Entrepreneurs show how to start thriving business on a shoestring budget

Innovating your way through a small budget can lead to huge returns.


Imagine using the free wi-fi at the public library to launch your small business.

Finn Peacock did just that as he set up his business on a shoestring budget. Peacock founded SolarQuotes with $500 and a credit card for advertising. Today, it turns over about $3 million a year.


Finn Peacock's initial spend on Solar Quotes was $500.
Finn Peacock’s initial spend on Solar Quotes was $500. 


“There is a lot of luck involved,” says Peacock. “I got my start-up going in 2009 which was just when the solar industry was taking off. And that was just a fluke – it coincided with me getting fed up with my government job.”

His initial spend of $500 went towards graphic design, coding and buying Google AdWords. “I put up the website, tested the concept and when it looked like it had legs, I started spending on the credit card.”

His next outlay was around $3000 on advertising. “I only did it after I was confident that I would get a return.”


Sydney - October 23: Solar panels are installed on the roof of the pavilion at Sydney Park on October 23, 2012 in Sydney. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/City of Sydney) City of Sydney solar panels.

SolarQuotes generates sales leads for solar companies, says Peacock. “Almost 300,000 homes in Australia have registered with the website to get quotes. We have about 200 solar installer companies around the country that are clients that we send business to every day.”

He says one of the good things about starting his business from a library was the lack of distractions and interruptions. “And I did run the business for another five years from the library, till I got my own office. I had the phone on silent in my pocket and I would sprint outside and take calls.”

Peacock also made use of other free tools. “I was very reliant on – it was bought by, which is a site where you say what you need doing and people bid to do it. That’s where I found my first graphic designer and coder.

“We have got a very sophisticated back-end that drives the business now. But for the very first version of the site I used – a form builder, you can pay for it, but I used the free version.”


Irene Falcone of Nourished Life beauty products.Irene Falcone of Nourished Life beauty products.


Nurturing profits

Irene Falcone had an even more stringent start. She kicked off her business Nourished Life with just $100 in October 2012. Last year, she turned over $8.7 million.

“I bought 100 lip balms for $US1 back when the Australian dollar rate was around $1.05 to the US dollar,” says Falcone. “I sold them quickly for a good margin and reinvested from there.

“I sold my car for $10,000 and I had $20,000 left after selling my house and paying out the mortgage, I invested this into more lip balms and other products.”

Her revenue in her first year was more than $300,000. “The following year I turned over $800,000, then in 2014 I hit $1.9 million and last financial year, $8.7million.

“This year I am on track for $20 million. And I am planning to grow to $30 million in the next two years.”

Falcone used a WordPress blog and Facebook page, which are both free tools, to communicate with her customers. Other free web services she utilised were Pinterest and Tumblr.

She says Nourished Life now sells more than 3000 toxin-free, eco-friendly products.

Falcone recently won the entrepreneur award at the 2016 Telstra NSW Business Women’s Awards.


Elise Hendriksen and Stephanie Hill of InSalt.Elise Hendriksen and Stephanie Hill of InSalt


Salty smarts

Stephanie Hill and Elise Hendriksen launched InSalt with less than $2000 in May this year.

To launch the company, which produces all-natural bath soaks, Hill tapped “a lot of people who are good in the things you might need, aside from the administrative costs of setting up the business registration, ABN, tax file number, all of that, which is not very expensive”.

“Things like our logo, which is professionally designed, was done by a former colleague and good friend of Elise’s. All of the photography was done by a friend, who is a professional photographer.”

Sourcing modest quantities of the raw materials was one cost-cutter. “Certainly being able to source smaller quantities to purchase in the short-term and negotiating the price for this volume was a big part of it. Also operating it out of a home – we don’t have an office and to pay rent.”

They focused their marketing on social media, particularly Instagram, and to a lesser extent, Facebook.

One of their key learnings was packaging. “Labelling was a bit of a learning curve for us because we put probably $150 to $200 into designing and printing the labels ourselves and they didn’t look professional. We spent $600 or so on professional labels that give a nice feel to the product.”

Hill says they have broken even and are expecting about a 50 per cent increase in orders through the November-December period.


Layla Roberts of Concierge ConnectionsLayla Roberts of Concierge Connections


Time versus money

Layla Roberts started Concierge Connections six years ago for less than $1000.

Roberts helps busy mums and mums-to-be tick off their to-do lists. “All I needed at the start was a website and a logo, which a friend kindly did for me free of charge, ABN registration (free), ASIC registration, business cards from Vistaprint, insurance and web hosting.

“I have designed my current website myself using WordPress. It cost me about $250 including the theme, plugins, template and hosting.

