Curated Insights 2019.09.27

Why these two innovations in artificial intelligence are so important: Eye on A.I.

The first item was news that a Hong Kong-based biotechnology startup, InSilico Medicine, working with researchers from the University of Toronto, had used machine learning to create a potential new drug to prevent tissue scarring. What’s eye-popping here is the timescale: just 46 days from molecular design to animal testing in mice. Considering that, on average, it takes more than a decade and costs $350 million to $2.7 billion to bring a new drug to market, depending on which study one believes, the potential impact on the pharmaceutical industry is huge.

What’s also interesting here is that InSilico used reinforcement learning, an A.I. technique that hasn’t yet impacted business much. Reinforcement learning is notable because it doesn’t require the vast pools of structured, historical data that other A.I. methods do. Here researchers used reinforcement learning to rapidly design 30,000 new molecules and then narrow them down to six, which were synthesized and further tested in the lab. Look for more A.I. breakthroughs like this to start upending the balance of power between biotech startups and Big Pharma.

The second piece of underappreciated news is that researchers at DeepMind, the London A.I. shop owned by Google parent Alphabet, and Imperial College London, successfully used a deep neural network to find more precise answers to quantum mechanical problems. That’s basically the physics that underpins all of chemistry.

To date, the only element for which we can completely solve the underlying quantum equations is the simplest, hydrogen, which has just one proton and one electron. For every other element, we rely on approximations. Get better approximations, and you potentially get new chemistry – and that means new materials. Think room temperature superconductors or new kinds of batteries that will vastly extend the range of electric vehicles. DeepMind’s A.I.-powered approximations were in some cases almost an order of magnitude better than previous methods. If you’re Dow or DuPont, or Formosa Plastics or LG Chem, that sort of advantage could be worth billions.

Why prescription drugs cost so much more in America

All over the world, drugmakers are granted time-limited monopolies — in the form of patents — to encourage innovation. But America is one of the only countries that does not combine this carrot with the stick of price controls. The US government’s refusal to negotiate prices has contributed to spiralling healthcare costs which, said billionaire investor Warren Buffett last year, act “as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy”. Medical bills are the primary reason why Americans go bankrupt. Employers foot much of the bill for the majority of health-insurance plans for working-age adults, creating a huge cost for business.

Other drugs are more innovative — and their development undeniably expensive. According to Tufts University, the average is $2.6bn per drug, up 145 per cent in the past 10 years. Most drug candidates fail; those that do make it to later stages must go through expensive clinical trials. In support of the drug companies’ argument, one 2015 study found that for every extra $2.5bn a company made in sales, it produced one extra drug.

Robot pilot that can grab the flight controls gets its plane licence

A recent conversion of US military F-16 fighter jets into drones cost more than a million dollars each. ROBOpilot can be inserted into any aircraft and just as easily removed afterwards to return it to human-controlled operation.

“It looks like an impressive achievement in terms of robotics,” says Louise Dennis at the University of Liverpool. “Unlike an autopilot which has direct access to the controls and sensors, the robot is in the place of a human pilot and has to physically work the controls and reads the dials.” The makers suggest that ROBOpilot will be useful for tasks including transporting cargo, “entry into hazardous environments”, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Entrepreneurs hope microbes hold the key to a food revolution
A taxonomy of moats

Curated Insights 2019.06.14

A conversation with Scott Kupor of Andreessen Horowitz, author and speaker at Lean Startup Conference 2019

I’m pretty sure this is not a fundable idea, but here goes! I’ve long been interested in health and, in particular, the role of food choices in determining health. I also believe that if people understood what was in fact healthy – not an easy task given the difficulty in producing scientifically rigorous studies on nutrition – and if they had the luxury of time to prepare healthy meals, they would in fact do so. We’ve certainly made progress over the last twenty or so years in addressing some of these challenges – there are more restaurants that do more to cater to the health-informed and of course we have the plethora of ingredient and meal home delivery services.

But what I think is missing is the perfect substitute for a home cooked meal that caters precisely to the ingredients/nutritional needs of the individual. I’d love to be able to order a meal that incorporates the precise ingredients I want and is made from the precise recipe I provide – just as I would do if I had the time (and patience) to do it on my own. This of course is probably why this will never work as a business – I’m not sure mass customization works economically. But, I am fascinated by the new “cloud kitchens” type models that are being formed and am hopeful that maybe they will crack the code on this.

Meatless future or vegan delusions? The Beyond Meat valuation

In 2018, the meatless meat market had sales of $1-$5 billion, depending on how broadly you define meatless markets and the geographies that you look at. Defined as meatless meats, i.e., the products that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods offer, it is closer to the lower end of the range, but inclusive of other meat alternatives (tofu, tempeh etc.) is at the upper end. No matter which end of the range you go with, it is small relative to the overall meat market that is in excess of $250 billion, just in the US, and closer to a trillion, if you expand it globally, in 2018. In fact, while the meat market has seen slow growth in the US and Europe, with a shift from beef to chicken, the global meat market has been growing, as increasing affluence in Asia, in general, and China, in particular, has increased meat consumption, Depending on your perspective on Beyond Meats, that can be bad news or good news, since it can be taken by detractors as a sign that the overall market for meatless meats is not very big and by optimists that there is plenty of room to grow.

The big question that we face is in estimating how much the shift towards vegan and vegetarian diets will continue, driven by health reasons or environmental concern (or guilt). There is also a question of whether some governments may accelerate the shift away from meat-based diets, with policies and subsidies. Given this uncertainty, it is not surprising that the forecasts for the size of the meatless meat market vary widely across forecasters. While they all agree that the market will grow, they disagree about the end number, with forecasts for 2023 ranging from $5 billion at the low end to $8 billion at the other extreme. Beyond Meat, in its prospectus, uses the expansion of non-dairy milk(soy, flax, almond mild) in the milk market as its basis, to estimate the market for meatless meat to be $35 billion in the long term.

The wealth detective who finds the hidden money of the super rich

The top 0.1% of taxpayers (170,000 families) control 20% of American wealth, the highest share since 1929.

The top 1% control 39% of U.S. wealth, and the bottom 90% have only 26%.

The bottom half of Americans combined have a negative net worth.