Winning apps

3D FinTech Challenge helps promising startups succeed

Charles Wallace
17 May 2015

2 min read

For London-based financial technology startup Kusiri, one of the most transformative experiences of its young existence was winning the 2013 3D FinTech Challenge. 

The 3D Fintech Challenge is an immersive, seven-week accelerator program designed to accelerate high-performance technology startup companies in the financial services sector, an area known as FinTech. The 2013 competition focused on analysis of big data; in 2014, the emphasis was on investment management. 

London-based financial technology startup Kusiri won the 2013 Challenge, but the mentoring its leaders received from a wide range of senior financial services executives and industry experts led the company to transform its enterprise-only, due diligence search platform to a cloud-based service available within 24 hours to any user worldwide.

“We had thought when we went into the Challenge that we would polish and refine what we had,” Kusiri CEO Tim Clark said. “Instead, we grasped the opportunity to completely rethink our business proposition, which has contributed to us trebling our revenues and more than doubling our team size to 14.” 


Challenge finalists run the gamut from those with prebuilt products that are already earning revenues to small startups with little more than a good idea. Finalists benefit from master classes and ongoing commercial mentoring from leading financial and software industry experts. All finalists pitch their solutions to industry participants and venture capitalists, and the winner is selected by a panel of senior industry players. James Stickland, director of Innovation and Investments at HSBC Global Banking and Markets in London, was one of the Challenge judges. If one theme applied to all the Challenge participants, Stickland said, it was: “How do we enable efficiency and take cost out of the business?”

Brendan Bradley, chief innovation officer at Eurex, a global derivatives exchange, was a judge and mentor on the 2014 Challenge. Each mentor firm, Bradley said, helps one startup evaluate its business plan and refine its offering.

“There’s a dedicated process to build a prototype around the idea the firm has and introduce it to a whole network of banks and financial institutions,” Bradley said. “A lot of tutoring goes on about such things as how to protect your intellectual property rights or how to pitch your idea to venture capital firms.” 


Charles Pardue, a former executive at US bank JPMorgan Chase, is now founder and CEO of Prophis Technologies, a London-based startup that won the 2014 Challenge. The company’s iPad application enables client-facing personnel of asset management companies and private banks to communicate more effectively with either institutional investors or high-net-worth individuals. Prophis was paired with AllianceBernstein, a global investment management and research firm with billions of dollars under management. “The mentoringprocess created an environment equivalent to having reached a point in the sales process where someone is interested in your product idea and wants to ensure that it develops in a way that is meaningful to the mentor’s business,” Pardue said. “I felt the whole process worked very well, and the level of support was terrific.” ◆ 

Editor’s Note: The 3D FinTech Challenge was conceived, managed and sponsored by Dassault Systèmes, which also publishes Compass. Click here for more information and video interviews with Challenge participants and mentors.

Electronic fashion

Wearable tech moves off the wrist and into the fabric of daily life

Martin Koppe & Philippe Fontaine

5 min read

In our ultra-connected world, the latest trend is wearable technologies: data transmission systems built into clothing or accessories to transform what we wear into a new communication interface. With a wide range of capabilities, from tracking our moods to monitoring our health, the next-generation wardrobe is here.

Wearable technologies, the latest trend from the “Internet of Things,” are connected systems that can detect changes in their environment and react to stimuli from the wearer’s body. Some wearable technologies also have memorization and “learning” capabilities, and they are reinventing the functionalities of clothing and accessories.

Propelled by inventive designers and engineers from fields that include health care, fashion and entertainment, the market for connected objects is growing fast. With some items having retail prices of less than US$100, the global audit firm Deloitte estimates that 10 million products featuring wearable technologies were sold in 2014, for sales estimated at US$3 billion. US consulting firm Gartner forecasts that sales will reach US$10 billion by 2016. Given this potential, wearable technologies featured prominently in 2015 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, as well as the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Consumers are embracing the technology for its ability to provide real-time feedback on their health or to improve productivity in the workplace. Businesses have a greater motivation: Every second, these wearable systems produce millions of pieces of data about users, providing more in-depth knowledge that allows businesses to design more customized – and more lucrative – offers and create a bond of loyalty with consumers and clients.

The systems also raise privacy issues, however. Insurance companies, for example, can access real-time information on users’ health and adjust the cost of coverage accordingly – a trend the healthy are likely to see as a boon but that those with health issues may see as an unwelcome intrusion into their lives and wallets.


Success in the wearable technologies market requires a clear understanding of its many subtleties, experts say. Technology buffs, for example, may embrace innovative functionalities regardless of how it looks, but overly “geeky” apparel won’t appeal to fashion-conscious consumers.

“There are two paths to be explored,” said Jef Holove, former CEO of Basis Science, a San Francisco-based smartwatch manufacturer that was acquired by Intel in 2014. “The first is health care related uses with sensors capable of monitoring heart failure or problems associated with diabetes. On the other side is a more entertainment-centered dimension with smart bracelets and watches.”

US$10 billion

US consulting firm Gartner forecasts that wearable electronic device sales will reach US$10 billion by 2016.

Worn directly on the body, health-oriented wearable technology measures and analyzes physiological parameters, allowing for analysis that can improve health through early diagnosis or be used to fine-tune athletic performance.

“Let’s say I regularly run along the same route,” said Rodrigo Martinez, life sciences chief strategist at IDEO, a Boston-based company specializing in innovation and design. “The information recorded by a wearable accessory helps me understand what was different from one run to the next. Thanks to these devices, the body is no longer just connected, but truly working toward optimization.”

For example, Fitbit and Jawbone bracelets feature a pedometer, a heart-rhythm monitor and a system to measure sleep quality. Autonomy ranges from a few weeks to a full year. Associated software analyzes the information recorded to provide real-time recommendations via smartphone, including the optimum times to eat, take a nap or train. The system can even recommend when to slow down to avoid fatigue too early in a workout.


Wearable technology isn’t only for athletes, however; it’s also sparking interest in industry.

For example, Atheer Labs, a team of entrepreneurs and inventors based in Mountain View, California, has created a pair of smart glasses with an embedded sensor that lets wearers read information superimposed on the real world while manipulating digital fields with a simple gesture.

“In some cases we have to act within the real world, but at the same time we need to interact or access information from the digital world,” said Allen Yang, formerly chief technology officer at Atheer and principal investigator at the University of California, Berkeley, who is an expert in high-dimensional pattern recognition, computer vision, image processing and sensor networks. The immersive technology, Yang said, enhances collaboration and the human experience for those whose work makes it difficult for them to type on a keyboard or screen, such as an aircraft pilot or an oil-field worker, who may be wearing gloves.

In the health care sector, Google Glass offered similar technology before it was retired, allowing doctors separated by thousands of miles to communicate in real time during complex medical operations. In 2014, for example, doctors in France and Japan used the technology to collaborate during a prosthetic shoulder replacement procedure.

“In the end, these new devices will give professionals greater freedom in their activity while at the same time increasing productivity,” said François Benhamou, CEO of the infrastructure software provider Novell France.


Connected accessories such as bracelets and glasses were only the first wave of the wearables industry, however. Today, an increasing number of companies are incorporating their technology directly into clothes – even weaving them into fabric. Connected clothes are washable and often are designed to be environmentally friendly and downright stylish. Many of the products on display at recent technology shows were novel, but they illustrate the vast array of possibilities these technologies offer. For instance, the Bubelle dress by Netherlands-based Philips Design changes colors and levels of brightness depending on the wearer’s mood.

Not so G-rated, the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde developed Intimacy 2.0, a dress that becomes see-through in response to an increase in heart rate and body temperature. A jacket created by Australia-based Wearable Experiments, and the Lechal shoe from the Indian company Ducere, are invisible GPS devices, vibrating to point the wearer in the right direction thanks to a Bluetooth connection to his or her smartphone.


Pierre-Alexandre Fournier is co-founder and CEO of Hexoskin, based in Montreal, which created a biometric shirt for sport training and health tracking. He predicts that all clothing will soon come equipped with wearable technologies.

“Our 100% textile sensors are connected to a small portable case and incorporated into our t-shirts,” Fournier said. “They measure respiratory volume, heart rate recovery time and calorie burn rate.” The applications, he said, are particularly useful for diabetics, whose blood sugar can drop or spike without warning, and for people at risk of heart failure.

Early detection of hidden health issues is a rapidly advancing niche in the wearable technology industry. Cyrcadia Health, based in Reno, Nevada, for example, has developed a connected bra that can detect breast cancer by sensing changes in localized body temperature. When a cancerous tumor is present, the body creates new blood vessels to nourish it. By detecting localized increases in temperature, this undergarment makes it easier for physicians to identify the presence of a tumor early in its development.

Disease prevention is an even loftier goal for connected clothing. Using nanotechnologies, Kenyan researcher Frederick Ochanda and Gambian stylist Matilda Ceesay have designed mosquito-repellent clothing – a crucial innovation in Africa, where more than 600,000 people die every year from malaria. Likewise, Google’s new Smart Lens, an experimental contact lens for diabetics and those at risk of developing the condition, measures the glucose content in tears using a minuscule sensor connected to an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chip. The wearer can transmit the results to a mobile device by simply placing the device close to the eye.


Thanks to advances in bio- and nanotechnologies, connected technology is moving even closer than our clothes – soon, we’ll be able to wear it inside our bodies. For example, Nokia recently patented a temporary tattoo made of ferromagnetic ink that vibrates at different frequencies when subjected to an electromagnetic field. Paired with a smartphone, it lets the wearer feel an incoming call or message.

Joseph Wang, chair of nanoengineering at the University of California, San Diego, is working on a “smart tattoo” to measure the lactic acid content in sweat, which is believed to induce muscle cramps. Theoretically, the tattoo can alert athletes if the level of lactic acid approaches a critical threshold, prompting them to rest or hydrate.

These and other applications demonstrate the enormous potential of these invisible, non-invasive and increasingly affordable technologies. From revealing our mood to monitoring our health, these systems are redefining the very notion of a “must-have” fashion accessory.

Opening the book

Digital technology is transforming the textbook

Jacqui Griffiths

3 min read

In classrooms around the world, digital technology is transforming textbooks with dynamic, interactive content that can reach out and engage learners. As these “eTextbooks” also are cost efficient, educators and publishers are teaming up with technology providers to produce more engaging, media-enriched material.

