Original Content podcast: ‘Tiger King’ might be the wildest show on Netflix

Netflix’s “Tiger King” is a docuseries focusing on the man who calls himself Joe Exotic — owner of a private park full of tigers and other big cats. We learn in the opening minutes of the first episode that he’s been accused of hiring a contract killer to murder an animal rights activist.

A documentary that was solely about Joe would be pretty memorable on its own, but he’s surrounded by characters who are nearly as colorful, including the operators of several other big cat parks, as well as his nemesis, Carole Baskin.

On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by Jason from the TechCrunch events team to review “Tiger King.” It’s an incredibly addictive and bingeable show, with shocks and twists in virtually every episode.

At the same time, we debate whether the show treats its colorful subjects ethically, and whether anything was lost as the focus shifted from a “Blackfish”-style exposé of large cat owners into something more lurid.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:29 “Tiger King” review
24:56 “Tiger King” spoilers

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How Huawei is dividing Western nations

The relationship between the United Kingdom and Australia is not usually a flashpoint in international relations. After all, the two allies share a common language, ancestry, and monarch. So what caused a dustup recently that saw a senior Australian parliamentarian rebuke the British foreign secretary, and for a group of Australian MPs to then cancel a trip to London in protest?

The answer is fears over Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant at the center of the 5G next-generation wireless debate. Australian officials were miffed when the British government recommended that the company be allowed to play a limited role in the U.K.’s 5G deployment despite calling it a “high risk” supplier due to its close ties to the Chinese government (the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, served for many years as an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army). The Australian government, a fellow member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (which includes the two countries plus the United States, Canada, and New Zealand), disagreed back in 2017 when it barred Huawei on national security grounds.

Now, two close allies are at cross purposes about the very future of the internet. What’s at stake is not just who equips the future of telecom infrastructure, but the very values that the internet itself holds.

Two countries, ocean(s) apart

It’s not just Australia and Britain that find themselves separated by an ocean (or two). In America, Huawei has become the Trump Administration’s favorite company to hate. In a speech at this year’s Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the company “today’s poster child” for “nefarious activity” while another White House official compared the company to “the Mafia.”  It should come as no surprise that the company is the target of trade restrictions, a criminal action against its CFO, and a concerted diplomatic campaign. 

America’s concerns are twofold. First, that critical infrastructure provided by a Chinese company with such close ties to the country’s central leadership is an unacceptable security risk. Second, that arresting Huawei’s increasing dominance risks surrendering any chance for American leadership in 5G technology.

National security considerations have predominantly driven policymakers in Australia. More alert by geography to the strategic risks posed by China, Canberra moved early and decisively to bar Huawei from participating in its 5G networks at all. “The fundamental issue is one of trust between nations in cyberspace,” writes Simeon Gilding, until recently the head of the Australian Signals Directorate’s signals intelligence and offensive cyber missions.

That lack of trust between China and Australia is compounded by the difficult geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. “It’s not hard to imagine a time when the U.S. and China end up in some sort of conflict,” says Tom Uren of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). “If there was a shooting war, it is almost inevitable that the U.S. would ask Australia for assistance and then we’d be in this uncomfortable situation if we had Huawei in our networks that our critical telecommunications networks would literally be run by an adversary we were at war with.”

Gilding warned, “It’s simply not reasonable to expect that Huawei would refuse a direction from the Chinese Communist Party.” And no matter what reassurances Huawei executives have given, they just simply haven’t been able to ally those concerns. Beijing didn’t help Huawei’s case when it passed its 2017 Intelligence Law, which obliges all Chinese companies and individuals to assist with intelligence efforts if asked. “People were always afraid [that might happen],” adds Uren, “and having it in writing really solidified those concerns.”

As a result, Canberra’s policy to ban Huawei has been largely uncontroversial. With the exception of some of the country’s telecom companies, “the decision [to ban Huawei] has bipartisan backing,” says Simon Jackman, CEO of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Calling out London

American officials wish their British counterparts shared Australia’s outlook – and haven’t been shy about saying so. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the UK to “relook” at the decision and lobbied Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the issue on a recent trip to London. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Esper has made clear that electing to use Huawei could threaten allies’ access to American intelligence. “If countries choose to go the Huawei route,” Mr. Esper told reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, “it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 30 January 2020 in London, England. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

British officials not only believe this to be a bluff – the Five Eyes intelligence alliance is much too strong in their view – but have a different assessment of the risk Huawei poses. “Everyone’s perception of the Huawei risk is particular to them,” says Nigel Inkster, a former deputy chief of MI6 now at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The U.K. goes even further though. Experts in the British government, which started using Huawei in its 3G and 4G networks back in 2003, believe that not only can the risks be mitigated, but they are being overstated in the first place. “The Australian approach is driven by the kind of worst-case analysis of the risk 5G could pose in effect on the brink of war,” says Inkster. “I don’t think the U.K. envisages going to war with China any time soon.”