“These days my running costs are higher than they were at the start, but not by much. I pay to attend networking events and for advertising such as on Facebook. And I do most things myself, such as my tax return, sales, social media marketing, only outsourcing when I don’t know how to do it.”

She has expanded her enterprise with the launch of sister firm Sydney Concierge in 2015. She is expecting almost 50 per cent combined growth in revenue from the last tax year.

Roberts says running a business is a trade-off between time and money. “If you throw money at a problem, it will usually, but not always, get done faster. For me the enjoyment is often in the journey as well as the destination. I enjoy learning how to run all aspects of my business, such as web design and SEO.”

[The Sydney Morning Herald]

October 26, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , , , , ,
Multitasking Physically Shrinks Your Brain: Study

CREDIT: Complot/Shutterstock



New research finds that looking at multiple screens at once can actually alter a key brain structure.


Science has already proven that multitasking doesn’t make you more productive (in fact it makes you dumber–there’s even a test you can take to prove this to yourself if you’d like). But new research goes even further. Not only is multitasking not helping you get more done, the study out of the University of Sussex in the UK indicates, it might actually be physically harming your brain.

The research looked into the incredibly common practice of “second screening,” i.e. keeping your laptop open or sending texts while you watch TV, for example. Seventy five British adults were given a questionnaire about their multitasking habits and then given an MRI by the team. The results showed a significant difference between the brains of heavy multitaskers and others: those addicted to using multiple devices simultaneously has lower gray matter density in a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is linked to emotional control and plays a role in decision-making, empathy and how we respond to rewards.

Earlier research has shown a link between heavy multitasking and emotional issues such as poor attention span and anxiety, but this “study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure,” neuroscientist and study co-author Kep Kee Loh commented.

While the results can’t conclusively prove that all those second screens are causing the changes to the brain (differences in brain structure could also lead people to be more likely to multitask), the researchers suggest that the results should nonetheless serve as a red flag for fans of multiple devices while further studies are carried out to test causality.

“Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being,” Kee Loh said. “I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”

So keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to carry on an IM exchange while watching your favorite show or squeeze in a few emails at the same time you check out that training video. [Inc]

October 20, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , , ,
A carbon-nanotube trap for ultra-sensitive virus detection and identification

virus-cntScanning electron microscope image (scale bar, 200 nm) of the H5N2 avian influenza virus (purple) trapped inside the aligned carbon nanotubes. (credit: Penn State University)


Could improve detection of viruses and speed the process of identifying newly emerging viruses to head off unpredictable outbreaks


Penn State researchers have developed a new portable microdevice that uses a forest-like array of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes to selectively trap and concentrate viruses by their size. It could improve detection of viruses and speed the process of identifying newly emerging viruses.

The research, by an interdisciplinary team of scientists at Penn State, was published in an open-access paper in the October 7, 2016 edition of the journal Science Advances.

“Detecting viruses early in an infection before symptoms appear, or from field samples, is difficult because the concentration of the viruses could be very low — often below the threshold of current detection methods,” said Mauricio Terrones, professor of physics, chemistry, and materials science and engineering.

“Early detection is important because a virus can begin to spread before we have the ability to detect it. The device we have developed allows us to selectively trap and concentrate viruses by their size — smaller than human cells and bacteria, but larger than most proteins and other macromolecules — in incredibly dilute samples.”


A small, portable device increases the sensitivity of virus detection by trapping and concentrating viruses in an array of carbon nanotubes. (A) Dilute samples collected from patients or the environment are passed through a filter to remove large particles such as bacteria and human cells, then (B) passed through the array of carbon nanotubes in the device. Viruses get trapped and build up to usable concentrations within the forest of nanotubes, while other smaller particles pass through and are eliminated. The concentrated virus captured in the device can then be put through a panel of tests to identify it, including molecular diagnosis by polymerase chain reaction (PCR), immunological methods, virus isolation, and genome sequencing.  The intertube distance can range from about 17 nanometers to over 300 nanometers to selectively capture viruses. (credit: Yin-Ting Yeh et al./Science Advances)

The device isolates and concentrates viruses by size, so the researchers can capture unknown viruses, said Terrones. “Once we capture and concentrate the virus, we can then use other techniques such as whole-genome sequencing to characterize it.”


Unpredictable outbreaks

Viruses such as influenza, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Zika can cause sudden, unpredictable outbreaks that lead to severe public-health crises. Currently available techniques for isolating and identifying the viruses that cause these outbreaks are slow, expensive, and use equipment and reagents that can be expensive, bulky, and require specialized storage.

Additionally, many recent outbreaks have been caused by newly emerging viruses for which there are no established ways to selectively isolate them for identification and characterization.