By 2018, eBooks will represent 14% of the total global revenue from educational books, according to a report by multinational professional services network PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers). This might seem like a humble figure, but it’s double the share educational eBooks represented in 2013. Although growth is hampered by educators’ dependence on tight government budgets, which do not allow for new textbook purchases every year, this evolving format is well supported by publishers, especially in higher education.

“We are seeing a gradual increase in eTextbook usage among students,” said Linda Dunbar, director of corporate public relations at Wiley, a major textbook publisher headquartered in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Generally, students who use an eTextbook once are more likely to use one again because they’ve had a positive user experience.” Charlie Pearson, development manager at UK educational publisher Pearson Publishing, sees steady growth ahead. “Our ‘nimbl’ advanced mobile publishing platform is generating a lot of interest in schools,” he said. “It will take time to translate into big sales, but we expect demand to pick up, starting with the 17-18 year olds, who are more independent learners.”


eTextbooks extend the traditional book to include a flexible repository of resources and media, plus progress tracking and instant feedback capabilities. “The long-term transformation is not books going online,” Mary Skafidas told Scholastic Administr@tor magazine when she was working as a marketing executive at New York-based publisher McGraw-Hill Education. “It’s the creation of different tools, a step beyond digital prose.”

French publisher Hachette’s “Technique” collection took that step by partnering with educational technology experts to create 3D animations for a digital version of a technology handbook used in French high schools. Animations enable students to observe, manipulate and deconstruct technical 3D models, while French and English voiceovers build language skills.

“These animations integrate well with a combined approach of hands-on experiments, lectures and lab sessions,” said Sylvain Grenaille, who teaches technology at Viollet-le-Duc High School in Villiers-Saint-Frédéric, France, one of the schools that tested Hachette’s eTextbook. “Students like to study digital technologies that they’ll use more thoroughly later on. The class using 3D animations was more efficient since students were more interested in what they were doing.”


By 2018, eBooks will represent 14% of the global revenue from educational books, according to PwC.


As students bring their work home, successful eTextbooks must provide rich interactive content on a wide range of devices. Ewan Campbell, a teacher trainer working for the British Council’s Pre-ELT (English Language Teaching) project in Malaysia, delivers courses that combine face-to-face learning using paper textbooks with homework on digital platforms. “The big challenge with digital books is how to display content on different devices,” he said. “Here in Malaysia, most trainee teachers have smartphones and few have laptops, so digital resources must work on the devices available to them.”

Forward-thinking publishers are focused on that challenge. “We are creating content to look good on all screens,” Pearson said. “The markup language for eTextbooks must be richer because the content is required to do more.”


Looking ahead, eTextbooks promise a broad spectrum of innovative and engaging resources. The publishers’ goal is to make them increasingly sophisticated and interactive. “eTextbooks will evolve over time so that there is a higher level of interactivity, even for a standard offering,” Wiley’s Dunbar said. “This will come about initially as publishers progressively move their content into more dynamic, reflowable formats. A range of offers will emerge, from standard text on a device to an adaptive, integrated learning platform with a wide range of enhancements.”



These versatile resources could generate new business models, enabling more people to access the educational materials they need. In several US states, for example, educators and administrators are abandoning costly paper textbooks and using platforms such as Wikispaces for Teachers, Netvibes, Moodle and Edmodo to create their own eTextbooks. Wiley’s eTextbooks can be purchased or rented, and educators can select the content they need to create customized textbooks in the format of their choice.

In a recent blog for EduTech, Michael Trucano, senior information and communication technology and education policy specialist at the World Bank, suggested that learners in developing countries could buy eTextbook chapters as needed, much as consumer-goods companies sell affordable, one-load packets of laundry detergent.

As eTextbooks gain traction, they will continue to evolve through partnerships with publishing, education, media and technology providers. These interactive resources promise compelling experiences for a broad spectrum of learners, with plenty of new chapters ahead.

Learn about the 3D extended eTextbook:

Health care’s mobile future

Cheap personal devices will connect to health systems everywhere

Mark Webb

7 min read

An aging population, the rapid development of new treatments and the need to spread good medical practices more widely are challenging health care professionals to innovate with mobile technology, while governments and patients monitor privacy issues.

Mobile health (mHealth) – the practice of medicine and public health with support from mobile devices – is a growing segment of a health care sector that already makes up 10% of the global economy, according to the World Health Organization. With applications ranging from data collection and practitioner education to real-time remote monitoring of patients’ vital signs, mHealth has the potential to change how providers deliver services and measure outcomes, how doctors diagnose disease and how patients take responsibility for their own well-being.



Approximately 2.8 million patients worldwide were already using home monitoring devices with built-in connectivity at the end of 2012, according to the analyst firm Berg Insight, a market research and advisory service based in Sweden that focuses on mobile-to-mobile connectivity and the Internet of Things. The company projects that such devices will reach 9.4 million connections by 2017. Health-related smartphone apps, meanwhile, are predicted to reach 500 million patients in 2015, according to estimates published in the Journal of the AHIMA in 2013.

Observable trends include the growing influence of consumer electronics companies promoting fitness wearables, doctors using smartphone apps and research programs that analyze data from multiple sources. Experts are particularly interested in mHealth technology’s potential to improve treatment of underserved populations, such as home-bound elderly patients and remote villages in emerging economies, where the widespread adoption of cell phones offers the potential to serve areas that lack local doctors.

“We cannot improve the safety of patients and the quality of their care without understanding what happens to them,” Tim Kelsey, national director for Patients and Information, National Health Service (NHS) England, wrote recently in his blog. “Data sharing has the power to transform health services.”

Internationally, however, progress varies. “In the US, the Affordable Care Act has the potential to provide the funding for this leap to mHealth, but there’s no guidance from government about standards,” said Robert Havasy, vice president of Personal Connected Health Alliance (PCHA), which includes Continua, a US-based mHealth organization where Havasy is executive director. “Denmark began the first programs in Europe, followed by the rest of the Nordic countries. Significant work also is happening in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Apart from the US, governments are setting guidelines and boundaries for development.”

Personal health monitor attaches to the user’s mobile device, which can record, save and transmit vital statistics. (Image © David Becker / Getty Images)


Despite its potential benefits, electronic sharing of patient data raises privacy concerns. The UK Parliament’s Care Act legislation, for example, seeks to protect patient privacy by dictating that a person’s data can only be shared and analyzed when there is a benefit to health care and that all such uses must be scrutinized by an independent statutory body. Similar legislation is in effect or under consideration in virtually every developed country.

While public concern about the misuse of private patient data is widespread, attitudes are changing. In a US poll conducted by National Public Radio, for example, only 53% of those surveyed said they would be willing to share information anonymously with health care researchers. But respondents younger than 35 were less privacy focused; 61% said they’d be willing to share their data.

“There are privacy concerns, but also much excitement about how global health has an opportunity to get better outcomes from more real-world data rather than trial data,” said Kathy Hughes, vice president at Washington, DC-based consultancy Avalere Health, which is staffed with business and policy analysts who work directly with health care organizations.


As health services win their customers over to the idea of collecting anonymous data, the result will be a valuable increase in the understanding of population health, according to the National Institutes of Health, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. As a result, health care providers will be better able to target their resources – if they can develop a system that is interoperable.

“There are no technical or regulatory reasons to stop (IT in health care) from being open,” Havasy said, “but health care around the world is a hybrid of high tech and individual person-to-person customer service.” To help bridge the technology gap, Continua is focused on helping governments and companies implement mHealth according to open standards such as IEEE and ISO, to ensure interoperability.


To control spiraling costs, 70% of health care organizations will invest in consumer-facing mobile applications, wearables, remote health monitoring and virtual care by 2018.


In “FutureScape: Worldwide Healthcare 2015 Predictions,” global market intelligence firm IDC reports that “to control spiraling costs, 70% of health care organizations will invest in consumer-facing mobile applications, wearables, remote health monitoring and virtual care by 2018.”

By encouraging healthier lifestyles, governments hope mHealth could be a factor in relieving both cost and access pressures. For example, the UK’s NHS is working on three digital tools: GP Choice and Urgent Care Finder, which are both search engines, and Symptom Checker, which enables patients to check their symptoms and ask questions via a webchat system.

Ricky Bloomfield, director of Mobile Technology Strategy and assistant professor of Internal Medicine & Pediatrics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, predicts that wearable technologies and connectivity will result in an unprecedented flow of data from patients to health care systems.

“We know the more data we get, the better informed we’ll be to make better decisions, but we don’t have that data yet,” Bloomfield told delegates at the mHealth Summit in December 2014. “So this is just one more way to open one more door.”

Education may prove as valuable as data, Avelere Health’s Hughes said. “One very popular app among pregnant women, for example, explains what is happening to them at different stages of pregnancy,” she said. “The women are experiencing something natural but new, and the app helps their understanding.”

Health education programs in developing countries, meanwhile, can exploit the ubiquity of mobile phones to educate remote populations. At a recent conference in New Delhi, organized by nongovernmental organization (NGO) IntraHealth International, IntraHealth adviser Girdhari Bora explained the feasibility and effectiveness of mSakhi, an mHealth application that improves the counseling skills of accredited community health workers on critical maternal, newborn and child nutrition issues.


mHealth also has potential to empower the health consumer. “Improved shopping tools are crucial to help consumers make informed choices based on more than just premiums,” said Kelly Brantley, senior manager at Avalere Health. “Patients with chronic diseases need to be able to predict their health care costs in various plans to select coverage that best fits their needs.”

The shared patient health record is one trend where self-monitoring and professional care may merge, for example, to alert nursing staff to a change in biology that requires a review of medication. Medical staff will also use mobile hands-free devices to get easier access to the complex information they need during diagnosis and treatment. Doctors, for example, immediately saw the benefit of doing drug-dosage calculations on their smartphones instead of returning to their desks or scouring a hospital in search of a terminal.

At the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed) conference in October 2014, the panel on strategies to capitalize on mHealth identified heart attack prediction, respiratory health monitoring, wearable sensors for the patients and mobile access for the doctors as promising applications. Connecting data from medical instruments such as a glucose monitor or a dialysis machine extends mHealth to diabetes management and renal care.

“There are different business models – business to consumer and business to business,” Avalere’s Hughes said. “Mobile technology companies are selling directly to consumers, to employees, to pharmacies and to insurance companies, who give their customers devices to see if they are beneficial.”


A major challenge, Havasy said, is developing devices appropriate for use in a clinical environment, where cost, infection control and interoperability are paramount.



“The manufacturer is making something like a Swiss Army Knife, which people will use for many different things,” Havasy said. “There are already checks and balances in the medical establishment so, in the hands of doctors, the use of these devices is always under appropriate supervision.”

