Curated Insights 2017.10.29

How Intuitive Surgical turned medical sci-fi into reality

Intuitive’s devices are now used at all of the top-ranked U.S. hospitals for cancer, urology, gynecology, or gastroenterology—including venerable institutions like New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and the Cleveland Clinic. More than 4,100 da Vinci base units have been installed worldwide as of June 30, including 2,703 in the U.S., 698 in Europe, 538 in Asia, and 210 in the rest of the world.

The systems aren’t cheap: The list price for the fourth-generation da Vinci Xi is $1.9 million, and that doesn’t include the cost of various surgical appendages, which can add tens of thousands of dollars more to the price tag. Still, the robots keep selling—and surgeons are increasingly adopting them in their practices.

The company says that more than 4 million minimally invasive surgeries have been performed with da Vinci systems since 2000—a new one begins every 42 seconds somewhere around the globe, Intuitive CEO Gary Guthart tells Fortune. The number of those procedures done worldwide spiked 15% in 2016 compared with the previous year, and Intuitive pro­jects an additional 14% to 15% rise in the number by the end of 2017. Indeed, for certain more complicated procedures, such as radical prostate removal, robotic-assisted surgeries now account for nearly 90% of operations.

The boom has driven Intuitive to $2.7 billion in 2016 global revenue, with more than 70% of sales being recurring in nature—a fact that underscores the advantage that comes from being the first major player in a rapidly growing market.

It isn’t clear whether robotic surgery uniformly leads to better outcomes. (Don’t look to the extensive medical literature for a clear-cut answer; conclusions differ from study to study.) But surgeons who swear by their robotic arms tend to return to the same words of praise: They tout the “speed of recovery” for patients, who typically don’t need to spend days or weeks in a hospital as they might after traditional open surgery. They speak of the “clarity” of its camera, the “flexibility” of its instruments.

A survey by investment and research group RBC Capital last year found that American surgeons think that within five years, 35% of operations will involve robots in some form, compared with 15% today.

 

Shake Shack founder on changing the way restaurants do business

And I think what fine-casual is doing is, “If you’re willing to give up waiters and waitresses and bartenders and reservations and table cloths and flowers, we’re gonna s– we’re gonna give you about 80 percent of the quality that you would have gotten in a fine-dining restaurant. We’re gonna save you about 80 percent of the money you’d spend in a fine-dining restaurant. And we’re gonna save you about 60 percent of the time.”

So by saying, “Hospitality included,” it’s basically saying, “You see that price that it costs to get the chicken? That includes everything. That includes not only the guy that bought the chicken and the guy that cooked the chicken, but it also includes the person who served it to you and how they made you feel.”

 

AlphaGo Zero: Learning from scratch

Previous versions of AlphaGo initially trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go. AlphaGo Zero skips this step and learns to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random play. In doing so, it quickly surpassed human level of play and defeated the previously published champion-defeating version of AlphaGo by 100 games to 0.

It is able to do this by using a novel form of reinforcement learning, in which AlphaGo Zero becomes its own teacher. The system starts off with a neural network that knows nothing about the game of Go. It then plays games against itself, by combining this neural network with a powerful search algorithm. As it plays, the neural network is tuned and updated to predict moves, as well as the eventual winner of the games.

 

Nike’s focus on robotics threatens Asia’s low-cost workforce

For Nike, the shift to greater automation has two huge attractions. By driving down costs, it could lead to a dramatic improvement in profit margins. It would also allow the company to deliver new designs more quickly to fickle, fashion-conscious customers at a premium. A pair of Nike Roshe shoes costs $75 without Flyknit uppers, compared to as much as $130 with Flyknit.

The potential upside for Nike of greater automation is immense. Analysts at Citibank estimate that by using the Flex manufacturing process to produce Nike’s 2017 Air Max shoes, one of its top-selling lines, the cost of labour would decrease 50 per cent and materials costs would fall 20 per cent. That would equate to a 12.5 percentage point increase in gross margins to 55.5 per cent, according to analysts Jim Suva and Kate McShane. If Flex were to produce 30 per cent of Nike’s North American footwear sales, Nike could save $400m in labour and material costs, representing a 5 per cent benefit to earnings per share, according to Citibank estimates.

Traditional shoe production has required as many as 200 different pieces across 10 sizes, often cut and glued together by hand. The new manufacturing process being developed by Flex has introduced two ideas once thought impossible: the gluing process has been automated and lasers are used to cut the Flyknit material. Lead times in the shoe industry once ran to several months: Flex has promised to help Nike speed up lead times, which can be three to four weeks for a customised pair of sneakers.

Nike has reduced its supply chain by nearly 200 factories in the past five years to focus on fewer “quality, long-term partnerships”. However, the process of closing a factory, including those with compliance issues, can be a long and costly process for “brand-sensitive companies like Nike” to mitigate the disruption to local economies.


