All posts in “Technology”

The new AirFly Pro is the perfect travel buddy for your AirPods Pro

Accessory maker TwelveSouth has a solid lineup of gadgets, many of which fill a niche that their products uniquely address – and address remarkably well. The AirFly Pro ($54.99) is a new iteration on one of those, providing a way to connect Bluetooth headphones to any audio source with a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s being sold at Apple Stores, too, as part of its launch today – and there’s good reason for that: This is the ideal way to make sure you can use your AirPods Pro just about everywhere, including with airplane seatback entertainment systems.

The AirFly Pro will work with any Bluetooth headphones, not just AirPods Pro – but the latest noise cancelling earbuds from Apple are among the best available when it comes to both active noise cancellation and sound quality, both great assets for frequent travellers and people more likely to encounter an in-flight entertainment system. But the AirFly Pro has additional tricks up its sleeve that earn it the ‘Pro’ designation.

This is the first version of the product from TwelveSouth that offers the ability to stream audio in, as well as out. That means you can use it with a car stereo system that only access auxiliary audio-in, for instance, to stream directly from your iPhone to the vehicle’s sound system. The AirFly Pro can also serve that function for home stereo sound equipment, speakers or other audio equipment that accepts audio in, but not Bluetooth streaming connections.

One other neat trick the AirFly Pro packs: Audio sharing, so that you can connect two pairs of headphones at once. This is similar to the native audio sharing feature that Apple introduced for its own AirPod line in the most recent iOS update, but it works through the AirFly with any audio source, and any Bluetooth headphones. That’s yet another great feature for when you’re traveling with a partner.

I’ve had a bit of time to spend with the AirFly Pro, and so far it’s been rock solid, with easy pairing and set up, and a convenient keychain ring/3.5mm connector cap for making it easier to keep with you. It charges via USB-C, and there’s a USB-A to USB-C cable included, too. The on-board battery lasts for 16 or more hours, which is more than enough time for even the longest of flights, and again you’re getting that audio sharing feature which is super handy even around the house for just checking something out on the iPad on your couch.

Alongside the AirFly Pro, TwelveSouth also introduced new AirFly Duo and AirFly USB-C models. The difference is that neither of these offer that wireless audio input mode – but you get up to 4 more hours of battery life for the trade-off. The USB-C model also offers USB-C audio compatibility, for connecting to devices that use that connection for sound instead of 3.5mm, and both of these still also offer dual headphone connectivity, for $5 less at $49.99 each.

No one knows how effective digital therapies are, but a new tool from Elektra Labs aims to change that

Depending on which study you believe, the wearable and digital health market could be worth anywhere from $30 billion to nearly $90 billion in the next six years.

If the numbers around the size of the market are a moving target, just think about how to gauge the validity and efficacy of the products that are behind all of those billions of dollars in spending.

Andy Coravos, the co-founder of Elektra Labs, certainly has.

Coravos, whose parents were a dentist and a nurse practitioner, has been thinking about healthcare for a long time. After a stint in private equity and consulting, she took a coding bootcamp and returned to the world she was raised in by taking an internship with the digital therapeutics company Akili Interactive.

Coravos always thought she wanted to be in healthcare, but there was one thing holding her back, she says. “I’m really bad with blood.”

That’s why digital therapeutics made sense. The stint at Akili led to a position at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an entrepreneur in residence, which led to the creation of Elektra Labs roughly two years ago.

Now the company is launching Atlas, which aims to catalog the biometric monitoring technologies that are flooding the consumer health market.

These monitoring technologies, and the applications layered on top of them, have profound implications for consumer health, but there’s been no single place to gauge how effective they are, or whether the suggestions they’re making about how their tools can be used are even valid. Atlas and Elektra are out to change that. 

The FDA has been accelerating its clearances for software-driven products like the atrial fibrillation detection algorithm on the Apple Watch and the ActiGraph activity monitors. And big pharma companies like Roche, Pfizer and Novartis have been investing in these technologies to collect digital biomarker data and improve clinical trials.

Connected technologies could provide better care, but the technologies aren’t without risks. Specifically, the accuracy of data and the potential for bias inherent in algorithms that were created using flawed data sets mean there’s a lot of oversight that still needs to be done, and consumers and pharmaceutical companies need to have a source of easily accessible data about the industry.

”The increase in FDA clearances for digital health products coupled with heavy investment in technology has led to accelerated adoption of connected tools in both clinical trials and routine care. However, this adoption has not come without controversy,” said Coravos in a statement. “During my time as an Entrepreneur in Residence in the FDA’s Digital Health Unit, it became clear to me that like pharmacies which review, prepare, and dispense drug components, our healthcare system needs infrastructure to review, prepare, and dispense connected technologies components.”