The research was funded by the U.S. National Center for Research Resources, the National Center for Advancing Translation Science, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Penn State Eberly College of Science, and it received support from the Penn State Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.


Abstract of Tunable and label-free virus enrichment for ultrasensitive virus detection using carbon nanotube arrays

Viral infectious diseases can erupt unpredictably, spread rapidly, and ravage mass populations. Although established methods, such as polymerase chain reaction, virus isolation, and next-generation sequencing have been used to detect viruses, field samples with low virus count pose major challenges in virus surveillance and discovery. We report a unique carbon nanotube size-tunable enrichment microdevice (CNT-STEM) that efficiently enriches and concentrates viruses collected from field samples. The channel sidewall in the microdevice was made by growing arrays of vertically aligned nitrogen-doped multiwalled CNTs, where the intertubular distance between CNTs could be engineered in the range of 17 to 325 nm to accurately match the size of different viruses. The CNT-STEM significantly improves detection limits and virus isolation rates by at least 100 times. Using this device, we successfully identified an emerging avian influenza virus strain [A/duck/PA/02099/2012(H11N9)] and a novel virus strain (IBDV/turkey/PA/00924/14). Our unique method demonstrates the early detection of emerging viruses and the discovery of new viruses directly from field samples, thus creating a universal platform for effectively remediating viral infectious diseases.


October 19, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , ,
Kids, Please, Choose Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) for Your Future!



It is as simple as ABC: if you are thinking about your future now, please choose Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). If you are way in your career, please send this to those who are still considering their options.


What is STEM and why are you a great fit for it?

Did you love assembling LEGO parts when you were little and sometimes you still do? Do you love playing Minecraft because you enjoy building things? Did you try to open your dad’s laptop as a small kid and see what’s behind the screen or under the keyboard (for the greatest horror of your dad)? Did you attempt to look into the mouth of your huge St. Bernard dog to see what’s in there? Do you like TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory? Are you a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the most popular scientists today?


STEM - Kids playing LEGO


If you answered most of the questions with yes, then you are a huge STEM-fan, even if you haven’t noticed it yet. It is for sure that you are profoundly curious about the world around you, and you are a born scientist. And if it is so, you should consider a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, shortly in STEM.

And girls, listen to me. I know that STEM is considered to be the play field for boys, but it is simply not true. The world is in dire need of both women and men being able to help technology and science move forward.



Science can also help you. When I was 6, I was hard to handle, I was full of energy. My mother therefore gave me a scientific encyclopedia made for kids trying to calm me down. She succeeded. I fell in love with science and since then I’ve been considering myself a soldier of the scientific method. My job is to gather knowledge and contribute as much as I can to the progress of humanity. I also realized that we need lots of young, curious and bright scientists in the future, many-many science knights, because today’s innovators won’t be enough to bring positive change for the future. And believe me, due to the rapid technological development, change is coming to every corner of science, especially into medicine and healthcare, and it depends on us whether it will bring a bright or a bad future for us.

I know that choosing the right career is a struggle. And it is not even certain that you will have the same career throughout your whole life. It is more and more certain that we need to reinvent ourselves many times in our lifetime. But you should consider a career in STEM, and I’m going to tell you why.



There has never been a better time to choose STEM than today.

1) Who would not want to be part of the first colony on Mars?



Isn’t it exciting that you might live through scenes from the movie, the Martian? And by that I don’t mean the fact that everyone assumed him dead in his team and he struggled to signal back to Earth that he is actually alive. I mean that an actual expedition to Mars is coming closer day by day. Elon Musk, builder of the Tesla electric vehicle and billionaire founder of SpaceX rocket company announced just some days ago, on 27 September at the International Astronautical Congress (a very fancy gathering for space-loving geeks) that he plans to build a rocket to Mars, and if everything goes as planned, the first passengers to Mars could take off as soon as 2024.

Each of the SpaceX vehicles would take 100 passengers on the journey to Mars, with trips planned every 26 months, when Earth and Mars pass close to each other. Tickets per person might cost $500,000 at first, and drop to about a third of that later on, Musk said. Wouldn’t it be super-exciting to take part in the development of rockets which carry out the travels between the planets? And wouldn’t it be beyond imagination to participate in the first colony on Mars? Or wouldn’t it be awesome to be part of the first Mars civilization which would build the first self-sustaining city on the Red Planet?




2) Can you imagine to travel everywhere by driverless cars and tubs?

Imagine that you finish school, you just push a button and as soon as you finish lunch in the cafeteria with your friends, the family’s car is there for you to take you home. There is no one to ask you annoying questions about your tests, your plans for the future or whether you ate fruits that day. The car knows the best route going home, and the only thing you need to do is to sit back in your seat, relax and listen to the loudest music ever.



