Articles on this Page
- 10/24/18--09:25: _In first-time rulin...
- 10/24/18--09:30: _Why this startup ch...
- 10/24/18--10:35: _Catholic Pokémon Go...
- 10/24/18--10:40: _Tesla reports stabi...
- 10/25/18--04:30: _How Apple and the F...
- 10/25/18--04:30: _When does a Super B...
- 10/25/18--04:35: _IBM explores the in...
- 10/25/18--04:45: _9.4 million may hav...
- 10/25/18--05:00: _This is how you dea...
- 10/25/18--05:00: _How to attract youn...
- 10/25/18--05:00: _Gaudí’s Sagra...
- 10/25/18--05:30: _Watch Chip Bergh an...
- 10/25/18--05:30: _The best companies ...
- 10/25/18--06:00: _These cancer resear...
- 10/25/18--06:15: _Tazo tea taps drag ...
- 10/25/18--06:45: _In a Brexit-Trump w...
- 10/25/18--06:53: _How does the Post O...
- 10/25/18--07:00: _UPS is experimentin...
- 10/25/18--07:01: _Think twice before ...
- 10/25/18--07:05: _New tech tools aim ...
- 10/24/18--10:35: Catholic Pokémon Go-style game features Moses instead of Mewtwo
- 10/24/18--10:40: Tesla reports stability and profit after too much Musk drama
- Tesla reported a profit of $312 million in the quarter. That’s compared with a loss of $619 million in the same quarter a year earlier. It was only the third quarterly profit Tesla has reported in over eight years as a public company, and the largest by far.
- Adjusted earnings were $2.90 per share versus analysts’ expectations of -$0.15.
- Revenues were $6.8 billion, more than doubling the company’s revenues from the same quarter last year. Analysts had expected revenues of only $6.3 billion.
- The company reported free cash flow of $881 million.
- The company said it produced 4,300 Model 3s per week on average during the quarter.
- Tesla’s stock shot up as much as 12% in after-hours trading.
- 10/25/18--04:30: When does a Super Bowl commercial become a political act?
- 10/25/18--04:35: IBM explores the intersection of AI, ethics–and Pac-Man
- 10/25/18--04:45: 9.4 million may have been hit in Cathay Pacific data breach
- 10/25/18--05:00: This is how you deal with that coworker who drives you crazy
- 5 times you end up being that super annoying coworker (without meaning to)
- This one simple change will make dealing with an intolerable coworker tolerable
- 3 things you need to remember when your coworkers are driving you insane
- 10/25/18--05:00: How to attract young customers, according to Barneys and Live Nation
- 10/25/18--05:00: Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia is at the center of a fiery political battle
- 10/25/18--05:30: The best companies are communities, say Brandless and Lippincott
- 10/25/18--06:15: Tazo tea taps drag queen Alyssa Edwards as its first camp counselor
- 10/25/18--06:45: In a Brexit-Trump world, Tracey Ullman gets more topical than ever
- 10/25/18--07:00: UPS is experimenting with delivering packages by e-bike
- 10/25/18--07:01: Think twice before pitching VC Arlan Hamilton your cannabis company
- 10/25/18--07:05: New tech tools aim to fight India’s alarming breast cancer scourge
Apple and Samsung have each been hit with multimillion-euro fines over the “planned obsolescence” of some of their phones.
In a first-of-its-kind ruling, antitrust regulators in Italy said the companies encouraged users to install operating system updates that slowed down older phones, effectively encouraging them to buy newer models.
Samsung was fined €5 million for encouraging Galaxy Note 4 users to install a new version of Android that slowed down their phones. The company plans to appeal, Reuters reports.
The company’s smartphone software updates have not previously been questioned, according to the Guardian. “Samsung did not issue any software update that reduced the Galaxy Note 4’s performance,” the company said in a statement. “In contrast, Samsung has always released software updates enabling our customers to have the best experience possible.”
Apple was similarly fined for encouraging iPhone 6 users to install a newer version of iOS. The smartphone giant was fined an additional €5 million for failing to provide “essential” information about the phones’ lithium batteries, including how long they typically last, and how to maintain and replace them. Apple didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry from Fast Company.
The company has acknowledged that it slowed down phones with older batteries so they wouldn’t suddenly turn off, though it’s since apologized and cut the cost of replacing the batteries. It’s also allowed users to turn off the reduced speed and see more information in iOS about battery status.
