Wij willen met u aan tafel zitten en in een openhartig gesprek uitvinden welke uitdagingen en vragen er bij u spelen om zo, gezamelijk, tot een beste oplossing te komen. Oftewel, hoe kan de techniek u ondersteunen in plaats van dat u de techniek moet ondersteunen.

Among the many problems with the prison system are enormous fees for things like video calls, which a handful of companies provide at grossly inflated rates. Ameelio hopes to step in and provide free communication options to inmates; Its first product, sending paper letters, is being welcomed with open arms by those with incarcerated loved ones.

Born from the minds of Yale Law students, Ameelio is their attempt to make a difference in the short term while pushing for reform in the long term, said co-founder and CEO Uzoma Orchingwa.

“I was studying mass incarceration, and the policy solutions I was writing about were going to take a long time to happen,” Orchingwa said. “It’s going to be a long battle before we can make even little inroads. So I was thinking, what can I do in the interim while I work on the longer term project of prison reform?”

He saw reports that inmates with regular communication with loved ones have better outcomes when released, but also that in many prisons, that communication was increasingly expensive and restricted. Some prisons have banned in-person meetings altogether — not surprising during a pandemic — leaving video calling at extortionate rates the only option for speaking face to face with a loved one.

Sometimes costing a dollar a minute, these fees add up quickly and, naturally, this impacts already vulnerable populations the most. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, for whom this was an issue of particular interest during her term, called the prison communication system “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”

It’s worth noting that these private, expensive calling services weren’t always the norm, but were born fairly recently as the private prison industry has expanded and multiplied the ways it makes money off inmates. Some states ban the practice, but others have established relationships with the companies that provide these services — and a healthy kickback to the state and prison, of course.

This billion-dollar industry is dominated by two companies: Securus and Global Tel Link. The service they provide is fairly rudimentary compared with those we on the outside take for granted. Video and audio calls are scheduled, recorded, skimmed for keywords, and kept available to authorities for a few months in case they’re needed.

At a time when video calls are being provided for free to billions around the world who have also been temporarily restricted from meeting in person, charging at all for it seems wrong — and charging a dollar a minute seems monstrous.

Ameelio’s crew of do-gooder law students and developers doesn’t think they can budge the private prison system overnight, so they’re starting with a different product, but one that also presents difficulties to families trying to communicate with inmates: letters.

Written mail is a common way to keep in contact with someone in prison, but there are a few obstacles that may prevent the less savvy from doing so. Ameelio facilitates this by providing an up-to-date list of correct addresses and conventions for writing to any of the thousands of criminal justice facilities around the country, as well as the correct way to look up and identify the inmate you’re trying to contact — rarely as simple as just putting their name at the top.

“The way prison addresses work, the inmate address is different from the physical address. So we scraped addresses and built a database for that, and built a way to find the different idiosyncrasies, like how many lines are necessary, what to put on each line, etc,” said co-founder Gabe Saruhashi.

Once that’s sorted, you write your letter, attach a photo if you want, and it’s printed out and sent (via direct-mail-as-a-service startup Lob). It’s easy to see how removing the friction and cost of printing, addressing and so on would lead to more frequent communication.

Since starting a couple months ago and spreading word of the service on Facebook groups and other informal means, they’ve already sent more than 4,000 letters. But while it’s nice for people to be able to send letters, Ameelio plans to cater to larger organizations that use mail at larger scales.

“The communications challenges that families have are the same challenges that criminal justice organizations and lawyers have when communicating with their clients,” explained Orchingwa. They have to manage the addresses, letter-writing and sending, and a network of people to check on recipients and other follow-up actions. “We’re talking to them, and a lot were very interested in the service we’re offering, so we’re going to roll out a version for organizations. We’re creating a business model in which these organizations, and some of them are well funded, can pay us back but also pay it forward and help keep it free for others.”

How an organization might use and track letter-writing campaigns.

Sending letters is just the opening play for Ameelio, though, but it’s also a way to make the contacts they need and research the market. Outcry against the private calling systems has been constant but the heterogeneous nature of prisons run under state policies means “we don’t have one system, we have 51 separate systems,” as Orchingwa put it. That and the fact that it makes a fair amount of money.