Inkster and other top officials remain confident in the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which was established by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) back when Huawei was first introduced into Britain’s telecom networks. “We’ve never ‘trusted’ Huawei,” wrote NCSC Technical Director Dr. Ian Levy in a January 2020 blogpost. As a result, the U.K. has “always treated them as a ‘high risk vendor’ and worked to limit their use in the UK and put extra mitigations around their equipment and services.”

Levy and the government’s other cybersecurity experts believe that their system will continue to work. “The basic cyber security measures that have been used for 3/4G also apply to 5G,” argues Marcus Willett, who also served as the first Director of Cyber at GCHQ, Britain’s signals-intelligence agency. “If Huawei had been playing games, we would have discovered it by now,” says Pauline Neville-Jones, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, and previously security minister and cybersecurity advisor in former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.

British regulations already restrict Huawei and other high-risk vendors in several ways, including capping their market share at 35% and ensuring their equipment is continuously evaluated by HCSEC. In addition, by preventing Huawei’s 5G kit from being used near sensitive sites and limiting it to the periphery of the network (as opposed to the core), British officials are confident that they can contain any additional risk.

That’s not to say Huawei doesn’t face stiff opposition from some corners. Even if you mitigated the risk, it’s “quite a leap to allow the Chinese to be intimately involved in something as sensitive as this,” one U.K. retired diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, told me. And the company is no one’s first choice. “If the U.K. didn’t have Huawei in its system, it wouldn’t choose to have Huawei now,” Lady Neville-Jones told me. “But we are in a different place [than Australia] and we have set up a system which we believe enables us to manage the risk. And by God, we will be on alert. We’re not stupid. [But] you say to yourself, at the end of the day, do you trust your technical people or not? And there’s never been a complaint on backdoors or traps.” Indeed, government experts have often caught coding errors she adds. “I suspect the result of [British inspections] is that technically Huawei is a better company than it might otherwise have been.”

The British position is also rooted in game theory. “Even if you could [bring down the network], when would you do it?” asks Willett, formerly of GCHQ. “It is effectively a ‘one shot’ capability – if used by China, it would undermine the position of all Chinese companies in the world tech market. China would therefore presumably save the ‘one shot’ for war or near-war, in which case it would need to be sure it would work. That is not easy.”

Australian experts are skeptical, though. “I think [the British] are overconfident in their ability to mitigate [the risk],” Uren, the ASPI expert, told me. His view – widely shared in Australia – is that defenders always think they can defend a system until they can’t, and giving a Chinese company access to the network is already a concession too far. “Cybersecurity is all about raising the costs for the attacker,” writes Gildling, the former Australian official. “Network access through vendors — which need to be all over 5G networks to maintain their equipment — effectively reduces the access cost to zero.”

The economic equation in Europe

It’s hard to understate the difference geography makes, though. In America and Australia — Pacific powers — China is physically present. For Europeans — including Britain — the risks of a rising China don’t carry the same emotional weight.

“The idea of China being a direct security threat is still somewhat abstract,” says Dr. Janka Oertel of the European Council on Foreign Relations. With the exception of countries like Poland and Estonia which are reliant on U.S. military support and thus more willing to toe Washington’s line, “European governments have just begun to asses the risk China can pose in the cyber realm.” Partly to allay those rising concerns, Huawei about a year ago established a a Cyber Security Transparency Centre in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union. Unlike Britain’s HCSEC, however, it is not an independent evaluation center and it is not designed to carry out the same functions.

Economics dominate the conversation on the continent more than national security concerns. The fragmented telecom market in Europe (105 mobile operators versus just four in America), has also proven beneficial to Huawei. In a competitive environment where cost has become everything, the state-subsidized Huawei is often able to underprice its competitors. Even in Britain, security concerns were weighed against the fact that “stripping out [the Huawei components already in the system] and starting again would carry enormous costs,” Inkster told me.

