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Twitter updates its policy on tweets that encourage self-harm and suicide

08:28 | 21 February

Twitter, which is constantly criticized for not doing enough to prevent harassment, has updated its guidelines with more information on how it handles tweets or accounts that encourage other people to hurt themselves or commit suicide.

The update follows an announcement by Twitter Safety last week that users can now report profiles, tweets and direct messages that encourage self-harm and suicide.

While we continue to provide resources to people who are experiencing thoughts of self-harm, it is against our rules to encourage others to harm themselves. Starting today, you can report a profile, Tweet, or Direct Message for this type of content.

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) February 13, 2018

In a new section on its Help Center titled “Glorifying self-harm and suicide,” Twitter outlined its approach to tweets or accounts that promote or encourage self-harm and suicide. The company says its policy against encouraging other people to hurt themselves is meant to work in tandem with its self-harm prevention measures as part of a “two-pronged approach” that involves “supporting people who are undergoing experiences with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, but prohibiting the promotion or encouragement of self-harming behaviors.” Twitter already has a form that lets users report threats of self-harm or suicide and a team that assesses tweets and reaches out to users they believe are at risk.

Twitter says offenders may be temporarily locked out of their account the first time they violate the policy and their tweets encouraging self-harm or suicide removed. Repeat offenders may have their accounts suspended.

Last fall, Twitter published a new version of its policies toward abuse, spam, self-harm and other issues, following a promise by chief executive officer Jack Dorsey that it would be more aggressive about preventing harassment. Publishing stricter guidelines and putting them into practice, however, are two different things. Many of Twitter’s critics still believe the platform doesn’t do enough to enforce its anti-harassment measures and must provide more information about exactly what kind of content results in a suspension. For example, telling someone to “kill yourself” arguably violates its guidelines, but a quick search of #killyourself returns many recent results, including tweets aimed at specific people.

Featured Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images



Avro aims to deliver drugs to children and the elderly through skin patches

23:12 | 19 February

Avro, a life sciences startup in Y Combinator’s current batch, is banking on a method to deliver medications to populations unable to swallow or chew — It will administer them through the skin.

Starting with allergy medications, the startup is developing skin patches that release drugs commonly used in seasonal allergies for children. The patches act much like nicotine patches, which deliver nicotine to those trying to quit smoking, but can deliver a variety of drugs, such as allergy medications, through our body’s largest organ.

Co-founder Shakir Lakhani, who suffers from both seasonal and food allergies himself, tells TechCrunch he wanted to start with allergy relief not just for personal reasons but because its an area where children are resistant to taking the medications already out there.

“There’s medications that say they taste like banana but don’t really taste like banana, ” he said. “The drugs are also relatively safe so it’s something we can work with without being too worried.”

It’s also not the first company to offer transdermal drug delivery. Miami-based pharmaceutical company ProSolus creates skin patches for delivery of various generic drugs and over-the-counter products, Fremont outfit Zosano makes specialty transdermal patches for delivery of migraine-reducing medicines and Viaskin is making a patch for kids with peanut allergies — though clinical trials have so far not gone well.

These companies could easily start offering the same types of patches as Avro, should the startup prove the market need.

One advantage is that the drugs Avro wants to use in its patches are already out there — it wouldn’t need to prove they work. They just need to prove the delivery method is safe and effective.

But the startup has a long way to go before getting these patches into the hands of consumers. First, Avro will need FDA approval to sell in the United States and Canada, where the company plans to market its patches. To get there, it will need to conduct some human clinical trials, which Lakhani says he’s in the process of looking into at the moment but believes he’ll be able to get up and running in Q3 of this year.

Lakhani also mentioned his skin patches could eventually offer other types of medicines.

“We’re looking at things like people suffering from near degenerative diseases and more intense diseases that inhibit your ability to swallow like Multiple Sclerosis,” he told TechCrunch. “I think those will be really interesting avenues for us to go down in the future and we’re just starting to initiate conversations with other companies who might be good partners for us.”



