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OPINION | Technology Is Useful, But Drones Alone Won’t Save Africa’s Elephants

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Technology has made a tremendous difference in the world, in areas as diverse as health and education, and pretty much everything in between.

But is technology the weapon that will ultimately eradicate animal poaching and save various species from eradication? It’s not a silver bullet, but it certainly has potential.

That’s why Vulcan – a company started by the late Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft – has produced a tech platform called EarthRanger to monitor protected wildlife areas by drawing in big data from cameras, animal collars and vehicle sensors. Other platforms such as SMART – a spatial monitoring and reporting tool – have also started to gain traction and operate in similar ways to EarthRanger.

Vulcan is known in the conservation world for sponsoring the Great Elephant Census. The census revealed that there are probably fewer than 400 000 savannah elephants left in the wild across Africa. It also revealed a decline of 8% a year between 2007 and 2014, largely due to poaching, either to supply the illegal ivory trade or the bushmeat trade.

A census is useful because it provides a snapshot in time and highlights the urgency of the problem. Elephants are a keystone species, environmental engineers who play irreplaceable roles in maintaining ecological integrity. They’re also incredibly intelligent. Losing them is not an option. But we need more than occasional snapshots to aid conservation efforts.

New technologies, however – as a step beyond census counting – are merely a tool. Their efficacy ultimately depends on the value to the end user. A sound overarching vision and buy-in from users on the ground is also critical. At present, data collection and analysis practices vary from site to site. Without best-practice standards in this respect, all the cleverly collected data in the world may make little difference.

Drones: a silver bullet?

Drones can provide real-time information on animal movements and numbers in ways that traditional surveys cannot. This enhances platforms like SMART and EarthRanger. Drones are not delayed by heavy forest cover. They also don’t need human comforts: they don’t have to be fed, as field technicians do during aerial surveys, and don’t get tired like pilots do.

Moreover, they can detect snares and, in combination with remote sensors and camera traps, identify potential poaching behaviour. Because they can fly often, they put usable information into the hands of rangers, who can plan patrols more preemptively and effectively. This means that anti-poaching resources can be allocated more efficiently. It also means that experts far removed from day-to-day operations can analyse the data for interesting patterns.

This all sounds good. But, in a 2015 paper, I applied a basic game theory model – a “river-crossing” game – to the problem of elephant conservation. It showed that ivory demand reduction requires more capital allocation if anti-poaching initiatives are to be successful. A World Bank analysis later showed that only a small portion of global funding goes towards this goal. More research is also required to make demand reduction campaigns more effective.

The research is a reminder that demand for illicit wildlife products ultimately drives poaching, and even the best technologies can only go so far in complementing anti-poaching efforts.

A multi-pronged approach

One serious spanner in the faith conservationists place in technology is that it can be equally effectively employed by poaching syndicates. As I pointed out in my paper, if an MI-17 helicopter arrives with poachers firing into a herd with extreme precision (as reportedly happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012) no amount of drone-driven anti-poaching efforts can stop the slaughter.

On a field research trip to the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania in 2017, I interviewed the head of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s programme there, who happened to be running a training programme for park rangers to use new drones. Wisely, the organisation’s roadmap to zero poaching in the Selous recognises that technology is just one among several pillars necessary to achieving significant poaching reduction.

Without the others – including community buy-in, cooperation between various players at different levels, and improved prosecution and conviction outcomes – technology is just a buzzword.

Concerted global efforts to overcome the current challenges associated with anti-poaching technology are crucial for ensuring better results. At the same time, we have to recognise that poaching syndicates also have access to the best technology. If both sides simply become more efficient, we’re still going to lose our wildlife heritage.

For this reason, one cannot overemphasise the importance of effective demand reduction, a more unified approach among range states (countries that have elephant populations), and conservation-driven development from local communities.

