The Smart Money is Investing in Tech

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Where is the smart money going when it comes to tech companies? Some leading experts will be exploring that subject at Fortune’s upcoming Brainstorm TECH conference.

Anton Levy of General Atlantic, Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, and David Trujillo of TPG will share the stage in a panel discussion on what industries, ideas, or trends they’re betting on; what they’re seeing in the tech space; and the changes they’re watching for.

It’s no surprise that technology is on people’s minds, with the June ransomware attacks and Microsoft’s announcement of its new SMB-oriented software-as-a-service bundle. A recent article in Institutional Investor says that tech deals are booming in the PE sector.

Not only that, but 2017 has been a boom year for tech IPOs, with Snap going public in March, and Carvana, Cloudera, Elevate Credit, Mulesoft, Netshoes, Okta, and Yext also making their public trading debut. The aggregate value of these IPOs is a whopping $37.5 billion, with Snap making up the lion’s share at a valuation of approximately $20 billion.

Today’s tech IPOs are already light years ahead of those in 2016. By May of 2016, only two companies had gone public. Between January and May of 2017, more than four times that number went public, and more public offerings may be on the horizon. (Tech companies that have been floated as possible IPOs, despite rigorous denial from some of them, include Airbnb, Dropbox, Pinterest, Spotify, and Uber.)

Because of the growing success and valuation of tech companies, private equity money is now flowing into the sector, accounting for almost 40.1 percent of U.S. buyouts last year. This is the highest proportion on record. Firms with a broad range of investment interest, such as General Atlantic, KKR, and Carlyle, are jumping into the game and are being joined by tech-focused PE firms like Golden Gate Capital and Siris Capital.

“An increasing number of tech-related companies have moved beyond the traditional territory of venture capital funds, and the sector as a whole has increasingly become a target for the wider private equity industry,” Christopher Elvin, Head of Private Equity at Prequin, told Institutional Investor.

China has also become a PE magnet. However, concerns about the possible imposition of U.S. trade tariffs, plus concerns about its credit, real estate, and technology sectors seem to be cooling interest in the nation. However, when risk and potential are calmly weighed, China may be the most promising private equity market in the world.

This echoes sentiments that General Atlantic CEO Bill Ford shared in a recent interview with Bloomberg. “We’ve been bullish on China despite lots of mixed sentiment—the country is succeeding in pivoting its economy from export and manufacturing to services and consumption,” he said. “We’re seeing companies there generating 15 to 20 percent-plus nominal GDP growth.”

With so many potential IPOs on the horizon, and some really promising companies to be found in emerging markets, it’s no wonder that the smart money is betting on tech to be the next private equity profit-maker.

I will be curious to see what Levy, Green, and Trujillo share at Brainstorm TECH about their vision for private equity in the tech sector and if it matches up with what other observers have been saying.

New Self-Healing Polymer in Development

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Self-healing materials have long been something of a Holy Grail for chemists. For those unfamiliar with the term, self-healing materials are materials that, if say broken into two, can rejoin.

It may sound unrealistic, but that’s how our skin works. The trick is figuring out how to do that with artificial matter.

Believe it or not, self-healing materials have been in the works for a while now. Unfortunately, there are a few kinks that developers need to work out before this kind of technology can be brought to market. Humidity, for example, wreaks havoc on such materials since water gets into them and changes the chemical properties. A self-healing material isn’t all that useful if it only works in the desert.

But according to Dr. Chao Wang, who has been working on self-healing materials for a while now, things are looking brighter. He’s developed a material that is capable of self-healing and can conduct ions in order to generate current. It’s even stretchable, so it has a lot of potential uses, like in smart phones or soft robotics. He says he was inspired by Marvel’s Wolverine, known for his “healing factor” which makes him nearly un-killable.

And although the material doesn’t stand up to humidity (not yet anyway) that’s the next goal on Wang’s list. Wang plans to fix the problem by “tweaking the covalent bonds within the polymer itself.” Once he has that figured out, the polymer will be that much closer to being usable in a variety of real-world applications.

