Parents may be able to spot ear infections with a paper cone and an app

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Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Researchers are working on a smartphone app that could help diagnose ear infections. As NPR reports, the app uses the phone’s microphone, its speaker and a small paper cone. In its current form, the app sends short, sound pulses through a funnel and into the ear canal. It then measures the echo of that sound, and an algorithm uses the reading to predict if there’s fluid behind the eardrum, one of the common symptoms of infection.

The team of researchers — from the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute — released their initial findings in Science Translational Medicine today. In their study, about 50 children had their ears checked with the app, and the tool was correct about 85 percent of the time, which is comparable to technology used in clinical settings. But as NPR reports, the app is still in development, and it will need FDA approval before it hits the market.

The researchers hope this might help parents diagnose ear infections, but specialists point out that not all fluid behind the eardrum indicates an infection. Not long ago, the Apple Watch heart monitor, which can warn of irregular heart rhythms, faced similar concerns. Some initially feared that its results could be false positives, but a recent study by Stanford University suggests otherwise. Of course, health-based apps have become increasingly popular, and the FDA has approved products like a personal ECG device, an app-connected inhaler and a contraceptive app, all of which might help pave the way for this product.

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Dear Hollywood: Here are five female founders to showcase instead of Elizabeth Holmes

There’s a seemingly insatiable demand for Theranos content. John Carrerou’s best-selling book, Bad Blood has already inspired an HBO documentary, The Inventor, an ABC podcast called The Dropout, a prestige limited series starring SNL’s Kate McKinnon was just announced, and Jennifer Lawrence is reportedly going to star in the feature film version of this tawdry “true crime meets tech” tale. That’s before getting started on the various and sundry cover stories and think pieces about her fraud.

I think it’s fair to say the Theranos story has been sufficiently well-documented and I’m worried that this negative perception may be reinforced now that UBiome founder Jessica Richman has been placed on administrative leave. While it’s hard to pass on a chance to stoke startup schadenfreude, perhaps we could focus less on these rare, unrepresentative, and dispiriting examples? Instead, Hollywood could put the spotlight on women who pioneered the bleeding edge of tech and actually produced billion-dollar successes. Here are a few candidates ready for their close-ups:

Judith Faulkner, founder and chief executive officer, Epic Systems

Judith Faulkner – Founder/CEO, Epic Systems

In the late 1970s, the picture of a working woman in Wisconsin was likely Laverne or Shirley. Little did anyone know that in the basement of a Victorian manse in Madison, the future of healthcare was being coded by Judith Faulkner, the founder and CEO of what would become Epic Systems. Epic is arguably the most impactful startup in the history of health software, and Faulkner was building medical scheduling software before most people could even picture a PC. Her efforts established the Electronic Medical Records market as we know it and today, her company manages records for over 200 million people, employs nearly 10,000, and generates around $2.7B per year in revenue — not bad for a math graduate who never raised any venture capital.

One might argue that the origins of medical software are too tepid to make for exciting TV, but something tells me the kind of CEO who hires Disney alums to design her corporate campus and dresses up like a wizard to address her employees might make for a compelling subject.

SANTA BARBARA, CA – FEBRUARY 09: Lynda Weinman speaks onstage (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF)

Lynda Weinman – Founder/CEO, Lynda.com

Lynda Weinman might have the most esoteric path to becoming a billion-dollar entrepreneur in history. After getting a humanities degree from Evergreen College, where she was classmates with Simpsons creator Matt Groenig, Lynda opened up a pair of punk rock fashion boutiques on LA’s Sunset Strip.

After those folded in the early 1980s, she taught herself enough computer graphics to become a freelance animator on movies like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which in turn led to her becoming a teacher at the prestigious Art Center College of Design. Her academic pedigree provided the launching pad to write an influential textbook, that in turn gave her the star power to strike out on her own as one of the first web celebrities.

Keep in mind; this dramatic arc only covers the time before she started the eponymous Lynda.com, and bootstrapped it to a $1.5B exit in EdTech — an industry most VCs and entrepreneurs fear to tread. In terms of material for a memoir, Hannah Horvath has nothing on Lynda Weinman.