The health systems of developed and developing countries place different demands on IT systems and equipment, and draw on different levels of resources.

For example, where mHealth can do the most good – such as in remote villages in developing nations – patients’ limited resources make flexible, low-cost devices a must. One example is mHero, a SMS-based health worker communication and coordination system which UNICEF and a consortium of partners, including IntraHealth, continue to develop.

A mobile medical device also may have to connect to other equipment in a sophisticated operating room or be ruggedized to survive use in the field.

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) aid workers in Ebola treatment centers in Sierra Leone, for example, are recording patient details without the risk of spreading infection by using a tablet that can be sterilized in a solution containing chlorine. Previously they were forced to shout information from behind a fence to another colleague who would record it.

“The magic is that there’s a local server on a postage-stamp-sized computer that runs on 5 volts so that whatever you enter on a tablet in the high-risk zone, you can then read that information in the low-risk zone from another tablet or laptop,” Ivan Gayton, a Médecins Sans Frontières field worker and technological innovation adviser, told BBC Radio during a recent interview.

Volunteer engineers from Google Crisis Response and other tech companies helped develop the equipment. “It doesn’t matter if the electricity goes off for a while or there’s no Internet, that’s the real key,” Gayton said. “That architecture, with a server and a client, is normally very difficult to implement in a sub-Saharan field setting.”


Whatever the device or connection, mobile technology has the potential to provide access to a cloud-hosted knowledge base and collaboration tools that are appropriate to its function.Shared information helps efficiency, freeing up the valuable time of doctors and nurses to treat patients rather than complete paperwork.

The learning curve can be steep, but clinical professionals see the advantages. As a nurse interviewed recently by BBC Radio said: “If I go shopping at a major supermarket, they know what my shopping habits are for the last six months, but I struggle as a nurse in an NHS hospital to see a patient’s records and know what their last medication change was.”

Into the fold

The centuries-old practice of origami helps to solve modern engineering challenges

Lindsay James

4 min read

The ancient art of origami is more than just child’s play; its principles are being used to meet a wide range of modern engineering challenges – from how to fold up a tennis court-sized solar array for use in space to reducing the amount of waste in a tube of toothpaste.

To the vast majority of people, origami is a hobby – a way of folding paper to create objects that have little value beyond their aesthetic qualities. But Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University in California, is using the art form to create something with the potential to save millions of lives.

Prakash’s brainchild is the Foldscope – a powerful working microscope that can be used to detect blood-borne diseases like malaria and sleeping sickness. It can be assembled from a flat sheet of paper; costing just US 50 cents to manufacture, Foldscope has the potential to revolutionize health care in developing countries.

“Origami lends itself perfectly to the Foldscope,” Prakash said. “It enables flat production, which facilitates low-cost manufacturing. This plays a huge role in building products that can scale to people at the bottom of the pyramid in our capitalistic framework.”

Prakash is not alone in solving complex challenges with origami. Joe Gattas, a civil engineer and lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia, has also leveraged origami in his Plate House concept – a folded shell structural system that, in the future, could be used by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to house displaced people. Origami offers inherent structural strength and thermal insulation, and can be assembled without tools or connection components.

Kristina Wissling, an origami artist based in Germany, says that origami brings unique properties to construction. “Folding is used to achieve an increase in stiffness at minimal expense of weight,” she said. “These principles can also be applied in the design of lightweight sandwichpanel cores for aircraft fuselages.”


While these inventions are impressive, they represent just a small slice of how the principles of origami are expediting more effective engineering.

“Origami engineering is unique and efficient and offers a broader range of opportunities than conventional manufacturing techniques,” Wissling said.

Robert Lang, who gave up a career as a physicist and mathematician with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to devote his time to origami engineering projects, is collaborating with Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to create a solar array that could power future space missions. “The solar arrays fixed on the International Space Station currently provide around 84 kilowatts of power,” Trease said. “But this took a number of different space launches and spacewalks to install – equating to a huge investment in terms of money and manpower.”



Trease’s prototype looks like a flower when it unfolds from a 2.7-meter (8.8-foot) package, blooming into a flat, circular surface the size of three tennis courts. “Using origami folds is a novel way of doing things, but it works perfectly,” Trease said. “The result is that we could double the current power of the Space Station, but with only a single launch vehicle and a single array deployment.”


Origami’s expandability translates to many other applications – and to a variety of industries. For example, Stavros Georgakopoulos, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Florida International University, Miami, has a US$2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create an origami antenna.

“Traditional antennas are large and often clumsy to transport,” Georgakopoulos said. “But these problems are solved with origami antennas. Commercial applications could include many types of communication equipment like satellite phones. They could also be used in wireless sensors, health monitoring sensors, portable medical equipment and more.”

London-based architecture firm Make has developed a prefabricated origami kiosk that unfolds from a compact box when closed to a shop with an integrated canopy. (Image © Make Architects)

Meanwhile, a British-Japanese duo from the Engineering Science Department at Oxford University in the UK – Zhong You (Professor of Engineering Science in the Department of Engineering Science) and Kaori Kuribayashi-Shigetomi (now a project assistant professor in the Graduate School of Health Sciences at Hokkaido University in Japan) – have used origami to create a prototype heart stent that can be reduced to just 12 mm (0.47 inches).

The stent, which was produced in bioplastic, can be threaded into a blood vessel, maneuvered into position in a blocked artery, and then opened to 23 mm (0.9 inches) to prop open the artery and restore blood flow. The team has also developed a technique they call “cell origami,” which uses folding to create 3D cell-laden microstructures that can be used for fabricating artificial tissues in hollow shapes to create biohybrid medical devices such as stents and grafts from human cells.




You is also investigating how origami’s energy-absorption properties can translate to the automotive industry. “My research to date has shown that many origami structures have better energy-absorption capabilities than existing structures and materials, even if they are made from the same materials,” You said. “I have produced a crash box for cars which, in a collision, can absorb 50% more energy when compared with existing crash-box designs.”

Lang is also applying origami principles to the automotive industry, working with Hanover, Germany-based firm EASi Engineering to more accurately simulate airbag deployment. “EASi needed to know where the fold lines would go if we flattened an arbitrary airbag,” Lang explained. “I showed them an algorithm that would work to identify the fold lines.” The technique enables manufacturers to conduct fewer airbag crash tests – saving considerable amounts of time and money.


Origami engineering is quickly finding its way into everyday life. Consider the self-folding stroller developed by 4moms of Pittsburgh, or the world’s most energy-efficient LED light bulb from Nanoleaf, a business based in Hong Kong that uses folded silicon instead of glass.

London-based architecture firm Make, meanwhile, has developed a prefabricated origami kiosk, two of which have been installed at London’s Canary Wharf. The structure, a compact, rectangular box when closed, is transformed when open, with folds and hinges in the steel panels that allow the kiosks to expand and contract like concertinas. The design works effectively when the kiosk is shut at night or serving customers during the day, with the open form creating a natural canopy.

Nicole Pannuzzo, a 22-year-old interior architecture major at Arizona State University in Tempe, has even redesigned the classic toothpaste tube using collapsible origami, resulting in a less wasteful way of delivering paste onto the brush.


The wide variety of applications point toward a successful future for origami engineering. “I firmly believe that, in the not-too-distant future, origami methods will join other new technologies, such as 3D printing, as one more element of the designer’s toolkit,” Lang said.

“Origami engineering is a new and exciting area that I believe will evolve rapidly in the coming years, especially now that there’s a lot of funding and research around it,” You said. “Manufacturers and engineers are realizing its huge potential. I expect to see more novel structures and materials in the years ahead.”

See solar arrays inspired by origami

International relations

Speech-to-speech translation opens a world of communication

Jacqui Griffiths

5 min read

Technology that translates one spoken language into another, known as speech-to-speech translation, could transform the way we communicate. Recent technology advances are helping researchers make rapid progress toward tools that will enable us to communicate naturally and fluidly, regardless of the languages we speak.

In science fiction, the universal translator that enabled instant communication between different cultures in Star Trek was invented around the year 2150. In reality, we may be ahead of schedule.

At the 2014 Code Conference, an annual media and technology gathering, Microsoft publicly demonstrated its Skype Translator app for the first time. Speaking in English, Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of online video chat company Skype, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella conversed with German-speaking Microsoft employee Diana Heinrichs; the app translated their conversation in real time.

Such demonstrations have captured the public’s imagination, fueling research teams worldwide to develop translation tools that will help us understand each other better, regardless of the languages we speak. Ultimately, such tools could erase many of the challenges of international travel, global commerce and inter-cultural communications, eliminating barriers while protecting cultural differences.


The latest speech-to-speech tools combine numerous technologies, including new neural-network learning methods patterned after human-brain behavior that significantly improves upon previous efforts.

Accurate, real-time speech-to-speech translation remains a work in progress, however. Even with a reduced rate of errors – the average has fallen from about 20% incorrect words in 2010 to about 12% in 2013 – computers are not yet capable of handling all aspects of conversation.

“Current speech-to-speech focuses on fairly literal translations of sentences,” said Sean Colbath, senior scientist at Raytheon BBN Technologies, a Massachusetts-based subsidiary of aerospace-and-defense giant Raytheon that specializes in acoustics, signal processing and related information technology. “It doesn’t recognize memes, context or conversational ambiguity. For instance, it might stall at a name or translate it literally. Or, if you ask when the bus is due and then ask what the fare is, it won’t link the two sentences and understand that you’re asking about the bus fare.”

Still, speech-to-speech technology has made tremendous strides.


Speech-translation technologies, which until recently have had only niche applications, are hitting the mainstream and attracting major investors. Facebook, for example, acquired the company behind the Jibbigo speech-translation app; Google introduced speech-to-speech translations for 80 languages as part of Google Translate; and AT&T Labs, the US-based research and development division of multinational telecommunications provider AT&T, is driving research using cloud-based speech recognition, language translation and speech synthesis engines.

“Technologies related to speech-to-speech translation have greatly improved,” said Srinivas Bangalore, a principal member of the technical staff at AT&T Labs. “While error-free translation might never be a reality, pragmatic services with a good user interface design can mitigate those limitations, and services like these are already achieving practical relevance.”




Today’s speech-to-speech translation works best in situations where the subject of conversation is sufficiently limited for the technology to cope. “Speech-to-speech can’t pick up subtle messages like context, body language or emotions,” said Neil Payne, who recently left his role as marketing director of UK-based translation agency Kwintessential to backpack around Southeast Asia. “But it can have specific uses such as between a doctor and patient, where there are parameters around the subjects discussed.”