The analogy to a pharmacy isn’t an exact fit, because Elektra Labs currently doesn’t prepare or dispense any of the treatments that it reviews. But Atlas is clearly the first pillar that the digital therapeutics industry needs as it looks to supplant pharmaceuticals as treatments for some of the largest and most expensive chronic conditions (like diabetes).

Coravos and here team interviewed more than 300 professionals as they built the Atlas toolkit for pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders seeking a one-stop shop for all their digital healthcare data needs. Like a drug label, or nutrition label, Atlas publishes labels that highlight issues around the usability, validation, utility, security and data governance of a product.

In an article in Quartz earlier this year, Coravos made her pitch for Elektra Labs and the types of things it would monitor for the nascent digital therapeutics industry. It includes the ability to handle adverse events involving digital therapies by providing a single source where problems could be reported; a basic description for consumers of how the products work; an assessment of who should actually receive digital therapies, based on the assessment of how well certain digital products perform with certain users; a description of a digital therapy’s provenance and how it was developed; a database of the potential risks associated with the product; and a record of the product’s security and privacy features.

As the projections on market size show, the problem isn’t going to get any smaller. As Google’s recent acquisition bid for Fitbit and the company’s reported partnership with Ascension on “Project Nightingale” to collect and digitize more patient data shows, the intersection of technology and healthcare is a huge opportunity for technology companies.

“Google is investing more. Apple is investing more… More and more of these devices are getting FDA cleared and they’re becoming not just wellness tools but healthcare tools,” says Coravos of the explosion of digital devices pitching potential health and wellness benefits.

Elektra Labs is already working with undisclosed pharmaceutical companies to map out the digital therapeutic environment and identify companies that might be appropriate partners for clinical trials or acquisition targets in the digital market.

“The FDA is thinking about these digital technologies, but there were a lot of gaps,” says Coravos. And those gaps are what Elektra Labs is designed to fill. 

At its core, the company is developing a catalog of the digital biomarkers that modern sensing technologies can track and how effective different products are at providing those measurements. The company is also on the lookout for peer-reviewed published research or any clinical trial data about how effective various digital products are.

Backing Coravos and her vision for the digital pharmacy of the future are venture capital investors, including Maverick Ventures, Arkitekt Ventures, Boost VC, Founder Collective, Lux Capital, SV Angel and Village Global.

Alongside several angel investors, including the founders and chief executives from companies including: PillPack, Flatiron Health, National Vision, Shippo, Revel and Verge Genomics, the venture investors pitched in for a total of $2.9 million in seed funding for Coravos’ latest venture.

“Timing seems right for what Elektra is building,” wrote Brandon Reeves, an investor at Lux Capital, which was one of the first institutional investors in the company. “We have seen the zeitgeist around privacy data in applications on mobile phones and now starting to have the convo in the public domain about our most sensitive data (health).” 

If the validation of efficacy is one key tenet of the Atlas platform, then security is the other big emphasis of the company’s digital therapeutic assessment. Indeed, Coravos believes that the two go hand-in-hand. As privacy issues proliferate across the internet, Coravos believes that the same troubles are exponentially compounded by internet-connected devices that are monitoring the most sensitive information that a person has — their own health records.

In an article for Wired, Koravos wrote:

Our healthcare system has strong protections for patients’ biospecimens, like blood or genomic data, but what about our digital specimens? Due to an increase in biometric surveillance from digital tools—which can recognize our face, gait, speech, and behavioral patterns—data rights and governance become critical. Terms of service that gain user consent one time, upon sign-up, are no longer sufficient. We need better social contracts that have informed consent baked into the products themselves and can be adjusted as user preferences change over time.

We need to ensure that the industry has strong ethical underpinning as it brings these monitoring and surveillance tools into the mainstream. Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath—a symbolic promise to provide care in the best interest of patients—a number of security researchers have drafted a new version for Connected Medical Devices.

With more effective regulations, increased commercial activity, and strong governance, software-driven medical products are poised to change healthcare delivery. At this rate, apps and algorithms have the opportunity to augment doctors and complement—or even replace—drugs sooner than we think.

A majority of kids have smartphones by middle school, study finds

Between 2015 and 2019, the age at which a majority of kids have a smartphone dropped from roughly 13-14 to 11, according to new research.

A new study from Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that seeks to inform parents about safe technology and media for children, found that 53 percent of kids have their own smartphone by the age of 11. By age 12, more than 69 percent of kids do. 

The study, the conclusion of a nationally representative survey of over 1,600 kids aged eight to 18, paints a portrait of the current trends in technology usage among tweens and teens. 