Wang uses the example of a smartphone which can repair itself after being dropped. Since the material in question is transparent, this would make for an ideal use. Of course, there are no doubt countless uses for such a material, in manufacturing or in consumer products, which could no doubt help us reduce waste with longer-lasting products.

Breakthroughs in Understanding Social Hierarchies Lead to Advanced AI

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Social hierarchies are important, especially in the workplace where understanding the chain of command is crucial. Workers need to know who they can turn to for help, who they have to watch out for, and who they need to take orders from. This is a learning process that can take a while, but a study by researchers from London College and DeepMind have found that it is a process that makes significant use of the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Researchers had participants undergo an fMRI while they imagined themselves as employees at a fictional company. Researchers then had the participants watch video interactions between “coworkers” to determine who “won” those interactions. Whoever won the interaction was determined to have more power in the hierarchy. Participants also watched similar videos but this time, they were asked to imagine their friend as an employee there. The findings show that we’re better at understanding the hierarchies to which we belong than those of others, which makes sense.

So what good is this research? Knowing what part of the brain is used in learning something that we pick up more or less “by instinct” may not sound immediately useful, but that’s because it’s part of a long-term project to help develop better artificial intelligence. That’s what DeepMind works on, actually.

DeepMind is trying to develop AI that can be applied to “some of the world’s most intractable problems.” If you’ve ever seen a movie about a robot, you know how hard it is for them to understand humans. By having a better idea of how our brains process human interactions, we can develop AI systems that better understand human interactions. Along the way, perhaps future research in this area will help us to better understand how we interact and maybe get a head start on fixing those problems before the robots are ready to help.

Researchers Discover New Flexible Material with Numerous Applications

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Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory at Flickr Creative Commons.

The phrase “near-perfect broadband absorption from hyperbolic metamaterial nanoparticles” sounds like some Star Trek “technobabble.” But believe it or not, it’s actually the title of a real paper. In the paper, researchers from UC San Diego’s Jacob’s School of Engineering describe a new material that is thin, flexible, and transparent, with some pretty cool capabilities.

The material absorbs light and, more than that, can essentially be “programmed” when made to absorb different wavelengths of light. This could allow for “transparent window coatings that keep buildings and cars cool on sunny days,” or “devices that could more than triple solar cell efficiencies.”

Imagine a window that keeps a building cool, cutting down on AC costs, while still allowing through the kinds of radio waves that we use for TV, radio, and broadband. Alternatively, the window could be used to block these radio waves, or to prevent heat generated inside the building from escaping. There are a lot of potential uses for the material, which is still early in the development phase. But for now it’s only being made in very small quantities to test out the various capabilities of the material.

Researchers are still figuring out how to scale up production. Because they’re using complex nanotubes and silicon substrates and other advanced technologies, scaling up will take some effort. While these kinds of techniques are becoming increasingly common, they’ve been limited to nanomaterials, which are called that for a reason.

So far we haven’t used these technologies on anything near so big as a plate glass window, but there’s no reason to think that they wouldn’t work. Most likely, as the researchers figure out how to scale up and make things like windows and such, they’ll run into some production issues, but that’s what research and experimentation is for, to figure out how to make something like this work.

New Control Techniques Add Versatility to Smartwatches

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Smartwatches are cool, but they’ve been slower to catch on than smartphones because they’re not the most convenient way to interact with a device. Their small size can make it hard to use them with maps or complex menus, limiting their value compared to a regular sized phone. Plus, if you have your hands full when you get a call, it’s hard to do anything about it.

But technology is constantly evolving, and smartwatches are no different. Researchers at Georgia Tech have been working on several different projects that can make using smartwatches easier, allowing them to provide more robust user experiences.

One project, called WatchOut, uses scrolling and swiping gestures to improve control, which might sound pretty typical, except with this system you don’t swipe and scroll on the watch’s screenyou use the band. Using the built in gyroscopes and accelerometers of such watches, engineers were able to develop a system that gives users more control while not having to worry about hitting the wrong button with their fingers.

Then there’s Whoosh, which allows users to control their phones by breathing on them. Shushing the watch can decline a call, while blowing on it twice can accept. A sequence of short and long breaths can be used to unlock the device, while different breath techniques can be used to erase words in a text message or to send it. You can even move an app from your phone to your watch by “sipping it off the watch and puffing it on the phone.”