“There’s a lot of movement around getting Securus and Global Tel out,” he said, “But it would shift from families to the state paying, so they need to make back the money they were making from kickbacks.”

Some states have banned paid calls or never allowed them, but others are only changing their policies now in response to external pressure. It’s with these that Ameelio hopes to succeed first.

“We can start in states where there’s no strong relationship to these companies,” said Orchingwa. “You’re going to have state and county officials being asked by their constituents, ‘why are we using them when there’s a free alternative?’ ”

You may wonder whether it’s possible for a fresh young startup to build a video calling platform ready for deployment in such a short time. The team was quick to explain that the actual video call part of the product is something that, like sending letters, can be accomplished through a third party.

“The barrier right now is not at all the video infrastructure – enterprise and APIs will provide that. We already have an MVP of how that will look,” said Saruhashi. Even the hardware is pretty standard — just regular Android tablets stuck to the wall.

“The hard part is the dashboard for the [Department of Corrections],” Saruhashi continued. “They need a way to manage connections that are coming in, schedule conversations, get logs and review them when they’re done.”

But they’re also well into the development of that part, which ultimately is also only a medium-grade engineering challenge, already solved in many other contexts.

Currently the team is evaluating participation in a number of accelerators, and is already part of Mozilla’s Spring MVP Lab, the precursor to a larger incubator effort announced earlier today. “We love them,” said Mozilla’s Bart Decrem.

Right now the company is definitely early stage, with more plans than accomplishments, and they’re well aware that this is just the start — just as establishing better communications options is just the start for more comprehensive reform of the prison and justice system.


TechCrunch

Right now the world is at war. But this is no ordinary war. It’s a fight with an organism so small we can only detect it through use of a microscope — and if we don’t stop it, it could kill millions of us in the next several decades. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, though that organism is the one on everyone’s mind right now. I’m talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, more than 700,000 people died globally from bacterial infections last year — 35,000 of them in the U.S. If we do nothing, that number could grow to 10 million annually by 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The problem? Antibiotic overuse at the doctor’s office or in livestock and farming practices. We used a lot of drugs over time to kill off all the bad bacteria — but it only killed off most, not all, of the bad bacteria. And, as the famous line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park goes, “life finds a way.”

Enter Felix, a biotech startup in the latest Y Combinator batch that thinks it has a novel approach to keeping bacterial infections at bay – viruses.

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

It seems weird in a time of widespread concern over the corona virus to be looking at any virus in a good light but as co-founder Robert McBride explains it, Felix’s key technology allows him to target his virus to specific sites on bacteria. This not only kills off the bad bacteria but can also halt its ability to evolve and once more become resistant.

But the idea to use a virus to kill off bacteria is not necessarily new. Bacteriophages, or viruses that can “infect” bacteria, were first discovered by an English researcher in 1915 and commercialized phage therapy began in the U.S. in the 1940’s through Eli Lilly and Company. Right about then antibiotics came along and Western scientists just never seemed to explore the therapy further.

However, with too few new solutions being offered and the standard drug model not working effectively to combat the situation, McBride believes his company can put phage therapy back at the forefront.

Already Felix has tested its solution on an initial group of 10 people to demonstrate its approach.

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

“We can develop therapies in less time and for less money than traditional antibiotics because we are targeting orphan indications and we already know our therapy can work in humans,” McBride told TechCrunch . “We argue that our approach, which re-sensitizes bacteria to traditional antibiotics could be a first line therapy.”

Felix plans to deploy its treatment for bacterial infections in those suffering from cystic fibrosis first as these patients tend to require a near constant stream of antibiotics to combat lung infections.

The next step will be to conduct a small clinical trial involving 30 people, then, as the scientific research and development model tends to go, a larger human trial before seeking FDA approval. But McBride hopes his viral solution will prove itself out in time to help the coming onslaught of antibiotic resistance.

“We know the antibiotic resistant challenge is large now and is only going to get worse,” McBride said. “We have an elegant technological solution to this challenge and we know our treatment can work. We want to contribute to a future in which these infections do not kill more than 10 million people a year, a future we can get excited about.”