In the four years since Common Sense Media’s last national tween and teen survey, smartphone ownership has drastically risen for kids in the age groups surveyed. 

“When your kids say, ‘Everyone else has a phone,’ they kind of have a point,” Michael Robb, a Senior Research Director at Common Sense Media, said. “You have to think about what it means to give an entire world of information to an 8-year-old,” he said.

In 2015, for instance, 24 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds had smartphones. Now, 41 percent of kids in that same age group have them. Even more notable is the fact that almost one in five (19%) 8-year-olds in 2019 now have their own smartphones. 

Four years ago, according to Common Sense Media’s last study, the age at which the majority of kids had their own smartphones was 13-14, ages at which most students are transitioning from middle to high school. Age 11 is roughly the beginning of middle school.

Wait Until 8th encourages parents to wait until at least 8th grade, or the age 14, before giving kids their own phones, citing a myriad of adverse health effects in the reasoning behind their decision. As Wait Until 8th explains on their platform, childhood smartphone usage can impact adolescent brain development, impair sleep, negatively impact social relationships, and increase anxiety and depression risk. Mashable’s Rebecca Ruiz has written about the skills teens and tweens should cultivate before being handed a smartphone. 

“I highly recommend that parents and other caregivers develop a family phone agreement or more general household media plan to prevent such risks,” Dr. Sarah Domoff, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Central Michigan University, said. “A phone agreement or contract should address how the family will respond to unsafe phone use and what signs [a child] would indicate if [their] phone use is interfering with their functioning.” 

Common Sense Media says one goal of its study is to provide a big-picture portrait of generational trends so that those raising and advocating for young people can make decisions that prioritize their wellbeing. 

“If you’re going to give a kid a phone, you need to make sure that they’re using it responsibly. You need to have conversations beforehand — and not just about screen time, but also [more] practical conversations, like, ‘Can you take care of this? Will you not lose this?'” Robb said. “My 7-year-old loses his water bottle; How can you make sure that he understands the value of a $1,000 smartphone? How do we help [ensure that] this technology gets used safely?” 

Registration is open for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020

It’s time to get your robotics fix, startup fans. That’s right, TC Sessions: Robotics & AI returns to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on March 3, 2020. Join us for a day-long deep-dive focused on the intersection of robotics and AI — arguably two of the most exciting and world-changing technologies.

Registration is now open. Save the date and save $100 when you buy an early bird ticket to TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020. Want to save even more? Buy in bulk. You’ll save an extra 18% when you purchase four or more tickets at once.

This is our fourth year hosting this event and last year, 1,500 founders, technologists, engineering students and investors heard TechCrunch editors interview top leaders in AI and robotics, participated in workshops, watched live demos, attended speaker Q&As and enjoyed world-class networking. With so many advances in a range of technologies like AI, GPUs, sensors (to name just a few), it’s an exciting time to be part of this rapidly evolving space.

We’re building out the speaker roster and agenda, so keep checking back. In the meantime, take a look at last year’s agenda to get a sense of the quality programming you can expect.

Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert, a perennial favorite at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI, offers this perspective on the conference. It “blends the best of thoughtful, research-focused robotics with a unique business in technology focus.”

TC Sessions: Robotics & AI takes place on March 3, 2020 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. It’s not too early to save the date, and it’s never too early to save $100 on the price of admission. Join the top people in robotics and AI for a full day devoted to world-changing technologies.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Google reportedly in talks to acquire Fitbit

According to Reuters, Google parent Alphabet is looking to acquire publicly traded wearables company Fitbit.

Reuters says the deal is still being negotiated and could still fall apart, but if it came together, it would surely strengthen Google’s position in the wearables space, an area where it has struggled despite its efforts around smartwatches and Wear OS.

With Wear OS, Google only focused on the smartwatch market, though, and while many of these devices have fitness tracking built-in, either through third-party apps or Google’s own Fit app, there’s still a large market for dedicated (and cheaper) fitness trackers. Fitbit, meanwhile, has been stepping up its smartwatch features with its Versa line, which does not use Wear OS.

Acquiring Fitbit would also fit into Google’s overall hardware strategy, now that it is building its own phones and other devices. In early 2018, it also closed its acquisition of large parts of HTC’s design division. We’ve also seen numerous rumors about Google building a Pixel smartwatch over the years. So far, it has not released its own first-party watch, though.

Fitbits’ stock shot up almost 30 percent after the first rumors surfaced. In recent months, the company’s stock often traded below $3, down from close to $48 shortly after its IPO in 2015. Today, after the announcement, it went up to around $5.20.