’ve been a ‘nerd’ my entire life,” she says, “and I am damn proud of it. When I was a kid, it was a hard name to be called, but I have embraced it. And at the Lab, there are just as many people who are just as nerdy or geeky as I am about the things they love. Everybody there has a passion, something they truly jive on, and that is cool.”

From Algae to IV
Before joining IV, Megan—who was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah—had explored a wide range of social and scientific interests. As an undergrad and then graduate student at the University of California San Diego, she studied everything from anthropology and Middle Eastern archeology, to marine biodiversity and conservation, renewable energy, domestic energy security for low-resource nations, even the enormous promise of algae. One of the common threads of her studies, though, has always been technology and how it impacts the world. “I’ve always been fascinated by how technological progress in any society can have a profound impact on the society itself,” she says.  

So when Megan first learned about IV and the Global Good Fund—which harnesses the power of technology and invention to solve humanitarian challenges in the developing world—she was  immediately intrigued. “I looked it up,” she says, “and was like, ‘Wow, this is what I do. This is my Nirvana. I looked online to see if they had any jobs, and they had just posted a program manager position the day before—it was a complete fluke.”

IV Impact
That was more than four and a half years ago. Megan has since worked on numerous projects for IV, and she can recall many highlights from among them. Yet the biggest standout has to be one of her earlier positions when she was working as the field manager for the Arktek™, a storage device that has the power to keep vaccines at their proper temperature for more than a month, even in scorching desert heat.

“The Arktek is still definitely, absolutely my favorite,” she says. “We’ve changed the way mothers in these remote villages handle healthcare and the vaccination of their children. They now know that a health post with an Arktek has safe and efficacious vaccines every single day of the month. They no longer have to wait until that one day when a nurse has the vaccines, and she would go out and do a campaign. Now they can come out to the clinic any day they want.”

So much about that experience has stuck with Megan—working closely with nurses at remote health posts, giving trainings and performing ad hoc repairs, working through monsoons, no electricity and other chaotic challenges in the field. But the biggest takeaway, by far, was the impact on the health of thousands of children in developing countries around the world. “These devices vaccinate children that were previously unable to be vaccinated by efficacious vaccines,” says Megan. “This is huge. It means more kids are being vaccinated, and the farther out we’re able to reach, the more children we’re going to be able to help.”

 


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Nathan Myhrvold on AI and Why There’s Nothing to Fear

Is artificial intelligence (AI) a boon or bane for humanity? 

Technologists have been grappling with this question for years, and invariably, the conversation returns to fear that these changes will displace millions of workers, lead to widespread hardship and throw society into economic crisis.

Our founder and CEO Nathan Myhrvold recently delivered the World Traders 2018 Tacitus Lecture to discuss this fear, which he calls the “innovation menace.” In his lecture, he recounts how history has illustrated that the “doom and gloom” conversation around new technologies is, and always has been, wrong—and why we needn't fear that progress in AI will outstrip society's ability to ensure that the technology improves our lives.

View the video below to watch Nathan deliver the London World Traders Guild annual Tacitus Lecture, in which distinguished speakers deliver remarks on a concern affecting world trade.

IV CEO and founder Nathan Myhrvold delivers his Tacitus Lecture at the City of London's Guildhall on February 22, 2018. Photograph copyright Jake Sugden.

Nathan delivers his Tacitus Lecture at the City of London's Guildhall on February 22, 2018. Photographs copyright Jake Sugden.


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Meet IV: Guillaume Chabot-Couture

Seven years ago, Guillaume Chabot-Couture had just finished his Ph.D. at Stanford University. A native of Quebec City in Canada, Guillaume had studied physics as an undergrad at Université Laval in his hometown, and then high-temperature superconductors for his recently completed dissertation. His next move, though, was fairly wide open.   

Meet IV: Guillaume Chabot-Couture

Hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island

“I was considering many of the usual routes at the end of a graduate degree,” he says: “working for a national laboratory, trying to get a postdoc in academia, or joining a large company. I was also looking at other areas, patent law and different ways to apply this knowledge.”

Through a bit of happenstance, says Guillaume, a friend reached out to him about a possible opportunity with Intellectual Ventures and its Epidemiological Modeling (EMOD) project, led by Philip Welkhoff. At the time, it was a small group of people inventing ways to build more realistic simulations of disease transmission, with a focus on improving and saving lives in developing countries using quantitative analysis. “When I had the opportunity to interview for this job, which combined analytics and mathematical modeling with a field that was largely unknown to me—communicable diseases, global health—I think my curiosity kicked in in a big way. I thought it sounded really interesting and wanted to learn more about it.”