Birth of a Hidden Champion: TSMC & Morris Chang

Morris Chang said Intel’s advantage lies in its robust technological power and strong business operation foundation, having maintained No. 1 in the global semiconductor for decades. But its biggest drawback rests with its inexperience in the wafer foundry sector that highlights a service-oriented corporate culture, as Intel’s technology departments have long served the company’s own needs, totally different from the core culture of serving others seen in the pure-play foundry sector. With his 25-year experience at Texas Instruments before founding TSMC, Chang said he realized very well what kind of corporate culture was needed for the foundry sector. He said when establishing TSMC 30 years ago, he was able to easily inject the service-oriented culture into the TSMC at the very beginning.


Apple’s COO Jeff Williams recounts how business with TSMC began with a dinner at the founder’s home

Williams said that in the next 10 years, the biggest problem lies not in computing performance, but in the lack of sufficient visions to apply new advanced technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence) as well as how to safeguard privacy.

He said Apple has many expectations for AI applications, but what the company needs is neither to make chips with faster computing performance or to make cars able to fly, but to utilize advanced technologies to change the world, such as making use of semiconductors to achieve medical technology innovations.”


Apple supplier TSMC says Moore’s Law is no longer valid

Chang said that the time frame set in Moore’s Law is no longer applicable. He said TSMC has kept increasing transistor density, but not at a pace according to the law. Chang continued by noting that discussions about the applicability of Moore’s Law in recent years have often focused on ASML, a leading semiconductor lithography equipment supplier, because the company is now the world’s only supplier of EUV (extreme ultraviolet) lithography equipment and EUV technology bears a great responsibility of keeping Moore’s Law valid. Chang said major semiconductor firms have been keen to incorporate EUV technology into their 7nm process.


ChowNow, a GrubHub competitor, raises $20 million Series B round

ChowNow prides itself on being different from the likes of GrubHub and Seamless. ChowNow’s flagship service offers restaurants a white-label platform that enables restaurants to own their customer data, and feel confident their customers aren’t constantly fending off menus and discounts from competitors. Unlike its competitors, ChowNow charges an upfront monthly cost of $150/month per location instead of taking a commission on all orders.

“Yes, our software supports delivery but we have a unique place in the restaurant where we don’t play in the delivery space outright,” Webb said. “We’re also not a traditional marketplace either. Shopify for restaurants is an accurate way to describe us. Restaurants can plug in to our system and integrate it into their delivery backend.”

In charts: has the US shale drilling revolution peaked?

Throughout its existence, the shale oil industry has consumed cash. Companies have been unable to cover their drilling costs from their incomes, and have needed constant infusions of debt and equity financing. They have had little difficulty in raising that money, in part because investors wanted to share in the productivity miracle that the companies represented. If the miraculous days are over, and a more humdrum reality is setting in, will investors still be prepared to back the industry so willingly? Already equity raising by US exploration and production companies has slowed sharply this year. Plenty of attractive investment opportunities still exist in shale: internal rates of return of 30 per cent and higher are available in the Permian Basin, according to S&P Global Platts Well Economic Analyzer. Will there be enough of those attractive opportunities to keep US oil production rising, as the government’s Energy Information Administration and others expect? The industry says yes, but the drilling and productivity numbers will be worth watching closely over the months to come.

 

Australia’s got a lock on supply of the metal used for EV batteries

“Australia’s importance has been cemented by offtake deals and equity investments in mines,” Alice Yu, a Hong Kong-based consultant at CRU, said by phone. Backing from major battery manufacturers and auto producers could also see the nation add processing facilities to develop exports of higher-value lithium chemicals, she said.

Still, Macquarie Group Ltd. has warned there’s a bearish outlook for lithium prices in the short-to-medium term as “too many Australian rock producers are crowding in” with new projects. The surge is threatening to create a period of oversupply before rising demand for electric vehicles clears the surplus from about 2021, the bank said in a note this month.

Even with a wave of new supply, including from Australia, the lithium market is likely to remain tight with a stronger demand outlook than anticipated, according to Melbourne-based UBS Group AG analyst Lachlan Shaw. “We have had increased supply this year, and all the while lithium prices have kept going up,” he said. “The market is probably underestimating demand.”

How Saudi Arabia is building its $2 trillion fund

The kingdom plans to transfer ownership of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, to the PIF. An initial public offering of a small Aramco stake — probably just under 5 percent — will provide investment cash. That sale could raise about $106 billion, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute. Transferring Aramco to the PIF would allow the government to get its revenue from investments, rather than oil, according to the Prince, and along the way transform the PIF into the world’s biggest sovereign fund.

 

Bogle: Vanguard’s Size a Worry

The economies of scale just can’t keep going on much longer. We’ve only got 12 basis points to go, and let me say it: There’s an irreducible minimum, no matter how big you are, just for the fun of it, 8 basis points, cost a lot of money to run this business. We’re now talking about a 4 basis point improvement in cost. I just don’t think it’s worthwhile, hyping and trying to bring in more and more money.

The David Rubenstein Show: Masayoshi Son

On his US$100bn Vision Fund: He thinks that machines will become more intelligent than humans across a wide range of subjects within the next 30 years, an event referred to as the singularity. This will have a profound and largely positive impact on humankind. The fund will invest in companies that underpin the global shifts brought on by artificial intelligence.