FRAMINGHAM, MA – MAY 30: Shira Goodman, former chief executive at Staples, poses for a portrait in Framingham, MA on May 30, 2017. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Shira Goodman – CEO, Staples.com

Shira Goodman has arguably done more for online shopping in the US than anyone not named Bezos. She didn’t found Staples, but she did start and scale its “delivery business,” as she humbly calls it, to the point where it became the 4th largest ecommerce company in the US.

At a time when more nimble startups were disrupting big-box retailers, Shira did what few of her contemporaries could do — rapidly shifted a multi-billion dollar legacy company in an ancient industry into the future, and eventually became CEO of the entire enterprise. She did this while also raising three children and supporting her husband when he decided to change careers and go to Rabbinical school. Sitcoms have been premised on less, and since two versions of The Office have captivated audiences, perhaps it’s time to provide the perspective from the CEO of Dunder-Mifflin HQ?

Helen Greiner, co-founder, iRobot

Helen Greiner – Co-founder, iRobot

From C. A. Rotwang in Metropolis to Tony Stark in the Marvel movies, there have been plenty of cinematic explorations of robot builders, but the story of iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner might be more interesting than anything yet committed to celluloid. As a recent grad from MIT, Greiner spent a substantial chunk of the 1990s applying her mechanical genius to everything from a mechatronic dinosaur for Disney to a store cleaning robot with the potential for mass destruction for SC Johnson.

Far from an ivory tower academic, Grenier helped the government deploy search and rescue efforts at Ground Zero after 9/11, cave-clearing ‘bots in Afghanistan, and the bomb-disposing Packbot she developed has saved the lives of thousands of service members. Grenier, at age 38, took her company public and made the Jetson’s vision of a robot housekeeper a reality in the form of the Roomba.

CAMBRIDGE, MA – MARCH 15: Kelsey Wirth, who has a grassroots organization called Mothers Out Front: Mobilizing For A Livable Climate (Photo by Essdras M Suarez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kelsey Wirth – Co-founder, Align Technologies

While the original startup bros were inflating the tech bubble in the late 1990s, Kelsey Wirth was pioneering 3-D printing, which at the time was as fantastical as anything Theranos promised. Wirth’s story as the co-founder of Align Technology is especially compelling in the way it shares some surface similarities with Holmes’ narrative. Prominent skeptics of Invisalign cast doubts on the company in its early days, noting that the startup’s PR had outstripped its clinical validation. Wirth had to solve seemingly intractable technical challenges including scanning misaligned incisors, developing algorithms to overcome underbites, pioneering new manufacturing process, convincing the FDA to clear the product, and then selling it across the country — armed only with an English lit degree and an MBA. Despite the long odds of curing crossbites with software, Wirth started what has become a publicly-traded business that is currently worth over 20 billion dollars.


Most of these founders faced setbacks, including external obstacles and those of their own making. There were layoffs, bad deals, and few of these stories had perfectly happy endings. Still, while a contemporary startup can earn plaudits for simply repackaging CBD and pushing it on Facebook, these entrepreneurs demonstrated a level of ambition rarely seen among modern upstarts.

The sensational focus on Elizabeth Holmes’ misdeeds steal focus from a group of landmark female entrepreneurs and waste a tremendous opportunity to inspire the next generation with heroic tales instead of fables of fabrication. None of these accounts have the black and white morality of the Theranos debacle, but these founders cleared hurdles both scientific and social. They flipped the script and made history, surely Hollywood can find some drama in that.

Thanks to Parul Singh, Elizabeth Condon, and Alyssa Rosenzweig for reviewing drafts of this post.

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FDA clears first personal ECG device to detect three heart arrhythmias


AliveCor

To date, personal ECG devices have only really detected one kind of heart arrhythmia: atrial fibrillation. While that’s helpful, it doesn’t cover other conditions that could be just as dangerous. You might not be left wondering for much longer. AliveCor’s KardiaMobile has received the first FDA clearance allowing a personal device to detect two other relatively common conditions, bradycardia (where your heart rate dips to 40-50BPM) and tachycardia (a jump to 100-140BPM). While these conditions are sometimes innocuous and might not show symptoms, they can also be representative of issues like heart disease.