With $250 million, Peter Diamandis’ new startup is all about taking stem cells from placentas

20:00 | 15 February

Stem cells derived from a human placenta hold the key to unlocking a myriad of potentials in regenerative medicine and are the focus of X-Prize and Singularity University founder Peter Diamandis’ new endeavor.

Called Celularity, the startup is a spinout from Celgene, a global biopharmaceutical company creating gene therapies. Diamandis teamed up with Dr. Robert Hariri, the founder of Celgene, to create Celularity in the hopes of using stem cells found in the human placenta to quickly regenerate tissue and organs needed to treat cancer and other diseases. The idea is these types of cells can do a better job of helping us live longer, fuller, healther lives in the future.

It’s a wild proposal and, seemingly, the stuff of science fiction often tossed around in certain Silicon Valley circles — create a startup focused on a medical breakthrough to make us live forever — or at least much, much longer than we currently do. But stem cell technology has been around for some time.

Lab worker with human stem cells.

For decades stem cells have posed an ethical quandary as they’ve largely been harvested through discarded embryos. However, in just the last few years, science has discovered adult stem cells can come from a number of sources throughout the human body — including a woman’s placenta, shortly after giving birth.

Placental stem cells are even more important as they can be taken from any placenta and injected into any human without the risk of the body rejecting them, according to the company. And, because they are so abundant, treatments are potentially more affordable and can begin immediately.

But this is not the first time Diamandis has dipped his toe in longevity research. He cofounded Human Longevity Inc. in 2014 to focus on extending the human lifespan. Celularity extends his interests in this endeavor.

So far, the startup has conducted several clinical trials and treated “hundreds” of patients, Hariri tells TechCrunch. The next step is to try and gain FDA approval to roll these treatments out on a mass scale.

That approval may be just around the corner — possibly in the next 12-24 months, according to Hariri. That’s because “cellular medicine is intrinsically safe,” he says, adding the potential could have a “huge impact” on U.S. medicine.

So just how are Diamandis and Hariri obtaining these human placentas? Donations. Though some couples choose to keep (and later eat) their placental afterbirth, approximately four million human placentas are disposed of per year in U.S. hospitals.

While this strange, yet magical temporary organ is from a human mother, some states consider it to be a biohazard after birth and discard it as waste. Couples, by law, therefore cannot take and sell the tissue to Celularity or some other outfit hoping to use it up. But they can donate it.

That’s where Celularity comes in. The startup procures the placental tissue from hospitals willing to hand over would-be waste in the name of science.

Right now the field is pretty wide for Celularity, too. The company is only competing with a handful of others in the same space like Israeli biotech firm Pluristem. Though it seems to be the only player in the U.S. at the moment.

Add to that a whopping $250 million in new funding from several prominent investors and celebrities to help it grow, including well-known life coach Tony Robbins, John Sculley of Apple and Pepsi-Cola, former GV partner and founder Bill Maris, who now runs a new biotech funding venture Section 32, and Andrew Von Eschenbach, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Naturally, Celgene led the latest round, with cash infusions from United Therapeutics Corporation, Sorrento Therapeutics and Human Longevity, Inc. to boot.

One other big heaping help to the startup — Celularity owns and operates LifeBank USA, the world’s only repository of donated placenta cells and biomaterials. So, presumably, should any other companies want to do something similar in the U.S., they’d need to go through a subsidiary of Celularity first.

Celularity is sure to stay a large player in this field as it continues. It owns the whole chain from procurement to deploying treatments. It also holds 1,800 patents on the procedures.

“Our ultimate mission is to make 100 years old, the new 60, and to provide people with maximal aesthetic, mobility, and cognition as they age,” Diamandis said. “The 20 years of science, research, and intellectual property pioneered by my visionary partner Dr. Bob Hariri, is the cornerstone for the coming longevity revolution.”