On the Alibaba investment: Invested US$20m early on in the company’s history. He met with Jack Ma, who at the time had no business plan, zero revenue and only 35-40 employees. Still, he could tell from the way he talked (with “strong, shining eyes”) that he had a vision and impressive leadership skills. Similar story with Jerry Yang and the Yahoo! investment.

On his recent investment in ARM: Biggest investment to date. UK-based semiconductor company that has an overwhelming market share for semiconductor designs used in mobile phones and other mobile devices. He says they will ship more than 1 trillion IoT chips in the next 20 years.

Chinese women are getting rich by simply livestreaming their days

In China, young women like 23-year-old Huan Huan can earn up to $20,000 a month livestreaming themselves just doing regular things. That’s about 30 times more than the average college graduate makes at their first job.

In China, which banned online porn in 2000, PG-rated livestreaming has become a $4 billion-a-year industry with nearly 350 million followers — more than the entire population of the United States.


How do I get my daughter interested in computers?

Nobody becomes a software engineer because they love writing code; they become a software engineer because it allows them to build out ideas. This is a useful skill to have. Except that most software engineers aren’t realizing their own ideas. They’re getting paid to build someone else’s pet project. Software engineers are the wage labourers of the tech industry.

The most important tech skill, then, isn’t computers or engineering — It’s the art of getting paid to control vast amounts of money. Then you can make programmers build out whatever dumb ideas you like. Parents who want their daughters to succeed in Silicon Valley need not worry about teaching their girls to code: Teach them about capitalism instead.

Curated Insights 2017.10.01

Alibaba takes control of delivery business at center of U.S. probe

China’s largest web marketplace agreed to increase its stake in Cainiao Smart Logistics Network Ltd. to 51 percent. Under the deal, Alibaba plans to consolidate Cainiao’s financials into its own books, eroding Alibaba’s bottom line, and will get an additional seat on Cainiao’s board, taking its representation to four out of seven seats.

It oversees a coterie of more than a dozen shipping partners, orchestrating deliveries carried out by about 2 million people across more than 600 cities. Cainiao’s operation had enabled Alibaba to maintain what it called an asset-light model that eschewed expensive warehouse construction.

“They’re realizing that it’s much more capital-intensive than they expected to build this out. Right now they are essentially obligating themselves to report profit and loss on the income statement every quarter, which they probably should have been doing.”


A small-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone

This comparison is apt: the Watch is effectively stealing usage from the iPhone. At first it took alerts, timekeeping, and basic messaging away. Now it’s taking basic phone calls and music and maybe maps.

It’s fitting therefore to remember how the iPhone was launched; as a tentpole troika: A wide-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone. Today the new Watch is a small-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone.

So not only is the Series 3 Watch more powerful than the original iPhone but it is also poetically capable of the same tentpole jobs. But it’s not just a miniature iPhone. It has a new, completely orthogonal attack on non-consumption and market creation: fitness and health. This is a key point. The iPhone was born a phone but grew up to be something completely unprecedented, unforeseen by its creators and, frankly, undescribable in the language of 2007.


Forget the Swiss, it’s Fossil that Apple is threatening

In the watch world, the Fossil Group is a giant. It has 17 brands: six of its own (Fossil, Skagen, etc.) and 11 licensed brands (Michael Kors, Emporio Armani, Tory Burch, etc.) In 2014, it was on a roll, achieving a fifth consecutive year of record revenues, at $3.51 billion. Watches accounted for 78% of that.

Then along came Apple. Suddenly, Fossil was competing with a monster 67 times bigger than it was (measured by revenues). “Prior to that, we were clearly positioned as the competitively advantaged leader in a growing category,” Fossil CEO Kosta Kartsotis told financial analysts in February. “However, with the introduction of technology into wrist devices, traditional watches came under pressure and we were disadvantaged. We didn’t have the technology capabilities to compete with smartwatches, leading to a decline in our market.”

“I haven’t met with anybody [in Switzerland] yet who sees this [downturn] as anything other than a slump,” he told me in March. “They don’t see the threat from the smartwatch.” Apple will continue to perfect the smartwatch, he says. “By version 3 or 4, everyone will be thinking this is a good thing to have. Forty to 80 million people will want this.”


Siemens to merge rail operations with French rival Alstom

Siemens will transfer its business making train and transit cars and signaling equipment to Alstom in exchange for a 50 percent stake in the enlarged company.

The combination will give the German company control of an icon of French industry that developed the high-speed TGV trains that zip across the countryside at upwards of 300 kilometers an hour (186 miles per hour)…Capping years of speculation in the industry about the need for consolidation, the tie up could mirror the emergence of European planemaker Airbus in the 1970s that went on to become the biggest competitor to Boeing Co.