Alan Black, a computer scientist and speech synthesis expert at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute in Pittsburgh, concurs. “At the moment, speech-to-speech translation is most useful in situations where you need to communicate with people who don’t know another language, such as international rescue operations,” he said. “For example, we get refugees from Myanmar. The local medical school provides care for them, but the doctors don’t speak their languages and there are not enough human translators available. Speech-to-speech technology is very useful in such situations.”

Deployment in these limited contexts builds experience that can be used to develop the technology for broader applications.

“We’ve developed speech-to-speech technology for the US military,” Raytheon BBN’s Colbath said. “Our research aims to figure out the science behind making speech-to-speech work. But we’re moving beyond military applications into areas like borders and customs. The conversation here will be broader – travelers may fall ill, be seeking asylum or asking for information – but it still has limits. That’s where we’ll work to bring in more shared context and meaning, to make the conversation flow.”


As the technology’s parameters expand, so will its ability to transform communication for a wide range of users.

“Speech-to-speech translation can bring international business communication to the next level by virtually removing the language barrier,” said Olivier Fontana, director, product marketing for Microsoft/BING translator for Microsoft Research’s Machine Translation group in Redmond, Washington.

Aaron Davis, computational linguist and former CTO of Lingotek, an automated translation-tool provider based in Lehi, Utah, agrees. “Combined with Web-based, real-time communication technology, speech-to-speech translation could enable interesting applications for international, multi-user video conferences,” he said. “Providing translation or subtitles for people who are more comfortable speaking another language would give you confidence that your message is being communicated accurately.”

Davis believes speech-to-speech technology could also have exciting applications in the entertainment industry. “Video gamers already use audio prompts, but they could be communicating through chat that’s translating to their gaming partners halfway across the world.”

Another promising application: enhancing relationships. “Speech-to-speech translation will open new opportunities for geographically dispersed friends and family to stay connected,” Fontana said. “For example, a grandmother in China could speak to her grandchildren in the UK, even if they don’t share a language.”


It might seem logical that speech-to-speech translation could reduce interest in learning to speak other languages, but researchers say that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not yet. “Research around speech-to-speech technology tends to indicate a cultural benefit,” Davis said. “When people are not forced to learn English to communicate, they tend to preserve their culture better, starting with language.”

AT&T Labs’ Bangalore believes speech-to-speech technology will prompt more communication between people of different cultures. “Equipped with translation technologies, people are likely to communicate more with people of different languages, thus broadening their linguistic and cultural horizons,” he said.

Fontana agrees. “Speech-to-speech translation technology will democratize and demystify language learning,” he said. “It will enable non-speakers to communicate with people they would never have been able to communicate with. It will provide a back-up tool that enables new language learners to feel more confident in trying out their skills.”




Although seamless, real-time translation may still be years away, speech-to-speech technology is expanding to support a broader range of interactions.

Still, Davis cautions against a “good enough” approach to the technology’s development. “If we accept some flaws in the translation and deploy the application widely, we’ll reach a plateau because we’re not pushing to perfect it anymore,” he said. “The error rate may be only 10%, but subtle nuances can be lost; that 10% could be vital communication.”

Carnegie Mellon’s Black believes that, as long as momentum is maintained, speech-to-speech technology will develop to meet even more needs and expectations. “As with other artificial intelligence, we’ll keep moving the boundary every time the technology gets better,” he said. “So we’ll never perfect it. But we will eventually be able to support casual conversations, because people want that capability and are investing in developing it.”

See Skype translator demo:

Rise of the CXO

New executive champions manage the consumer experience

Lisa Rivard

4 min read

As companies embrace the Experience Economy, many are appointing Chief Experience Officers responsible for ensuring they deliver great consumer experiences. Leading innovation and managing across multiple functions is a challenge, but these champions say it is vital to survival.

As companies strive to differentiate themselves from their competition, a new position is springing up in the executive suite: Chief Experience Officer (CXO). These change leaders are tackling the challenge of bringing their organizations into what experience experts Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore have dubbed “the Experience Economy.”

Although the trend is strongest among young, web-based companies founded in the Experience-Economy era, CXOs also are being named by a growing number of traditional businesses that seek to engage people with positive, memorable experiences.

“The companies that aren’t doing it are the ones that have always known they’re in the experience business… the Disneys and Universals,” said Pine, co-author of The Experience Economy and Infinite Possibility: Creating Customer Value on the Digital Frontier. “These are companies where experience permeates their entire business. They don’t necessarily need someone with ‘CXO’ branded on their forehead – although it wouldn’t hurt to keep them on track.”


CXO probably isn’t a position you’ll see advertised on global online employment solution, and it isn’t staffed by the thirtysomethings you might expect. Most CXOs championed the creation of the role at their companies, taking on the task after working their way up through the ranks.

Mark Greiner, CXO at Michigan-based Steelcase, for example, worked at the company for more than 40 years and served in 28 different jobs before becoming CXO. Lynn Skoczelas, CXO at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego, managed six different departments and a service line over a span of more than 15 years before taking on her current role. KC Fowler, CXO and director of Patient Experience at US-based Adventist Health, began his career as an emergency room clerk almost 35 years ago. Jim Cummings, CXO at Life Celebration (North Wales, Pennsylvania), had worked in the funeral business as a manager and funeral director for more than 25 years before pioneering the company’s experienced-based approach to funeral planning with his business partner, Gerry Givnish.

These change leaders each saw a need to transform their companies’ business model to a more sustainable, experienced-based one. They not only championed the change – they stepped up to serve as the new function’s leader.

“After more than 18 years on the senior leadership team, it was less about the company saying ‘we need a CXO’ than about me advocating that was the next role I wanted,” Greiner said. “I sent a note to our CEO saying it’s what I wanted to do. I’m not sure he really saw then what the impact on the business might be, but he trusted me as a partner and gave me the green light.”

At the time, Steelcase was a 100-year-old leader in the office furniture industry. But with companies reducing office space in favor of telecommuting, “it was becoming increasingly difficult for Steelcase to be viewed as distinctively different among its competitors,” Greiner said. “We couldn’t simply move to services because our dealer network had established itself as the local provider. We had to make the leap directly to experiences.”

Greiner’s first project as CXO was to launch a “work experience” concept branded Workspring. The concept offers turnkey office studios for rent that feature Steelcase furniture, but the venture isn’t meant to sell more office furniture. Instead, Greiner said, it’s a new business offering meant to generate an entirely new revenue stream.



“The customer reaction to our first space in Chicago, which takes offsite meetings to an entirely new level, has been phenomenal,” Greiner said. “You must consider alternatives beyond your existing business model because, if you don’t, somebody out there – maybe even outside your industry – could marginalize what you’ve been.”


People who become CXOs are, by definition, outside-the-box thinkers. Adventist Health’s Fowler said he thinks every day about how to create better experiences for the faith-based, not-for-profit health network’s patients, physicians and staff.

The Workspring "work experience" concept from Steelcase offers turnkey office studios for rent. (Image © Steelcase)

“Whether they mean to or not, companies create experiences – some good, some not so good,” Fowler said. “If you’re not focused on creating an intentional experience, you’re creating an unintentional one. If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, you shouldn’t be surprised where you end up.”

At Sharp HealthCare, meanwhile, Skoczelas champions a lofty vision: to be the best health care system in the universe, a goal the company chose so it would always have something to aspire to.

“It’s a timeline with no end,” Skoczelas said. “Although we’ve seen measurable increases in patient and employee satisfaction, we’ve also had a market increase every year for the past 14 years, including increased revenue and philanthropic support and decreased turnover of staff.”


As members of the executive suite, CXOs must be careful not to simply push change from the top, said Laila Pawlak, founder and CXO at DARE2, a Denmark-based consulting firm that helps companies navigate and embrace the Experience Economy. “CXOs must be champions of change,” Pawlak said. “Getting the rest of the company on board and not only participating in the experience transformation, but helping to create it, is essential.”

As CXO for Life Celebration, Jim Cummings reinvented the funeral experience by creating ways for families to celebrate thelives of their loved ones, from video photo galleries to personalized caskets. (Image © Life Celebration)

Sharp HealthCare, for example, called on its employees to architect a performance-improvement process. Approximately 1,000 employees, from front-line staff to managers and directors, formed 100 teams empowered by top management to shift the company’s culture to one focused on staging great health care experiences. “Let your people guide the process,” Skoczelas advised. “If they own it, it will work. And get excited about even incremental changes – that empowers people.”


Ask any of these CXOs about their typical day and they will politely explain there’s no such thing. Thriving on the atypical fuels their passion, but there’s science and methodology behind everything they do.

“I could take the Life Celebration program into any business and nothing about it would really change,” Cummings said of the funeral-planning service. “In almost any business, your first touchpoint with your customer is probably the telephone. The experience starts there. When you pick up the phone, are you getting out of your own tornado long enough to actually hear what your customer is saying? Or are you just racing to the end zone to get to your next phone call?”

The biggest lesson is that creating great experiences applies across every industry, Cummings said. “You can provide goods and services and wrap goods with services, but to break through to the next level you have to be able to piece together a transformational experience for people. There’s not a business on the planet that isn’t part of the Experience Economy – or should be.”

Business travel on the clock

Hungry for revenue, governments tax time spent inside their borders

Charles Wallace

3 min read

As if global travel itself isn’t taxing enough, business executives can now be taxed if they spend more than a designated amount of time in various governmental jurisdictions. Complying with these widely varying tax laws is a bookkeeping challenge, but a flurry of new mobile apps promises to lighten the load.

Business travel has become far easier in many ways, from globally enabled smartphones to ubiquitous Wi-Fi connectivity. But the taxman is also employing the latest technology, aiming to extract payments from business travelers who spend as little as one day in a government’s jurisdiction.

“It’s a change of focus,” said Marc Burrows, the UK head of audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG’s global mobility practice. “The authorities are now more focused on international business travelers and the tax and social security exposure that they might be creating by spending time in their country.”

Business travelers to New York City and New York state, for example, are now required to file state and city tax returns after spending just 14 days per year within their borders. Britain, meanwhile, routinely questions business travelers about whether they own property in the UK or have children in school there, which could make them liable to tax.

Most firms rely on existing tax treaties, which preclude double taxation, to protect their executives. But several US states, including California, don’t accept the US government’s treaties, insisting on their right to tax business travelers.

“When it comes to the sort of locations business travelers are visiting these days, if you travel to a non-treaty country there is a potential that one day is enough to cause tax liability,” Burrows said.