Do you know that this scene is actually a lot closer to our reality than we usually think? In September, the US government issued new federal guidelines that are clearly designed to speed up the development of self-driving cars. In the same week, Uber started offering rides in self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, a notoriously demanding urban environment. Wouldn’t it be fun to be part of the planning process of fleets of driverless cars?

And we can go even further. Can you imagine solar roofs generating cheap electricity? Or cars making money for their owners when they are not used? Elon Musk envisions such plans for his Tesla. But now, close your eyes and think about your wildest dreams how people can reach from point A to B. What do you see? People having electric wings? Teleportation? Tiny capsules travelling by light speed?

I’m glad if you do. Because then you can imagine passengers seated in pods shooting through a tube above the ground. Developers say it is going to be possible in four years. And Elon Musk says that the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco – which takes now 5-6 hours on the road – would take 30 minutes by the tub. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies predicts its pods will travel at up to 1,220 kilometers per hour – around half as fast again as an airliner. Can you imagine that? And choosing STEM as your career you could be part of the future by designing and building new transportation systems and tools – for example capsules which will be able to transport people from Stockholm to Helsinki for 25 euros in 28 minutes instead of flights taking an hour.


STEM - Hyperloop


3) Don’t you want to save humanity and eradicate diseases?

I’m pretty sure you are already aware of the fact that illnesses and diseases cause one of the biggest problems for humanity. But what if I said there is a possibility to eradicate lethal illnesses from the Planet. Would you help the scientific community to do it?

For example, with a gene editing technique called CRISPR, we will have the chance to edit our cells in our immune systems to improve them against cancer cells and to help them kill the dangerous intruders in time. In the future, getting rid of cancer could mean just an injection. Researchers also used a similar gene-editing method to create mosquitoes that are almost entirely resistant to the parasite that causes the lethal infection of malaria. How cool is that on a scale ranging from 1 to 10?



4) Artificial Intelligence is coming

You might not think that there is anything special about playing computer games on laptops, on your phone, having cyberfoes and virtual enemies. Believe me, there is. Right now, we are at the dawn of developing the kind of artificial intelligence which might be able to compete with the human mind in every area. This is exactly the reason why Stephen Hawking, the greatest living physicist on Earth even said that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Elon Musk agreed.

We are not there yet, but it is amazing how fast research into artificial intelligence develops. AI machine learning will transform every field and every industry in a couple of years. In my area, medicine, IBM Watson aims to create a cloud-based data sharing hub for example for our healthcare data. It has the capacity to read millions of documents in seconds and to suggest the most fitting healthcare therapies. Atomwise aims to reduce the costs of medicine development by using supercomputers to predict, in advance, which potential medicines will work, and which won’t. Google Deepmind Health is used to mine the data of medical records in order to provide better and faster health services.


Artificial Intelligence Will Redesign Healthcare


So, are you ready to learn how to build better AI algorithms and how to control them successfully? With such knowledge you might become a real-life Neo from The Matrix movie series fighting against the power of supercomputers.


5) Humanoid robots are eager to become family members

In a few years’ time, it will not be strange at all that most of the families will “hire” humanoid robots to help around the household, do the laundry or take care of grandpa when no one else has the time to read the news to him.

There are already certain robot companions who can keep company to people feeling lonely or to help treat mental health issues. Jibo, Pepper, Paro and Buddy are all existing examples. Paro is shaped as a baby seal, and it is especially cute and cuddly to help release stress and ease sadness and solitude. Pepper, the 1.2 meter tall humanoid “social robot” will be “employed” as a receptionist in two Belgian hospitals.

Some of them have touch sensors, cameras and microphones, thus their owners can get into discussions with them, ask them to find a great concert for that night or just remind them about their medications. Wouldn’t it be super-cool to come up with your own robotic design or a new function offering further development to an already existing humanoid robot? You would be one of the engineers of the future and your design could shape the landscape of robotics for the next decades. Are you interested in mechanics and are you fond of robotics? Don’t hesitate, choose a career in STEM!


robot companion


6) The culture of eating is about to change

Did you ever think about what you are eating? How the meatballs in IKEA were processed? What KFC chicken wings contain? It is frustrating for many people that they don’t know what they are eating. You have no idea what raw materials, vitamins or harmful toxins a piece of hamburger contains. You might have food allergies but you cannot check beforehand whether the piece of cake you are about to eat contains the allergen. In the future, food scanners will be able to tell how many grams of sugar a piece of fruit contains, or what the alcohol percentage of a drink is.

