Innovation Wrap: Ready For Liftoff, Coronavirus Valley, ByteDance Deep Dive

By Thomas Rice | More Articles by Thomas Rice

Here’s your weekly wrap of technology, innovation, and finance news.

?️ Space

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft has arrived at its launch pad, ready for this week’s historic launch.

This historic launch will be a major milestone for commercial spaceflight. Crew Dragon’s launch will be the first time since a new type of crew vehicle launched from the United States since NASA’s space shuttle program began in 1981. It will also be the first crewed launch to orbit from the U.S. since the shuttle program ended in 2011.


The next era of space exploration is getting closer every day.

Last week NASA proposed the Artemis Accords, a set of rules that could govern how different organisations and nations use the Moon.

This directive raises a question: What, besides basic infrastructure to support astronauts, could be worth protecting on the moon? The answers from science are as uncertain as they are tantalizing, revolving largely around what resources may lie untapped in scarcely surveyed lunar regions. Many researchers are focused on the depths of the moon’s coldest, darkest craters, which are scattered around the sun-shy lunar poles. There water ice seems to exist in abundance, ripe for extraction and conversion into oxygen, potable water and even rocket fuel. Some envision mining that ice to create self-sustaining lunar colonies, as well as fuel depots in cislunar space for a wide number of uses. A few even speculate that the moon could eventually supply helium-3—an isotope deposited on its surface by solar winds—as a potent fuel for fusion reactors back on an energy-hungry Earth.

NASA is also seeking US citizens to participate in Social Isolation Studies ahead of missions to the Moon and Mars.

Participants will experience environmental aspects similar to those astronauts are expected to experience on future missions to Mars. A small international crew will live together in isolation for eight months conducting scientific research, using virtual reality and performing robotic operations among a number of other tasks during the lunar mission. The research will be conducted to study the effects of isolation and confinement as participants work to successfully complete their simulated space mission. Results from ground-based missions like this help NASA prepare for the real-life challenges of space exploration and provide important scientific data to solve some of these problems and to develop countermeasures.

Scientific American interviewed Jessica Watkins, a NASA astronaut and geologist who spent her PhD studying landslides on Mars and now has a shot at being one of the first people to step foot on the red planet.

? Artificial Intelligence

If you were the Air Force and you were developing drones that fly alongside your fighter jets, what would you call them? How about Skyborg drones? I can only assume the name is a negotiated settlement between Terminator and Star Trek fans on the naming committee.

The U.S. Air Force is finally pushing into the world of robot combat drones, vowing to fly the first of its “Skyborg” drones by 2023. The service envisions Skyborg as a merging of artificial intelligence with jet-powered drones. The result will be drones capable of flying alongside fighter jets, carrying out dangerous missions. Skyborg drones will be much cheaper than piloted aircraft, allowing the Air Force to grow its fleet at a lower cost.

WIRED wrote a detailed profile of iFlytek, China’s US$10 billion voice AI company.

Wang, of Human Rights Watch, says the fact that iFlytek builds “both benign, commercial applications as well as surveillance applications is precisely what makes them very problematic.” iFlytek’s data from government projects is likely used to improve its consumer products—and vice versa. “They can train and perfect their AI systems on lots of samples, collected through not only their commercial but also through their military and policing applications,” she says. Every time a traveler speaks into the Translator, their words feed an algorithmic black box. All told, iFlytek’s technologies promise to dramatically reshape life for people in China and elsewhere, by turning an individual’s voice into both a crucial time-saver and an inescapable marker of their identity.

? Finance

Clubhouse, a social media app started in March 2020, now has 1,500 users (but very exclusive users) and is being valued at $100 million.

If you tuned into the Clubhouse app Monday night, you could have heard a lively discussion on how the coronavirus is affecting the prison population. Speakers included MC Hammer, political commentator Van Jones, writer and activist Shaka Senghor and venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz.