Guillaume ended up getting the job, and EMOD has since grown about tenfold into what is now the Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM). As a senior research manager, he leads multiple teams working on building models of disease transmission and incidence, as well as other tools to help accelerate the eradication of infectious diseases in the developing world. “I think they took a chance hiring me, someone who didn’t know much about disease modeling, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he says.

A New Field
IV often draws from varied, even unlikely, backgrounds to build research teams, as each new perspective can lead to unexpected insights and results. For Guillaume, after spending most of his student life studying physics, that meant trading superconductors for disease modeling. And that transition, while not exactly obvious, still very much triggered the same curiosity and potential for far-reaching impact that has always driven his work.

His team at IDM focuses on a number of vaccine-preventable diseases in the developing world, including poliomyelitis (polio) and measles, and they also tackle questions related to vaccine delivery. “One of the great strengths of a model is its ability to ask what-if questions,” says Guillaume, and he estimates that 80 to 90 percent of their work involves testing polio eradication strategies and implementation, and designing models that could have profound effects on disease prevention and eradication around the world.

A key element of this research involves partnering with other organizations—such as the Gates Foundation, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a range of academic institutions—as well as directly with countries. “You can’t look just at problems that are interesting from an academic point of view,” he says. “You have this imperative to be relevant and to connect with what the real problems are. So we try really hard to build collaborations with people within these countries, within these programs, to make sure what we work on is going to be the most helpful. Without that connection to what’s really happening, we wouldn’t be as effective.”

One of the most memorable collaborations for Guillaume came in 2012 with a project in Pakistan. They were working on a model to predict the spread of polio, but when they first got started, they didn’t know how effective their predictions would be—or even if partners on the ground in Pakistan would accept the data. “There’s always a little bit of uncertainty when you begin a new collaboration,” he says. “You don’t know how much you’ll be able to help, or how good your models are going to be.”

Initially, Guillaume says no one took their predictions seriously. It was one of the first models the team had built, and they were essentially outsiders trying to influence strategic decisions within Pakistan. Then a polio case appeared in an unexpected area.

“We didn’t know right away,” he says, “but one of our predictions—one of the ones that people had dismissed—turned out to be true in a northern part of Pakistan, where people generally believed it’s too cold for polio to survive and to transmit. That’s one thing we had predicted, and no one really understood how we had been able to predict it.”

That success was a huge breakthrough for the team. “There was this interest all the sudden in this new method we had come up with that could predict these cases and outbreaks,” says Guillaume. “From that point on, we transitioned from an outside group that’s trying to show we can add value, to being invited to contribute to the strategic process these countries had in thinking about how to tackle polio. So I remember that being a really exciting time.”

For Guillaume personally, as well, that engagement really reinforced the value of his research. “I took a leap in leaving physics,” he says, “but that was one of the measurable moments, like, ‘Ok, this was a good decision. This is turning out to be a really interesting job with opportunities to impact global health in meaningful ways on a short timeline.”


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Accelerating Impact

ISF Incubator calls for entrepreneurs who want to bring next-generation tech to big markets

Accelerating Impact

For years, Intellectual Ventures (IV) has built business on the back of new technologies: To date we’ve created 15 companies, which have raised more than $700 million in funding and created more than 400 jobs. With each company, we’ve learned how to work faster and smarter, and now we are accelerating this model by launching the Invention Science Fund (ISF) Incubator—a team within IV that matches outside entrepreneurs with our inventions and resources to disrupt big markets like health, telecommunications and transportation.

It’s a different approach to the incubator model. We have the inventions, the resources, and the know-how, and now we need passionate entrepreneurs who can execute.

Access to our state-of-the-art lab, our patent portfolio, and our network of engineers, mentors and investors means we can provide the tools for success—whether it’s a piece of special equipment from our mechanical engineering and instrument fabrication shop to create a prototype, or assistance setting up a business and navigating the legal landscape. We believe the best way to bring cutting-edge science and new technology to market is to put it in the hands of the most capable, passionate people, and provide the necessary resources to build a business.

And we’re not looking to build just any business, we invent for impact. Past IV spinouts like Evolv, Kymeta and Echodyne developed hardware solutions to transform their market, and we continue to believe hardware is the catalyst for fundamental change in big markets. The current pipeline of ISF Incubator spinouts is poised to do the same with breakthroughs in low-cost sensors, wireless power transmission, and biomedical devices.

So who are we looking for? We like ambitious entrepreneurs, fundable CEOs and market disruptors who have experience launching startups and leading successful companies. If this sounds like you, check out our available patents to learn more, and feel free to drop us a note.