Featured Image: BSIP / Contributor/Getty Images



Fitbit buys Twine Health in bid to become a more serious health care tool

18:18 | 13 February

Fitbit’s been on a bit of a acquisition spree over the last couple of years, as the company’s looked to grow its business inside the stagnating wearables category. This morning, the hardware maker announced plans to pick up Twine Health, a HIPAA-compliant, cloud-based health management platform.

The company hasn’t disclosed specific numbers for the acquisition, but expects the deal to close at some point in Q1 of this year. The integration plan seems pretty straight forward, leveraging Twine’s service with Fitbit’s large customer base, in an attempt to offer up more complex and useful health care data collected by its line of wearables. Specifically, the dataset will focus on hypertension and diabetes.

“When combined with our decade-plus of experience empowering millions of consumers to take control of their health and wellness,” Fitbit CEO James Park said in a press release issued this morning, “we believe we can help build stronger connections between people and their care teams by removing some of the most difficult barriers to behavior change. Together, we can help healthcare providers better support patients beyond the walls of the clinical environment, which can lead to better health outcomes and ultimately, lower medical costs.” 

Fitbit and Apple have been particularly aggressive in a push to get their wearables taken more seriously as potential health care tools. In recent years, fitness trackers and smartwatches have become among the most widespread personal monitoring devices around.

While the products don’t rate as sophisticated medical equipment, they do contain enough data tracking to provide potentially useful insight into a large cross section of the population. With this acquisition, Fitbit is no doubt hoping that its line of devices will become more indispensable for users with chronic health conditions that require daily tracking.

No specifics on what will happen to Twine’s Cambridge, Massachusetts-based staff, but the company is  set to roll into Fitbit’s Health Solutions wing, with co-founder and CEO John Moore serving as the company’s Medical Director.



Cybex starts selling its $330, app-enabled car seat made for safety geeks

18:47 | 12 February

Normally, I wouldn’t be writing about a car seat for for TechCrunch but as I’ve been in the market for such an item lately (and have been hit up for all things baby tech as my due date nears) the high-tech Cybex Sirona M with SensorSafe 2.0 stood out.

Cybex is manufactured in Germany and is a mostly European brand that’s gaining momentum in the U.S. market. Its newest carseat in the family (the aforementioned Sirona M) is made to give parents and caregivers piece of mind using technology.

Some of the techy features include Bluetooth monitoring and an app to alert parents when a caregiver may have left the kid in the car, the kid has unbuckled their seatbelt while the car is moving or if their baby is in danger of overheating.

Parents will get an alert in the form of a chime though an installed vehicle receiver if something is wrong while driving — like your child unbuckles their clip. Should the parent not be with the child, they will be sent an alert via the app. So, for example, if someone watching their kid forgets the kid in the car for even a few minutes, the designated emergency contact (usually the primary caregiver) will be alerted on the app and given GPS coordinates to locate the vehicle.

The car seat also monitors vehicle temperature so it can tell parents if their child is in danger of overheating and possibly dying due to a hot car.

Other features include:
• Adjustable side-impact protection that can pop back into the seat when more room is needed in the back seat.
• Magnetic belt holders for easy entry and exit from the seat
• Rear-facing installation from 5  to 40 pounds, or forward facing from 22 to 65 pounds.
• Energy absorbing shell to help reduce forces felt by the baby in a collision
• 12-position, height-adjustable headrest with an integrated no-rethread harness for protection that grows with your child
• Cozy harness pads with anti-slip backing and comfort padded buckle cover
• Comes with a removable newborn insert
• Installs using LATCH or the vehicle seat belt for a safe and secure connection to the vehicle seat

This car seat does not connect to any travel systems. For those not in the loop (I was not until recently), a travel system would be a car seat able to attach to a stroller and given the ability to transport baby from stroller to car and vice versa.

I did not end up getting the Cybex Sirona M. Instead, I went with the Uppababy Mesa car seat for both the design features and ability to easily attach to the Uppababy Vista stroller. However, when I asked Cybex’s VP of product during a recent demo of the Sirona M about incorporating SensorSafe tech into other car seat models with travel system capabilities in the future, he smiled and hinted that could be the case.