The Italian fair trade regulators, who began their investigation in January, said that both companies “will also have to publish an amending declaration on the Italian page of their website informing them of the Authority’s decision with the link to the assessment order.”
A similar investigation is still ongoing in France, where it’s illegal to shorten a product’s life span to boost sales, the Guardian reports. Apple has also faced questions from the U.S. senate over the issue, as well as more than 60 separate lawsuits, which have been ordered to be consolidated into a single suit in the Northern District of California.
The EU and its constituent countries haven’t been shy about doling out large fines to foreign tech companies over antitrust and privacy issues. Google was fined nearly $5 billion in July by the European Commission over reportedly bundling Google search and Chrome with Android and paying other phone makers to include Google search as a default option. It’s reportedly appealing the fine. The company previously appealed a €2.4 billion fine from the same regulator over prioritizing its price comparison engine in search results matching products for sale.
Phone chip maker Qualcomm was also fined $1.2 billion in January over allegations it offered Apple incentives not to buy from competitors and also announced plans to appeal. And Facebook said last year it would not appeal a roughly $122 million fine after the European Commission said it misled the body on whether it would link Facebook and WhatsApp account data when seeking approval to buy the messaging service.
The gig economy has a dark side. Sure, you can be your own boss! Make your hours! Work from home! It’s all great until you, say, break your arm and don’t have healthcare to get it fixed. But healthcare is a tricky proposition for gig economy companies because, after all, it costs employers a lot of money.
Maella Gavet, who is chief operating officer at the real estate brokerage platform, Compass, has 7,000 agents who are part of the service as independent contractors. She likens her company to the Airbnb or Lyft of real estate. But this week, on stage at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, she detailed a major new initiative for Compass. It will provide healthcare with Cigna to all of its contractor agents across 13 states.
“When you’re an independent contractor in the U.S., it touches many industries, life is hard. It’s hard for you to get any financing from your bank. They’re asking for documents and guarantees you can’t offer,” she said on stage. “We’ve been told this story in the media that it’s amazing to have this new gig economy. I think we need to remember that the gig economy creates a segment of the population that’s not supported by the same network and services that traditional workers have.”
Gavet went on to explain that Compass heard from its contractors that this lack of support was catching up with them personally. For Compass, there was a moral imperative to consider with healthcare. Gavet, being French, comes from a country where universal healthcare is a standard, so it’s hard for her to fathom that some people can’t afford it. But even more so, she learned that providing healthcare was mandatory for the health of her own business.
Across the real estate industry, it’s estimated that 14% of agents don’t have health insurance, and 57% of agents believe they pay too much for it. Compass in particular earns revenue by collecting a percentage of what each of their agents make, so the company needs these individuals performing at a high level.
“We heard from our partners, it’s hard to focus on your business when you have to worry about healthcare . . . and if you’re be covered if you had cancer,” she says. “If you want to help your partners to grow their business, you need to provide them with an environment to really allow them to focus on their business.”
With the new healthcare initiative, Compass estimates that its average contractor will save 63% on healthcare for their businesses and families. “If we want them to grow their business, they need to focus on their business,” says Gavet. “And healthcare is a major [issue] for any human being, and we needed to address that.”
A new augmented reality smartphone game blends the gameplay of Pokémon Go with lessons on Catholic dogma.
Follow JC Go! enables young players to travel real-world streets hunting not for catchable monsters but for Catholic saints and biblical figures. Available for iOS and Android, it also encourages players to pray when they pass by locations like churches and hospitals, reports the Catholic news site Crux.
The game, developed by the Florida-based Catholic evangelical group Fundación Ramón Pané at a reported cost of $500,000, is currently only available in Spanish, but the organization plans to release it in English, Italian, and Portuguese soon.
It’s also reportedly been given a nod of approval from Pope Francis, who sees it as a way to reach younger generations. The game was released as part of preparations for World Youth Day, a Catholic youth event set to be held in January in Panama.
Instead of the Pokémon fighting and capturing elements found in the game, players can answer Biblical quiz questions to recruit the religious figures they encounter. The game also features virtual billboards playing messages about the Bible, Crux reports.
The app is far from the first to blend popular video game styles with religious messaging. Christian games, while always a bit of a niche product, have existed since the early days of PC and console gaming.
Tesla managed to turn a profit in the September-ending quarter after shipping 56,000 of its Model 3 sedan during the period. This, of course, followed a long saga of CEO Elon Musk threatening to take the company private, then being investigated for talking about it by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Some good news about Tesla’s actual business was welcomed by the company’s fans.