Still, Oertel thinks the debate in Europe is being debated on the wrong grounds. “It’s really hard to say Huawei is cheaper than Ericsson or Nokia. No one has the numbers because these are all contracts between private companies. We’re talking a lot of hypotheticals.” Her concern is that while Huawei might seem cheaper now, that might change if it’s able to squeeze out competitors and raise prices.

The battle isn’t over yet, though. Ericsson and Nokia maintain that they are competitive on technology and cost. Indeed, Ericsson is already running 27 5G networks in 15 countries and was just selected by the Danish government to build the country’s 5G network, displacing existing Huawei equipment. Meanwhile in Germany, the government’s move toward using Huawei has run into sharp opposition in the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. Norbert Röttgen, a prominent member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own party, helped draft a bill that would bar any “untrustworthy” company from “both the core and peripheral networks.”

Norbert Roettgen, CDU at the Bundespressekonferenz the occasion of the candidacy for the CDU chairmanship, on February 18, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Felix Zahn/Photothek via Getty Images)

The Trump Administration is still concerned enough about Huawei’s potential ability to dominate 5G worldwide that it is actively campaigning for a Western alternative. “We are encouraging allied and U.S. tech companies to develop alternative 5G solutions,” Defense Secretary Esper said in Munich, where he also exhorted fellow security officials to “develop our own secure 5G network … so we don’t regret our decisions later.” 

Other American officials have suggested even more extraordinary measures. Declaring in a February speech that nothing less than “our economic future is at stake,” Attorney General William Barr (who also served formerly as a long-time lawyer for U.S. telecom and TechCrunch parent company Verizon) bluntly called on the U.S. and its allies to “actively consider” a proposal for the government and U.S. companies to take a controlling stake in Nokia and Ericsson. “Putting our large market and financial muscle behind one or both of these firms would make it a far more formidable competitor.”

Ericsson dismisses these comments. “Personally, I find it odd that Barr is even thinking like this really,” Gabriel Solomon, a senior Ericsson executive in Europe, told me. “We were first to commercial deployment in four continents. We are in a very competitive market.”

Indeed, that echoes a common view in Europe: that the goal of American policy on Huawei is less about security and more about market share – and making sure America, not China, owns the future of 5G. And that has its own risks. “Cutting out Huawei altogether potentially moves us toward a kind of bipolar, bifurcated internet, which if taken to logical extreme would have some very serious adverse implications for everyone in terms of cost, a slowdown in innovation, and general reduction in intellectual and technical interchange,” says Inkster, the former MI6 official.

Things would be easier, Europeans say, if America presented an obvious alternative. Without one, America’s allies feel they have little choice but to use Huawei if they don’t want to fall behind technologically. “The West has got itself in a mess,” says the retired British diplomat. “It is a striking failure of political cooperation and coordination that we should find ourselves in this position.”

There is still optimism on both sides of the Atlantic that a Western solution can be found. As Röttgen of Germany wrote in a tweet in February:

Rather than pick a champion, another solution would be to level the playing field. “Telecoms security doesn’t pay,” concedes Dr. Levy of HCSEC. And “externalising the security costs of particular choices (including vendor) will help operators make better security risk management decisions.” Another option: better national screening investment mechanisms that would limit the ability of state-owned enterprises to operate unfairly.

But to get there requires coordination and cooperation – and that isn’t necessarily as forthcoming as you might expect. Germans still remember that the NSA hacked Chancellor Merkel’s phone – and the Trump Administration’s trade war has targeted Europe almost as much as it has China. Röttgen cautioned that cooperation on 5G was connected: “[W]e must know that tariffs against Brussels are off the table,” he said in the same tweet. “Partners don’t threaten one another.” Meanwhile, Huawei is earning goodwill by sending medical equipment to Europe to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Technology was supposed to unite us,” laments Jackman, the Australian professor; “instead it’s driving us apart not just from our rivals, but our allies, too.”

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A new FDA-authorized COVID-19 test doesn’t need a lab and can produce results in just 5 minutes

There’s a new COVID-19 test from healthcare technology maker Abbott that looks to be the fastest yet in terms of producing results, and that can do so on the spot right at point-of-care, without requiring a round trip to a lab. This test for the novel coronavirus causing the current global pandemic has received emergency clearance for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and will begin production next week, with output of 50,000 per day possible starting next week.