Now, the companies’ tie up comes after Chinese dominance of the train market has solidified. CRRC controls about half of the rail car and locomotive market, while Siemens and Bombardier each have about 12 percent and Alstom around 11 percent, according to Desjardins Capital Markets. The Chinese company was formed in 2015 in a merger of the country’s two main regional train manufacturers and it has won rail orders in U.S. cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

China gives automakers more time in world’s biggest EV plan

Under the so-called cap-and-trade policy, automakers must obtain a new-energy vehicle score — which is linked to the production of various types of zero- and low-emission vehicles — of at least 10 percent starting in 2019, rising to 12 percent in 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said on its website. The rule applies to carmakers that manufacture or import more than 30,000 traditional vehicles annually, and those who fail to comply must buy credits or face fines.

The targets look achievable for the industry as a whole, McKerracher said. Considering the credit structure, 12 percent in 2020 would translate to about 4 percent to 5 percent of actual vehicle sales.


Why India will tell us when self-driving cars will hit the US

When will self-driving cars arrive? Depends on who you ask. The VCs believe what they’re told by their portfolio companies. Automakers will say anything to inflate their stock price relative to Tesla. Self-driving evangelists and “keynote speakers” on LinkedIn? Broken clocks not yet right even once. The media? There are still less than ten people writing intelligently on a market expected to hit $7 trillion.

Population density is so high that no current Automatic Emergency Braking system could possibly work in traffic, because no car equipped with it would ever move. What about Blind Spot Monitoring systems? They’d be lighting up and chiming so much, you’d have to disable them.

That Indian roads are more dangerous than America’s is obvious, and beside the point. No government ever eases traffic safety laws. Indian traffic fatalities in 2013 approached 240,000, in a country of 1.3 billion. That’s 16.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year. For those numbers to go down, people have to have choices that lead to them to safety. In a country where the majority have never owned a car, where two wheelers dominate and road conditions are terrible, getting people into any car will improve overall safety.


Learning effects, network effects, and runaway leaders

Learning effects have the potential to generate enormous economic value, as network effects do, if companies are able to close this loop and make it self-reinforcing: that is, if their products learn more because they have become more valuable.

In order for learning effects to produce runaway leaders, a company must secure a definitive advantage over its competitors in one of the component areas of learning effects – data, intelligence, product innovation or user/customer growth – and leverage this into advantages in the others, such that the company can acquire data, learn, innovate and grow not only more rapidly than its competitors do, but more rapidly than they can.

Certain products – particularly those built on highly dynamic datasets – may have perpetual learning curves such that in a rapidly changing world, they can always be meaningfully improved. It’s around these kinds of products that the most valuable runaway leaders will likely develop. Potential examples include search, semantic engines, adaptive autonomous systems and applications requiring a comprehensive real-time understanding of the world.

How Europe’s changes to copyright law will affect America

The goal of these copyright changes is to adopt new protections for publishers and artists. But if they are put in place, the burdens they would place on internet platforms would curtail the kind of quick uploading, sharing, commenting and responding that makes the Web so useful. Additionally, we have no reason to believe that these new plans would actually benefit the journalists and artists in whose name the measures are being proposed.

Yet a lot more is at stake than the fate of Google or Facebook. Those companies at least can afford the cost of complying with (or avoiding) Europe’s copyright proposals. Smaller businesses can’t. For example, medium-sized internet platforms pay between $10,000 and $25,000 a month in licensing fees for a common tool that conducts a copyright scan of uploaded audio files, an impost that could wipe out a new startup.


India: A $6T GDP By 2027?

The government and the Central Bank are on a mission to rapidly formalize and financialize the Indian economy. India has introduced a universal biometric identification system (Aadhaar), initiated measures to boost financial inclusion, moved to a new fully online value-added goods and services tax system and implemented real-time payment systems. Coupled with rising smartphone penetration, likely doubling from 300 million to nearly 700 million by 2020, these changes are driving India’s digitization. We expect a step change in India’s per capita income, banking system and stock market performance over the coming years. The channels of change include more financial penetration, greater tax compliance and increased credit to micro enterprises and consumers.

The result could be a multi-trillion dollar investment opportunity. Aside from the near-term teething issues involved in execution of such big changes and other cyclical problems faced by the economy, there is scope for visible shifts in economic activity starting in 2018.


We’re going to need more lithium

By 2030, Tianqi Lithium, SQM, Albemarle, and FMC, the companies that dominate the business, will have to supply enough lithium to feed the equivalent of 35 plants the size of the Tesla Gigafactory now being built in Nevada, according to BNEF. The total investment in new mines, including some for other elements used in lithium ion batteries, will likely range from $350 billion to $750 billion, according to analysts at researcher Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.


 

Our hankering for meat is a boon for global antibiotic producers

Food animals will consume 200,235 tons of antimicrobial medicines by 2030, 53 percent more than they were getting in 2013, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science. China, already the world’s largest consumer of veterinary antimicrobials, is forecast to lead the charge, with a 59 percent jump.

Limiting daily meat intake worldwide to the equivalent of one standard fast-food burger per person could reduce global consumption of antimicrobials in food animals by 66 percent, the researchers said.

37 quotes from big corporate execs who laughed off disruption when it hit

“Amazon.com is a very interesting retail concept, but wait till you see what Wal-Mart is gearing up to do,” he said [IBM Chairman, Louis V. Gerstner Jr.]. Mr. Gerstner noted that last year IBM’s Internet sales were five times greater than Amazon’s. Mr. Gerstner boasted that IBM “is already generating more revenue, and certainly more profit, than all of the top Internet companies combined.”

