PopTech Blog

Do you smell what I smell? Robot scents your social networks

smellable internet

Imagine you get an email from a long-lost relative and the sweet smell of roses permeates the air. Or that cute grad student you met at the bookstore tweets about you and for a second you smell cinnamon and leather - swoon. That electronics-meets-olfactory moment is just what a little white robot named Olly is out to create.

A simple white cube that connects to your computer, the USB-powered Olly has a removable compartment that holds your favorite scent, whether it be whiskey or lemondrops. Designed as a short-term project by Mint Digital's research team Foundry, the cubes are stackable and customizable. And the services Olly integrates with are potentially endless (he comes ready to program) so you're really only limited by how many scents you can tolerate at a sitting. Ready to Olly up? You can pre-order the finished model or use a 3-D printer and step-by-step instructions to build one yourself.     

The Foundry team was originally tasked to explore making something connected to the Internet that didn't live on the screen. Olly and his integration of scent and social networking is one giant sniff forward for the Internet of Things.

Image via Olly's website

Wunderkind Aidan Dwyer reimagines solar panels

While hiking through the woods, 13-year old Aidan Dwyer looked up and noted something we might not all ordinarily be predisposed to see: he noticed a pattern that resembled the Fibonacci sequence in the tree branches around him. And he wondered why that might be. He reasoned, “Since the main job of leaves is to process sunlight for photosynthesis, then it had something to do with gathering sunlight.”

And thus the wunderkind, following that reasoning to one of its logical conclusions, began experiments to build more effective solar panel models that follow the Fibonacci sequence he first noticed among the branches of an oak tree. No big deal, right?

The spiral design yielded what Dwyer deemed surprisingly positive results. In particular, his model collected 2.5 more hours of sunlight during the day than typical flat-panel designs. And this new design proved effective in a multitude of other ways. It has the ability to collect sunlight when the sun is lower in the sky. It takes up less room in urban areas where space is tight, its effectiveness isn’t reduced by shadows and it doesn’t collect the rain, dirt or snow that flat panels tend to do.

Check out the video of Dwyer’s talk to learn more about these reimagined solar panels. And take a look at the recent coverage he received on CNN.

This week in PopTech: Bad science, DNA sequencing and the Toaster Project's Colbert Report debut

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Krista Donaldson runs D-Rev: Design Revolution, which creates world class products designed for the developing world. Donaldson talks to Next Billion about what it takes to design for impact
  • This week we posted an interview with Jonathan Rothberg (PopTech 2011), inventor of high-speed DNA sequencing. Among other things, he explains how much it actually costs to sequence a genome. 
  • In 2010 David de Rothschild (PopTech 2010) built the Plastiki, a boat made from 12,000 plastic bottles. In it, he and his crew of nautical nomads sailed halfway around the world to alert the public about this ecological crisis and the need to reuse discarded plastics. Plastiki & The Material of The Future is a new documentary that takes a closer look at the adventure.


Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: A new discourse between science and design

Designer and artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg devotes her time to reworking the language of design to account for the biotech revolution. The tool kit that’s currently at our fingertips, she believes, limits our ability to fully imagine the possibilities. She’s been looking to synthetic biology, or the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature, to rejuvenate a design discourse.  “Synthetic biology turns science into technology and biology into a design discipline and we need to readdress our understanding of what design is and reevaluate it,” Ginsberg explained from the PopTech stage last month. In making work around the cultural function of biological objects, she hopes to combine science and design in a meaningful exchange.

Interview: Jonathan Rothberg on speed-reading your genome

In an interview he gave to the journal Nature last year, Jonathan Rothberg, the CEO of biotech company Ion Torrent, cited Steve Jobs as his biggest influence. While that's probably true of many tech entrepreneurs, Jobs recent death, from cancer, is bound to have affected Rothberg more than most. That's because the Connecticut-based engineer and serial entrepreneur invites comparison to the former Apple CEO in a way that few people do. After all, just as Jobs revolutionized personal computing, Rothberg is doing the same for biology and medicine. At the heart of both revolutions is the humble silicon chip.

About 10 years ago, Rothberg pioneered a faster and cheaper method for reading genomes called next-generation sequencing, which is currently the gold standard in research labs around the world. Now, he has launched a desktop gene machine that may finally usher in the long-awaited personal genomics revolution by dramatically cutting the cost of decoding an individual’s DNA sequence and fingering their genetic weaknesses. This, in turn, creates the possibility that we'll soon be able to diagnose and treat a host of diseases on an individualized basis -- chief among them, cancer. Unlike its predecessor's, Rothberg's new invention -- the Ion Personal Genome Machine (PGM) -- reads DNA using semiconductor technology, making it cheaper, faster and more scalable than any other.

Due to the sequencing power of both generations of his machines, Rothberg has laid claim to a lot of firsts: he led the effort to sequence the first individual genome (James Watson’s of the double helix), initiated the first large-scale sequencing effort of ancient DNA -- the Neanderthal Genome Project, and helped crack the mystery behind the massive disappearances of the honey bee, as well as a deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany.