The new Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test uses the Abbott ID NOW diagnostics platform, which is essentially a lab-in-a-box that is roughly the size of a small kitchen appliance. It’s size, and the fact that it can produce either a positive result in just five minutes, or a negative one in under 15, mean that it could be a very useful means to extend coronavirus testing beyond its current availability to more places including clinics and doctor’s offices, and cut down on wait times both in terms of getting tested and receiving a diagnosis.

Unlike the rapid tests that have been used in other countries, and that received a new type of authorization under an FDA guideline that doesn’t confirm the accuracy fo the results, this rapid testing solution uses the molecular testing method, which works with saliva and mucus samples swabbed from a patient. This means that it works by identifying a portion of the virus’ DNA in a patient, which means it’s much better at detecting the actual presence of the virus during infection, whereas other tests that search the blood for antibodies that are used in point-of-care settings can only detect antibodies, which might be present in recovered patients who don’t actively have the virus.

The good news for availability of this test is that ID NOW, the hardware from Abbott that it runs on, already “holds the largest molecular point-of-care footprint in the U.S.,” and is “widely available” across doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics, emergency rooms and other medical facilities.

In total, Abbott now says that it believes it will produce 5 million tests in April, split between these new rapid tests and the lab tests that it received emergency use authorization for by the FDA on March 18.

Testing has been one of the early problems faced by the U.S. in terms of getting a handle on the coronavirus pandemic: The country has lagged behind other nations globally in terms of per capita tests conducted, which experts say has hampered its ability to properly track and trace the spread of the virus and its resulting respiratory disease. Patients have reported having to go to extreme lengths to receive a test, and endure long waits for results, even in cases where exposure was likely and their symptoms match the COVID-19 profile.

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As the U.S. shuts down, StockX’s business is booming, says its CEO

StockX, the high-flying resale marketplace that connects buyers and sellers of sneakers, streetwear, handbags and other collectible items who agree on pricing, has seen its fortune rise along with the $6 billion global sneaker resale market, which is part of the broader $100 billion sneaker category. In fact, the company, which was assigned a billion-dollar-plus valuation last year, says $1 billion worth of merchandise was sold through its platform last year.

The big question is whether StockX can maintain its momentum. Not only are other rivals biting at the heels of the five-year-old, Detroit-based outfit, which has raised roughly $160 million from investors, but some believe the streetwear “bubble” is on the verge of bursting. Add to the mix a pandemic that’s putting millions of people out of work (and in some cases jeopardizing the health of those still showing up), and you might assume that answer is no.

Yet in an online event earlier this week hosted by this editor and conducted by Erin Griffith of the New York Times, StockX CEO Scott Cutler insisted that the exact opposite is true. By his telling, business is booming. In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly, he argued that StockX looks more durable than the traditional public market right now, and he’s well-acquainted with the latter, having earlier spent nine years as an executive with the New York Stock Exchange. (Cutler was also formerly an executive at eBay and StubHub.)

Below is part of their talk, edited lightly for length.

Griffith kicked off the interview by giving Cutler a chance to describe in his own words how StockX works.

“So if you’re a buyer of sneakers, you’ve got choices as to where you want to do that you could go to Nike or Adidas, you could go to a retailer . . . There are other marketplaces like eBay, as an example, where one person has an item to sell, and you would match and try and find that one person [who will buy it at their price] and that would be a unique peer-to-peer-based experience.”

“The difference for Stock x is that typically those items that are the most sought-after things from a retailer or brand and are never available at that retailer or brand. They’re released online, or they’re released in a store, and they and they vanish immediately. . . So as a buyer, you come into the experience knowing largely that you want a particular product. And we give you the opportunity to either buy that at the lowest price somebody is willing to sell that for, or put a bid out and say, ‘This is what I’m interested in paying for this product.’

“If you’re a seller, you don’t have to create a seller rating. You don’t have to create a profile. You don’t have to create a listing. You simply have something to sell, it’s in our catalog. And you either sell it at the highest price that somebody is willing to bid . .  . or you ask and say, ‘This is what I’m willing to sell this item for.’ So it’s a very much a trading market much like oil and commodities and equities, but in sneakers and collectible items.”

She asked who is driving the marketplace and whether that might be a small number of power users.