The Apple watch is an interesting toy, but not a revolution,” said Swatch executive Nick Hayek Jr., speaking to a Swiss newspaper. “I personally don’t want my blood pressure and blood sugar values stored in the cloud, or on servers in Silicon Valley … I cannot accept the responsibility of whether my device warns a customer in time before a heart attack.”

“Apple is like a mutant virus, escaping from the traditional structure of the PC industry, but the industry will still eventually build up immunity, thus further blocking this trend, and we believe the size of the non-Apple camp will exceed Apple’s, because this is how the industry normally evolves.”

“Television won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”


So few market winners, so much dead weight

Only 4 percent of all publicly traded stocks account for all of the net wealth earned by investors in the stock market since 1926, he has found. A mere 30 stocks account for 30 percent of the net wealth generated by stocks in that long period, and 50 stocks account for 40 percent of the net wealth.

Once you actually find these rare companies, you have to hold on to them. This too is much more challenging than most realize. The stellar stocks tend to have regular, gut-wrenching price slumps; the big winners above have all suffered retreats of 50, 60 even 90 percent on the way to becoming the biggest winners. Most investors lack the fortitude and discipline to manage the pain of these severe price fluctuations.

Once you get through those two challenges, you have to decide when to jettison these winners since nothing continues forever. As Sommer points out, General Motors Co. was a star from 1926 on — that is, until it went bankrupt in June 2009 and basically wiped out equity investors. AT&T Inc., meanwhile, was broken into many smaller parts, some of which have done very well (Verizon Communications Inc.), while others not so much (Lucent).

As we have observed repeatedly, finding the very best companies to own is very difficult to do.


Some market myths hurt investors

Margin debt at all-time highs mean euphoria in the markets. Margin debt reflects the amount of borrowed money used to purchase securities in the markets. It sounds scary when people point to margin debt at an all-time high because that means investors are borrowing more money than ever to buy stocks. But this indicator doesn’t really tell us anything. As markets rise, margin debt will rise. As markets fall, margin debt will fall. All historical margin debt peaks tell you is that margin debt fell when stocks fell. The following chart is more useful, as it shows margin debt as a percentage of the overall market cap of the stock market. Margin debt is a backward-looking indicator that tells you nothing else beyond how the stock market has performed in the past.

Something’s gotta give between stocks and bonds. Investors often assume stocks or bonds are telling them something. So when both rise at the same time, the assumption is that either the equity or fixed-income market must be wrong. The problem with this line of thinking is that stocks and bonds both go up over time, and most of the time they go up at the same time.

Bonds always lose money when interest rates rise. Out of those 36 rising rate years, 27 had positive returns on five-year Treasuries. So three-quarters of the time when rates rose on a calendar-year basis, bonds still earned positive returns. Rising rates will lead to lower bond prices, but you have to think in terms of total returns to understand the relationship between bond performance and interest rates.

Curated Insights 2017.08.27

Inside Waymo’s secret world for training self-driving cars

Collectively, they now drive 8 million miles per day in the virtual world. In 2016, they logged 2.5 billion virtual miles versus a little over 3 million miles by Google’s IRL self-driving cars that run on public roads. And crucially, the virtual miles focus on what Waymo people invariably call “interesting” miles in which they might learn something new. These are not boring highway commuter miles.

And in both kinds of real-world testing, their cars capture enough data to create full digital recreations at any point in the future. In that virtual space, they can unhitch from the limits of real life and create thousands of variations of any single scenario, and then run a digital car through all of them. As the driving software improves, it’s downloaded back into the physical cars, which can drive more and harder miles, and the loop begins again.

Not surprisingly, the hardest thing to simulate is the behavior of the other people. It’s like the old parental saw: “I’m not worried about you driving. I’m worried about the other people on the road.”

“Right now, you can almost measure the sophistication of an autonomy team—a drone team, a car team—by how seriously they take simulation. And Waymo is at the very top, the most sophisticated.”

And in reality, those 20,000 scenarios only represent a fraction of the total scenarios that Waymo has tested. They’re just what’s been created from structured tests. They have even more scenarios than that derived from public driving and imagination. “They are doing really well,” Peng said. “They are far ahead of everyone else in terms of Level Four,” using the jargon shorthand for full autonomy in a car.


Halliburton and Microsoft do not compute for OPEC

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the oil business is a high-tech one. You don’t map out complex rock formations thousands of feet beneath the ground in three or four dimensions and then drill into them without advanced tools. For example, Total SA, the French oil major, boasts the 19th-most powerful supercomputer in the world, Pangea, which has clocked a speed of more than 5 quadrillion calculations a second (technical note: pretty fast) according to The Top 500 List.

…the average well has less than 10 gigabytes of data associated with it, equivalent to a couple of high-definition movies.

…the company’s teams now have access to more than 80 real-time data streams and sensors embedded in wells, giving them a constantly updated picture of what’s happening beneath the ground. The killer app here, in every sense of the word, is providing crews and their managers with an integrated platform; a suite of sensors and software communicating seamlessly, updating constantly and available to all involved.