Top Nine Invention Stories from March

March marks Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day celebrations around the world. At Intellectual Ventures, we commend the contributions of women to the field of invention, and work to support more women and girls to pursue careers in STEM. As IV President and COO Adriane Brown has aptly said: “I believe that collaboration of great, diverse minds is how we will solve our world’s toughest challenges and create breakthrough technologies.” 

Top Nine Invention Stories from March

Check out our top invention stories from March, from IV and spinout news to inventors and the grand challenges they’re addressing. 

IV in the news

For International Women’s Day, IV’s Adriane Brown spoke at a panel with other top female leaders in Seattle who are championing women empowerment and making an impact in their communities. Discover why the event was a GeekWire top calendar pick and listen to the full panel discussion here

IV spinout Evolv raised $18 million for high-tech body scanners that don’t cause long lines at security.

IV’s Global Good and Biopromic joined forces to confront tuberculosis – a disease that takes 1.8 million lives each year. Their plan: a low-cost, accessible diagnostic test for communities in low-income settings.

As part of Global Good, scientists at IV’s Institute for Disease Modeling are on the frontlines of the battle against malaria. Hear from one of those scientists in Big Think.

With the start of spring and new leaders in Washington, IV founder Peter Detkin weighed in on why patents matter and how patent holders can dispute “alternative facts” on Insights.

IV is using its Photonic Fence to harness the power of lasers to save Florida’s oranges from the Asian citrus psyllid and this month, Arty Makagon gave us the inside scoop on the story behind the story.

What it means to be an inventor

For International Women’s Day, Scientific American illuminated the need for greater inclusion at all levels in science and explained why women feel as though they are never “just scientists.”

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation named Tony Pan and Max Mankin – the founders of Seattle-based startup Modern Electron – as 2016 Strauss Award Winners.

Proving that age doesn’t have to be a barrier, the 94-year-old inventor of the lithium-ion battery is developing a new battery that’s three times better than the original.

Want to be up-to-date on all the invention news? Subscribe to our blog and be sure to follow us on Twitter


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Failing for Success: Alexander Graham Bell

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” - Alexander Graham Bell

Failing for Success: Alexander Graham Bell

Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago in 1892 via Wikimedia Commons.

March marks the quick succession of two important anniversaries in the life of Alexander Graham Bell – his birthday (March 3) and the date he patented his groundbreaking telephone (March 7). And though we think of his invention as one that changed the course of history, success for Bell wasn’t always smooth. But while Bell encountered failure in his long career, it did not stop him from exploring new ideas.

Known as the father of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell’s invention historically changed how people communicated. In fact, Bell’s innovation completely disrupted the norm of communications. When he tried to sell the telephone patent to Western Union in the late-1800s, the company’s president scoffed at the idea, and thought of the telephone as only a toy. Furthermore, Bell’s other 16, non-communications-related patents are a testament to his general interest in inventive ideas across various activities.  

Despite the multitude of invention success, Bell encountered failure as well. Many of his inventions, while ahead of their time, were not as successful as the telephone. Here are a couple of Bell’s invention ideas that did not work out as intended:

Early Metal Detector

This near-success occurred in 1881 after the assassination of then-President James A. Garfield. Bell, his assistant, Sumner Tainter, and mathematician Simon Newcomb developed a device that hummed when close to metal. During initial testing, the device succeeded and found bullets that the men placed under their clothing. However, while searching for the bullet in President Garfield’s body, the detector hummed continually.

Unfortunately, the bedsprings in President Garfield’s bed led to the continuous humming, and the invention was seemingly a complete failure. Nonetheless, Bell is credited with providing the framework for the modern metal detector.

Kite Flight

Later in life, Bell immersed himself in the study of flight. He supported aerospace engineering through the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), and came up with concepts meant to progress the science of human flight. From 1907 through 1912 Bell primarily experimented with tetrahedral wings, or box-kites. However, many of his concepts could not stay aloft for long periods of time, and the Wright brothers became the first inventors to perfect extended flight.

Nevertheless, architect and artist, Tomás Saraceno, recently used Bell’s idea to create a tetrahedral wing that stays aloft in the air. This concept, according to Saraceno may one day lead to the development of floating solar-powered structures for energy production.

Interested to hear how more inventors throughout history persevered in the face of failure? Check out previous installments of our Failing for Success series, including Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla and The Wright Brothers.


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Story Behind the Story: More on IV’s Photonic Fence with Arty Makagon

From Star Wars and Star Trek to James Bond and the Terminator, lasers have become a staple of the science fiction and action film worlds. But since their invention 57 years ago, the day-to-day use of lasers is no longer fantasy. Today, lasers find powerful and wide-ranging use in science, medicine, the military and now, even disease control. 