I have a confession: I love SoftBank earnings presentations, and this quarter didn’t disappoint. Here we see unicorns falling into the Valley of Coronavirus before some sprout new wings and reach new heights. During the quarter the company revalued WeWork to $2.9 billion, down from $47 billion a year ago, with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son defending the company’s poor investment performance by saying Jesus was also misunderstood and criticised.

Facebook is acquiring Giphy for $400 million, which should see Instagram natively integrate GIFs into comments.

Spotify has exclusively licensed Joe Rogan’s podcast in a multiyear deal worth more than $100 million. Andrew Wilkinson, the co-founder of Tiny and Supercast, has an interesting take on the value of Joe Rogan’s following.

A strategy of subsidising consumer purchases to build market share can lead to some interesting arbitrage strategies (DoorDash + pizza). Unfortunately, they don’t tend to scale well.

? App Economy

Turner Novak wrote a deep dive on the rise of TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, which is worth a read.

ByteDance is the arguably the most serious competitor to Google, ever. It reaches consumers in the two largest middle classes in the world, China and the US, at a scale larger than any other digital advertising company. Like its Chinese counterparts, its seen success with monetization models beyond just advertising, which US-based competitors have struggled with to-date.

Kevin Meyer, who led Disney’s streaming efforts, has also just joined Bytedance to lead the company’s global expansion as Chief Operating Officer and CEO of TikTok.

“Bytedance and TikTok are enormously powerful opportunities,” Mr. Mayer said in an interview. “I think the business is growing rapidly and serving a need.”

Mr. Mayer said he would be growing Bytedance’s various businesses and seeking new opportunities.

“I will be looking at TikTok and looking at closely related and adjacent businesses that are large,” he said. “Gaming, music comes to mind. Video, writ large, is an interesting opportunity.”

? Health

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems are developing tiny robots that can travel through rushing blood to deliver drugs (see their paper).

The team tested the robots in a simulation using mouse blood and synthetic channels lined with human endothelial cells – the kind of cells that line the inner walls of our blood vessels.

The robots were exposed to a mixture of cancerous and healthy tissue. The microrollers selectively attached to the cancer cells and were activated using UV light to release the doxorubicin.

Researchers at Nanjing University have developed a patch filled with oxygen-producing blue-green algae that heals skin wounds faster than other methods, at least in the mice they’ve tested it on so far (see their paper).

After six days, the wounds treated with the bacterial patch had shrunk by 45 per cent, compared to only 20 per cent for those treated with oxygen gas. The wounds treated with the bacterial patch also closed completely about three days earlier, and no side-effects were observed.

?️ Ecommerce

Facebook announced Facebook Shops, a new ecommerce feature that will allow businesses to list their products on Facebook and Instagram easily.

Ecommerce made up 16.2% of US retail spend in the March quarter according to an analysis of US Department of Commerce data. There’s still a long way to go.

Since March, the retail industry has been “turned on its head,” according to Colin Sebastian, managing director of equity research at Robert W. Baird & Co. He anticipates future quarterly ecommerce data from the Commerce Department will show a hefty jump in penetration as online sales abruptly shot up in April.

“The question we need to ask is how much of the incremental ecommerce market share is sustainable and how much local and in-store shopping consumers will resume once economies reopen,” Sebastian said. “Not all of the ecommerce market share gains will be retained, but we think a lot of it will be.”

? Gaming

Spending on gaming hardware grew 163% in April 2020 compared to a year ago. Video game software sales grew 55% and video game accessories and game cards grew 49%.

Remember last year when Riot Games used their 10-year League of Legends anniversary to announce seven new games? Perhaps this started a trend. Last week Embracer Group announced they have 118 games under development and Take-Two Interactive announced they have 93 full titles planned for the next five years, but more is not always better.

In 2008, Electronic Arts published 60 games. By 2017, as the strategy shifted toward fewer and bigger titles, EA was publishing just eight games a year. And the magic of this transition: The 2017 games were generating far more revenue than the 60 games published in 2008.

Epic Games unveiled Unreal Engine 5 and it looks stunning. If you want an informed walkthrough, here’s a game engine developer talking through the demo. The engine will be released next year.