AliveCor emphasizes that this will only help “inform” chats with your doctor, not replace them. This still isn’t as sophisticated as a multi-lead ECG you’d receive at a clinic or hospital. However, it could be useful even if you’re in fine health. It should reduce the number of inconclusive ECG results you see, and provide a clearer picture of your heart’s performance than before. Don’t be surprised if other devices follow suit.

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Juul sets up a web portal to help narc on businesses that enable vaping teens

Don't be a bad teen.
Don’t be a bad teen.
Image: Suzanne Kreiter / The Boston Globe / Getty

Juul doesn’t want teens hitting its vapes. The company promises. 

Facing a rising tide of criticism for underage use of its e-cigarettes, vape manufacturer Juul is taking a new approach aimed at cracking down on teen use. Specifically, the company launched an online tool designed to track how specific vapes find their way into the hands of minors. 

The idea, as explained by Juul, seems pretty straightforward. If a parent or teacher confiscates one of the company’s e-cigarettes from a minor, the authority figure should head on over to a new web portal and enter the device’s serial number along with a few additional details. This will, at least in theory, allow the company to figure out how the youths are getting their tiny hands on its nicotine delivery devices. 

“We are implementing product traceability that will allow us, through confiscated product, to identify where youth are obtaining Juul products,” reads a page explaining the company’s “youth prevention” efforts. “We will share this information with FDA, and take actions immediately to address these access points for youth.”

Log it.

Image: screenshot / juul

In other words, if Juul realizes that a bunch of confiscated vapes were all sold from the same shop, perhaps that shopkeeper isn’t ID’ing customers well enough. Or maybe someone’s older brother buys his vape goods there. 

Either way, it’s an additional piece of a multifaceted plan to prevent kids from vaping. Another interesting idea, seemingly in development, is to lock each vape to a specific age-verified user. 

“We will develop a new user-authenticated Juul device that can prevent those underage from using the product,” explains the aforementioned youth prevention page. 

While it’s unclear how the latter idea would work exactly, it’s heartening to see the company make an effort to reduce teen vaping — even it requires parents narcing out their own kids. 

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The FDA thinks an Xbox game can stop kids smoking


FDA

The FDA is behind a horror video game designed to teach teens about the dangers of smoking. Inspired by the statistic that three out of every four high school students who start smoking continue on to adulthood, One Leaves sets players in a cell with three other teens. The free PC and Xbox One game’s objective is to escape the cell, but only one of the players will succeed. The game is being released as part of the FDA’s “The Real Cost” youth tobacco prevention campaign, which is aimed at youth who are 12 to 17 years of age.

The game’s heavy-handedness won’t be lost among its Gen-Z players. As you play the game, you encounter challenges that are also faced by smokers. You can run from the cell, but only in short bursts since your lungs are damaged by smoking. The smoke obscures your vision. The game is structured like a maze, which is meant to be a metaphor for quitting smoking. Much like in the game, quitters often fail and can end up right back where they started.

Anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns targeting teenagers inspired a lot of eyerolls, and studies suggest they don’t always work and sometimes can have the opposite effect. The FDA is taking a more creative route with the grisly horror imagery of One Leaves, but it’s hard to believe that today’s teenagers are any less jaded than the ones of the past. And unlike yesterday’s youth, today’s teens face a new temptation in the form of e-cigarettes. According to the CDC, the number of high school students using tobacco increased by 38 percent in 2018, due to vaping.

But even if the game doesn’t convince players to drop smoking, One Leaves may still be a compelling distraction. The fact that film director Darren Aronofsky created the trailer doesn’t hurt. The FDA even scored the endorsement of popular Fortnite star Ninja, who tweeted out a playthrough of the game. With that kind of star power, maybe One Leaves will be better-regarded than most anti-smoking PSAs.

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