Story Behind the Story: More on IV’s Photonic Fence with Arty Makagon

Global Good’s Photonic Fence, or “insect-zapping laser” as described in a recent MIT Technology Review article, has extended the potential for lasers even further. Though originally developed to control vector-borne diseases like malaria, the technology is now being deployed to the agricultural battle ground of Florida to engage another potent pest. The enemy: an insect invader destroying the sunshine state’s oranges.

To get the inside scoop on the battle-ready weapon, we sat down with Photonic Fence technical project lead Arty Makagon to discuss how the technology works, how it’s progressed since its first generation and why it has the power to defeat the Asian citrus psyllid.

IV Insights: How far have you come since the first generation of the Photonic Fence?

Arty: We started with the question – can [the device] see far? We checked that off with our first-generation prototype. For Gen-2, we wanted to know - can we see targets both near and far? We started climbing the technology ladder. Now, with Gen-3, can we see near and far and kill and start hitting our performance benchmarks on controlling the pest we’re after.

We’ve also worked to understand and fine-tune the lethal mechanism so that when the bugs are killed, they don’t even look damaged. We have videos of earlier tests where you can see via high-speed camera that we burned the wings off mosquitos. That’s neat to watch, but it turns out that it’s gratuitous overkill – and so that isn’t how the machine works now. After we shoot a bug, when we look at it under a microscope, we can’t tell where it was shot – there are no singe marks and no gaping wounds.

So how did the bug die? We sent samples to the University of Washington histology lab and found out that essentially we end up cooking the bug. Our laser acts like a very precise, “short-wavelength microwave oven”. When you look at a cross-section of a chicken breast cooked in a microwave and a cross section of a bug dosed with a laser, they essentially look the same.

What’s the big deal about the Asian citrus psyllid?

The psyllid is a problem that’s screaming for a solution. Since its high 15 years ago, there’s been a 60 percent reduction in total citrus production in Florida. You may not have noticed, but the makeup of your carton of orange juice has been changing over the years as the varieties of oranges that are best suited to juice production are dying off.

The Asian citrus psyllid is also particularly insidious because it spreads a virus and can infect an entire tree rather than ruining individual pieces of fruit like other pests. Because the psyllid is so destructive, farmers have been trying all kinds of creative methods to control the pest. They’ve deployed everything from parasite wasps that eat the early stage psyllids to planting sacrificial species – like guava – that the psyllids appeared to prefer. But despite these efforts, there are bunch of now-derelict groves in Florida that are just so infested that they can’t be used.

Other citrus growing states are on the cusp of having a big psyllid problem, but there’s nothing they can do about it. Lots of places are spending a lot of money on trying to prevent the psyllid, but with very little success. The psyllid and the virus they spread are both in Texas and California. Growers are trying to monitor how the psyllids are spreading, but even those mechanisms aren’t terribly effective.

In short, we’re working in this area because this is not a Florida problem or even a U.S. problem – the Asian citrus psyllid is a global problem. And no one has found a solution to this problem, short of “run away and plant in regions less hospitable to psyllids.”

How do people react when they see the Photonic Fence in action?

I think the best way to describe it for first-time viewers is disbelief.

We do two kinds of demonstrations at the IV Lab with the Photonic Fence – a tracking demo and a lethal demo – and both can be kind of dumbfounding in different ways. For the tracking demo, you can watch a screen that shows what’s happening in real time for a box of bugs that’s 60 meters away. It takes a minute for the brain to process that the machine is seeing something that would be effectively impossible to see with the human eye.

For the lethal demo, you start with a box of 25 mosquitos and within a few seconds, there are 25 mosquito corpses on the floor of the box. This also takes a minute to register, because you can’t see anything except for mosquitos falling to the ground because the laser in our system is outside of the visible range.

Missed the original story? Check it out on MIT Technology Review. And stay tuned for more “behind the interview” information from our experts on Insights.


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Christine Bachman

Christine Bachman

Christine is the Global Health Technologies Field Research Manager for Global Good.

Conrad Burke

Conrad Burke

Conrad is the Vice President of New Ventures the Invention Science Fund. He is based in Silicon Valley, California and is a serial entrepreneur who most recently sold his startup company, Innovalight, a nanomaterials technology firm specialized in the photovoltaics (solar) sector, to DuPont Corporation. He subsequently managed two different global marketing businesses within DuPont – photovoltaics materials and bioscience enzymes.

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Meet Helen Hsieh, a research scientist at IV Lab, whose group is designing lateral flow tests to diagnose… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…

May 22

Our Arktek vaccine storage device continues to play critical role in @WHO #vaccine “ring” strategy in current #DRCtwitter.com/i/web/status/9…

May 21

Could making bread be as easy as pushing a button? @pablos dishes on 3D food printing with @michaelwolf:… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…

May 20