We sat down with Rothberg at PopTech 2011 to discuss how making DNA sequencing more accessible stands to transform medicine.

PopTech: You've sequenced the genome of James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA. Have you sequenced your own?
Jonathan Rothberg: I get this question from my wife because I recently sequenced Gordon Moore's genome, who's the founder of Intel. And, as you mentioned, I’ve sequenced Jim Watson's genome. She asked me, “Why do you always sequence 80-year-old Caucasian men? They’re healthy.” I sequence them precisely for that reason. Because except for educating people about why it’s important to sequence for medicine, for discovery, for making drugs, for diagnostics, for understanding the progression of disease, for finding a cure for breast cancer, I think genetic materials is private and that you should have a reason to sequence it. You should be sequencing because you are trying to understand disease, you should be sequencing because you are trying to make a diagnostic, you should be sequencing because you are making a drug. So, no, I haven’t.

What's your vision for the future of genome sequencing and personal genomics? Some scientists have suggested that every baby should have its heel pricked and its genome sequenced at birth.
My vision is that sequencing will develop in an analogous way and be equal or greater in importance than imaging has been to medicine, just as how part of medical practice we have X-rays, MRIs and CAT scans.

I do, though, have a vision that starts with the heel prick, where, in a newborn unit of a hospital, every child has his or her sequence done. And I think there will be a time when that will make sense -- when the economics makes sense and when we have data that correlates sequence with disease, sequence with things we can take action on. Then it will make sense to sequence the whole genome.

Over the next five to 10 years, we will have to be sequencing -- and working to make sense of the sequence -- so that a decade from now, when that heel is pricked, we'll be able to do something. For example, does that child need a different diet, or should that child stay out of the sun? So right now, I think sequencing is best done as it's needed -- so you have a person with cancer or a newborn who is sick and you use that sequence to inform medical decisions. As we have more medical information along with the sequence, I think it will become a more general tool. And the nice thing is that by that time, it will be cheap enough that it can be universal. Read more...

Take a look! All PopTech 2011 videos now available

We are extremely excited to announce that today we’ve released talks from every person who took the PopTech stage last month. Check out a few highlights:

For your viewing pleasure, all talks are now available online. And if you need a bigger, in-person fix, come join us in Iceland this summer at PopTech 2012 Reykjavik: Toward Resilience.

Fun with mushrooms: Eben Bayer and his alternative packaging material

Check out this great Motherboard TV episode about Ecovative Design founder and 2009 PopTech Fellow Eben Bayer on transforming low-value agricultural byproducts into strong biological composites that can be used as biodegradable alternatives to conventional plastics, foams, and packaging materials.

Flashback: On America Recycles Day, Brooke Betts Farrell rethinks recycling

Did you know that today is America Recycles Day? Well, it is. And to honor this day of reducing, reusing and recycling, we're highlighting a PopTech 2010 talk from RecycleMatch founder Brooke Betts Farrell in which she rethinks the whole entire process. RecycleMatch, considered the eBay of trash, gives new meaning to the adage that one person's junk is another person's treasure.

Silly 'stache, serious cash: Movember raises $80.7 million for cancer research

You may have heard about a movement called "Movember", which inspires men around the globe to grow out their facial hair in order to raise awareness about prostate cancer and money for related charities. Last year's Movember efforts raised $80.7 million US dollars for cancer research; now in its ninth year, the Movember team has made exciting progress.

The folks at Movember announced that, "thanks to the incredible fundraising efforts of the Movember community, scientists, for the first time, have constructed a complete genetic map of prostate cancer. This historic development will expand the understanding of how the disease works, leading to improved and more personalized treatment for every man diagnosed."

Watch the video above to hear prostate cancer genome researcher Levi Alexander Garraway describe how fundraising projects like Movember contribute to dramatic diagnosis and treament benefits.

This year's Movember efforts have been expanded to include the mustache's hairy brother beard as part of "Novembeard". So if the men in your life are suddenly getting more hirsute, help them out with a hug and maybe a donation.

The Movember team believes that no upper lip should go unadorned, and that no man should die of prostate cancer. Hats off (and wax on!) to the thousands of men across the globe who will once again be getting furry for charity. 

This week in PopTech: Quotable and notable

eL Seed PopTech 2011

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

Give back to the world at least what you’ve received.

—French-Tunisian artist eL Seed’s thoughtful and fitting work of graffiti and Arabic calligraphy, produced during the PopTech 2011 conference, aptly expresses our shared commitment to positive action in support of world-changing people, projects and ideas.

When you do things on a small scale, you have to understand every part of the process. The smaller the scale you want to work on, the further back in time you have to go. There is such a lot of effort and intelligence and history that go into something as simple as a toaster.

Thomas Thwaites at PopTech 2011. If you enjoyed his PopTech talk, you'll love his new book entitled, The Toaster Project