Also, with the development of genetic testing, dietary recommendations could be made based on the information contained in your genes. There will be 3D food printers using fresh ingredients and create pizza, cookies, or almost any kind of final products just like what Foodini does these days. It is simply fascinating! It might be that your mom will put banana yogurts in your smart fridge twice a week because based on your genetic map, your doctor recommended it. And your smart fridge will beep very loudly if you don’t grab it and (at least pretend to) eat it.


STEM - Food Scanner


How great would it be to create tools with which it would be easier for people with food allergies to have great meals and to eat secure food all the time?


7) Our DNA is finally ready to reveal our future

Genome tests have been in the spotlight for years. And the reason is understandable: it is simply amazing how much information you can gain from the tiniest parts of your body. I believe that in the future genetic testing will be similar to the practice of blood-tests in today’s healthcare, and people will choose their diet, their sports and other hobbies, even their jobs based on it.

And the future is already here. Patients have been able to order genome tests online for the last 10 years already. The basic assumption is that anyone can order a test from home and learn about their risks for certain medical conditions, and what lifestyle choices they should make to avoid them. Imagine working for a small start-up giving career advice based on genetic information. Too far-fetched? It might be here sooner than you think.



8) Creating engineered microorganisms

In the future, astronauts on Mars will eat bacteria-burgers out of bacteria-bowls using bacteria-forks. At least a team of students at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark have a plan to grow food, medicine, and tools in space using genetically engineered bacteria. It means that a culture of a special type of bacteria will harvest Martian sunlight and produce sugar. Then another type of bacteria will digest that sugar and then produce whatever it has been engineered to produce. The bacteria might generate vitamins or any other digestible materials and bioplastics that could be 3D printed into any form, including the forks and knives necessary to eat the space spaghetti.

How amazing is that? Can you imagine yourself and your friends to have a debate over which bacteria-burger is the best or in which Martian restaurant they have the most effective food-producing bacteria? It might happen some day.


STEM - Engineered Microorganisms


9) Smart sensors and tiny gadgets will measure every piece of information about us

Smart people with smart phones living in smart houses driving smart cars in smart cities. You have already all kinds of gadgets collecting information about you. And it is only the beginning.

Imagine that you wake up in your bedroom, and your smart sleep monitors tell you the quality of your sleep (and it could also wake you up at the best time to make sure you are energized in the morning). Afterwards, you go into the kitchen to have some ham and eggs. There could be smart forks and spoons that might teach you how to eat slowly. After breakfast, you go into the bathroom, you can brush your teeth with a Kolibree smart toothbrush analyzing whether you are hydrated or not; and giving rewards for cleaning your teeth long enough to count. When you go into the shower, your smart home could bring the temperature down by using a smart device like Google Nest. Imagine toilets with microchips, sensors logging movement patterns, bathroom sensors following patterns of water usage, digital mirrors measuring basic vital signs.


Healthcare Home - Smart Home


Are you worried or scared? It might be uncomfortable to know that these devices know so much about the details of our lives, but on the other hand, their aim is to make our lives better. And if you want to make sure that our data is used properly and our privacy is protected, the easiest way to do that is to choose a STEM career and make sure that sensors and wearables are controlled in the necessary manner.


10) Convince your parents with the practical side of STEM if necessary

You are already over the Moon (well, not literally… yet…) by the possibility to study something connected to driverless cars, space-bacteria or humanoid robots, but your parents are less enthusiastic? Tell them the following. STEM jobs have been growing at a three times higher pace than any other fields in the last 10 years in the UK. They also have the brightest future in terms of career chances and payment as well. There will be over 500 thousand new STEM jobs only in the UK only in the next 5 years…



Also, there are great initiatives already motivating teachers and policy-makers to help kids choose STEM. In the UK, the STEM Learning initiative helps teachers and students alike to familiarize with science, technology, engineering or mathematics. They provide professional development, resources, bursaries, recognition and tools to teachers, technicians and teaching assistants – so they will be able to pass their knowledge to their pupils eager to learn about the world. In the US, STEM Education Coalition works to raise awareness in Washington about the critical role that STEM education plays in shaping the future of the United States.

And of course, you could say that STEM is not everything. I will agree with you. We need skills also in social sciences and the humanities – and you need people who have the ability, knowledge and skills in these areas. Steve Jobs once declared: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—that it is technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” His comment reflects on the necessity to look at the environment around us in its complexity – and this should be our guiding beacon in the future.

But if you have the enthusiasm and courage, choose STEM, and I’m certain that you will get a great chance to build a better future for the next generation. At the end of the day, this is our lifetime job. [The Medical Futurist]

October 18, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , , , ,
Detecting Cancer Early With Nanosensors and a Urine Test



How might cancer detection, treatment, and prevention change if cancer could be diagnosed by peeing in a cup?