Anupam Singhal, co-founder of Monaeo, which sells technology that tracks executives’ movements for tax purposes, says that India, China and, most recently, Canada have become aggressive in seeking income tax payments from business travelers. Firms also could face corporate taxation if they have “permanent establishment” status in a country, so a number of firms have set up offshore subsidiaries in Ireland, which has the lowest tax rates in the European Union.

“A lot of rules haven’t changed; it’s compliance that has changed,” said Jay Sternberg, Global Human Capital leader for Technology Markets, Sales & Branding at global accounting firm Ernst & Young. “It’s probably a combination of one, this is a great way to capture revenues because governments know companies are running afoul of the law; and two, companies are being more aggressive in making sure they are in compliance.”



It’s about to get even tougher to fly under the radar. More than 100 countries have joined The Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes, which is working toward automated exchange of immigration reports, hotel stays and airline reservations. Better-informed enforcement bodies will have an easier time catching non-compliant firms and individuals.

Some countries, led by Britain, also require filing of tax returns as obligations are incurred. Companies that don’t withhold taxes and social security payments from a traveling executive’s pay and file a return immediately after a trip ends could face stiff financial penalties.


Increased surveillance has created a business opportunity for app developers. Monaeo, for example, was set up by Singhal and his partner, Nishant Mittal, after they both faced tax issues in India and the US state of Massachusetts. With venture capital, they are transforming their smartphone app, which tracks an executive’s travels using cellphone data and GPS, from a tool for the very rich to a solution for companies scrambling to document their executives’ travel for tax purposes.

KPMG and global consulting firm PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers) have similar mobile solutions. So does Ernst & Young. “It’s a red or orange warning light to employees that they have spent a certain number of days in a country and they only have a few more days of travel left if they want to curtail the trip (and avoid taxes),” Sternberg said.

The Monaeo app for traveling executives tracks the numbers of days spent in multiple jurisdictions and the time remaining until taxes are incurred. (Image © Monaeo)

Singhal said a mobile app likely would not be sufficient to prove a tax case; executives may need to back up the app’s records with hotel receipts or other documentation. But Monaeo has been used as evidence in tax cases three times in New York, Singhal said. Each time, the traveling executive avoided additional tax.

The mobile apps’ tracking capabilities do raise privacy issues. Most of the apps therefore indicate only the city, not specific addresses, and require employee consent before tracing is activated. The newest systems permit employees and travel departments to upload itineraries in advance and then receive automated warnings that a visa may be required or that a tax filing will be necessary.

“The whole idea of tracking is that you no longer need to know which states and countries are aggressive,” Sternberg said. “The technology does it for you.”

Hear about taming travel-tax complexity

Computers that think

Deep learning is transforming artificial intelligence into science fiction fact

Rebecca Gibson

5 min read

Deep learning is fast gaining a reputation as one of the most cutting-edge fields of artificial intelligence. With some impressive recent advances, experts increasingly believe the technology will soon transform many industries.

In 2014, Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Deep Knowledge Ventures revealed it had appointed VITAL, a machine learning program capable of making investment decisions, to its board of directors.

Built to analyze financial trends in the databases of life science companies and predict successful investments, VITAL has already been used to inform two investment decisions. While the company’s newest board member is just an algorithm, it has prompted many to question the role that artificial intelligence (AI) could have on our lives.

Yoshua Bengio, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Operations Research at the University of Montreal, is one of the pioneers of a powerful breed of AI known as deep learning. The principles behind deep learning were first developed in the 1980s, but recent improvements in computer algorithms and processing power have led Bengio and other scientists to build machines with the potential to mimic the behavior of the human brain – machines that can recognize people, words, objects and a whole lot more.

“Today’s much more powerful computers allow us to use much larger and more diverse datasets to train networks, which helps them to perform better,” Bengio said. “The most impressive advances have been in speech recognition and image-based object-recognition systems. In 2012, before deep learning was used as extensively, the error rate on a standard benchmark was around 26%; it has now been reduced to around 6%, which is a game changer.”


Apple uses deep-learning and speech-recognition applications to power its personal assistant, Siri. Facebook leverages the technology to automate photo tagging and customize news feeds. Movie-streaming provider Netflix (Los Gatos, California) employs deep learning to provide personalized film recommendations to users. Google is applying it to services that include Street View, Google Now and Google+ Photos.

While impressive, these advancements are just the tip of the iceberg. Recognizing the potential of this field of AI, some of the world’s leading technology companies have hired deep-learning experts and redoubled their efforts to achieve further advances. “Deep learning is more efficient than older generations of algorithms at soaking up huge amounts of data and making predictions,” said Adam Coates, director of the Baidu Silicon Valley AI Lab, a Web company headquartered in Beijing. “Graphics-processing units enable us to perform massive amounts of computation, allowing us to create neural networks that can learn from very large quantities of data in a way that was inconceivable 10 years ago.”

Baidu is harnessing deep-learning capabilities to improve Shitu, its content-based image-retrieval search engine. Launched in beta in 2010, the system was initially designed as an online facial recognition system. In 2013, Shitu was expanded to group similar images and supply information about them. For example, the system can identify similar images of flowers, as well as their species, and link to corresponding online encyclopedia information.

Shitu is similar to Microsoft’s latest deep-learning venture: an object-recognition system called Project Adam, which Microsoft unveiled in July 2014 and claims is twice as accurate as and 50 times faster than other AI systems. After tapping into an ImageNet database containing more than 14 million images in 22,000 categories, for example, Microsoft announced that Project Adam had successfully taught itself to recognize specific dog breeds.

“We have reduced error rates by one-third on conversational speech recognition benchmark tests using deep-learning techniques,” said Dong Yu, principal researcher for Microsoft’s Speech & Dialog Research Group. “Over the next few years, we will work to further improve speech processing, image classification, natural-language processing and handwritten-character recognition.”

Although Microsoft has not revealed how it intends to harness the capabilities of Project Adam to provide business-centric applications, the company predicts it has the potential to revolutionize how people interact with the world, using techniques such as augmented reality.


New developments around deep learning are popping up in industries ranging from automotive to security and defense.

Tokyo-based Preferred Networks (PFN), for example, has partnered with Toyota Motor Corporation to explore how its deep-learning technology could be used to develop autopilot systems for self-driving cars. PFN has also produced a prototype videoanalytics solution that detects, tracks and predicts the behavior of people in real time, categorizing them according to aspects such as gender, age, clothing or bodily movements. “It will enable retailers to monitor their customers’ buying patterns, or it could be combined with GPS and in-vehicle sensors to optimize road traffic management,” said Daisuke Okanohara, founder and executive president of PFN. The solution is expected to launch this year.



Meanwhile, Australia’s largest communications and technology research organization, National Information Communications and Technology Australia (NICTA), is developing a real-time, deep-learning-based visual tracker capable of following an object of interest over a sustained period.

“We also believe that this technology can be used for human-computer interactions, image search, intelligent transportation systems (from road maintenance to driving-assistance systems), or even to create a bionic eye, which mimics the function of the retina to restore sight for people with severe vision loss,” said Yi Li, a senior researcher at NICTA and adjunct research fellow at the Australian National University, located in Canberra.

On the opposite side of the Pacific, Enlitic, a start-up based in San Francisco, has other health care related plans for deep learning. It aims to leverage the technology to develop an integrated image- and data-based system that would enable doctors to diagnose common and complex illnesses more quickly and accurately.

“We want our software to offer doctors various pieces of evidence that, when combined, would indicate the likelihood that the patient is suffering from a certain disease,” said Ahna Girshick, head of product and partnerships at Enlitic. “For example, if a scan showed growths on a patient’s lung, the software would identify examples of people whose scans showed similar abnormalities, as well as a breakdown of their symptoms, lab results, gender and the success of their treatment plans. This would help doctors to make swift, informed and accurate decisions that make a real impact on patients’ lives.”


While many of these deep-learning applications are still in the R&D phases, they have the potential to revolutionize how humans interact with both machines and the world around them.

“Today our sensors can easily measure things and our computers can now be taught to recognize objects by themselves, but the problem of perception is far from being solved,” Bengio said. “There is so much more we can expect, and we still have a long way to go before deep learning reaches a stage where machines can truly perceive and understand what they are seeing, as humans do. When we reach this stage, the possibilities for commercial applications are endless.”


Many of the world’s eminent scientists have cautioned that science fiction may not be far from the mark when it warns about a world run by intelligent computers.

Speaking to the BBC in December 2014, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said: “The development of full AI could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

In January 2015, Hawking joined a number of other scientists, professors and researchers at universities and organizations across the globe – including Facebook’s Yann LeCun and Google’s Geoffrey Hinton and Peter Norvig – to sign an open letter calling for new research priorities in the AI field.

Noting that the potential benefits of AI systems are “huge,” the Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence: an Open Letter warned that it is important to “research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls” to ensure that AI technology works in a way that benefits humanity.

A supporting research-priorities document offered various examples of research projects that could help maximize the societal, economic and health benefits of AI while ensuring that it remains “robust and beneficial, and aligned with human interests.” The document also contains a caution that the “development of systems that embody significant amounts of intelligence and autonomy leads to important legal and ethical questions.”

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla Motors and US space transport company SpaceX, also signed the letter, pledging US$10 million to fund a global AI research program run by the future of Life Institute (FLI), a Boston-based non-profit organization. “Here are all these leading AI researchers saying that AI safety is important,” Musk said. “I agree with them, so I’m committing US$10 million to support research aimed at keeping AI beneficial for humanity.”

FLI will award the majority of the grant to AI researchers and the remainder to AI-related research involving other fields, such as economics, law, ethics and policy.

See Google Deep Learning

Responsible packaging

Producing reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging is a key goal for many companies

Rebecca Gibson

6 min read

New biomaterials, smarter manufacturing processes and lifecycle-assessment tools are helping fast-moving consumer goods companies reduce the environmental impact of their plastic packaging throughout its lifecycle.

From shrink wrap to bottles and polyethylene supermarket bags, plastic packaging produced by the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry accounts for a large proportion of the waste produced worldwide each year. For example, statistics from 5 Gyres, a Santa Monica, California-based organization whose aim is to reduce plastics pollution, showed that only 5% of the plastics produced in the US are recovered, while 50% are buried in landfill sites and the rest washes into the ocean. In fact, a study titled “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean” published in the journal Science in February 2015, indicated that around 8 million tons of plastic waste from consumers globally wash into the world’s oceans each year.