“Seventy-five percent of our customers are under the age of 35. And that customer is a now a wide demographic, I would say two years ago, it was defined in sneakers as a “sneakerhead,” meaning somebody that collected sneakers and bought and sell sneakers specifically. But today, that demographic, if you looked at millennials and Gen Z, as an example, 40% of them would define themselves as sneakerheads, and so that’s male and female, and this demographic is around the world. We have customers in over 170 countries and territories.”

Cutler went on to say that StockX is very well-positioned because, unlike with a lot of goods that people might find through Amazon or a Google search and thus compete on some level with them, StockX is itself the “first” shopping destination for most of its customers.

“Even the brands can’t provide access to [what’s for sale at StockX].  So that consumer comes to us as a first destination; they don’t go to those brands to shop to shop . . . That means that we have an incredible opportunity then to deliver exactly what that customer wants at the beginning of the journey, which is very rare in e-commerce, to be that first point of destination.”

Naturally, Griffith asked how the virus has impacted StockX’s bottom line. Cutler said it’s been “great for our business and growth.”

“The recent events over the last couple of months has been a benefit to our business. We’ve had more and more traffic and buyers coming to our site because in some respects, traditional retail in some geographies is not available. We thought we’ve always been a marketplace of scarcity, but now you can’t actually go into a real retail location, so you’re coming to StockX. So on the one hand, it’s been great for our for our business and for our growth.”

Cutler also acknowledged that to accommodate that growth, StockX needs people in the warehouses where sellers send goods so that StockX can authenticate them before shipping out to buyers. He said that StockX has “people in those centers that are coming to work right now, even in places like New Jersey that are certainly impacted.” He called it a “balancing” act of trying to ensure its team members feel “safe” while continuing to operate its business at scale around the world.

As for how, exactly, StockX is ensuring these employees are safe, he said that StockX is “operating under all of the local rules and regulations that we have in all the different places where we operate.” As an added sweetener, he said the company recently gave a “spot bonus” and increased the salaries of employees at its authentication centers by 25%.

And what happens if the warehouses are ordered to shut down or employees begin showing up with the virus? Griffith asked what StockX’s backup plan entailed.

Here, Cutler noted the company’s multiple authentication centers, saying that “in the event that we have to reroute traffic from one authentication center to the other, we will do that. We’ve been operating that way.” (He also said that business continuity planning is currently a “stand-up every single day [wherein] we go through site safety and security and any incidents that come up and we’re making decisions as a team every day on some of that routing logic.”)

Not last, Griffith wondered what kinds of conversations StockX’s venture investors are having with the company given everyone’s focus right now on belt-tightening. ((StockX is backed by DST Global, General Atlantic, GGV Capital Battery Ventures, and GV, among others.)

Cutler acknowledged that the “future, in some respects, is uncertain for many of us, in that you don’t know how long this is going to last.” He said that as the company looks to the future, it’s trying to factor in “different scenarios of macro shifts in demand, macro shifts in the supply chains that we think are going to be actually quite short-lived.” He said that in China, for example, where many supply chain factories went down this winter, many are back up to 80% or 90% of their previous capacity, adding that “depedinng on how this plays out here in the U.S. and in Europe, it could either be a very quick recovery —  or we have to be prepared for scenario where this could be extended for some time.”

Asked if StockX is recession-proof should the downturn last (Griffith noted that some of the pricier sneakers on the platform are “selling for thousands of dollars”), Cutler suggested that he hopes so for the sake of the businesses run off its platform. 

Said Cutler, “For a lot of our sellers, you have to appreciate that our they depend on StockX for their livelihood. They actually may be running a very sophisticated business that is selling sometimes thousands of pairs of sneakers every single day to [maybe] a student who’s using StockX to fund their education. So it’s it is really important that we remain up and operational because we’re providing a livelihood for those for those individuals.”

Cutler then compared StockX to the public equities markets, insisting that they aren’t so different and that, to his mind, StockX might even be the safer bet right now.

“We actually have buyers who see this time as a market opportunity and see the price of a rare Jordan 1 [shoe] that’s maybe coming down, and they say, ‘Hey, this is short lived,’ much like somebody may say, ‘Hey, the market is off a little.’

“They’re putting their money in sneakers,” Cutler continued, adding: “My portfolio right now in sneakers is still up on the year. That’s more than I can say about the S&P.”