The Sirona M can hold kids up to 65 pounds (approximately four years old), is priced at $330 and is available online in several retail outlets, including Amazon and buybuy Baby, starting today.



nOCD gets $1M seed round to help people with obsessive-compulsive disorder

17:28 | 12 February

nOCD, an app created to help people treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, will launch an Android version and add more features after raising a $1 million seed round from early-stage healthcare investment firm 7wire Ventures.

The free app guides patients through exposure and response prevention (ERP) exercises, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that is especially effective for OCD. ERP carefully exposes suffers to stimuli, including images or situations, that trigger their symptoms and then guides them through exercises to help them manage anxiety and compulsive behaviors. nOCD’s founder and chief executive officer Stephen Smith describes ERP as a “virtual gym.”

Smith began working on nOCD, which launched in 2016 and now claims 80,000 users, while he was a college student after OCD symptoms began disrupting his life. There are an increasing number of apps focused on mental health, but Smith had trouble finding one that gave him the specific support he needed.

“I was suffering pretty intensely with OCD and mental health apps out there didn’t address OCD specifically. They addressed cognitive behavioral therapy in general, but they didn’t go deep enough. I couldn’t implement treatment because treatment for OCD is very specific,” Smith says. “I wanted to create something that would provide effective treatment and also give users a community and 24/7 support.”

After taking a break from college to focus on nOCD, Smith returned to school at Pomona College. Before graduating last year, he commuted between its Claremont, California campus and nOCD’s office in Chicago.

The lifetime prevalence of OCD among American adults has been estimated to be about 2.3% and the World Health Organization has described it as one of the most disabling conditions because of OCD’s impact on work and quality of life.

Even though it’s effective, ERP therapy can be difficult to find and hard to afford. nOCD was created to address barriers to treatment, like not getting enough guidance outside of medical appointments (which can cost hundreds of dollars per session) or confusion over how to complete exercises. Its users can also track their progress in the app, share access to that information with healthcare providers and connect anonymously with other OCD sufferers for support.

nOCD’s seed round brings its total raised, including angel funding, to $1.25 million. The app is currently available only on iOS, but its new funding will be used to develop a version for Android. The startup also plans to add more features based on user feedback, including tools that make ERP easier to understand for people who haven’t tried it before. It recently added Larry Trusky, who previously served as vice president of development at Allscripts and chief technology officer of Zest Health, as its new CTO and chief operating officer.

While many self-help mental health apps have launched over the past few years, nOCD might be a precursor of the genre’s future, in which startups create resources tailormade for specific conditions.

“Most mental health conditions need specific treatment, not just OCD,” says Smith. “It’s not unique in that sense, but the tech industry tends to condense them into one. Our platform treats patients in the middle of an episode. They hit an SOS button and get exposure and response prevention-based support. The whole principle is to accept uncertainty and if you can do that, obsessions and fears decrease in frequency over time.”

Featured Image: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images



Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital Group closes first fund at $360M

12:31 | 9 February

B Capital Group, the VC fund founded by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, has closed out its first fund at $360 million (via Reuters).

The fund, which is intended to invest globally but with a focus in Asia, closed an initial $140M back in 2016. In a letter to “friends of B Capital” which we reviewed at the time, Saverin and fund co-founder Raj Ganguly, wrote that the first close had pulled in nearly 60 percent of its target money.

Turns out that was an underestimation, and the final close makes for a considerably larger first fund.

“While our original plan to invest in 20-25 companies remains unchanged, this allows us to continue supporting our portfolio companies with additional capital,” writes Ganguly in a blog post on the close, describing the final figure as “substantially ahead of our target”.

B Capital Group, which is backed by The Boston Consulting Group, has a stated focus on technologies transforming large industries — including healthcare, financial services, industrial goods & transportation and consumer enablement (such as payments).

While Asia is also a key area of interest, the fund has also invested in startups in the US and Europe.