According to Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, about two-thirds of cancer deaths worldwide are probably preventable by techniques we already have in hand. Her laboratory is working to apply those techniques, and at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference she shared details of an exciting project: using nanosensors to diagnose cancer with a urine test.

Bhatia is a professor at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine. She’s an affiliated faculty member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, an institute member of the Broad Institute, a biomedical engineer at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and has been elected to Brown University’s Board of Trustees.

Trained as both a physician and an engineer, Bhatia’s laboratory is dedicated to leveraging miniaturization tools from the world of semiconductor manufacturing to impact human health.

Noting the remarkable pace of miniaturization and its power to impact medicine, Bhatia said a billion transistors now fit in the same space where just one used to fit, and the portability of computation has changed all of our lives.

Bhatia’s lab is interested in what the miniaturization revolution can do for cancer detection and therapy.

She predicted that by 2020, 70% of preventable cancer cases will be in the developing world. To meet the challenge of freeing millions of people from cancer, she said, “The way we think about detecting cancer and acting on it fundamentally needs to change.”

So how can miniaturization help?

Imagine a sensor so small it could circulate around the body, find cancer, then send a signal to the outside world. Bhatia thinks nanotechnology can get us there.

Hundred-nanometer particles (one thousand times smaller than the thickness of a human hair) are injected into a blood vessel. Thanks to their small size, the particles can ‘leak’ out of the blood vessel and into a cancerous tumor. The particles then detect enzymes that tumors make as they’re invading.

The class of enzymes being detected are called endoproteases. There are over 500 of them in the genome, and they’re regulated through all the phases of cancer growth, including the immune response. Detectors can be made for any of these, and they have an important advantage: in traditional ultrasensitive cancer tests, higher specificity means less sensitivity, and vice versa. With nanosensors, multiple measurements can be taken at once. Bhatia refers to this as multiplexing.


sangeeta-bhatia-2Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia at Exponential Medicine.

Rather than just making one sensor against one enzyme, a cocktail of sensors can be made and pointed at different cancer targets or different phases of cancer. The most common test Bhatia’s lab uses is a tenplex, and every fragment that comes out in the urine is designed to detect a different enzyme.

Speaking of urine—the final step is getting this activated signal out of the body. Lucky for us, it turns out our kidneys are natural nanoscale filters, able to filter down to a five-nanometer scale.

That means the whole process of detecting cancer by peeing in a cup would go like this: a hundred-nanometer particle is injected into the patient, where it leaks into the tumor, detects enzymes ultra-sensitively, and gives off a five-nanometer fragment which the body concentrates in urine.

There are other tests for cancer being developed for the blood and focusing on various cancer byproducts, such as fragments of mRNA. Whether it’s blood or urine tests, a tumor wouldn’t have to be located or biopsied. The hope is to better fight cancer by diagnosing it early when it’s more treatable.

But Bhatia’s approach may have an added benefit due to its prospective simplicity.

She emphasized her technology’s potential for use in the developing world. The method could be an inexpensive point-of-care test that won’t require steady electricity or an on-site physician. Patients will be able to get a shot, wait an hour, and do a urine test on a paper strip. They could then take a photo of the paper strip with a smartphone and send it to a physician or database.

While taking a test to find out whether you have cancer will never be a pleasant activity, it’s a plus that nanosensors may prove a viable alternative to blood tests, as well as detect cancer early enough to give patients a better chance of survival.

Of course, finding cancer is only half the battle. Bhatia also noted her team (and others) are aiming to better treat cancer by developing drug-loaded nanoparticles that seek and destroy cancer cells. Instead of a body-wide blast of toxic chemotherapy, more precisely targeted nanoparticle delivery would reduce dosage—and hopefully, nasty side effects—while increasing the efficacy of the drugs.

Work on nanoscale detection and treatment may help us fight cancer far more effectively in the future.


October 18, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , ,
Franz Freudenthal: A new way to heal hearts without surgery


At the intersection of medical invention and indigenous culture, pediatric cardiologist Franz Freudenthal mends holes in the hearts of children across the world, using a device born from traditional Bolivian loom weaving. “The most complex problems in our time,” he says, “can be solved with simple techniques, if we are able to dream.”



With his unique inventions (including a device knitted from threads of high-tech alloy by indigenous craftswomen), Franz Freudenthal saves children from congenital heart defects.


Why you should listen

In his quest to understand the complexities of congenital heart disease, Bolivian-German physician and inventor Franz Freudenthal creates and produces sophisticated devices aimed at improving the lives of patients, especially children that will carry this device inside their heart for the rest of their lives.