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John Borthwick & Matt Hartman of betaworks discuss coronavirus adaptation strategies

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hopping on Zoom with betaworks’ John Borthwick and Matt Hartman to discuss the tech world’s adaptation to this new locked-down world, the future of new media and answer questions from the audience.

We discussed whether new media companies can raise capital right now, and touched on emerging trends around audio, voice, AR, live events, travel-related companies and many other topics.

It was a delight, and I’m excited to do more of these in the future.

For those of you who missed the Zoom, here’s a rundown of what we discussed (audio embed below).

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Rocket startup Skyrora shifts production to hand sanitizer and face masks for coronavirus response

One of the newer companies attempting to join the rarified group of private space launch startups actually flying payloads to orbit has redirected its entire UK-based manufacturing capacity towards COVID-19 response. Skyrora, which is based in Edinburgh, Scotland, is answering the call of the UK government and the NHS to manufacturers to do what they can to provide much-needed healthcare equipment for frontline responders amid the coronavirus crisis.

Skyrorary says that the entirety of its UK operations, including all human resources and its working capital are now dedicated to COVID-19 response. The startup, which was founded in 2017, had been working towards test flights of its first spacecraft, making progress including an early successful engine test using its experimental, more eco-friendly rocket fuel that was completed in February.

For now, though, Skyrora will be focusing full on building hand sanitizer, its first effort to support the COVID-19 response. The company has already produce their initial batch using WHO guidelines and requirements, and now aims to scale up its production efforts to the point where it can manufacture the sanitizer at a rate of over 10,000 250 ml bottles per week.

There’s actually a pretty close link between rocketry and hand sanitizer: Ethanol, the form of alcohol that provides the fundamental disinfecting ingredient for hand sanitizer, has been used in  early rocket fuel. Skyrora’s ‘Ecosene’ fuel is a type of kerosene, however, which is a much more common modern aviation and rocket fuel.

In addition to sanitizer, Skyrora is now in talks with the Scottish Government to see where 3D-printed protective face masks might have a beneficial impact on ensuring health worker safety. It’s testing initial prototypes now, and will look to mass produce the protective equipment after those tests verify its output.

Plenty of companies are pitching in where they can, including by shifting their production lines and manufacturing capacity towards areas of greatest need. It’s definitely an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ moment, but there’s definitely a question of what happens to businesses that shift their focus this dramatically once the emergency passes, especially for young startups in emerging industries.

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Duke University uses vaporized hydrogen peroxide to clean N95 face masks for reuse

With shortages of N95 face masks persisting nationwide, healthcare facilities are scrambling to find ways to clean and treat the masks for reuse to protect doctors and nurses most at risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Duke University thinks it has found a solution using vaporized hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate the masks.

The process uses specialized equipment to vaporize hydrogen peroxide, which can then infuse all the layers of the mask to kill germs (including viruses) without degrading mask material.

“This is a decontamination technology and method we’ve used for years in our biocontainment laboratory,” said Scott Alderman, associate director of the Duke Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, in a statement.

The University said it has proven effective and will begin using the technology at all three of its hospitals, according to Matthew Stiegel, the director of the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office at Duke.

Ideally, the hospitals would be able to use fresh masks and not need to try to decontaminate their masks, but these are not ideal times.

Duke’s decision to use hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 masks is based on published studies conducted in 2016, but the practice wasn’t widespread, because the industry wasn’t facing shortages. Those earlier studies also didn’t include fit-testing — or the resizing of masks for individual wearers — after cleaning. Duke has now done that efficacy testing in the real world, the university said.

“The ability to reuse the crucial N95 masks will boost the hospitals’ ability to protect frontline health care workers during this time of critical shortages of N95 masks,” said Cameron Wolfe, M.D., associate professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist.

Monte Brown, M.D., vice president at Duke University Health System, said the Duke team is working to spread the word about the technique, making the protocols widely available. He said several health systems and many pharmaceutical companies already have the needed equipment, which is currently used in different ways, and could ramp up operations to come to the aid of their local hospitals.

“We could stand up in front of our staff and state with confidence that we are using a proven decontamination method,” Brown said. “It has been a proven method for years. While this alone will not solve the problem, if we and others can reuse masks even once or twice, that would be a huge benefit given the current shortages.”