And don’t forget TapSkin, which allows users to use the back of their hand as a number pad, sending commands to the watch based on where the user taps. These aren’t “theoretical” developments either; they’ve all be designed, tested, and shown at a number of conferences. They all make use of existing technology, which means that these options could be hitting the market in the near future.

 

One Small Step Toward Science Fiction Holograms

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Australian researchers, with the help of colleagues from the United States and Japan, have made a huge step forward in developing the Holy Grail of imaging: the hologram. Popularized in media like Star Wars and Star Trek, the concept of the hologram is a simple one: to project 3D images using light, as opposed to the 2D images we can create now with cameras and monitors.

The new device developed at the Australian National University uses a collection of “millions of tiny silicon pillars, each up to 500 times thinner than a human hair” to capture 3D images. By being transparent, the material doesn’t lose much energy from the light that passes through it, allowing it to perform some pretty complex stuff with that light, like storing 3D information in infrared.

While this device doesn’t create a hologram that humans can interact with like in Star Trek, it’s still a vital step toward achieving that. While research into holographic technology is most often associated with augmented reality systems, that’s still a ways down the road.

But this new device could still be beneficial even in its current form. This device, according to lead researcher Lei Wang, “could replace bulky components to miniaturize cameras and save costs in astronomical missions by reducing the size and weight of optical systems on space craft.”

And that’s not even to mention their use in terrestrial cameras and crafts. Drones are already pretty small, but by making cameras even lighter, we could have room for more storage and battery life, allowing us to use such devices to better explore hard to reach or dangerous parts of the world. Nature documentaries are already accomplishing incredible feats with small cameras. Imagine if they were even smaller.

This could also be the next big step in cameras for smart devices, which are already leagues ahead of the camera technology of even thirty years ago. Consumers won’t have access to such devices for a while, but they’re going to want them when they become available.

Adapting in the Future Requires Adapting in the Present

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There’s an published in Forbes about what we can expect from employees of the future, extrapolating from current technological trends. The general argument is that those employees will have to be flexible, in order to keep up with and use increasingly powerful technology like artificial intelligence systems.

But this isn’t science-fiction. The article isn’t about the future employees of a century from now; it’s about employees from the last few decades. The phrase “mid-to-late 21st century” gets used, and for some business owners, their companies might still be up and running by that time.

So are you flexible enough to adapt to the changing technology of the future? The article brings up Millennials and Generation Z, who are already pretty well versed at adapting to technology. They’re also going to be the people starting new businesses, which are almost certainly going to be better at adapting to new technology until the next generations come along and think Generation Z is old because they don’t have computers in their brains or whatever.

The point is, hiring employees who are flexible and/or ahead of the technology curve is valuable and, increasingly, necessary. But that alone might not be enough. These employees will need to be under the guidance of bosses who understand what’s going on, at least enough to give them the freedom to be flexible in the first place.

Employees can’t do their best work if their bosses don’t understand the basics of the tools they need, and therefore won’t give them those tools. These employees know they can probably go find a hipper, younger boss who can and will give them access to those tools. So it’s worth asking yourself if you, or your company, are flexible enough to adapt to rapidly changing technology. If the answer is no, it’s time you learn how to be.

Boosting Application Speeds

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A process called Dense Footprint Cache may help significantly speed up applications on computers and mobile devices. When a processor is running an application, it has to retrieve data which is stored “off processor” in device memory. This process takes time. In order to make it faster, processors have a cache of die-stacked dynamic random access memory that allows the processor to go to the cache and retrieve the data more quickly.

However, there is a decent chance that the data in question won’t be stored there, in which case the processor has to go to the memory anyway, which slows the whole process down. Under this new system though, the processor learns where data is stored, allowing it to access that data faster. Tests have shown that the average system is 9.5% faster than other, state-of-the-art computing methods, which is a noticeable improvement. Furthermore, the system allows the processor to skip over data that it knows is not in the cache, reducing “last level cache miss ratios” by 43%. As a bonus, the whole process uses 4.3% less energy than normal, which means slightly longer battery life, too.

