Innovation Wrap: I See Fake People, CRISPR Vs Cancer, Robots In Construction

By Thomas Rice | More Articles by Thomas Rice

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

? Artificial Intelligence

Fake people are beginning to pop up across the internet. The New York Times created its own AI system to understand just how easy it is to create fake faces. This is also a beautifully animated piece of interactive media.

DataRobot, a Boston-based startup developing an AI development platform designed for enterprise customers, has raised $270 million. The equity round values the company at over $2.7 billion.

DataRobot’s suite is a portable architecture that runs on cloud platforms, on-premise datacenters, or as a fully managed service. It lets customers prepare data and create and validate machine learning models, including classification, advanced regression, time series, and deep learning algorithms. Once it’s deployed, customers can monitor models from a single dashboard and test, run, and maintain them to optimize outcomes that inform decision-making.

Autodesk has acquired Oslo-based Spacemaker, a company that uses AI to assist with urban planning, for $240 million. Autodesk’s CEO Andrew Anagnost said he believes the startup’s underlying technology will help catalyse AI development across his company. Michiel Kotting invested in Spacemaker last year and explained the investment in this thread on Twitter.

?  Robotics

The building sector has made relatively little use of computerisation and automation, but that’s beginning to change. Canvas is a company making its way onto construction sites with its drywalling robot.

Canvas is part of a boom in construction technology, says Alex Schreyer, director of the Building and Construction Technology Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says some of the biggest progress is being made in prefabrication of buildings, using robotic processes to construct large parts of buildings that are then assembled on-site. But increasingly, he says, robots and AI are also finding their way onto conventional work sites.

A pick-and-pack robot needs to plan its motions before undertaking an action. New software utilising deep learning has increased this motion planning speed by 350 times in lab robots, from 29 seconds to 80 milliseconds (see the paper).

“A step change in the operational response speed, as identified in this paper, will make a major difference for warehouse operators,” says Andrew Lahy at Cardiff University, UK, and solutions design director at logistics company DSV.

“We do think this is practical and that it can be applied relatively near term,” says Goldberg.

Forbes writes about a 2-acre vertical farm that apparently out-produces a 720-acre flat farm. The startup featured in the story, Plenty, has raised over $500 million from investors including SoftBank, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and former Google chairman Eric Schmidt.

According to Nate Storey, the future of farms is vertical. It’s also indoors, can be placed anywhere on the planet, is heavily integrated with robots and AI, and produces better fruits and vegetables while using 95% less water and 99% less land.

?  Health

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have shown that CRISPR/Cas9 is very effective in the treatment of metastatic cancers, though it’s only in lab mice so far (see the paper).

“This is the first study in the world to prove that the CRISPR genome editing system can be used to treat cancer effectively in a living animal,” said Prof. Peer. “It must be emphasized that this is not chemotherapy. There are no side effects, and a cancer cell treated in this way will never become active again. The molecular scissors of Cas9 cut the cancer cell’s DNA, thereby neutralizing it and permanently preventing replication.”


Researchers have used computational tools to develop a molecule that could potentially fight the coronavirus at least as well as an antibody (see the paper).

To develop a less finicky alternative, members of the Baker lab, led by the biochemist Longxing Cao, took a computational approach. The researchers modeled how millions of hypothetical, lab-designed proteins would interact with the spike. After sequentially weeding out poor performers, the team selected the best among the bunch and synthesized them in the lab. They spent weeks toggling between the computer and the bench, tinkering with designs to match simulation and reality as closely as they could.

?  Chips and Computing

Ansys claims they have fully simulated an RFIC with a high level of accuracy for the first time. (RFICs are radio-frequency integrated circuits.)

Until now, this kind of simulation was not possible. It is not like we are saying, “look, we can now run this normal simulation 25% faster.” Companies had to make approximations with their simulation technology or only look at sub-sections of an RFIC. But now, thanks to advancements in HFSS meshing and breakthroughs in ease of cloud computing via Azure, it is possible to envision the full-wave electromagnetic activity, and extract the coupled models, for an entire RFIC.