Its 11 investments to date are AImotive, Bright.md, Capital Match, CXA, Evidation Health, Icertis, INTURN, Lanetix, Mswipe, Ninja Van and SilverCloud Health.



Fitness startup Studio is bringing its audio running classes to Life Fitness treadmills

23:44 | 7 February

Studio, a startup that delivers coaching, music and competition to treadmill runners’ smartphones and smartwatches, is getting a boost from treadmill maker Life Fitness.

Studio founder and CEO Jason Baptiste explained that through this partnership, Studio’s classes will be available on Life Fitness treadmills in gyms, starting with the ones that are equipped with the company’s Discover SE3 HD consoles. (The classes are audio-only, but the screen can be used for things like displaying the leaderboard.)

When Studio launched last year, Baptiste compared Studio’s compared to Peloton’s live-streaming cycling classes. And while Peloton has plans to ship a treadmill this fall, Baptiste said deals like this give Studio the benefits of hardware integration without having to build and sell its own equipment, while also allowing Life Fitness to experiment with digital fitness.

“What does this mean for gyms and Life Fitness? We’re bringing them an awesome group of the running world’s best instructors,” Baptiste said.” “What does this mean for us? Over the coming months, we’re going to get in front of more people than anybody else with the number one equipment manufacturer.”

And the integration goes beyond content delivery — the app can pull distance and biometric data from the treadmills, which determines users’ rankings on the leaderboard.

One challenge is that if you’re not already a Studio user, you might not feel inclined to sign up for a new app right when you’re getting on a treadmill. However, Baptiste said his team has worked to streamline that process, so that you can just authenticate using the Facebook app on your phone.

And while Studio costs $15 per month, the content on treadmills will be free on initially. Ultimately, Baptiste said he hopes turn those users into paying subscribers.

“Life Fitness knows that technology is central to helping people reach their fitness goals,” said Jason Worthy, the company’s vice president of digital solutions and innovation, in the announcement. “Our partnership with Studio creates an exciting digital experience far beyond what a traditional treadmill offers, and will keep runners coming back to try new workouts, experience new instructors and beat their personal best.”

Studio is also announcing that it raised $1.3 million in funding last year from a long list of investors. On the institutional side, the investors include TechNexus, Techstars, First Round Capital’s Product Co-Op, Gambit Ventures, Full Tilt Capital, Rostrum Capital, Firstrock Capital, HTVentures and Bridge Boys.

And by the way, Baptiste has also been doing hiring to back up that comparison to Peloton — former Peloton head coach Lisa Niren joined Studio in January as director of content and programming.

Featured Image: Studio



The Apple Watch can detect diabetes with an 85% accuracy, Cardiogram study says

18:00 | 7 February

According to Cardiogram founder Brandon Ballinger’s latest clinical study, the Apple Watch can detect diabetes in those previously diagnosed with the disease with an 85 percent accuracy.

The study is part of the larger DeepHeart study with Cardiogram and UCSF. This particular study used data from 14,000 Apple Watch users and was able to detect that 462 of them had diabetes by using the Watch’s heart rate sensor, the same type of sensor other fitness bands using Android Wear also integrate into their systems.

In 2015, the Framingham Heart Study showed that resting heart rate and heart rate variability significantly predicted incident diabetes and hypertension. This led to the impetus to use the Watch’s heart rate sensor to see if it could accurately detect a diabetic patient.

Previously, Ballinger and his colleagues were able to use Apple’s Watch to detect an abnormal heart rhythm with up to a 97 percent accuracy, sleep apnea with a 90 percent accuracy and hypertension with an 82 percent accuracy when paired with Cardiograms AI-based algorithm. All discoveries so far have been published in clinical journals and Ballinger intends to publish these latest findings shortly after presenting at the AAAI 2018 conference this week.

Diabetes is a huge — and growing — problem in the U.S. More than 100 million U.S. adults are now living with pre-diabetes or diabetes and more than 1 in 4 of them go undiagnosed, according to the CDC. Part of the problem is the pain that goes into checking blood glucose levels. A patient must prick themselves after every meal and correctly take the right amount of insulin to keep themselves in balance.