Technology can be a valuable arrow in conservation quivers – but alone, it cannot halt the loss of the continent’s elephants. -The Conversation

-Ross Harvey Senior Researcher in Natural Resource Governance (Africa), South African Institute of International Affairs

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Gene Hackers: The Young Biotech Entrepreneurs Looking To Make Billions By Editing Life Itself

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hen Rachel Haurwitz started her biology Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, the award-winning biochemist Jennifer Doudna suggested Haurwitz investigate part of a bacterial immune system. She studied how microbes store genetic mementos of attacking viruses and recognize them to fight off future assaults. “It was an esoteric project,” Haurwitz says. 

It’s esoteric no more. This system, called Crispr, has become one of the hottest technologies in biology, with the potential to give scientists control of the building blocks of life and give investors rich rewards. Crispr had no obvious relevance to human health when it was first described in 1987, but Doudna, who won the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for her Crispr work, and other pioneers have discovered ways to turn it into a gene-editing tool. Haurwitz and Doudna helped found Caribou Bio­sciences in 2011 to get in on the action. Haurwitz, still in her 20s, became CEO the next year. 

Haurwitz is not the only young entrepreneur who sees opportunity in gene editing. Doudna cofounded Mammoth Bio­sciences with some of her other doctoral students and two Stanford Ph.D.s. Trevor Martin, the company’s 30-year-old CEO, has raised $23 million from such investors as Apple CEO Tim Cook. In 2015, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 29-year-old Luhan Yang founded eGenesis with her mentor, Harvard geneticist George Church, to use Crispr to help transplant pig organs into people. Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg, also in their 20s, cofounded Sherlock Biosciences with another Crispr pioneer, 37-year-old Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

“They may be young, but in both cases these are people at the top of their game scientifically,” Doudna says of her cofounders. “They’re fearless in all the right ways and very aware of the ethical challenges.”   

Given that no one had built a Crispr company until a few years ago, “there’s maybe more of an opportunity for people with nontraditional backgrounds,” Haurwitz says.

Crispr is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It refers to the way bacteria store, in their genomes, snippets of viral DNA, like mug shots. Those markers are used to identify invaders that return, much as a human immune system uses telltale elements of a polio virus remembered from a vaccine.

If an invading virus matches a stored mug shot, enzymes associated with Crispr break the virus’ lethal DNA into harmless pieces. Doudna and others figured out how to use those enzymes to snip DNA at precise points in order to insert or modify genes. Thus does Crispr promise to make the expensive and buggy process of rewriting DNA easier, opening up new ways to treat dis­eases caused by genetic mutations, create cheaper diagnostic tests and engineer cells that kill cancer.

Eight years after its start in Berkeley, Caribou has raised $41 million and cut licensing deals—potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars—with DuPont Pioneer, Novartis and others. It’s starting to develop medical therapies.

Haurwitz grew up in Austin, Texas, and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Harvard. She didn’t have a clear plan when she went on to UC Berkeley, but she thought she might later become a patent attorney. 

That thinking changed as her Ph.D. work got more exciting. Haurwitz and Doudna spent a lot of time talking about how they could repurpose Crispr for modifying genomes to cure disease. Program the naturally occurring Crispr system to cut the gene you want to modify, and it’s theoretically possible to use it to change the genetic code to either fix “misspellings” that cause illness or disrupt the production of an unwanted protein.

Caribou started out with the notion of making Crispr technology available for DNA editing in applications such as drug development, agriculture and basic biological research. Haurwitz’s cofounders didn’t want to leave academia and were “crazy enough to let a 26-year-old who had never worked for a company in her life take on the role of president and CEO,” she says. 

Haurwitz took a few business classes before getting her Ph.D., then pitched venture capitalists on funding a technology they didn’t really understand. Caribou was securing an exclusive license to some Crispr patents held by the University of California system and the University of Vienna. Still, “pretty much every VC we ­talked to kind of said, ‘Meh,’ ” Haurwitz remembers. This was 2012, and they thought she was overestimating Crispr’s potential. 

The papers that propelled Crispr into the limelight came the next year, and investor dollars and a wave of new companies quickly followed. Editas Medicine, cofounded by Sherlock’s Feng Zhang, raised $43 million to apply the technology to medical therapies. Next was Intellia Therapeutics, cofounded by Caribou, which raised $15 million in its 2014 launch. And Crispr Therapeutics, founded by Crispr pioneer Emmanuelle Charpentier, raised $89 million. The three went public in 2016 and now have a combined market capitalization of $3.8 billion.