Game live-streaming grew dramatically in April due to the lockdown. Twitch was the biggest winner, but every platform grew.

While there were gains across the board, they weren’t distributed evenly. Twitch — the biggest live-streaming platform — saw the most growth in terms of sheer hours, with its hours watched jumping 50 percent between March and April and a full 101 percent year over year. It’s now up to 1.645 billion hours watched per month.

? Virtual and Augmented Reality

Sony is increasing its VR development efforts in the hopes that live concerts and sporting events via VR will help push the technology into the mainstream.

“The challenge is how we can conduct live [concerts] remotely that are both immersive and real time,” Mr Yoshida said on Wednesday. “We are experimenting with streaming of concerts using VR but the key is how we can offer the experience more smoothly.”

His remarks follow rapper Travis Scott’s concert held in late April inside the hugely popular online game Fortnite, which drew a record 12.3m live viewers and led to a fourfold increase in the streaming of the artist’s latest music video.

Apple has purchased NextVR, a startup which previously focused on broadcasting and producing live and recorded events in virtual reality, likely to augment Apple’s team working on augmented reality. 9to5Mac estimates the acquisition cost $100 million, which if true, would be less than the $115 million they had previously raised.

VentureBeat writer Jeremy Horwitz says holographic VR meetings just became real, referring to his experience using the Spatial collaborative workspace app on the Oculus Quest.

I’m not often at a loss for words, but as I re-entered the real world after my second holographic media briefing this month, I realized that I was struggling to speak or type. Mentally, the sensation was awe — my sincere belief that I had just experienced the future of remote work and meetings.

? Advanced Materials

If you’re searching for a material with particular properties, a new algorithm by Skoltech researchers predicts the optimal combination of chemical elements to use among all possible combinations (see their paper).

This method can speed up the search for record-breaking materials and usher in new technological breakthroughs. Equipped with these materials, scientists can create brand new technologies or increase the efficiency and availability of old ones.

Avantium, a Dutch renewables chemical company, is developing plant-based bottles that can degrade within a year. Coca-Cola, Carlsberg, Danone, and others are backing the project, and these bottles could appear on supermarket shelves by 2023.

Avantium’s plant plastic is designed to be resilient enough to contain carbonate drinks. Trials have shown that the plant plastic would decompose in one year using a composter, and a few years longer if left in normal outdoor conditions. But ideally, it should be recycled, said Van Aken.

⚡ Other Snippets

More tech companies are embracing remote work. Facebook will soon allow current employees to apply to work remotely permanently, and Mark Zuckerberg expects half of the company’s employees to be working remotely in the next five to 10 years. Shopify will let its employees work from home indefinitely, as will Coinbase.

Zoom released their End-to-End Encryption Whitepaper. I’m convinced that Zoom will emerge from their security crisis as the most secure large-scale video conferencing platform in the world. Phase 1 of their plan, which implements end-to-end encryption (generating keys on the client rather than on the server), should be relatively straightforward to implement due to Zoom’s existing architecture which doesn’t need to decrypt video streams on Zoom servers in order to function.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers found that nearly half of the Twitter accounts discussing “reopening America” may be bots.

Tesla is planning to introduce a new lost-cost, long-life battery in its Model 3 sedan in China later this year or early next year. The new batteries are being jointly developed with Chinese battery giant CATL and could make the Model 3 cheaper than conventional gas-guzzling vehicles.

Taken together, the advances in battery technology, the strategy of expanding the ways in which EV batteries can be used and the manufacturing automation on a huge scale all aim at the same target: Reworking the financial math that until now has made buying an electric car more expensive for most consumers than sticking with carbon-emitting internal combustion vehicles.

My favourite zoomorphic robot, Spot, is now herding sheep in New Zealand. A dog is still a much cheaper option.

About Thomas Rice

Thomas Rice is the portfolio manager for the Perpetual Global Innovation Share Fund, based in Sydney, Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @thomasrice_au.

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