Consequently, many companies are looking for new materials, manufacturing methods and other end-of-life alternatives to source, produce and dispose of their products in a more environmentally responsible way.

Lynn Dyer, president of Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), a Virginia-based trade association for companies operating in the foodservice industry in North America, explains that foodservice operators consider two key questions when designing packaging: “What is it made from?” and “What can be done with it after it has been used?”

“Manufacturers are harnessing new technologies to develop packaging made with recycled materials, or use traditional materials in new ways, to improve their environmental credentials,” Dyer said. “For example, it wasn’t until a few years ago that someone was able to redevelop the 50-year old polystyrene foam cup using recycled materials. Other companies have introduced the first-ever insulated polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and insulated polypropylene cups, while paper cup manufacturers are researching alternative coatings to replace the plastic lining in paper cups.”

Meanwhile, Alex Henige, a senior at California Polytechnic State University in the US, has developed the Reduce Reuse Grow project to fund the mass production of biodegradable coffee cups that are embedded with seeds to enable consumers to soak them with water and bury them after use. According to Henige, who has already successfully tested cups with native Californian seeds, the cups will fully biodegrade within 180 days.


Bioplastics, which are derived from renewable biomass sources that include vegetable fats, corn starch and agricultural byproducts, are gaining in popularity. Multi-national food and beverage brands, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Heinz, and packaging manufacturers such as Tetra Pak, have all launched or integrated bioplastic products into their portfolios. Ecover, a Belgium-based company that manufactures eco-friendly cleaning products, has developed Plantplastic packaging, which is made of plastic derived from sugarcane (75%) and recycled plastic (25%).

Currently, European trade association Plastics Europe, headquartered in Brussels, estimates that these materials represent less than 1% of the 300 million tons of plastics produced worldwide annually. But a study by European Bioplastics, an association based in Berlin, predicted that bioplastics production capacity will increase by 400%, from the 2013 level of 1.6 million tons to around 6.7 million tons by 2018. Almost 75% of the bioplastics will be produced in Asia. Europe, which is currently at the forefront of R&D, will have about 8% of the production capacity.

“Bioplastics have come a long way in the past 10 years, and now materials such as plant-based PET, which can be made with roughly 30% ethanol-based material, are readily available on the market,” said Charlie Schwarze, global sustainability manager at international packaging supplier Amcor. “We are working with our industry partner KHS, based in Hamburg, Germany, to commercialize Plasmax, a silicon oxide-based coating that can be used on the inside of a bottle to protect the contents from oxidation. The coating, which can be removed during the PET recycling process, will help us to develop products that can be recycled.”

Using biomaterials also helps companies to reinforce their branding, according to John Perkins, vice president of Strategic Customer Partnerships at global paperboard and plastics packaging manufacturer MeadWestvaco (MWV), based in Richmond, Virginia.


Bioplastics production capacity will increase by 400%, from the 2013 level of 1.6 million tons to around 6.7 million tons by 2018

“If a company offers natural or ecofriendly products, then consumers expect that its packaging is sourced and manufactured in an equally environmentally responsible way,” Perkins said. “We help our customers to use post-consumer recycled resins, bioplastics, biopolymers, compostable materials and recyclable paperboard to meet their carbon footprint goals. For example, we are helping France-based yogurt manufacturer Danone to include more recycled content in the fibers they sell, and to increase the paperboard packaging we provide to Coca-Cola.”


Packaging companies operating in the fast-moving consumer goods space are also using new manufacturing techniques to optimize packaging design and reduce their use of virgin materials.

“Many of FPI’s members use lightweighting techniques to reduce the amount of raw materials in their packaging, which involves altering the design, or replacing plastic resins with renewable materials such as calcium carbonate or talc,” Dyer said. “However, companies must ensure that lightweighting does not reduce the product’s functionality, a top priority for foodservice operators.”

MWV, for example, used lightweighting techniques to remove 18% of the plastic from the Shellpak medication packet it developed for discount retailer Wal-Mart in 2011. “Our key priority was to ensure that we reduced the amount of plastic, but created a child-resistant product that still could be easily opened by older patients,” Perkins said. MWV subsequently redeveloped Shellpak using paperboard rather than plastic. “Similarly, when we developed Natralock, a 100% renewable paperboard alternative to the PVC (polyvinyl chloride) clamshells previously used by our security packaging customers, we needed to ensure that items would still be protected from theft.”

Just like MWV, Amcor has used this method to remove more than 12,000 tons (10.9 million kilograms) of plastic resin from its bottles since 2012. “In 2013, we modified the base and sidewall design, and the manufacturing process for our 64-ounce Powerblock III juice bottles – a popular beverage in the US – to remove more than 8 grams of plastic resin from the bottle,” said Schwarze, adding that this has saved 2,000 tons (1.8 million kilograms) of resin since 2012. Amcor has also co-developed LiquiForm, a system that uses the actual product – pressurized liquid drinks – rather than air, to simultaneously mold and fill plastic bottles.

“LiquiForm combines multiple production stages and significantly reduces the amount of energy wasted by carrying out separate blow-molding and filling processes,” Schwarze said. “Preliminary tests have shown that LiquiForm has reduced the amount of energy required in the overall production and transportation process by 20%-30%. We expect to launch the first working model around late 2015, early 2016.”

Natralock is a 100% renewable paperboard alternative to the PVC clamshells previously used by MeadWestvaco’s security packaging customers. (Image © MeadWestvaco)


Today, many companies recognize that to significantly reduce the environmental impact of packaging, they must take into account how the raw materials are sourced, transported and manufactured, but also how they are disposed of. Some companies have implemented a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach to ensure that their products contain materials that can be reused or recovered at their highest possible value multiple times after their first use. Designed to mimic natural processes, C2C aims to eliminate waste and develop products that actively benefit the environment.

“Adopting a C2C lifecycle approach offers more benefits than simply making packaging from materials that can be easily recycled,” MWV’s Perkins said. “MWV ensures that the certified fibers in our paperboard packaging are produced, harvested, manufactured and recycled in an environmentally sustainable way.  We also use the minimum amount of coatings to ensure that our paperboard can be recycled numerous times, and we replant the forests.”

MWV has also joined the Carlsberg Circular Community, a C2C project set up by Danish brewing company Carlsberg Group with the aim of promoting the development of packaging materials that can be recycled and reused indefinitely, while retaining their original quality.

Amcor also uses an in-house Advanced Sustainability Stewardship Evaluation Tool (ASSET) to perform quick assessments and accurately calculate the environmental impact of different container types and designs throughout their lifecycles, before commercializing new packaging solutions.


Eight years ago, Swiss company Nestlé adopted a lifecycle assessment approach and introduced the Packaging Impact Quick Evaluation Tool (PIQET) to better understand the end-to-end environmental impact of different packaging.

“PIQET was used for over 15,000 lifecycle assessments and helped us to optimize various products, including our Nescafé Dali pouches for the UK market and the Crunch and Galak chocolate packaging for Italian customers,” said Christian Detrois, group leader of the sustainability and novel packaging team at the Nestlé Research Centre. “It was replaced with our EcodEX tool, which covers the environmental impact of the complete product through its full lifecycle, to include the packaging and the ingredients of its contents.”

More than 30 of Nestlé’s R&D sites use EcodEX to help its brands develop the most eco-friendly products based on the agricultural and packaging materials, production processes and recovery schemes available in their target markets.

“Determining an environmentally responsible way to dispose of the packaging before it has even been designed is critical,” Detrois said. “For instance, there would be no environmental benefit for a manufacturer to make packaging from technically recyclable PET if there were no PET recycling centers in the product’s target market.”


According to Detrois, designing packaging that can be recovered in different ways to meet the needs of various consumer markets will be critical in the future. FPI’s Dyer agrees. “More companies will invest in a combination of new materials and manufacturing processes, lifecycle assessment tools and other end-of-life alternatives to offer some products that can be recycled, some that can be composted, some that can be incinerated to recapture stored energy, some made from biomaterials and some that are still made from plastic,” she said. “This will enable them to cater for as many different customers as possible, while significantly reducing the overall carbon footprint of their packaging operations.”

Fast moving energy

Market trends force the slow-moving energy industry to accelerate its pace

Dan Headrick

4 min read

Critics have long predicted that pollution, resource depletion or a major nuclear accident would lead to the extinction of power generated with coal, oil, natural gas and uranium.

To date, those predictions have not come true. Instead, market forces are edging out fossil fuel and nuclear-powered plants, which take too long to site, permit and build in a rapidly evolving energy market.

Johannes Teyssen believes a Bavarian farmer should be able to store excess solar power in the battery of his electric BMW and sell it back to the grid when prices are high, or set his electric washing machine to do laundry when information from the Internet of Everything tells it that power prices are low.

Which helps explain why Teyssen, chief executive of E.ON, Germany’s largest utility company, announced a bold plan in November 2014 to spin off the utility’s core nuclear and fossil fuels power generation and distribution businesses. The divestiture didn’t come because these power sources are dangerous or polluting, which critics have long predicted would be their undoing, but because they are no longer competitive in a fast-moving energy market. With the revenues generated by the sales, Teyssen is focusing instead on “customer solutions” – smart meters, consulting services and renewable energy distribution.


Analysts call it the “distribution edge,” the interface between electrical distribution systems operated by utilities and a growing array of control systems and energy management technologies controlled by consumers. E.ON calls it the best place to compete in a fast-changing energy market.

“It’s a very dynamic time in an industry not known for its dynamism,” said Andrew Spitzer, a capital and acquisitions advisor at US-based Harris Williams & Company. “How utilities react to that is going to be really interesting to watch. The power industry until now has been fairly stodgy and slow to adjust.”

“It’s a very dynamic time in an industry not known for its dynamism.”


But a slow-moving energy industry is a trend that is rapidly changing. Improving distributed-energy technologies, carbon regulation, Internet-linked smart grids and shifting global investment strategies that favor renewable energy sources have changed the playing field for established fossil- and nuclear-fuel utility companies.

So has the entry of high-profile new players like Google and Apple, high-tech companies that are moving to monetize megawatts. In 2014, for example, Google purchased Nest Labs, which makes home thermostats that connect to the Internet to manage energy usage. Boston-based EnerNOC, an energy intelligence software company, purchased Canadian startup Pulse Energy to help customers save power by analyzing usage data. Apple’s Home Kit targets energy-demand management in homes and businesses.


Rules that govern energy markets also are changing in response to new players trading in new commodities. These rules cover protocols, legal rights and pricing terms as well as objective, clearly defined cost allocations. As the rules change, utilities and regulators are beginning to experiment with novel business models and market platforms.