— CNBC Now (@CNBCnow) October 24, 2018
The earnings come on the same day that Consumer Reports dropped the reliability score of Tesla’s Model S to “below average” from “above average.” CR’s readers had complained about the car’s air suspension, and reported troubles with the door handles that extend from the body of the car when the driver approaches. Consequently, the magazine no longer considers the Model S a “Recommended Buy.” Tesla dropped six places from last year and now ranks 27th in CR’s rankings.
Ford Foundation president Darren Walker believes the philanthropy sector is suffering “tremendous harm” by relying too much on concrete metrics as a way to measure success. It’s an unorthodox view, but it’s shared by what might seem like a surprising corporate ally: tech titan Apple.
“Some of the most important things in life cannot be measured,” Walker said during a moderated talk alongside Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. “I saw a major philanthropist’s website, a new multibillion-dollar foundation. And the headline said, ‘If it can’t be measured, we don’t fund it.’ And I thought, What a shame,” he told the crowd.
Nonprofits in many cause areas typically provide donors with bang-for-your-buck statistics about how their money gets spent to build trust or loyalty. People with money to give away have many options, the theory goes, so it’s important to show them how it will be well spent. But both Walker and Jackson said that some types of socially good impacts are less quantifiable than, say, the number of seeds planted to grow food, or vaccines delivered to help people. These often deal with fundamental values crucial to democracy and demand continued attention–because while victories can build on each other, they can also unexpectedly regress.
In fact, some investments might look like long shots, but that doesn’t mean those interested in change should stop taking risks. “We would never have invested, starting in 1952, in the movement for democracy in South Africa, if we had to have a randomized controlled trial to determine whether or not that wasn’t investible proposition,” Walker said. The same goes for the funding for a Sally Hemings history project 25 years ago at Monticello, which included recognizing that Thomas Jefferson had fathered her children. “How do we measure Sally getting her dignity back?” he added, inspiring a huge round of big applause.
Neither Walker nor Jackson disputes the need for smart accounting to maximize science-driven breakthroughs or humanitarian aid. “But we have to be unapologetic that there are things that matter in our society, in a civilization that can not be articulated on an Excel spreadsheet, and so I feel firmly about that,” he added, pointing out that Henry Ford probably wouldn’t have ever envisioned a gay black man leading his philanthropy, either.
Apple is known for running on 100% renewable energy (and has committed to adding 4 gigawatts back to the grid by 2020). It’s also the largest corporate donor to Product Red, which aims to eradicate AIDS by 2030 through largely medical interventions. But Jackson pointed out that that company has also given heavily to the Malala Fund, which is working to ensure that every girl around the world has access to 12 years of free quality education. Rather than earmark its donations for things like programs versus overhead, the company wants the group to decide how that money might be best spent. “We’re not going girl by girl to say, ‘Okay, did you get [the right amount of education] today?'” Jackson said. The majority of it was general support because that organization, if it’s going to reach the potential that it should, needs time to grow, to plan, to set its objectives.”
Walker noted that such gifts help organizations grow in a healthy way to continue their missions after their founders (like Henry Ford) depart. While some in the sector are beginning for favor a spend-down approach to giving, committing huge sums against issues now as opposed to in perpetuity, Walker points out that some key issues never stop needing protection. Nearly a half-century ago, for instance, the funder supported nonprofits battling voter suppression in Southern states. It’s now doing so again as midterms approach.
Instead of an itemized receipt, such moves inspire hope. “There is no greater threat to a democracy than a hopeless citizenry, because they will do desperate things,” Walker said.
Taking a stand on a social or political issue isn’t anything new in advertising, and the biggest American ad show of them all—the Superbowl—is no exception. In 2017, we saw Audi take on gender pay inequality, Airbnb celebrate cultural diversity, and 84 Lumber condemn the border wall. Last week, Amy Schumer–who starred in a 2016 Bud Light Super Bowl campaign with Seth Rogen–announced on Instagram that she wouldn’t appear in any Super Bowl ads in response to how the NFL has handled the players’ kneeling protests.
“I personally told my reps I wouldn’t do a Super Bowl commercial this year,” she wrote. “I know it must sound like a privilege ass sacrifice but it’s all I got. Hitting the NFL with the advertisers is the only way to really hurt them.”