Costco is playing a dangerous game with the web

Costco’s reluctance to embrace the web is understandable. Its warehouse club business model is based on selling a limited assortment of bulk-size food and household items at low prices, alongside an ever-changing selection of general merchandise—everything from margarita machines to kayaks. This creates an in-store treasure hunt experience. Both elements are costly and difficult to replicate online.

Potentially more worrisome: Half of Costco’s shoppers are Amazon Prime members, Kantar Retail says, up from 14 percent five years ago. Sharing too many of the same subscribers could be risky, since Planet Retail RNG analyst Graham Hotchkiss says Amazon now offers many bulk-size goods at prices that rival Costco’s. And Amazon’s pending $13.7 billion deal to buy Whole Foods Market Inc. will give it a firm foothold in groceries—the primary reason people shop at Costco, according to Barclays’s Short.


What is Amazon, really?

At last count, Amazon’s delivery infrastructure included more than 180 warehouses, 28 sorting centers, 59 local package delivery stations, and 65 hubs for its two-hour Prime Now deliveries. Investment bank Piper Jaffray estimates that 44% of the US population lives within 20 miles of an Amazon warehouse or delivery station. Amazon’s proposed $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods could add another 431 distribution nodes in bougie neighborhoods to that network.

“Our goal with Amazon Prime, make no mistake, is to make sure that if you are not a Prime member, you are being irresponsible,” Bezos told shareholders in May. The plan is working: 63% of US Amazon users subscribe to Prime, and estimated to reach more than half of American households by the end of the year. Prime doesn’t just lift $99 off of regular Amazon users each year—it’s proven to be a powerful customer loyalty program. The average Prime user spends $1,300 each year on the site, with 78% of Prime users still citing free 2-day shipping as the main reason for coughing up the fee.

The service first reached customers by 2005, and was officially launched in the summer of 2006. Tom Szkutak, Amazon’s CFO at the time, said the business was “exposing the guts of Amazon,” using the knowledge gained from 11 years of building Amazon.com. Today AWS is on a tear. It’s the world’s dominant cloud computing provider, and the nearest competitors aren’t even within shouting distance: Amazon’s servers deliver 34% of the world’s public cloud services, reports Synergy Research Group, while Microsoft, IBM and Google provide 24% combined.


Amazon vs Maersk: The clash of titans shaking the container industry

Manufacturing is new step for Amazon and they won a patent earlier this year to develop a system to rapidly create clothing and other products after a customer order is placed. This forms a cheap and simple method for Chinese exporters as Amazon have effectively wiped out the middle man, acting as a shipbroker for itself and on behalf of smaller companies.

Freight forwarders may find it hard to compete with companies as powerful as Amazon and Maersk, who can afford to develop disruptive technology and prioritize increasing market share over higher profits.

Small independent ship owners will be left behind unless they adapt their business model to seek different shipping routes, for example choosing container lanes that do not feed into deep sea ports where the ultra large container vessels operated by Maersk can only dock.


Great Wall Motor’s better path leads to emerging markets

The Proton purchase not only gives Geely inroads to the Malaysian consumer market but also access to production plants in the region that could be used to manufacture other car brands. Being closer to the end customer would lower production costs. While Proton’s Tanjung Malim plant has the capacity to churn out one million cars annually, it made only 72,000 last year, according to the Malaysian government.

A lean company, analysts estimate Great Wall makes 60 percent of its parts in-house. It spends little on marketing and is the fourth-most-profitable automaker globally by net margin and return on equity. Its return on invested capital ranks number one among 40 manufacturers tracked by Bloomberg Intelligence.


A handful of companies control almost everything we buy — and beer is the latest victim

A whopping 182 beauty brands fall under the massive umbrellas of seven huge manufacturers: Estée Lauder Companies, L’Oréal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Shiseido, Johnson and Johnson, and Coty.

A 2015 Morgan Stanley report found that 10 companies controlled 41% of the clothing market. No other retailer had more than 2% of market share. The retailers dominating the market were Walmart, T.J. Maxx, Macy’s, Gap, Kohl’s, Target, Ross Stores, Amazon, Nordstrom, and J.C. Penney.

According to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch chart, in 2014 AB InBev and SABMiller alone controlled about 58% of the beer industry’s $33 billion in global profits.

Winner-takes all effects in autonomous cars

… it seems pretty clear that the hardware and sensors for autonomy will be commodities. There is plenty of science and engineering in these (and a lot more work to do), just as there is in, say, LCD screens, but there is no reason why you have to use one rather than another just because everyone else is. There are strong manufacturing scale effects, but no network effect. So, LIDAR, for example, will go from a ‘spinning KFC bucket’ that costs $50k to a small solid-state widget at a few hundred dollars or less, and there will be winners within that segment, but there’s no network effect, while winning LIDAR doesn’t give leverage at other layers of the stack (unless you get a monopoly), anymore than than making the best image sensors (and selling them to Apple) helps Sony’s smartphone business. In the same way, it’s likely that batteries (and motors and battery/motor control) will be as much of a commodity as RAM is today – again, scale, lots of science and perhaps some winners within each category, but no broader leverage.