While this technology (which is still new and not ready for the market) is unlikely to drastically change the way we compute, it will help, especially if it ends up in consumer devices like smart phones and tablets. Being able to use apps with even 9.5% more speed will improve customer use, and it will also allow more applications to function more quickly. This is the kind of thing that, bundled within next-generation smart phones, for example, makes people want to actually upgrade their devices. It’s the kind of improvement that actually means something, not like, say, removing the 3.5mm audio jack so that customers are forced to buy more expensive, more complicated headphones.

New “Bradio” System Greatly Extends Battery Life on Small Devices

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Mobile devices have transformed our lives in a lot of ways over the last decade. Given time, wearable devices might be able to do the same, and are certainly more in line with the kind of futurism made popular by science fiction. But, while wearable devices like smartwatches or fitness trackers are gaining popularity, there is one common complaint about them that we need to resolve: battery life.

Battery life is a thorn in the side of mobile devices in general, because the size of a battery and the power it provides are directly correlated. The smaller the battery, the less the power provided. But devices like smartwatches have high-energy demands. You can either have a short battery life with a smaller, more compact device, or a larger battery with a bulkier device.

But scientists from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have been working on a new system that they have dubbed “Bradio.” Bradio allows devices that are connected with one another to share the energy load. So a smartwatch, which works through its connection with a smartphone, can make use of that phone’s larger battery in order to get attain more battery life. It works kind of like the cloud: the larger device provides more energy that the smaller device can tap into in order to extend it’s own battery life. Plus, the cloud allows you to access a much bigger storage space than you could conveniently keep on hand.

So far, tests have shown that they can get about 400 times the battery life of a Bluetooth system, which operates on a somewhat similar principle. The device sending the signal to the Bluetooth headset does most of the work in the relationship, and the same is true of Bradio. Although it’s in the beginning stages of development, Bradio, or a system like it, could revolutionize wearable technology.

Remembering GeoCities and How It Helped Shape the Internet

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Long before the existence of Facebook (even before MySpace, iPods, and Y2K) and before the first dotcom bubble burst, there was the Internet. Unlike newer technologies, the Internet had no single “inventor.”

However, there was GeoCities, which helped shape the Internet.

Once the Internet’s third most-visited domain, GeoCities was responsible for the development of millions of websites. Years after the free web-hosting service was launched in 1994, Thom Weisel’s wealth management firm advised Yahoo! to acquire GeoCities for $3.5 billion.

The company’s goal was to give everyone who had Internet access a free place on the web. Although there were just a few million people online during that time, the idea of owning an online space was a strange (and exciting) new medium. Other free web-hosting services such as Tripod and Angelfire also launched around the same time, but these platforms proved to be far less popular than GeoCities.

”We are not an in-and-out service like a search engine. It’s a place for people to meet. We allow for self-expression through self-publishing. We’re it, in terms of being a major content-entertainment site whose editorial strategy is solely based on the members creating the content themselves,” said GeoCities co-founder David Bohnett.

In its original form, GeoCities users selected a “city” in which to launch their web pages. GeoCities wasn’t sure how to handle the whole idea of an online community and decided to divide the content up into “cities” or “neighborhoods” where you and your neighbors should ideally have the same core interest. The “cities” were named after actual cities or regions according to their content. For example, many computer-related websites were placed under “SilliconValley” and those in the entertainment industry were assigned to “Hollywood.”

Eventually, however, the “home page” fad was overshadowed by blogs and social-networking websites. In 2009, approximately ten years after the merge with Yahoo!, GeoCities announced that it would shut down its 38 million free user-built pages in the United States.

Although many people thought the platform inspired a lot of terrible web design, GeoCities was the first big venture built on what is now considered the Web 2.0 boom of user-generated content. It gave people tools to do amazing things on their websites, including adding animation, music, graphics, and other HTML wizardry.

Imagine yourself back in 1996. You’ve created your free GeoCities account, and you’ve been given a blank page with 15 megabytes to tell the world about yourself. What would be on your page?

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