Pilot programs in Denmark and the Netherlands, for example, are demonstrating peer-based energy grids that transact through local energy markets in near-real time. Programs in both countries leverage micro combined heat and power (CHP) equipment, smart appliances, smart meters, electric vehicles and rooftop solar arrays. A market platform software system balances supply and demand in distributed clusters.

In Germany, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, meanwhile, regulators are experimenting with new forms of pricing and incentives to lower distribution-system costs. The US city of Austin, Texas, adopted a solar tariff designed to reflect the net value of distributing solar power to the grid, including impacts on line losses, generation capacity, transmission and distribution capacity and environmental benefits.

With help from government subsidies and a supportive regulatory environment, alternative energy installations such as wind and solar can be put into service quickly. (©f9photos/istock)

While many Europeans have been able to shop different electric suppliers for years, competitive power is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, where more than 13 million electricity customers – from a total US population of 320 million – in 24 states are now served in regulated but competitive retail power markets. Those markets, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research and educational foundation that aims to foster efficient and sustainable use of resources, “could provide the platform for distributed resources to conduct value-based transactions over the grid, given appropriate regulatory incentives.” In other words, a system that allows information, power and transactions to flow in many directions among several actors with different roles, all of which influence power generation, delivery, consumption, energy prices, power quality, and grid reliability – assuming governments balance costs among all parties through new rate policies, regulations and incentives.


For now, observers admit, alternative energies are getting some benefit just for being new.

“What’s not being priced into the cost of energy is a strong backbone, the infrastructure for reliable power when the clouds come and the wind stops blowing,” said Andrew Sowder, senior technical leader in the Advanced Nuclear Technology Program of the non-profit US-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). “With renewable energy, you still have to be concerned about the quality of power, and that gets to storage technology – batteries. Fuel cell and battery technology are improving. It’s reasonable to expect that will continue over time, and that’s what investors have to gamble on. Maybe you’re betting on that, but what if that doesn’t happen?”

“What’s not being priced into the cost of energy is a strong backbone, the infrastructure for reliable power when the clouds come and the wind stops blowing.”


In such a scenario, Sowder said, traditional utilities such as nuclear and coal could serve as a hedge against volatility in renewable energy generation.

The bigger challenge for utilities in today’s rapidly transforming energy industry goes beyond technology, Sowder said; utilities must step up to lead the energy transformation – or stand by as the markets do it without them. “The challenge is getting interest from the right people with the right risk appetite,” he said. “There has to be the pull from the commercial side. That’s a business case for utilities.”

Smart grids

From generation to consumption, online control is making electricity more efficient

Dan Headrick

7 min read

The smart grid, which marries electricity generated from varied sources with emerging, Internet-based control technologies, promises improvements in energy efficiency and the environment while giving consumers more information about – and control over – the power they use.

On brilliant summer days along the Mediterranean coast, people typically leave their homes to work or enjoy the outdoors, while their rooftop solar panels generate electricity no one uses. Such a scenario can result in overvoltage, but it also helps to illustrate what a “smart grid” is all about.

It’s about rethinking electricity – how to make, measure, monetize, consume, control, store, trade, transmit, traffic and transact electrical power. A grid becomes “smart” when it uses software, sensors, electronic meters and the Internet to manage information so that electricity supply and demand can be handled more efficiently.

In the town of Carros, France, on the Mediterranean near Nice, about 200 residents and a dozen businesses have been helping planners establish Europe’s first digitally connected smart grid city, which integrates solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and energy storage with the national electric grid.

At the heart of the Nice project is Network Energy Management (NEM), a unique “brain behind the grid,” said Laurent Schmitt, vice president of Smart Grid Solutions for Alstom Grid, a global energy company working on about 30 smart grid demonstrators worldwide, including the Nice Grid.

“We focused on energy storage integration, decentralized generation and transportation,” Schmitt said. “Electric vehicles also are part of the storage solution. Plug-in hybrid vehicles can fuel the grid in emergency situations.”

The NEM is powerful because it collects solar production and load data, makes forecasts, considers regional load-reduction requests, calculates grid constraints and overvoltage risks, notifies suppliers of power adjustment needs, computes optimal demand response and energy storage flexibilities, communicates schedules and activates cycles.

Demonstration projects such as NEM are critical to helping nations meet their renewable energy goals. While solar and wind power contribute energy without pollution, they also create abnormal events such as voltage spikes that can ruin home appliances. The smart grid must manage the ups, downs and seasonal swings of these often-fickle energy sources.

Smart-grid development differs by regions of the world. In Europe, for example, policy mandates require it, Schmitt said. In the US, aging grid infrastructure is the key driver. In Southeast Asia, planners want to power remote populations.


The Nice Grid project is one of six demonstrator programs of the Grid4EU initiative, being conducted to evaluate the technical and social challenges of a reliable, resilient smart grid.

“We are testing the feasibility of a central computer that can monitor network calculations and forecast load demands, anticipate voltage constraints and send that information to aggregators when there’s a need to shift loads,” said Christophe Arnoult, project manager with state-owned Électricité Réseau Distribution France (ERDF). “We have to rely on the customers, on their behavior,” Arnoult said. “We give them iPads to monitor their usage.”

In Nice, residents and planners are demonstrating three operation modes aimed at improving network reliability by managing demand, reducing voltage spikes with energy-shifting schemes, and experimenting with micro-grid “islanding,” which relies on energy-storage technologies to hold excess power until it is needed.

Three levels of energy storage have been integrated into the local solar grid for maximum flexibility. A centralized 1 megawatt (MW) battery that stores 560 kilowatt-hours (kWh), providing about 30 minutes of energy, is located between the high-voltage transmission line to the region and the distribution lines to the town. A second storage level is in homes equipped with 3-kilowatt (kW) PV systems and 4-kW/4kWh batteries, which absorb excess energy in overvoltage situations, when too much unused power could damage equipment. A third level uses 33kW/100kWh batteries, plus 250kWh at three industrial sites equipped with solar PV systems.

US$30 billion

Cumulative investments in micro-grids across the Asia- Pacific region are expected to total US$30 billion by 2023, according to Navigant Research

Combined, the batteries will be used for load shedding (cutting off power to certain users when demand exceeds supply) and “islanding,” which allows the entire Nice Grid to be detached from the main high-voltage transmission line, when local sources are generating enough power to meet local needs.

“All of the information to homes and businesses is sent through smart meters linked to a central computer, down to the device,” Arnoult said. The project, which concludes at the end of 2015, has relied on the cooperation of residents.

“In the winter, customers are asked to adjust their demand,” Arnoult said. “In the summer, there is too much solar generation from rooftop panels and not enough consumption (and) the voltage is too high. So we have to forecast models for the load, and the central computer must send that information to the aggregator to shift loads. This is only the first step, but it works like a clock.”

Similar Grid4EU test sites in Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic are testing solutions to other operational issues in intelligent monitoring, advanced controls, renewable energy and methods for integrating electric vehicles into the grid.


Eight kilometers off the coast of Singapore lies the Semakau Landfill island, used mainly to store ash from the city-state’s four waste incinerators. There, under the equatorial sun, workers are building Phase One of the largest hybrid micro-grid in the tropics.

The Renewable Energy Integration Demonstrator-Singapore (REIDS) is a test bed for the integration of solar, wind, tidal, diesel, storage and power-to-gas technologies designed around the region’s unique climate. The goal is to develop distributed technologies that can meet the needs of remote populations who live beyond the reach of traditional electric distribution systems.

“Southeast Asia has more than 600 million people, one-third of them not living where electricity is available,” said Chee Kiong Goh, executive director of the Singapore Economic Development Board (SEDB). “There is a tremendous opportunity for micro-grids.”

According to a 2014 report from Navigant Research, a market research and consulting organization based in Boulder, Colorado, cumulative investments in micro-grids across the Asia-Pacific region are expected to total US$30 billion by 2023. While Singapore leads the region in micro-grid development for rural populations, it also is pouring enormous investments into its urban smart-grid infrastructure. Those investments, analysts calculate, make Singapore, along with China, world leaders in the field.



In 2013, China surpassed the United States in smart-grid spending for the first time, according to the market intelligence firm Northeast Group in Washington, DC. The firm has predicted that investment growth in smart-grid technology over the next decade will shift from the traditional leaders – the United States and Europe – to the growing economies of Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.

Ironically, Goh said, Singapore was not a strong advocate of solar power until recently, when prices for solar equipment fell to a level of “grid parity” with conventional fuels for power generation. “The big question is how to harness smart-grid technology to monitor the grid,” Goh said. “Singapore is a springboard for the region to test and demonstrate feasibility. It’s a living laboratory.”

The Renewable Energy Integration Demonstrator-Singapore (REIDS) is a test bed for the integration of solar, wind, tidal, diesel, storage and power-to-gas technologies to create micro-grids that can serve remote populations. (Image © Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)


Many security experts, however, worry that the smart grid’s Internet-based control mix will be too easy to hack and too difficult to protect. A smart meter, after all, is just a computer linked to the Internet.

“We view this as a massive threat,” Goh said. “I think the security threat is very real. Cybersecurity will be a major factor in how we design the grid.”

At the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen, Germany, physicist Benjamin Schäfer is working on the architecture of smart grids and how to protect them. The prevailing notion is that all the data for the electricity that generators produce and consumers use would be collected in a central computer (similar to the Nice Grid project). That centralization, while it improves management, could present an irresistible target for hackers.



But what if central control was not necessary? Schäfer and his team are investigating whether distributed control (along with distributed energy generation) would be less vulnerable to attack. Could a smart grid function efficiently if control were placed into individual smart meters? Would the network remain stable without a central control system at the heart of the grid? Schäfer’s team is testing the theory, while system designers around the world work on other ideas to harden security.

Cybersecurity is precisely the reason that the NEM managing the Nice Grid Demonstrator is designed as a “layered control system,” Schmitt said.


Despite the concerns of smart-grid critics, Lynn Yanyo, a polymer scientist and self-described technology geek who helps launch new companies, is a smart-grid believer. The solar system in her North Carolina home, Yanyo said, generates about 70% to 80% of her electricity year-round.

“I have a cool Internet-based tool that shows me the power my cells are generating at any time and also historically,” she said. “I can also see what appliances are running and what is drawing the most electricity. This is pretty fun to look at, and I do find myself turning things off more than in the past, but I don’t track this daily.”