Maps have network effects. When any autonomous car drives down a pre-mapped road, it is both comparing the road to the map and updating the map: every AV can also be a survey car. If you have sold 500,000 AVs and someone else has only sold 10,000, your maps will be updated more often and be more accurate, and so your cars will have less chance of encountering something totally new and unexpected and getting confused. The more cars you sell the better all of your cars are – the definition of a network effect.

The more real world driving data that you have, the more accurate you can make your simulation and therefore the better you can make your software. There are also clear scale advantages to simulation, in how much computing resource you can afford to devote to this, how many people you have working on it, and how much institutional expertise you have in large computing projects. Being part of Google clearly gives Waymo an advantage: it reports driving 25,000 ‘real’ autonomous miles each week, but also one billion simulated miles in 2016 (an average of 19 million miles a week).

So, the network effects – the winner-takes-all effects – are in data: in driving data and in maps. This prompts two questions: who gets that data, and how much do you need?

This leads me to the final question: how much data do you really need? Does the system get better more or less indefinitely as you add more data, or is there an S-Curve – is there a point at which adding more data has diminishing returns? That is – how strong is the network effect?


The stereo speaker company giving sight to self-driving cars

Although it will soon face plenty of competition, Velodyne has become the industry’s go-to lidar supplier and is cranking up production to match. Last year, Ford Motor Co. and Chinese Internet giant Baidu pumped $150 million into Velodyne, money the company used to open its “mega-factory” on San Jose’s southern edge.

Lidar works by firing laser beams — thousands per second — at nearby objects and measuring how quickly they bounce back. With the notable exception of Tesla, most companies pursuing autonomous vehicles rely on lidar, along with radar and cameras.

“The prevailing view is that in the near term — at least a decade — you’re not going to be able to execute this safely without lidar,” said Mike Ramsey, research director at Gartner.

“One major automaker told me they had vetted 50 lidar companies,” Ramsey said. “So more than 50 companies exist, but only Velodyne is producing a lidar they can use.”

Now, the race is to cut lidar’s cost. Velodyne’s most popular lidar, about the size of two stacked hockey pucks, sells for $8,000. As it ramps up production, the company hopes to bring prices down to “a few hundred dollars,” Hall said. “We’re in the inventing business, so we’re going to keep working on this thing until we crack that nut.”


The internal combustion engine is not dead yet

Mazda, which now markets no hybrid vehicles, calls the engine Skyactiv-X and says it is scheduled for a 2019 introduction. In simplest terms, the big difference with the new engine is that under certain running conditions, the gasoline is ignited without the use of spark plugs. Instead, combustion is set off by the extreme heat in the cylinder that results from the piston inside the engine traveling upward and compressing air trapped inside, the same method diesel engines use. The efficiency gains come with the ability to operate using a very lean mixture — very little gas for the amount of air — that a typical spark-ignition engine cannot burn cleanly.

…addresses the challenge of gasoline’s future from a somewhat different direction: the practical limitations of battery electric cars. “Holding a gas nozzle, you can transfer 10 megawatts of energy in five minutes,” he said, explaining today’s refueling reality. To recharge a Tesla electric at that rate today, he said, would require “a cable you couldn’t hold.”

By 2050, Dr. Heywood’s studies project, today’s fuel economy could be doubled. “A quarter to a third of that improvement would come from improvements to the vehicle,” he said, in areas like aerodynamics and weight reduction. Other promising areas include variable compression ratios — a technology Nissan plans to introduce next year — and making better use of available fuels.


Wind power is all grown up now

People tend to think of renewable energy companies as the new kids on the block but Vestas Wind Systems A/S, the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, is no pimply teenager. The Danish group entered the turbine business almost 40 years ago and went public in 1998…

The wind industry is consolidating — Siemens merged its wind business with Gamesa in April — and competition is intensifying. This puts pressure on margins and makes it more difficult to lift revenue.

A bigger concern is that more countries are adopting auction-based contract awards. These promote projects that deliver the cheapest electricity as opposed to feed-in tariffs, which guaranteed a fixed electricity price. So life’s getting a little tougher for Vestas.

There are other ways to make money. High-margin maintenance contracts are an increasing share of business. There are opportunities too to upgrade the installed base with those newer, better turbines.


The very symbolic collision of Sotheby’s-Christie’s and Poly-Guardian in China art

If Sotheby’s and Christie’s are purely commercial Giants, then Poly Culture and Guardian are something else. They are certainly Giants, dominating the domestic art auction industry. But Poly in particular is also a direct extensions of the State. Because it turns out, what happens to historic Chinese art is a significant concern to the Chinese government. Part of this sensitivity is about repatriating works that were stolen and misappropriated over the centuries. Many of the works that have been returned can be seen on display at Poly’s headquarters in Beijing.

Poly Auction is now not just one of the top two auction houses in China. It is also the number three art auction house in the world (after Christie’s and Sotheby’s). Their 2013 turnover was over a billion dollars (about one-fourth of Sotheby’s). They sell approximately 10,000 objects each week, with as many as 40 different catalogs per show.