TechCrunch

Mo Gawdat, the former Google and Google X executive, is probably best known for his book Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy. He left Google X last year. Quite a bit has been written about the events that led to him leaving Google, including the tragic death of his son. While happiness is still very much at the forefront of what he’s doing, he’s also now thinking about his next startup: T0day.

To talk about T0day, I sat down with the Egypt-born Gawdat at the Digital Frontrunners event in Copenhagen, where he gave one of the keynote presentations. Gawdat is currently based in London. He has adopted a minimalist lifestyle, with no more than a suitcase and a carry-on full of things. Unlike many of the Silicon Valley elite that have recently adopted a kind of performative aestheticism, Gawdat’s commitment to minimalism feels genuine — and it also informs his new startup.

07 28 19 Frontrunner 38“In my current business, I’m building a startup that is all about reinventing consumerism,” he told me. “The problem with retail and consumerism is it’s never been disrupted. E-commerce, even though we think is a massive revolution, it’s just an evolution and it’s still tiny as a fraction of all we buy. It was built for the Silicon Valley mentality of disruption, if you want, while actually, what you need is cooperation. There are so many successful players out there, so many efficient supply chains. We want the traditional retailers to be successful and continue to make money — even make more money.”

What T0day wants to be is a platform that integrates all of the players in the retail ecosystem. That kind of platform, Gawdat argues, never existed before, “because there was never a platform player.”

That sounds like an efficient marketplace for moving goods, but in Gawdat’s imagination, it is also a way to do good for the planet. Most of the fuel burned today isn’t for moving people, he argues, but goods. A lot of the food we buy goes to waste (together with all of the resources it took to grow and ship it) and single-use plastic remains a scourge.

How does T0day fix that? Gawdat argues that today’s e-commerce is nothing but a digital rendering of the same window shopping people have done for ages. “You have to reimagine what it’s like to consume,” he said.

The reimagined way to consume is essentially just-in-time shipping for food and other consumer goods, based on efficient supply chains that outsmart today’s hub and spoke distribution centers and can deliver anything to you in half an hour. If everything you need to cook a meal arrives 15 minutes before you want to start cooking, you only need to order the items you need at that given time and instead of a plastic container, it could come a paper bag. “If I have the right robotics and the right autonomous movements — not just self-driving cars, because self-driving cars are a bit far away — but the right autonomous movements within the enterprise space of the warehouse, I could literally give it to you with the predictability of five minutes within half an hour,” he explained. “If you get everything you need within half an hour, why would you need to buy seven apples? You would buy three.”

Some companies, including the likes of Uber, are obviously building some of the logistics networks that will enable this kind of immediate drop shipping, but Gawdat doesn’t think Uber is the right company for this. “This is going to sound a little spiritual. There is what you do and there is the intention behind why you do it,” he said. “You can do the exact same thing with a different intention and get a very different result.”

That’s an ambitious project, but Gawdat argues that it can be done without using massive amounts of resources. Indeed, he argues that one of the problems with Google X, and especially big moonshot projects like Loon and self-driving cars, was that they weren’t really resource-constrained. “Some things took longer than they should have,” he said. “But I don’t criticize what they did at all. Take the example of Loon and Facebook. Loon took longer than it should have. In my view, it was basically because of an abundance of resources and sometimes innovation requires a shoestring. That’s my only criticism.”

T0day, which Gawdat hasn’t really talked about publicly in the past, is currently self-funded. A lot of people are advising him to raise money for it. “We’re getting a lot of advice that we shouldn’t self-fund,” he said, but he also believes that the company will need some strategic powerhouses on its side, maybe retailers or companies that have already invested in other components of the overall platform.

T0day’s ambitions are massive, but Gawdat thinks that his team can get the basic elements right, be that the fulfillment center design or the routing algorithms and the optimization engines that power it all. He isn’t ready to talk about those, though. What he does think is that T0day won’t be the interface for these services. It’ll be the back end and allow others to build on top. And because his previous jobs have allowed him to live a comfortable life, he isn’t all that worried about margins either, and would actually be happy if others adopted his idea, thereby reducing waste.


TechCrunch

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