Meanwhile, Haurwitz was being cold-called by plant-breeding and drug companies. DuPont led an $11 million investment in 2015. Caribou raised another $30 million the next year and has been able to sustain itself on that funding and payments from licensing and partnership deals.

Caribou licensed to Integrated DNA Technologies the right to sell biology researchers what they’d need for gene-editing experiments. Genus, an animal genetics firm, paid Caribou an undisclosed amount for the exclusive right to use its proprietary Crispr technology to engineer the genes of pigs and other livestock. Similarly, the Jackson Laboratory is paying Caribou to use Crispr to engineer new populations of research mice that model human diseases. 

Haurwitz will soon have to seek venture capital again, as Caribou has pivoted to drug development, which is expensive but potentially more lucrative. Her first focus: improve on existing cancer therapies that take patients’ immune cells and train them to attack cancer. Crispr, she says, could be used to edit the DNA of immune cells from healthy donors so that these cells could be given to any cancer patient. The company plans to start trials in humans next year. There’s competition, from Allogene Therapeutics and its partner Cellectis, which have a combined market cap of $3.9 billion.

Caribou is also developing a program in another buzzy area: the microbiome, or the many bacteria that inhabit all parts of the human body, particularly the gut. This time, investors know what Crispr is, and Haurwitz has already won some over. “She’s one of the few people that I’ve met in my life that is able to toggle between business talk and scientific talk in a heartbeat,” says Ambar Bhattacharyya, a Caribou investor at Maverick Ventures.

Beyond the competition, there is an intellectual property conflict. Overlapping patent claims from the University of California and the Broad Institute emerged for the foundational technology, which involves an enzyme called Cas9, used to cut DNA. A lawsuit between the institutions was decided in favor of the Broad, but the U.S. Patent Office has granted patents to both. UC’s patents claim broader rights than were demonstrated in its application, says Lisa Ouellette, a Stanford Law School professor, and could make them vulnerable to a legal challenge. (UC disagrees.)

Whoever owns the technology will command fat fees. Caribou might run trials related to a particular gene, but if other companies want to run trials related to other genes, they may have to approach Caribou, says Jacob Sherkow, a professor at New York Law School. “They’re going to have to pay handsomely.”

Legal battles aside, the new field risks public backlash. In November, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced he’d used Crispr to tinker with the genomes of human embryos born as twin girls, thereby heightening pressure on ­Crispr scientists to consider the ethics of how they’re using the life-altering tech. Caribou’s license agreements include language to prevent its use on human embryos, Haurwitz says. 

Doudna says researchers need to vet the science of editing the genes of embryos, and then people need to discuss how to use it responsibly. “Are there real unmet medical needs that would require this kind of editing or not? I think that’s one question.”

Debate over the answer will shape Crispr’s path to commercialization, one that holds immense potential for its youthful founders—and the likelihood of yet more controversy and conflict.

-Michela Tindera;Forbes Staff

-Ellie Kincaid;Forbes Staff

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Jeff Bezos And Elon Musk Want To Get To The Moon—They Just Disagree On How To Get There

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This Thursday, Jeff Bezos will make an announcement about his space company, Blue Origin. The image on the invitation sent to members of the press, a view of the Earth as seen from the Moon, suggests the Amazon founder will unveil  Blue Origin’s plans to send both robotic and human missions to the lunar surface, possibly with a NASA contract in hand.

If that’s the case, he won’t be alone. Aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin has already unveiled its lunar plans in partnership with NASA. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a plan for a lunar flyby mission, while NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein suggested to a Senate committee in March that the agency was open to using commercial heavy-lift rockets for its lunar crewed missions. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could serve such a mission.

The last few years have seen an increasing interest in going back to the Moon. The Trump Administration has announced it wants NASA to put humans back on the Moon by 2024, and the agency has also announced plans for a “Lunar Gateway” – a space station orbiting the Moon that would be developed in collaboration with multiple space agencies.  That space station brings with it opportunities for commercial companies to develop lunar capabilities to provide support for missions at the Gateway.