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Friday thought. I wonder why more white players aren’t kneeling. Once you witness the truly deep inequality and endless racism people of color face in our country, not to mention the police brutality and murders. Why not kneel next to your brothers? Otherwise how are you not complicit? I think it would be cool if @maroon5 backed out of super bowl like @badgalriri Did. I personally told my reps I wouldn’t do a Super Bowl commercial this year. I know it must sound like a privilege ass sacrifice but it’s all i got. Hitting the nfl with the advertisers is the only way to really hurt them. I know opposing the nfl is like opposing the nra. Very tough, but don’t you want to be proud of how you’re living? Stand up for your brothers and sisters of color. And the hottest thing a guy can do is get down on one knee. Not to propose but to reject the treatment of his teammates by this country. Anyone who says its disrespectful to our military please read up on the fact that a lot of veterans are proud of what @kaepernick7 is doing and fully support him. What are your thoughts?
Schumer’s decision follows reports that Rihanna turned down an offer to perform during the Super Bowl halftime show (a slot since filled by Maroon 5) as a show of support for Colin Kaepernick. Are brands next? Former Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall, now cofounder and chief executive of the consultancy TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, told the Wall Street Journal that “all endorsement is support for the NFL and the cultural role the Super Bowl plays in society. It used to be proudly middle America. Now it has a divided narrative.”
In the same article, University of Pennsylvania political science prof Diana Mutz asked, “Will anyone remember who did not appear in Super Bowl ads? Or does the attention and influence necessarily fall to those who do? My guess is the latter.”
If last year is any indication, brands will shy away from overt political statements and treat the game as just that: a game. A time for lighthearted fun. And those who do say something know it’s possible to do so without sitting out the event altogether. Nike is an official supplier of the NFL, and yet there’s no confusion as to where the brand stands on the Colin Kaepernick issue.
Beyoncé used her now legendary halftime performance of “Formation” in 2016 to pay tribute to Black Lives Matter. So while appearing on the Super Bowl stage may imply endorsement of the NFL, perhaps more important is how that time is used.
Since his 1980 debut in arcades, the world has considered Pac-Man to be a good guy—maybe even a hero. But did you ever stop to consider the possibility that his habit of chomping on cute little ghosts might be offensive rather than admirable?
Me neither—until I talked to some IBM researchers who decided to look at the game that way as part of an experiment in artificial intelligence and ethics with implications that might go way beyond bending how we look at an old video game. IBM discussed this work during a Fast Company Innovation Festival Fast Track session today at its Astor Place office in New York City.
IBM uses the term Trusted AI to cover ethical issues relating to the technology as well as matters of security and general robustness, which will be increasingly vital as we ask software to make decisions with potentially profound impact on human beings. As it builds AI systems, IBM is investigating questions of how to “teach our ethical norms of behaviors and morality, but also how to teach them to be fair and to communicate and explain their decisions,” says IBM fellow Saska Mojsilovic.
Already, there are plenty of real-world examples of why these subjects are worth worrying about. Earlier this month, for instance, Reuters’ Jeffrey Dastin reported on an AI-infused recruiting system developed by Amazon. The company scrapped the tool after it saw that it was penalizing female candidates—for instance, actively downgrading job hunters with the word “women’s” in their résumés—in part because it had been trained using data from past Amazon hires that—typically for engineering positions—skewed heavily male.
Concerns over AI systems behaving inappropriately are only growing as more of them gain skills not by mimicking human experts but rather by testing billions of possibilities with blinding speed and devising their own logic to achieve a goal as efficiently as possible. One AI designed to play games such as Tetris, for instance, found that if it paused the game, it would never lose—so it would do just that, and consider its mission accomplished. You might accuse a human who adopted such a tactic of cheating. With AI, it’s simply an artifact of the reality that machines don’t think like people.
There’s still tremendous upside in letting AI software teach itself to solve problems. “It’s not about telling the machine what to do,” says research staff member Nicholas Mattei. “It’s about letting it figure out what to do, because you really want to get that creativity . . . [The AI] is going to try things that a person wouldn’t maybe think of.” But the less software thinks like a human, the harder it becomes to anticipate what might go wrong, which means that you can’t just program in a list of stuff you don’t want it to do. “There’s lots of rules that you might not think of until you see it happen the way you don’t want it,” says Mattei.
Related: Meet the AI that IBM Research is teaching to debate human beings
Ghost eater no more
As IBM’s researchers thought about the challenge of making software follow ethical guidelines, they decided to conduct an experiment on a basic level as a project for some summer interns. What if you tried to get AI to play Pac-Man without eating ghosts—not by declaring that to be the explicit goal, but by feeding it data from games played by humans who played with that strategy? That training would be part of a special sauce that also included the software’s unconstrained, self-taught game-play techniques, giving it a playing style influenced by both human and purely synthetic intelligence. Stepping through this exercise, IBM’s researchers figured, might provide insights that would prove useful in weightier applications of AI.