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Attract, engage and retain employees in the new remote-work era

When looking for answers, where do people first turn? For many, it’s Google.

During the first half of March, we saw Google searches for “work from home” reach a 12-month high, garnering at least 50% more search interest than the anticipated peak, which usually occurs within the first week of January. This number will continue to grow as outside circumstances evolve.

This search behavior reflects the world around us. Today, employees and employers alike are grappling with the new norm — at least for the short-term — which is working remotely. While having a remote-ready model in place was once viewed as a competitive advantage to attract talent, it’s now a must-have to keep organizations afloat.

With vacant positions costing organizations around $680 daily, the impact that interrupted recruiting efforts can have on a business’ bottom line is jarring. As such, HR professionals were early adopters of successful remote communication practices, learning lessons that can be applied across the business to successfully make personal connections without being in-person. Employers are doing all they can to address their existing employee base at this critical time, while also working hard to maintain their hiring efforts.

Having the right technology in place to sustain work-from-home practices is more important now than ever before. There are four steps that employers can take to successfully integrate and adapt successful virtual hiring technologies into their business continuity plans, considering all outside circumstances, and without sacrificing their productivity and unique company culture.

Prepare and plan. Employers have an obligation to provide their people with clear direction in times of disruption.

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Trump orders GM to start ventilator production for COVID-19 amid contract dispute

President Donald Trump signed Friday a presidential directive ordering GM to produce ventilators and to prioritize federal contracts, just hours after the automaker announced plans to manufacture the critical medical equipment needed for patients suffering from COVID-19, disease caused by coronavirus.

The order, made under the Defense Production Act, marks a sudden reversal by Trump, who has touted the efforts by GM and other manufacturers to try and ramp up production of ventilators and and personal protective gear that is in short supply as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. The order came amid a dispute with GM over a contract to build the ventilators.

“Our negotiations with GM regarding its ability to supply ventilators have been productive, but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course. GM was wasting time. Today’s action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives,” Trump said in a statement.

Earlier Friday, GM said it would start producing Ventec Life Systems ventilators even as a purchase order with the federal government remained in limbo. The companies said Friday that the ventilators will be produced at GM’s engine plant in Kokomo, Indiana, using about 1,000 workers.

The GM and Ventec announcement followed sharp criticism by Trump via several tweets that  blasted GM and its CEO and Chairman Mary Barra via Twitter, accusing the company of falling short of its promised capacity and asking for “top dollar,” a term that seems to imply the automaker was trying to profit off of the contract.

GM, which is a contract supplier for Ventec, has said it is “donating its resources at cost,” a term that means it will not profit off of any sales of the masks and ventilators it produces. Whether the federal government would sign a purchase order with the companies has been a lingering question that looked less certain as talks unfolded, according to sources.

Efforts to set up tooling and manufacturing capacity at the factory are already underway to produce Ventec’s critical care ventilator, VOCSN, according to GM. The automaker said production will begin in the next seven to 14 days with the first shipments of the FDA-cleared ventilators scheduled to begin in April. Ventec is also trying to ramp up production at its manufacturing facility in Bothell, Washington.

Separately, GM also said it will start next week producing Level 1 surgical masks at its Warren, Michigan manufacturing facility. The automaker expect to ramp up mask production capacity to 50,000 masks per day within the next two weeks with the potential to increase to 100,000 per day.

Trump’s tweets came after the New York Times reported that U.S. government officials cancelled a planned announcement outlining the GM and Ventec deal to produce as many as 80,000 ventilators for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The announcement, which was supposed to happen Wednesday, was cancelled after FEMA balked at the more than $1 billion price tag.

TechCrunch has independently confirmed that the federal government cancelled the announcement because of reservations over the cost. FEMA and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro had balked at the cost, according to a source at GM.

Trump’s tweets attacking Barra and GM — as well as calling for the automaker to start production at an Ohio factory that the automaker no longer owns — lies in stark contrast from public comments the president made earlier in the week when he touted efforts by companies to mobilize their resources to help alleviate a shortage of medical supplies such as face masks and ventilators.

Trump has repeatedly said he does not need to use the Defense Production Act to compel companies to help in the effort to manufacture needed supplies. But that changed Friday when he said he would use it because of the GM ventilator purchase order.

The cost of ventilators

As COVID-19 spread and health and government officials grew increasingly concerned about a shortage of ventilators and personal protective equipment, a number of manufacturers announced plans to ramp up production capacity or donate any existing supplies. GM was among that group.

