PopTech Blog

Flashback: World AIDS Day special

On World AIDS Day, we're highlighting a few people and projects from within the PopTech community that are making inroads in the prevention of HIV/AIDS by building awareness, promoting HIV testing, and supporting people living with the disease.

2009 Social Innovation Fellow Deb Levine founded her organization, ISIS (Internet Sexuality Information Services), in 2001 to build better tools to promote sexual health and prevent disease. ISIS gives people private and convenient access to information on critical health issues like HIV prevention and unplanned pregnancies.

2010 Social Innovation Fellow Kel Sheppey and his organization, Wild4Life, are focused on leveraging preexisting organizations, and especially wildlife conservation NGOs, to promote HIV testing and awareness-building campaigns in remote communities.

“Sinikithemba” is Zulu for “give us hope” or “we give hope.” The Sinikithemba Choir is a group of HIV-positive Zulu men and women, who performed at PopTech 2006, that provide support to persons with HIV/AIDS at McCord Hospital in Durban, South Africa.

Unlocking the autism mystery with Alysson Muotri

2011 Science Fellow Alysson Muotri spends his days using stem cells to understand autism, a disorder that affects 1% of all U.S. children. By examining the brain cells of adult patients with Rett syndrome specifically, he's trying to determine if Autism Spectrum Disorder is permanent or if it's possible to treat those cells with chemicals, inducing them to revert back to normal conditions.

Shorts: eL Seed works his calligraffiti magic

On the Village Green in Camden, Maine, eL Seed took spray can to stretched canvas and worked his calligraffiti magic.  His goal while producing this piece at PopTech 2011 -- and the aim of his work in general -- has been to combine Arabic calligraphy and graffiti in order to break down stereotypes about the Arab world, and in light of the Arab Spring, to comment on a changing world order.

Check out this video to see him in action and watch his PopTech stage talk for more insight into his work.

For an in-person dose of eL Seed’s work, along with that of five other international multimedia artists, take a trip to Montreal, Canada for Arab Winter: Weathering the Storm After the Spring at Under Pressure’s Fresh Paint Gallery, which opens this Friday, December 2. In a press release describing the show, eL Seed explains, “This is not a regular exhibit. You will leave Montreal and be transported to the streets of Tunis, Damascus, Iraq and Cairo.”

6 questions with...Tyler Gage

An entrepreneurship class at Brown University focused on using international markets to promote social change drew a handful of classmates together to begin brainstorming a project. A few years later, the outcome of that brainstorm, Runa, is the world’s only dedicated supplier of Ecuadorian guayusa tea, which is sold throughout the U.S. Guayusa, a naturally caffeinated tea leaf, is native to Ecuadorian indigenous communities and is known for providing energy without the jittery drawbacks of coffee.

Runa’s business model is such that it works closely with the hundreds of farmers who cultivate the guayusa so that they -- and their families -- can benefit from their native crop. Additionally, Runa has created the world’s first guayusa factory and is working to build a market for guayusa in the United States.

What makes Runa particularly unique is how the company focuses its efforts on protecting the Amazonian rainforest through the cultivation of guayusa, working closely with the farmers throughout the process. To learn more, we checked in with one of Runa’s co-founder’s, Tyler Gage, via our 6 questions with…series.

If I had been a fly on the wall of your office/studio, what would I have seen you doing yesterday?
On calls with FairTrade USA to coordinate the certification of our supply chain, translating a Good Standing Certificate for our Ecuadorian company from Spanish to English in order to obtain a U.S. bank account for the company, processing POs and shipments, drinking a new guayusa blend that our client, The Art of Tea, just launched using our ingredient, planning for upcoming events, and shooting blowdarts at jaguar stuffed animals with our interns.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work with Runa relevant at this point in time?
Proving that ancient indigenous traditions have relevancy in the globalized world and potential to evolve and continue supporting native peoples in new ways is our shtick.  While the word Runa means “fully living human being” and is a symbol of power for the indigenous Kichwa people, in most parts of Ecuador it is used to mean “worthless” or “stray dog” (aka “not of pure Spanish heritage), representing the incredible racism and disrespect shown to indigenous families. We have to find a way for the wisdom of all people to contribute to our collective well- being as a global community.

What do you wish you had known when you began working on Runa?
How absolutely important it is to manage expectation. It’s my job. Especially working in Ecuador where the idea of communicating openly and transparently about issues and conflicts is as rare as a good Internet connection. We’ve had to learn that setting clear goals, reviewing those goals, reviewing the strategy to achieve those goals, and reviewing both the positive and negative consequences of achieving or not achieving those goals is instrumental in our success. Getting buy-in from all stakeholders, and communicating the rapid changes and evolutions of our organization with them, gives us an ability to grow quickly and cohesively.


Image-wise: The many modes of moss graffiti

Image via Inhabit

Take a few clumps of moss, de-dirted. Stir together with a couple cups of buttermilk (or a can of beer works, too) and a pinch of sugar. In the blender, mix into a paint-like consistency. Grab your paintbrush and find a damp or shady wall because with this concoction, you’ve got what you need to make some moss graffiti masterpieces.

More eco-friendly than the toxic chemicals used in spray paint, moss ‘paint’ has been embraced of late as a green alternative. A spin off of gorilla gardening, this living, breathing art form takes tagging to a whole new level. A few of our favorites:

Image via wndrng


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...