Early detection could also help in cutting down on diabetes-related diseases before they get out of hand. While there have been other attempts to build special-purpose glucose-sensing hardware, this is the first large-scale study showing that ordinary heart rate sensors—when paired with an artificial intelligence-based algorithm—can identify diabetes with no extra hardware.

So what’s next? Ballinger and his cohort on the study Johnson Hsieh mentioned they could be looking at a number of diseases to detect through heart sensors, possibly even gestational diabetes. Hsieh also cautions that those tested were already known to have diabetes or pre-diabetes and that anyone who thinks they might have it should go to their doctor, not just rely on the Watch to tell them what’s going on.

But the results are promising. We’ll just have to wait and see what else the Apple Watch and other fitness monitors with a built-in heart rate sensor are able to tell us about ourselves next.



This company will tell you which vitamins and supplements to take based on your DNA

02:02 | 6 February

Nutrigene believes your genes may hold the secret to what you might be missing in your diet. The company will send you tailor-made liquid vitamin supplements based on a lifestyle quiz and your DNA.

You fill out an assessment on the startup’s website, choose a recommended package such as essentials, improve performance or optimize gut health and Nutrigene will send you liquid supplements built just for you.

Founder Min Fitzgerald launched the startup out of Singularity and later accepted a Google fellowship for the idea. Nutrigene is now going through the current YC class. Her cofounder and CTO Van Duesterberg comes from a biotech and epigenetics background and holds a PhD from Stanford.

The idea sounds a bit far-fetched at first — simply import your DNA and you magically have all your nutritional needs taken care of.  However, Dawn Barry, former VP at Illumina and now president of Luna DNA, a biotech company powered by the blockchain, says it could have some scientific underpinnings. But, she cautioned, nutrigenetics is still an early science.

Amir Trabelsi, founder of genetic analysis platform Genoox, agrees. And, he pointed out, these types of companies don’t need to provide any proof.

“That doesn’t mean it’s completely wrong,” Trabelsi told TechCrunch. “but we don’t know enough to say this person should use Vitamin A, for example….There needs to be more trials and observation.”

Still, the vitamin industry is big business, pulling in more than $36 billion dollars in just the U.S. last year. With or without the genetic component, Nutrigene promises to deliver high-quality ingredients, optimized in liquid form.

Fitzgerald says the liquid component helps the supplements work ten times better in your body than powder-based pills and, she says, some people also can’t swallow pills.

Hesitant, I agreed to try it out for myself. The process was fairly easy and the lifestyle quiz only took about 10 minutes. Then, I sent in my raw data from my 23andMe account.

Though genetics are a factor in Nutrigene’s ultimate formulation, Fitzgerald told me the DNA part is pretty new and that my biometric details and goals were more indicative of how the company tailored my dosages.

However, I did apparently need more B12, according to Fitzgerald. “Hence we gave you a good dose of B12 in your elixir,” Fitgerald told me.

Does the stuff work? Tough to say. I didn’t feel any different on Nutrigene’s liquid vitamins than  I do normally. Though, full disclosure, I’ve been taking what I believe to be some pretty good pre-natal vitamins from New Chapter and a DHA supplement from Nordic Naturals for almost a year now while I’ve been building a baby in my womb. My doctor tested my nutritional levels at the beginning of my pregnancy through a blood sample, seemed pleased with my choice to take prenatals and didn’t tell me to do anything different.

Would Nutrigene’s formula be ideal for someone else? Possibly, especially if that person holds a high standard for ingredients in their supplements or has a hard time swallowing pills. However, it seems the jury is still out on the science behind vitamins tailored to your genetics and, like Trabelsi mentioned earlier, we likely need a lot more study on the matter.

For those interested in trying out Nutrigene, you can do so by ordering on the website. Package pricing varies and depends on nutritional needs but starts around $85 per month.


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