On March 20, GM and Ventec announced plans to work to increase production of respiratory care products, a partnership that grew out of  StopTheSpread.org, a coordinated effort of private companies to respond to COVID-19.

Before that announcement was made, GM investigated the feasibility of sourcing the more than 700 components needed to build up to 200,000 of Ventec’s critical care ventilators called VOCSN. Ventec describes these VOCSN devices as multi-function ventilators that were cleared in 2017 by the FDA.

GM identified the Indiana plant as the likely location and determined it would need to build a new clean room within the factory that was large enough to produce the ventilators, according to the source. GM estimated it would cost about $750 million, a price that included retrofitting a portion of the engine plant, purchasing materials to make the ventilators and paying the 1,000 workers needed to scale up production, the source said.

GM estimated that it could ramp up production in time to deliver ventilators by mid-April, a time when states are expected to be dealing with a surge of COVID-19 cases. The companies said they are poised to deliver the first ventilators next month and ramp up to a capacity of more than 10,000 critical care ventilators per month with the infrastructure and capability to scale further.

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We’ve come full rectangle: Polaroid is reborn out of The Impossible Project

More than a decade after announcing that it would keep Polaroid’s abandoned instant film alive, The Impossible Project has done the… improbable: It has officially become the brand it set out to save. And to commemorate the occasion there’s a new camera, the Polaroid Now.

The convergence of the two brands has been in the works for years, and in fact Impossible Project products were already Polaroid-branded. But this marks a final and satisfying shift in one of the stranger relationships in startups or photography.

I first wrote about The Impossible Project in early 2009 (and apparently thought it was a good idea to Photoshop a Bionic Commando screenshot as the lead image) when the company announced its acquisition of some Polaroid instant film manufacturing assets.

Polaroid at the time was little more than a shell. Having declined since the ’80s and more or less shuttered in 2001, the company was relaunched as a digital brand and film sales were phased out. This was unsuccessful, and in 2008 Polaroid was filing for bankruptcy again.

This time, however, it was getting rid of its film production factories, and a handful of Dutch entrepreneurs and Polaroid experts took over the lease as The Impossible Project. But although the machinery was there, the patents and other IP for the famed Polaroid instant film were not. So they basically had to reinvent the process from scratch — and the early results were pretty rough.

But they persevered, aided by a passionate community of Polaroid owners, continuously augmented by the film-curious who want something more than a Fujifilm Instax but less than a 35mm SLR. In time the process matured and Impossible developed new films and distribution partners, growing more successful even as Polaroid continued applying its brand to random, never particularly good photography-adjacent products. They even hired Lady Gaga as “Creative Director,” but the devices she hyped at CES never really materialized.

Gaga was extremely late to the announcement, but seeing the GL30 prototype was worth it.

In 2017, the student became the master as Impossible’s CEO purchased the Polaroid brand name and IP. They relaunched Impossible as “Polaroid Originals” and released the OneStep 2 camera using a new “i-Type” film process that more closely resembled old Polaroids (while avoiding the expensive cartridge battery).

Polaroid continued releasing new products in the meantime — presumably projects that were under contract or in development under the brand before its acquisition. While the quality has increased from the early days of rebranded point-and-shoots, none of the products has ever really caught on, and digital instant printing (Polaroid’s last redoubt) has been eclipsed by a wave of nostalgia for real film, Instax Mini in particular.

But at last the merger dance is complete and Polaroid, Polaroid Originals, and The Impossible Project are finally one and the same. All devices and film will be released under the Polaroid name, though there may be new sub-brands like i-Type and the new Polaroid Now camera.

Speaking of which, the Now is not a complete reinvention of the camera by far — it’s a “friendlier” redesign that takes after the popular OneStep but adds improved autofocus, a flash-adjusting light sensor, better battery, and a few other nips and tucks. At $100 it’s not too hard on the wallet, but remember that film is going to run you about $2 per shot. That’s how they get you.

It’s been a long, strange trip to watch but ultimately a satisfying one: Impossible made a bet on the fundamental value of instant film photography, while a series of owners bet on the Polaroid brand name to sell anything they put it on. The riskier long-term play won out in the end (though many got rich running Polaroid into the ground over and over) and now with a little luck the brand that started it all will continue its success.

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