Lockheed Martin has a long history with NASA and lunar exploration—it was one of the contractors on the Apollo missions. But billionaires Musk, who runs Tesla as well as SpaceX, and Bezos represent the burgeoning commercial space industry, and the paths the two respective men took to get to this point couldn’t be much different.

What the two companies have in common is that both are very much products of their founders’ visions. Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, just three years after Amazon’s IPO fed his fortune. Two years later, fresh off the sale of PayPal, Musk founded SpaceX with his own personal fortune.

It’s from there, however, that the paths of the companies diverged. For the next 15 years, Blue Origin barely made any noise, save for some controversy as Bezos bought up land in Texas to serve as the company’s test facility in the early 2000s, and some small announcements about milestones it had achieved in agreements made with NASA for about $25.7 million in funding for space development. Bezos remains the sole owner of Blue Origin, and Forbes estimates that the world’s wealthiest man has funneled over $1.5 billion of his personal fortune into the company, financed by sales of Amazon stock.

Time-lapsed photo of SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Time-lapsed photo of SpaceX Falcon 9 launchSPACEX

SpaceX, in the meantime, has been anything but quiet. The company began making noise in December 2003, when it drove its first rocket, the Falcon One, from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California to Washington, D.C. in order to unveil it at the National Mall for an invited group of Congressional staffers, NASA and FAA officials.. Musk regularly promotes the company and its plans for the future, his eyes firmly set on Musk’s personal vision that SpaceX is to be the vanguard of humans becoming a multiplanetary civilization.

Musk was also more aggressive in obtaining venture financing and government contracts in order to support his company. Though he still maintains majority ownership (Forbes estimates his stake in the company is over 50%), SpaceX has also raised over $2.5 billion to date in venture financing, grants and debt, with a current valuation of over $31.5 billion, according to Pitchbook. Recent SEC filings show it aims to raise another $500 million in capital this year.

Throughout the past decade, SpaceX has kept itself in the public eye —even as it has brought the “move fast and break things” ethos of Silicon Valley to the traditionally more conservative aerospace industry.

“SpaceX is off trying new things, rapidly innovating, breaking things,” said Chad Anderson, founder of Space Angels, a VC firm specializing in the space industry.  “They test quite a bit, and we’ve seen some failures. We’ve seen explosions of rockets — they even put a highlight reel together of rockets exploding as they tried to land them. They take it as a point of pride that they’re willing to try new things and they’re really captured the imagination of the public that way.”

By contrast, Blue Origin rarely makes major announcements about future plans, unless it’s unavoidable due to public contracts or other reasons, preferring instead to focus its press efforts on what it’s accomplished. “Bezos proudly proclaims whenever he does a big announcement, he likes to talk about the things that he’s done,” said Anderson. One rare exception for this has been its plans for the Moon. Its robotic cargo delivery lander, Blue Moon, was first announced in 2017, and last summer the company revealed that it had a five year plan to get to the Moon.

While SpaceX has adopted a high-profile view of its risky, iterative innovation strategy, Blue Origin’s development is nearly the exact opposite. The company motto is Gradatim Ferociter, a Latin phrase meaning Step By Step, Ferociously. In interviews, Bezos has quoted the old military maxim that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” and every time one of its resuable rockets has a successful launch and landing, a tortoise is painted on its side, a nod to Aesop’s moral that “slow and steady wins the race.”

Despite Bezos’ faith in a more slow-paced, perfectionist approach to development, it’s undeniable that SpaceX has seen more success – at least so far. Though Blue Origin has had 11 successful launches to date, it has yet to send any spacecraft to orbit, instead keeping its launches suborbital, like the Mercury spacecraft that its current system is inspired by.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has had over 70 successful commercial orbital launches, which include not only putting satellites in orbit but also 15 successful deliveries of cargo to the International Space Station. It was the first company to make a cargo delivery to the station, and the company has also seen two successful launches of its Falcon Heavy rocket, currently the most powerful rocket in commercial production.