His most heralded invention, the Nit Occlud, closes a hole in the heart or arteries and restores basic heart functionality. Freudenthal works with top scientists and universities from Europe and North and South America; however, his heart is in Bolivia, where he works with a team of engineers and highly skilled laborers and dreams of healthy children.

October 14, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , ,
Brain implant provides sense of touch with robotic hand – and that’s just the start

BOT or NOT? This special series explores the evolving relationship between humans and machines, examining the ways that robots, artificial intelligence and automation are impacting our work and lives.


Nathan Copeland and robotic hand
Quadriplegic patient Nathan Copeland watches a sensor-equipped robotic hand reach out. (Credit: UPMC / Pitt Health Sciences)


A dozen years ago, an auto accident left Nathan Copeland paralyzed, without any feeling in his fingers. Now that feeling is back, thanks to a robotic hand wired up to a brain implant.

“I can feel just about every finger – it’s a really weird sensation,” the 28-year-old Pennsylvanian told doctors a month after his surgery.

Today the brain-computer interface is taking a share of the spotlight at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, with President Barack Obama and other luminaries in attendance.

The ability to wire sensors into the part of the brain that registers the human sense of touch is just one of many medical marvels being developed on the high-tech frontiers of rehabilitation.

“You learn completely new and different things every time you come at this from different directions,” Arati Prabhakar, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said last week at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Prabhakar provided a preview of the Copeland’s progress during her talk. DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program provided the primary funding for the project, which was conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and its medical center, UPMC.

The full details of the experiment were published online today in Science Translational Medicine.



Copeland’s spinal cord was severely injured in an accident in the winter of 2004, when he was an 18-year-old college freshman. The injury left him paralyzed from the upper chest down, with no ability to feel or move his lower arms or legs.

Right after the accident, Copeland put himself on Pitt’s registry of patients willing to participate in clinical trials. Nearly a decade later, a medical team led by Pitt researcher Robert Gaunt chose him to participate in a groundbreaking series of operations.

Gaunt and his colleagues had been working for years on developing brain implants that let disabled patients control prosthetic limbs with their thoughts. “Slowly but surely, we have been moving this research forward,” study co-author Michael Boninger, a professor at Pitt as well as the director of post-acute care for UPMC’s Health Services Division, said in a news release.

This experiment moved the team’s efforts in a new direction. Four arrays of microelectrodes were implanted into the region of Copeland’s brain that would typically take in sensory signals from his fingers. Over the course of several months, researchers stimulated specific points in the somatosensory cortex, and mapped which points made Copeland feel as if a phantom finger was being touched.


Nathan Copeland

Nathan Copeland gets a sense of touch from robotic fingers. (Credit: UPMC / Pitt Health Sciences)

“Sometimes it feels electrical, and sometimes it’s pressure,” Copeland said, “but for the most part, I can tell most of the fingers with definite precision. It feels like my fingers are getting touched or pushed.’

To test the results, the researchers placed sensors onto each of the fingers of a robotic hand. They connected the system to Copeland’s brain electrodes, and put a blindfold over his eyes. Then an experimenter touched the robo-hand’s fingers and asked Copeland if he could tell where the feeling was coming from.

Over the course of 13 sessions, each involving hundreds of finger touches, Copeland’s success rate was 84 percent. The index and little fingers were easy to identify, while the middle and ring fingers were harder.

During the experiment, Copeland learned to distinguish the intensity of the touch to some extent – but for what it’s worth, he couldn’t distinguish between hot and cold. That’ll have to come later.

“The ultimate goal is to create a system which moves and feels just like a natural arm would,” Gaunt said. “We have a long way to go to get there, but this is a great start.”



Prabhakar said neurotechnology is a high priority for DARPA, in part because of the kinds of injuries that warfighters have suffered in conflicts abroad.

“Lower-limb prosthetics have gotten very good – but upper-limb prosthetics, until very recently, have still been limited to a very simple hook,” she said.

One of the advanced robotic arm models funded by DARPA is just now hitting the commercial market. It’s called the Luke Arm, in honor of the prosthetic that was given to Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars.”

The experiments in Pittsburgh add touch sensitivity to the mix. and there’s more to come. Prabhakhar shared a video clip in which a patient who lost most of his arm could feel the touch of a virtual hand upon a computer-generated door.

“Oh my God! I just felt that door,” the patient said. “God, that is so cool.” (You can watch the clip starting at the 28:30 mark in the archived GeekWire Summit video.)

Prabhakar said the system was wired into the nerves running from what was left of the patient’s arm.