IBM chose Pac-Man as its tapestry for this experiment partly out of expedience. The University of California, Berkeley has created code for an instrumented version of Pac-Man designed for AI studies; the company was able to adapt this existing framework for its purposes. (Teaching AI to play Ms. Pac-Man is a separate science unto itself, and a more imposing challenge, given the game’s greater complexity.)
The researchers built a piece of software that could balance the AI’s ratio of self-devised, aggressive game play to human-influenced ghost avoidance, and tried different settings to see how they affected its overall approach to the game. By doing so, they found a tipping point—the setting at which Pac-Man went from seriously chowing down on ghosts to largely avoiding them. (For the purposes of the videos below, IBM avoided any possible infringement on Pac-Man’s intellectual property by ditching the familiar characters in favor of Halloween-themed doppelgangers.)
Here’s the AI playing with its aggressive point-scoring technique cranked up, so it eats ghosts at will:
Here it is with a blend of the aggressive and ghost-avoidance techniques:
And here it is with the ghost-avoidance technique ratcheted up:
As the AI played Pac-Man, the researchers saw it get smarter about switching off between the two game-playing techniques. When Pac-Man ate a power pellet—causing the ghosts to flee—it would play in ghost-avoidance mode rather than playing conventionally and trying to scarf them up. When the ghosts weren’t fleeing, it would segue into aggressive point-scoring mode (which also involved trying to avoid the ghosts, since touching one would cost Pac-Man a life).
In the end, the value of the project was the insight IBM gained about Pac-Man’s thinking process as he traveled the maze and made trade-offs between trying to score the maximum number of points and avoiding doing harm to the ghosts: “We opened up his brain a little bit,” says Mattei. The company is currently considering how to apply the lessons it learned to other games and broader AI experiments.
Wherever this particular research project leads, IBM has already begun taking steps to instill ethical behavior into shipping software, both with its own products and AI Fairness 360, an open-source tool kit it created for avoiding bias in AI-powered applications such as facial recognition and credit scoring. “We are not only being able to address these problems with research questions, but we are actually now moving them into real-world applications,” says Mojsilovic. “And that is really big.”
Cathay Pacific gave 9.4 million of its passengers a little souvenir to remember their trip on the airline—a data breach. The Hong Kong-based airline has admitted that the personal details of 9.4 million passengers were inappropriately accessed, including passport information and credit card numbers. The breach happened in March and confirmed by the company in early May, but in what is increasingly a tradition for hacked companies, it was only made public on Wednesday.
In addition to passports and credit card info, personal data including names, nationalities, birth dates, phone numbers, email addresses, physical addresses, identity card numbers, frequent flyer program membership numbers, customer service remarks, and historical travel information were all accessed, according to the airline’s advisory on the breach.
Cathay Pacific claims that no passwords were compromised and that there is no evidence that all of that personal data was exposed for every affected passenger. So far, the company says it does not believe the data has been misused. Although, if it was, they may not tell us for six more months. That said, delaying announcing the breach may get Cathay Pacific in trouble with the European government, as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules require companies to tell customers and law enforcement within three days of discovering a breach.
Those affected will be contacted with information on what types of personal data was exposed, Cathay Pacific says. If you haven’t been contacted but have flown with Cathay Pacific, you can contact them here.
There are the coworkers who are constantly interrupting you in meetings. There are the ones who don’t seem to pull their weight. And there are even the ones who blast their music or chew their gum at the loudest possible volume.
Whatever their annoying habits, these coworkers obviously aren’t all that self-aware. After all, if they knew how much of a nuisance they were, they might actually be embarrassed and put an end to their obnoxious behaviors.
Of course, you’re not one to be blunt in these scenarios. Speaking up to a coworker who’s annoying or disruptive isn’t just a courageous act–it’s a risk in itself. It can either go over well or backfire on you, or–in the case of someone who’s not in tune with themselves–your feedback just doesn’t stick.
So how can you ensure your comment both resonates and is received positively by a not-so-self-aware colleague? Here are four rules to follow.
1. You have to be super clear
Since this person is already way behind you in terms of awareness, you have to work extra hard to explain clearly what they’re doing.