Because at the same time, Poly and Guardian have been expanding internationally. And they are now on Sotheby’s and Christie’s home turf for the first time. Both have moved into Hong Kong. And Poly is now moving aggressively into New York City, where Sotheby’s is headquartered. Thus far, they have focused mostly on finding consignments in the US for sale in China, particularly Chinese collectibles. But Poly’s openly stated ambition is to become the world’s top art auction house. According to CEO Jiang Yingchun, “We are very big in the art auction market in Mainland China but still have a long way to go to become the biggest auction house worldwide”.


It’s hard to keep up with all that lithium demand

Australia is the biggest lithium producer, though Chile and Argentina account for 67 percent of global reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Extracting lithium from the salt flats that dot the arid northern regions of the South American countries is a lot easier and cheaper than digging underground for metals like copper. Producers just pump the brine solution into evaporation ponds, harvesting the mineral once the moisture is gone.

With demand expected to keep rising as electric cars gain a bigger share of the global auto fleet, Argentina and Chile are attracting interest from mining companies because it costs about $2,000 to $3,800 a ton to extract lithium from brine, compared with $4,000 to $6,000 a ton in Australia, where lithium is mined from rock.

Of the 39 lithium ventures tracked by CRU, only four have firm commitments, and all of those are in China, adding about 24,000 tons of annual supply. Another 10 projects representing 400,000 tons are rated “probable” — in Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, Argentina and Australia — but probably only about 30 percent will make it into production, CRU said.

“But we have a window of only 25 years to develop these projects because prices can fall again as soon as a replacement to lithium appears.”


Hunt for next electric-car commodity quickens as prices soar

As one of the key components in the new breed of rechargeable batteries and with supply dominated by the Democratic Republic of Congo, prices have surged at four times the pace of major metals in the past year.

The cobalt market is in a 5,500-ton deficit, according to CRU, with global supply contracting 3.9 percent in 2016.

“The mix of iron and cobalt is tricky. Cobalt is already mined as a byproduct of copper and nickel, but iron has the most negative impact on cobalt, which means processing would be more difficult and more expensive.”

Aging Japan wants automation, not immigration

In the absence of large-scale immigration, the only viable solution for many domestic industries is to plow money into robots and information technology more generally.

With unemployment down to 2.8 percent, companies are increasingly realizing they need to pay up to attract and keep qualified personnel. The other option — increased immigration — is politically difficult.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecast IT investment in Japan to rise as much as 9 percent annually in coming years, with the difference in software investment per worker versus the U.S. falling to 5 to 1 by 2020 from about 10 to 1 now.


Who really owns American farmland?

Farmland, the Economist announced in 2014, had outperformed most asset classes for the previous 20 years, delivering average U.S. returns of 12 percent a year with low volatility.

Today, the USDA estimates that at least 30 percent of American farmland is owned by non-operators who lease it out to farmers. And with a median age for the American farmer of about 55, it is anticipated that in the next five years, some 92,000,000 acres will change hands, with much of it passing to investors rather than traditional farmers.

It’s a tenuous predicament, growing low-cost food, feed, and fuel (corn-based ethanol) on ever-more-expensive land, and it raises a host of questions. Is this a sustainable situation? What happens to small farmers? And are we looking at a bubble that will burst?

In practice, our best hope of true stewardship of the land will come from enlightened, committed owner-farmers. But the trend toward treating farmland as a financial investment, and the high prices that have come with it, make it harder and harder for new young farmers to enter the field.

By buying land in other countries and farming it, foreign buyers are able to support their domestic food supply and other markets that depend on agriculture without having to compete for essential products on the global market.

The government of China now controls more than 400 American farms consisting of a hundred thousand acres of farmland, with at least 50,000 in Missouri alone, plus CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), 33 processing plants, the distribution system—and one out of every four American hogs.


Yesterday’s “plastics” are today’s crypto tokens

Our ability to profit from our investments relies on two things: having the resources needed to purchase the asset and then having a way to sell it — a concept known as liquidity. Tokenizing real-world assets will allow buyers to access assets never before within their reach, and sellers to move assets that were previously difficult to unload. The secret lies in the possibility of fractionalization.

Imagine unlocking cash from the equity in your home without having to borrow or pay interest. Tokenize your home and sell fractions to the public. Buy the tokens back, or pay the investors their value at the time the property is sold.

In the future, you’ll be able to tokenize the value of unused bedrooms and backyards in your home. You’ll be able to tokenize use of your vehicle for Uber driving while you’re away on travel. You’ll even be able to tokenize access to your phone so marketers have to pay you tokens in order to gain access to your attention. Yes, this will happen.

At 5,4000 pounds, the Tesla is no lightweight, and the Aventador is a good 1,200 pounds lighter. But the Ludicrous + enabled vehicle not only beats the Lambo, it sets a world record for the quickest SUV with a quarter mile time clocking in at 11.418 seconds at nearly 118 miles-per-hour.

Twitter Snacks 2017.07.05