? Finance

Personal plug: I was interviewed by InvestorDaily for this piece, “How Perpetual’s star fundie picked COVID winners”.

Roblox, a game-creation platform, has filed to go public (see their S-1).

Roblox shares revenues with its game creators, enabling high school students and young adults to make money. For the 12 months ended September 30, more than 960,000 developers earned Robux, or virtual cash that can be converted into real money, on Roblox. There were 1,050 who earned more than $10,000, and nearly 250 who earned more than $100,000. When users exchange Robux for money, Roblox takes a 30% share of the transaction.

Wish, a mobile e-commerce startup, also filed to go public (see the S-1). The company appears to be heavily reliant on China for supply, with some estimating 94% of their 500,000 sellers are from China.

How has the pandemic impacted Wish? It appears to have accelerated its growth.

Looking back in time, Wish saw its revenue growth slow in 2019, before expanding much more quickly in 2020. From 2017 to 2018, for example, when Wish saw revenues of $1.10 billion and $1.73 billion respectively, it grew 57%. But from 2018 to 2019, its revenue only grew to $1.90 billion, up a far-smaller 10%.

?  Alternative Foods

Unilever aims to increase annual sales of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives to €1bn over five to seven years, up from €200m this year.

Ms Faber said: “I think we are at the very beginning, for meat and dairy substitutes, of their market growth — they are still tiny compared to the overall meat and dairy markets. In the most developed countries it’s 5 per cent of meat or dairy — some predictions say it could go to 50 per cent.”

She added: “It’s a very, very crowded market, but we’re up for it.”

Aleph Farms, an Israeli cultured meat start-up, believes its lab-grown products will reach cost parity with conventional meat quicker than most plant-based meat alternatives.

?️  Space

New Zealand-based Rocket Lab successfully recovered its Electron rocket for the first time following a launch.

After launching one of its rockets to orbit on Thursday, small satellite launcher Rocket Lab successfully brought the vehicle back to Earth and landed it gently in the ocean underneath a series of parachutes. The maneuver was part of an intricate dress rehearsal, meant to practice nearly all of the steps Rocket Lab will take to recover and reuse its rockets in the future.


⚡ Other Snippets

NVIDIA’s game streaming service, GeForce Now, has launched on iOS via a browser app, which could see a playable version of Fortnite return to iOS devices soon.

There’s great news for Fortnite fans here, too. While Epic Games continues its suit against Apple, Nvidia has worked with Epic to bring a touch-optimized version of Fortnite to GeForce Now. That’s not available just yet, though, and Nvidia has no timeline for when this special version of the game will launch. is adding a pharmacy counter to its online store.

The e-commerce giant’s advance into the pharmacy business will test its ability to crack a market where national chains and big insurance companies often control how drugs are dispensed. Amazon hopes to use the convenience of its Prime shipping program to win over patients accustomed to trips to the corner pharmacist.

Apple decided to cut its fee from 30% to 15% for small merchants with less than $1 million in revenue. Epic Games and Spotify are not impressed.

General Motors is increasing its bet on electric vehicles.

The nation’s biggest auto maker by sales said Thursday it would spend $27 billion through 2025 to develop electric and driverless vehicles. That is up from a $20 billion figure that GM pegged in March, days before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the industry to shut its North American factories and touched off an industrywide cash crisis.

“We want to lead in this space,” GM product-development chief Doug Parks said during a media briefing. “Tesla’s got a good jump, and they’ve done great things. There’s a lot of startups, and everyone else invading the space.”

Bill Gates believes in-person meetings aren’t the “gold standard” anymore and that 50% of business travel will disappear even after the pandemic ends.

“My prediction would be that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away,” Gates said.

Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ashlee Vance takes a road trip to visit California’s RoboFarmers (22 minutes).

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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