Look, this isn’t always easy. But tiptoeing around the real problem only means that the person on the receiving end is either confused, misinformed, or insulted.
So, before you chat with them, get really clear on what exactly they’re doing that’s driving you nuts. Is it what they’re saying or how they’re saying it? Is it something they always do–or only in certain situations? And, is it a habit that they can correct, or is it something that’s out of their hands?
2. You have to give context
Part of how humans best process information is context.
Context makes things easier to remember. Can you remember what you wore last Thursday? Probably not. But if I asked you what you wore last Thursday when you were at a bar with your friends playing pool, you could probably easily recall what your outfit looked like.
Also, context helps explain the “why.” When you tell someone why what they’re doing is bothering you, distracting you, or insulting you, it carries more weight. Sure, you can tell someone to stop talking so loudly around your desk. But, if you tell them that their volume is preventing you from finishing that important report due tomorrow, they may have more empathy and actually turn it down a notch.
Give the person something to work with when delivering whatever feedback you have. When and where were they doing said habit? What was going on at the time? Why did it affect you in this specific way?
3. You have to do it nicely
One, because this person really isn’t meaning to do what they’re doing. As author Julia Chang of LearnVest states, “Most people want to vilify low-EQ coworkers, but don’t fault them for skills they don’t have.”
Be the bigger person and assume that your coworker is truly well intentioned and not deliberately trying to drive you up a wall.
Two, because niceness always pays off in the end. You know how I said earlier that addressing a not-so-self-aware co-worker can backfire? That’s a lot more likely to happen if you do it in a condescending or rude way.
Let’s put these first three points together. For example, let’s say your coworker is a bit too chatty at the desks. You might approach it in the following way:
Hey David! I was wondering if I could talk to you for a second. While I love chatting with you at our desks–I could literally spend hours talking about dog tweets like we did yesterday–I’ve been really struggling to finish this article that’s due Friday. I personally have a hard time not getting distracted by what everyone’s talking about around me, so I need to call in a small favor: Whenever you want to chat with our team about non-work stuff, could you move to the kitchen or Slack, or pop by toward the end of the day?
4. You have to recognize their efforts and hold them accountable
It’s possible the first time you say something it still won’t resonate. If that’s the case, a simple poke reminding them of your talk can work wonders:
“Just wanted to remind you that I’d appreciate it if you could keep the talking to a minimum at the desks!”
“Thanks again for listening to my concerns about being interrupted in last week’s meeting. I think your idea was great and I hope we can both throw ideas out there without having to talk over each other!”
But if they’ve already made moves to improve, don’t forget to acknowledge that. Change doesn’t happen overnight–if that chronic interrupter only jumped in once or twice in your latest meeting as opposed to every time, that’s a step in the right direction. Recognize that their effort makes a huge difference for you and isn’t going unnoticed. Doing so strengthens your work relationship and encourages them to keep doing better.
My final piece of advice is, if this person just isn’t budging, you may want to bring in another player–your boss or HR, for example. Because it’s entirely possible to have a coworker who’s both oblivious and self-centered, having that extra backing gives you more authority to shut the person down. And I highly recommend checking out this article to help you approach a conversation with someone higher up.
More from The Muse:
Millennials have been accused of killing everything from marriage to doorbells, napkins, breakfast cereal, and–gasp!—American cheese. Some brands are starting to fight back, though. They have realized that business as usual won’t fly anymore, and are shaking up their business models to compete in this brave new world—and a few are really, really good at it.
“Experience today is a younger generation’s currency”
Russell Wallach, president of Live Nation media and sponsorship, and Daniella Vitale, the CEO of Barneys New York, sat down at the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week to talk about their success in wooing young customers. Vitale reports that Barneys had a little soul searching to do in their pursuit of younger customers. They ended up ending their long-running Artisan Day program, and with a nod to the “drop” release method of streetwear brands that has hype beasts lining up in front of Supreme stores, they launched “The Drop.” It’s an experiential program and party where brands are launched, designers like Off-White’s Virgil Abloh and Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo mingled with fans, tattoos and piercings were on offer, and there were parties and panel discussions. It was very Instagram-friendly, which is just what they wanted. “Who better to tell your story than your fans or customers?” noted Vitale.
It was a bold move for the company, but they knew they needed to do something different to appeal to younger shoppers. “We wanted to experiment,” said Vitale. “We were willing to forfeit profitability and sales for an incredible experience. Experience today is a younger generation’s currency.” The risk paid off. Vitale said that they have seen a huge return on their investment, not only in retaining customers, but converting visitors to The Drop to valuable repeat customers, too.
