Hidden profits in the prescription drug supply chain
Analysts at Bernstein tried to get a better picture of how profitable these companies are by excluding the cost of the drugs that are included in their revenue. The analysts compared the rate at which gross profit converts into earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for pharmacy-benefits managers and other pieces of the drug supply chain, including drug distributors, insurers and pharmacies.
By this analysis, pharmacy-benefit managers are exceptionally profitable; 85% of their gross profit converted into Ebitda over the past two years. Drug distributors converted 46% of their gross profit, while health insurers and pharmacies achieved about 30%.
Sergio Marchionne’s final lap
Few people in automotive history have as impressive a legacy of wealth creation as the 65-year-old Marchionne: Henry Ford, Billy Durant, Karl Benz and Kiichiro Toyoda among them. But those titans were like the industry’s farmers — cultivating businesses from scratch and nurturing them into today’s automaking giants. Marchionne, in contrast, has been the fireman — running into the ruins of once-great companies, putting out the flames and rebuilding something better than before.
“In 2004, when you were first introduced to the auto industry, a lot of people were thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ Right? I was one of them, frankly,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas told Marchionne during FCA’s Jan. 25 quarterly call with analysts. “We hadn’t seen anything like you. You took $2 billion, roughly, and you’ve turned it into around $72 billion, and more important than that, there are many hundreds of thousands of families across many nations that are better off because of you and your team.”
In 2009, Marchionne inherited a mess. Daimler and later Cerberus Capital had largely failed to invest in necessary product improvements or modernize the company’s industrial footprint. Morale among employees who had survived constant cost-cutting, including several rounds of layoffs, and then the bankruptcy could not have been lower. Marchionne offered the automaker’s disheartened employees a path back to potential health — one that demanded long hours, hard work, humility and sacrifice. The employees accepted the challenge. They set to work fixing many of the things that had gone so wrong with Chrysler and its products — improving quality, overhauling 16 vehicles in 19 months, banning rat-gray interiors and fixing manufacturing plants. Their level of commitment and dedication to restore the company to some semblance of health continually surprised Marchionne.
Didi Chuxing took on Uber and won. Now it’s taking on the world
With 400m registered customers in more than 400 Chinese cities, it delivers 25m rides a day, roughly twice as many as Uber and all the other global sharing apps combined. In the future, Liu imagines an even larger purpose, as Didi uses big data and machine learning to fix the many problems that snarl-up urban areas. “When you redesign the transportation system, you basically redesign the whole city,” Liu says. “You redefine how people should live.”
AI currently matches thousands of riders and drivers each minute, as part of a decision-making platform the company calls “Didi Brain”. This already predicts where riders are likely to want cars 15 minutes ahead of time, guessing right 85 per cent of the time. As it seeks out more patterns, Zhang says, the system will see forward an hour, or even a full day, using reinforcement learning, a powerful AI technique in which computers learn via experimentation, much as a child might use trial and error.
But for Didi, machine learning helps solve more basic problems, like traffic signals. “They’re sometimes manually operated every 90 seconds by someone sitting in a room,” Liu says. In the eastern city of Jinan, Didi algorithms now power “smart” traffic lights, which optimise patterns based on real-time car data, cutting congestion by ten per cent. Similar projects are under way in dozens of cities, along with plans to improve traffic lane management and bus systems.
Dyson bets on electric cars to shake up industry
Dyson has worked extensively on lightweight materials, leading several people to speculate the first vehicle may be substantially comprised of plastics rather than metals, something usually reserved for high-end supercars. This would make the cars lighter — important because of the weight of electric batteries — but also allowing for more inventive designs. When announcing the project last September, Sir James said the first car would look “quite different” to any currently on the market.
Dyson aims to lean less heavily on suppliers than traditional carmakers, partly because of a penchant for making components in house, and partly because electric cars contain substantially fewer bits than their combustion engine counterparts. The group already produces electric motors, which turn the wheels, as well as battery cells in-house, and is investing heavily in software development, an increasingly important part of modern cars.
SpaceX joins race to make web truly worldwide
If successful, however, SpaceX has said it plans to start launching its first commercial satellites next year, with a constellation of more than 11,000 circling the earth in low-earth orbit by the time the network is complete in 2024.
The satellite trial points to an impending space race that has drawn in powerful backers. Google, which once looked at developing its own satellite-based network, became one of SpaceX’s biggest backers when it led a $1bn investment round three years ago. Meanwhile, SoftBank and Richard Branson are among the backers of OneWeb, a European rival that hopes to start providing broadband internet next year.
Driverless cars: mapping the trouble ahead
“Everyone is trying to develop their own in-house HD map solution to meet their self-driving needs, and that doesn’t scale,” says Mr Wu of DeepMap. “It’s all reinventing the wheel, and that’s wasting a lot of resources. That will probably be one of the reasons to block self-driving cars from becoming a commodity.” Because companies do not share mapping data and use different standards, they must create new maps for each new city that they plan to enter. “It will delay the deployment in certain geographies,” Mr Wang says.
Willem Strijbosch, head of autonomous driving at TomTom, says the maps needed for driverless cars are different from the current map applications because they will need to “serve a safety critical function”, rather than just being used for navigation. “Another change is that you can no longer use GPS as your only means of localisation in the map,” he adds, because the global positioning system is not precise enough for self-driving cars.
Eyes in the sky: a revolution in satellite technology
Farmers can use the imagery to estimate crop yields around the world, investors are counting the number of oil storage tanks in China and estimating consumption trends, while human rights campaigners have used it to map the flight of the Rohingya population from Myanmar. On a daily basis, we can now study the shrinkage of glaciers, the expansion of cities, the deforestation of remote wildernesses and the devastation of armed conflict in intense detail.
“Seeing the whole Earth as a single entity is not new,” says Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal. “But what is happening now is that we are monitoring it on a daily basis at high resolution. Satellites have enough resolution to observe every big tree in the world every day.”
Planet now has a fleet of 190 satellites in orbit, including 13 SkySat satellites. That network provides a steady feed of imagery — more than 1.3 million photographs a day — that can be combined with other data streams to create a comprehensive “space data processing platform”. The company includes feeds from the Sentinel satellites, which operate as part of the EU’s Copernicus programme, and the US Landsat 8 satellite, adding infrared and radar capability.
Over the past two years, Planet has sold its data services to hundreds of customers in about 100 different countries, including the US, UK and German governments and big companies such as Bayer, Monsanto and Wilbur-Ellis. Planet says it has strict ethical guidelines and vets its customers as best it can to ensure that sensitive images do not end up in the wrong hands.