On a cold, cloudy February day, Eric Larson, educated son of a paper mill worker and father of three, stood at his kitchen counter studying the electricity generation report from his laptop computer. He wasn’t really thinking “green” when he decided to install solar panels on the south-facing roof of his suburban home in Raleigh, North Carolina, not far from Yanyo’s neighborhood. But doing it, and monitoring what he generates, he said, has changed how he thinks about energy.

“Having those panels makes me more conscious of what we use,” Larson said. On this gray day, for example, his 18 solar panels produced only about 3 kilowatts of power. On sunny days, however, the array produces 18 to 20 kilowatts a day, roughly equivalent to Larson’s daily power usage. “I save money on electricity, and it ups the value of my home. Plus, it’s a cool factor. I’m the only one in my neighborhood who has them, and I have room for nine more panels.”

Awareness is critical. “Control and awareness; we actively discuss this with our clients,” said Karl Stupkay, operations manager of North Carolina Solar Now, which installs solar panels on homes and businesses. “You’re obligated to pay attention. It’s a constantly morphing field, and it’s an exciting environment. I feel like it’s a powerful thing to be involved in, and I plan on spending my future in this industry.”

Automated, but not automatic

Smart vehicle infrastructure faces many obstacles, including who pays for it

Thomas A Cannell

3 min read

Driverless cars offer the tantalizing prospect of a world without automobile accidents. But the infrastructure required to make it a reality – and a business model that will pay for building and operating a smart automotive grid – are major hurdles still to be cleared.

Automotive manufacturers, high-tech companies and drivers everywhere are excited about the potential benefits of smart cars connected to a global grid.

The challenge of making such a complex system a reality, however – from the daunting technology required to the high cost of building and maintaining a universal system that works with the technology embedded in every automobile – is keeping technologists, network experts, governmental regulators and financiers busy as they search for solutions.

Complicating the challenge is that “countries look at the integration process differently,” said Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz, general manager of the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center and vice president of the XC90 SUV model for Volvo Cars North America.

Evaluating necessary changes in mobility integration requires understanding how the issues and challenges are perceived across industry and national lines. “In Europe, for example, we see tax regulations not present in the United States that are driving electrification.”


In its home base of Gothenburg, Sweden, Volvo is putting 100 autonomous cars into public hands in a partnership with city government, legislators, telecom players and transport authorities. The experiment is intended to help the partnership members identify the challenges of creating a workable infrastructure for cars that are integrated with the Internet, and possible solutions to those challenges. For instance, infrastructure designers must determine how much intelligence can be built into the car and which functions should be housed onboard, such as controlling proper vehicle spacing in a saturated mobility environment.



“We can have an academic discussion around these things forever, but the key is to get people into cars,” Tylman-Mikiewicz said. “It’s not until you do these pilot projects that you will be able to measure behavior, to quantify things and understand how quickly this will ramp up.” Trials also help to create confidence among interested parties that the technology is feasible, he said, which moves the process along.


Jean Redfield is president and CEO of NextEnergy, a Detroit-based incubator that serves as a catalyst for advanced energy technology demonstration and commercialization. “Our most seasoned decision makers in (the automobile) industry are deeply affected by feedback from the enthusiast community, but that’s not the mobility market,” Redfield said. While enthusiasts are interested in horsepower, handling and aesthetics, shared mobility devices have far more utilitarian issues to address before a global grid of smart cars can become feasible.

Pierre Loing, vice president Product Planning Nissan North America, believes that there is a long road between automatic braking, which is becoming common in today’s new vehicles, and the challenges involved in automated control of multiple lane changes and the complexities of navigating through intersections. “Cars are exciting vehicles,” Loing said. “Just ask Silicon Valley research teams,” a reference to the enthusiasm from Google and Apple for automated vehicles.

One often-overlooked challenge, however, is that “autonomous vehicles are not completely driverless,” Loing said. ”We only give the car control under certain conditions. Take our existing lane-keeping system, where you may have hands off the wheel for 5-10 seconds. This is why we are focusing on such a difficult-to-manage issue: autonomy.” But autonomy must be protected, he said, which raises yet another daunting challenge: protecting an automated driving grid from hackers. “When we develop a system, we develop safeguards,” he said. “It’s what we do.”


Of all the technical challenges facing the automotive grid concept, the largest one may be how to pay for the research required to make it a reality – and how to recoup those investments when the technology is mature.

Sheryl Connelly, resident global futurist at Ford Motor Company, headquartered in Dearborn, Michigan, says barriers to raising investment funds are lower than ever before. “Unconventional methods like Kickstarter, and other new platforms such as crowd sourcing or angel investors, can all give people with a great idea a leg up,” Connelly said.

What traditional funding sources, including banks and venture capitalists, are seeking, Tylman-Mikiewicz said, are the business cases for autonomous automobiles – and what will follow. “Once the car has taken responsibility for driving, the driver can actually do other things, which is a business element that doesn’t exist today,” he said. “It creates a big market expansion for many of these players. I think that’s what will generate a lot of revenue.”

Frederico Curado

Embraer President and CEO leads aircraft manufacturer with instinct and skill

Tony Velocci

4 min read

Frederico Curado, president and CEO of Embraer, Brazil’s largest exporter and the world’s third largest civil aircraft manufacturer, believes in meeting major challenges head on – and as early as possible.

Soon after Frederico Curado became president and CEO of Embraer in 2007, the world spiraled into one of the worst economic downturns in decades. Few economists anticipated the crisis, but Curado recalls an uneasy sense that the economy’s halcyon days would not last much longer.

“It was a gut feeling,” he recalls. In business aviation, aircraft sales plunged by about half virtually overnight.

Curado and his management team moved quickly to evaluate the impact on Embraer, Brazil’s largest manufactured goods exporter, and shared their assessment with stakeholders. Then they reduced the company’s size by 20%, a move aimed at maintaining strong liquidity and a healthy debt-to-equity ratio while meeting commitments to customers and shareholders.

“Shrinking the company was one of the worst things we had to do,” Curado said. “Politicians and many other people tried to second-guess us. They asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But six months later the answer was very, very clear.”

The experience validated a lesson Curado had learned early in his 30-year career at Embraer: “When you perceive a problem, address it sooner rather than later,” he said. “I have learned both ways — having done it right and having done it wrong — that it is far better to get red-faced with stress early on than to get purple with anxieties later when the problem will have become exponentially more difficult.”

US$6 billion

Embraer reported 2014 revenues
of more than US$6 billion.

Embraer emerged from the ordeal well positioned to grow. Today it is widely considered one of the most innovative and well-managed companies in the aerospace industry. Headquartered in São José dos Campos, a city in the state of São Paulo, Embraer serves business, commercial and military aviation customers worldwide. It generated fiscal 2014 revenues of more than US$6 billion.


Curado’s actions before and after the financial crisis reflect the qualities that define him: foresight, openness, resourcefulness, courage, pragmatism and a self-effacing style. Referring to the decision to abruptly shrink the company, Curado said, “In the end it was the right call, but it was a lonely one. Such decisions, as difficult as they are to make, are something that only a CEO can do. And of course he or she must live with the consequences, both good and bad.”

The son of an army officer and a mother who taught public school, Curado grew up in Rio de Janeiro with an interest in aviation and a passion for mechanical tinkering. Mathematics came easy. He attended the Brazilian Air Force-affiliated Aeronautics Institute of Technology — Brazil’s equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where he earned a degree in mechanical/aeronautical engineering. An International Executive MBA from the University of São Paulo followed.

Curado joined Embraer in 1984 and was put in charge of a sheet-metal shop two years later. He was 24 years old. Over the next 23 years, he worked his way up through executive jobs in manufacturing, procurement, contracts, sales and information technology.

Embraer was founded in 1969 and privatized in 1994. When Curado was appointed president and CEO eight years ago, the company faced major challenges. Emerging competitors in Asia, rapid technological changes, shorter product cycles and tightening credit markets were hitting all manufacturers. In addition, high oil prices were hammering airlines. Embraer also had been slow to embrace globalization, and its manufacturing and distribution centers remained concentrated in Brazil.


One of Embraer’s strengths is its proven ability to identify niche markets and develop products to meet its customers’ demands — usually by assembling diverse focus groups to learn firsthand how the company can create superior customer experiences.

“Embraer has taken business risks, but they have been extremely thoughtful and diligent in how they assess markets and opportunities,” observed Byron Callan, a director at Washington DC-based Capital Alpha Partners, a strategic policy adviser to financial institutions. “Curado brings an engineer’s discipline to assessing what’s probable and possible. I think there always has been a recognition that Embraer easily could be trampled by Airbus and Boeing due to their much larger size, so they have picked their spots very carefully.”

New York-based JetBlue was the launch customer for the Embraer 190, a 100-seat aircraft serving airlines worldwide. (Image © Embraer)

A good example is Embraer’s six-passenger Phenom 300 light jet, which went into service in 2009. Just four years later, Embraer delivered more Phenom 300s than any of its competitors in the size category. Customers responded to the airplane’s high performance, handling and features typically available only on larger business jets, such as an externally serviced lavatory. Embraer also has successfully exploited niche markets in commercial regional aircraft — it is the world’s largest producer of passenger jets that seat 70 to 120 people — and military cargo and training jets.


Another differentiator is Embraer’s after-sales service and support. Consider the experience of the head of a US-based multinational food producer, who recently circumnavigated the globe on a three-week business trip in an Embraer long-range Legacy 650 jet.

The executive’s meeting schedule was extremely tight, leaving little time for mechanical issues. On the flight across the Pacific Ocean, chief pilot André Fodor emailed the Embraer Contact Center that the aircraft’s galley food preparation table wasn’t operating just as it should and that a refrigerator wasn’t cooling sufficiently.



“Our expectation was simply to notify the center so that we could have these items rectified when we returned to our base in Orlando, Florida,” said Fodor, who also advises companies and individuals on business jet purchases. “How surprised were we when Embraer already had made plans to resolve these minor issues upon our arrival in Singapore? Around the world (on this trip), Embraer proved itself time again.”


Such praise is music to Curado, who says that nothing about his job gives him greater pleasure than visiting customers and engaging employees on the factory floor. “I’m more like an airline guy than an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) executive,” he said. “I really enjoy hearing how our products are operating.”

His other passion is simply being around people. “I love human resources,” he said, because he enjoys the process of helping people grow in their jobs. “If I were not the CEO and had the chance to serve in another role, I would choose one of our senior HR positions. When I retire from Embraer, maybe that’s something I’ll do.”

Hear Frederico Curado on the key to success

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