While the retail-pocalypse continues, according to Vitale, Barneys is adamantly in the brick-and-mortar business, which was cemented by the success of The Drop. “You cannot do The Drop online. There are certain things you can’t do online that you can at the physical store,” she said. The Drop was so successful that Barneys took the concept to their Los Angeles outpost, too. “It shows that Barneys is not just a store, but a venue for creativity, for live music, for a discussion like this,” said Vitale. “People really want to experience something authentic.”
“Our fans are the biggest marketers of our products”
Live Nation is, of course, in the experience business. Their live shows, festivals, and music-based experiences are designed to appeal to fans willing to pony up for experiences, and for the chance to share those experiences with their friends and on social media. “Music fans are micro-influencers,” noted Wallach. “Our fans are the biggest marketers of our products.”
Wallach also noted that concerts and festivals are evolving “beyond just the music to include food and fashion podcasts” and are “one of the best places for brands to play, because it’s a captive audience.” They are working with companies to “weave brands into those experiences in an authentic way,” creating memorable immersive experiences that will appeal to customers. One notable example was setting up an LG laundry station at Bonnaroo where “you can have a cocktail while your laundry is being done for you.” “People walked away loving it,” said Wallach, and of course they were snapping photos of people in their robes at a music festival, sharing it on social media, and helping to build the brand. It was a wacky idea that paid off, which is exactly what was intended. “Brands need to invest in new ideas and brands need to invest in culture,” said Wallach. “It’s a long-term investment.”
Both brands are already looking ahead to the next generation of consumers, too. “Music transcends age,” said Wallach, urging the audience to “take your kids to concerts, please!” to ensure that music fandom starts young and never ends. As for Barneys, they learned their lessons. “Retail suffered for a number of years because we did not think about the younger audience fast enough. We focused on customers that were a little older, and we got in trouble for not recognizing that audience quickly enough,” said Vitale. “Now, we’ll be ready for what’s next.”
Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí spent the last years of his life dedicated to the construction of La Sagrada Familia, the iconic Catholic temple and the best-known symbol of Barcelona. Today, it’s at the center of a political battle that pits the church against Mayor Ada Colau.
Gaudí–who took over the project a year after architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano started it in 1882–only completed less than a quarter of the project when he died in 1926 at age 73. The church construction continued after the Spanish Civil War and picked up some steam in the last two decades; it’s currently due to be completed in 2026.
Now, city authorities are seeking to recoup money from the church, which was paid for with private donations, arguing that neither Gaudí nor the construction board of the nonprofit La Sagrada Familia Foundation filed the right permits to build the structure. The foundation claims that it did obtain a permit from the town of Sant Martí de Provençals, in 1882. Sant Martí was the original municipality that had jurisdiction over the land where the basilica stands. The town was absorbed by Barcelona in the 20th century, and the city’s current officials claim that, regardless of that permit, it should have filed new paperwork.
As a result of pressure from Colau’s administration, the foundation has agreed to pay $41 million in a settlement to regularize the building’s legal status. The money will help pay for transportation and urbanization improvements that will facilitate public access to the building, which is the most popular monument in the world, according to TripAdvisor.
The monument itself generates millions in taxes for the city every year. The average tourist spends more than $1,000 in Barcelona on average, with La Sagrada Familia being the most visited Barcelona monument with 4.5 million tourists, followed by Gaudí’s Park Güell with 2.9 million, and the FC Barcelona museum with 1.5 million. Arguably, Gaudí’s church is as important to Barcelona as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Hundreds if not thousands of millions are generated by the monument.
The far-left party governing Barcelona has acknowledged that they see this as a victory in limiting the church’s privileges, which is one of the points Colau campaigned on. The mayor has acted on that promise, trying to find ways for the Catholic church to pay real estate taxes, though Spanish law exempts religions, unions, political parties, NGOs, and any other nonprofit organization.
It’s not the first time that architecture and public works have been used for political purposes. Ever since the time of the Romans, architecture has been a powerful way to score political points, gain popularity, and show favor to some groups over others. Some experts argue that all architecture is political. After all, humans are the zoom politicking, social animals that share a public and private space organized by architecture. It’s only natural that architecture is used as another political tool and to shape politics.
Maybe in 2026, when La Sagrada Familia is expected to be complete, the clash between Spanish political forces will be long gone and hopefully forgotten, with only the building standing as a symbol of concord. But knowing that Spaniards have fought internally since before Spain was fully formed in 1492, we shouldn’t count on it.