“We don’t have to go into his brain directly,” she explained. “That chip is just in the peripheral nervous system. We now know how to send the precise neural signals that give him a sensation of touching that virtual door.”

Prabhakar said that kind of technology can be applied to much more than rehabilitation. Human-computer interfaces that blend the real world with virtual reality, including virtual touch, could open the door to enhancing human experience and connecting us with the outside world in completely new ways.

“We don’t know where all that’s going to go yet,” she said. “But it’s an interesting threshold.”


October 13, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , ,
Future Apple Watches might use heart rate sensor to identify owner

An Apple invention published on Thursday reveals work on a next-generation Apple Watch model capable of identifying a user with its heart rate sensor, which if implemented would mark a major step forward in freeing the wearable from iPhone.



As published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple’s patent application for a “User identification system based on plethysmography” details a method by which a pulse oximeter is used to determine and identify biometric characteristics of a user’s vasculature. Similar in function to Touch ID on iPhone and iPad, the resulting data might then be used to verify a user’s identity, thereby allowing access to a previously locked device.

In some embodiments, the pulse oximeter is described in simple terms as two light emitter and light sensor pairs co-located on a mobile device. The system works by emitting light toward a user’s skin, blood and other body parts, then measuring how much of that light is absorbed and reflected back to the device. The amount of light collected at each sensor can be calculated to determine the amount of blood present in a user’s skin, a benefit for pulse readings.

Light gathered by the two photosensors is measured and in some cases applied to a scatterplot. This data is either compared against previously saved information to positively identify the user or stored for later use.

As with Touch ID, identifying users via vascular biometrics can be a seamless process. In some embodiments, the device monitors onboard motion sensors like accelerometers, gyroscopes and GPS radios to determine user motion. Certain gestures, for example raising the device from waist height to head height, trigger the authentication process.

Once identified, users have full access to device functions. In theory, the system might be applied in place of Touch ID for initial authentication and Apple Pay payments, further reducing Apple Watch’s reliance on iPhone.




Apple Watch already uses a two-emitter setup —for accuracy, each of the two sensor setups are tuned to emit and pickup different wavelengths of light —based on plethysmography technology, meaning today’s patent could theoretically be applied to existing hardware. Whether vascular variances at the wrist are diverse enough to create a secure biometric system is unclear, though veins in fingers have been used in such applications for years.

Apple’s vascular identification patent application was first filed for in May 2016 and credits Daniel J. Culbert as its inventor.


October 13, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , ,
DeepMind’s new computer can learn from its own memo




DeepMind, an artificial intelligence firm that was acquired by Google in 2014 and is now under the Alphabet umbrella, has developed a computer than can refer to its own memory to learn facts and use that knowledge to answer questions.

That’s huge, because it means that future AI could respond to queries from humans without being taught every possible correct answer.

DeepMind says its new AI model, called a differentiable neural computer (DNC), can be fed with things like a family tree and a map of the London Underground network, and can answer complex questions about the relationships between items in those data structures.

For example, you could get responses to questions like, “Starting at Bond street, and taking the Central line in a direction one stop, the Circle line in a direction for four stops, and the Jubilee line in a direction for two stops, at what stop do you wind up?” DeepMind says its DNC could also help you plan an efficient route from Moorgate to Piccadilly Circus.

Similarly, it could understand and answer questions about the relationships between people from a large family, like, ““Who is Freya’s maternal great uncle?” You can see a visualization of this below:



This discovery builds on the concept of neural networks, which mimic the way the human mind works. They are great for machine learning applications where you want a computer to learn to do things by recognizing patterns.

It’s these networks that helped DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI defeat world champions at the complex game of Go. But AlphaGo had to be trained by feeding it data about 30 million moves from historical games. By augmenting an AI’s capabilities with the power of learning from memory, it’ll likely be able to complete far more complex tasks on its own.

DeepMind hopes that its DNC, which it describes as “a learning machine that, without prior programming, can organise information into connected facts and use those facts to solve problems,” will allow for further breakthroughs in computing. It published its research findings in the scientific journal Nature, and you can read the paper here.

[The Next Web]

October 13, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , , , ,
Infographic – Precision Medicine: New Paradigms, Risks and Opportunities

The emerging field of precision medicine is speeding ahead, marked by non-traditional new partnerships across different groups in medicine, health care, technology, academia and government. It is increasingly viewed as mainstream treatment, especially in cancer research and diagnostics. Many pharmaceutical, biotechnology and device firms are taking the plunge, looking to precision medicine as a way to improve patient outcomes by reimagining business models that simultaneously reduces the cost but improves the quality of care.




October 11, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , , , ,
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