This track record has also come at some cost to the company. It’s had multiple launch failures, some of which have resulted in the loss of customer payloads, and more recently, a test fire of rockets on the spacecraft it’s developing to deliver astronauts to the space station led to the destruction of that craft— and has also likely pushed the schedule for sending astronauts to the station back to 2020. The company was originally set to have its first successful crewed flight in 2017.

In this billionaire race to the Moon, Bezos and Musk have set themselves up as the Tortoise and the Hare, respectively. But it likely won’t be until at least the mid-2020s that we learn which approach will win.

-Alex Knapp; Forbes Staff

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Tesla Sued By Family Of Silicon Valley Driver Killed In Model X Autopilot Crash

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The family of a Tesla owner killed in a crash in the heart of Silicon Valley while driving his Model X with the Autopilot feature engaged has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the carmaker, claiming the semi-automated driving feature is defective and was the cause.

Walter Huang, who was 38, died when his vehicle slammed into a concrete highway barrier on U.S. 101 in Mountain View, California, on March 23, 2018. The vehicle’s semi-automated system misread lane lines on the road, didn’t detect the concrete median and didn’t brake the Model X, but accelerated into the barrier, according to the complaint filed in the state court for Santa Clara County on April 26.

Tesla is “beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers,” Mark Fong, a partner at Minami Tamaki, one of the firms representing Huang’s family, said in a statement. “The Huang family wants to help prevent this tragedy from happening to other drivers using Tesla vehicles or any semi-autonomous vehicles.”

Allegations against Tesla in the lawsuit include product liability, defective product design, failure to warn, intentional and negligent misrepresentation and false advertising. The complaint, which didn’t specify the amount of damages being sought, also names the State of California as a defendant for failing to replace a missing guard rail around the median that might have lessened the impact of the crash.

Tesla declined to comment on the lawsuit. The California Attorney General’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit comes a little over a week after CEO Elon Musk touted gains being made in Tesla’s automated drive technology, including a new computer designed specifically for autonomous vehicles, and plans to have “full self-driving” Teslas on the road by as early as next year. Tesla has said that drivers of its current system should always be ready to retake control of the car; the system has visual and audio alerts if hands are away from the steering wheel for an extended period. But the company’s marketing materials and its future-oriented CEO have come under fire for touting Autopilot’s capabilities, possibly encouraging drivers to abdicate more control than is safe.

After the Mountain View crash, the company said it was deeply saddenedand that “safety is at the core of everything we do and every decision we make, so the loss of a life in an accident involving a Tesla vehicle is difficult for all of us.”

In preparing the complaint, Fong said lawyers representing the family had access to Huang’s vehicle, but not to data collected by Tesla. “We had access to the car but the data in the car is proprietary. Tesla possesses that and the ability to decrypt it,” he said during a press conference on Wednesday. “We downloaded what we could that was in the public domain, shall we say, that’s able to be accessed by non-proprietary sources.”

Autopilot is a semi-automated system for use during highway driving and although Tesla cautions drivers to be ready to retake control, Huang wasn’t the first person killed while using it.

There have been multiple accidents, some fatal, involving drivers using Autopilot, beginning most notably with a 2016 crash in Florida that killed 40-year-old Joshua Brown. He was using Autopilot when his car slammed into a truck that crossed his path on a divided highway near Williston, Florida, that the car’s system didn’t detect. Still, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to find any specific flaw in the technology and took no action against the carmaker after concluding a six-month investigation in January 2017.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which began investigating the Huang accident confirmed in a preliminary report that Autopilot was being used at the time of the crash. It also found that his hands were detected on the steering wheel “for a total of 34 seconds, on three separate occasions, in the 60 seconds before impact.” Even so, “the vehicle did not detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel in the six seconds before the crash.”

The federal agency hasn’t said when its final report will be issued. NTSB removed Tesla as a party to the investigation in April 2018, for “releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed.”

“Such releases of incomplete information often lead to speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash, which does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public,” NTSB said.

The case is Sz Hua Huang et al v. Tesla Inc., The State of California, no. 19CV346663, filed in California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara

Alan Ohnsman; Forbes Staff

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