Whether he’s plotting a way to end gun violence or spearheading a major turnaround of an iconic brand like Levi Strauss & Co., Chip Bergh is an American original. Now we’re about to find out how original he is as Bergh takes the stage at our Fast Company Innovation Festival for an intimate conversation with NBC News correspondent Stephanie Ruhle. The live discussion will close out day three of our keynote events on our main stage at the 92nd Street Y.
The event is scheduled to take place today at 2 p.m. ET. For viewers not in attendance, you can access the live stream through this link or via the video embed below.
“The customer’s voice is the one that really matters,” said Tina Sharkey, cofounder and CEO of consumer packaged-goods startup Brandless at the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week. “The brand becomes a platform for . . . the customers to be heard . . . for the products to tell their own stories, and . . . to express the purpose and meaning of what is hopefully the company’s larger mission.”
Sharkey, who calls Brandless“a community,” vigorously lives that ethos–often helming the company’s social media accounts herself and using it to communicate directly with customers, rather than going though a corporate communications intermediary. “I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram,” she said. “And I am not only on there as Tina Sharkey. I am on all the brand’s accounts. I’m interacting all the time.”
During the panel discussion, which included Rick Wise of creative consultancy Lippincott, Fast Company deputy editor David Lidsky asked how Brandless addresses customers’ ethical concerns about how products like oatmeal get to them.
Related: No brand is the new brand
“You have to think of all your employees as spokespeople,” she said, describing the company’s weekly schedule of Facebook Live events. “Our buyers from Minneapolis, who actually buy and develop that oatmeal, they’re live. And so people are asking those questions, and we are answering them in real-time.” She’s proud of not providing media training for those employees, because she wants them to be authentic members of the team, not polished spokespeople.
Reframing customer relationships
Brandless was conceived as a community-based company, but more traditional companies can develop a customer-centric ethos. “Because of who we are, we tend to think about a company’s relationship with its customers in terms of its brand purpose,” said Wise. “That’s another way to shift your focus from products and features and functionality and price dimensions to, ‘What am I trying to do for customers? What purpose am I serving? And how does the product play a role in that?'”
Lippincott has brought that approach to re-imaging of major brands, such as Delta Air Lines after its emergence from bankruptcy in 2007. Delta decided to remake itself as an airline oriented to business travelers. Lippincott helped insure that the change went beyond logos and slogans, and beyond the marketing and communications department. That required working across the company to develop meaningful aspects of the service such as the online tools and amenities in the terminals. “It was all about taking the brand and translating it into tangible experiences,” said Wise.
One of many upshots to community is that companies already have a level of trust that softens the blow when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.
“The more a company does have a well-understood purpose that’s embodied by the people [who work there], that’s lived everyday, the more there’s a buffer to absorb things that go wrong,” said Wise.
Lippincott also works with Southwest, a popular brand, with a heart right in its logo, “in an industry not known for lots of warm and fuzzy brand building,” said Wise. Southwest’s lost baggage rate is higher than United’s, he said, but its complaint rate about lost baggage is lower. “They try so hard on so many other things that you kinda cut them a break when they lose your bag,” said Wise.
“We’re going to make a mistake every day, and the most important thing is to own it,” said Sharkey. That morning, for instance, she had received an email confirmation that food she had not ordered for herself had been delivered to her home. Sharkey wrote in to the regular customer support email line and, she said, got a quick explanation and apology for receiving an alert (and not the actual groceries) meant for another customer.
A much bigger snag came earlier this years when Brandless moved its distribution centers. The goal was to provide better delivery, but the transition introduced a period of unexpected delays–“a world of hurt,” as Sharkey describes it.
Before customers even started experiencing problems, Sharkey wrote an email to them providing a heads up and an apology–something that customers greatly appreciated. “I got notes back saying, ‘You have nothing to apologize for. A few days–it’s fine,'” she recounted. “I wanted them to know what was really happening, and people were rooting for us.”
One thing that Cooper Hodges, Rosebud Miners, Gretchen Mitchell Anderson, and Reuben “Papa” Scherr share in common is they’ve all died of cancer. But they have a more positive connection: Each lives on in a novel and inspiring way. Last year, the America Cancer Society awarded $165,000 grants named after each to researchers working on promising early-stage ways to impact the disease.
In the philanthropy world, the eponymous tribute treatment is typically reserved for the super-rich. Donors who tend to give places lots of money can specify (or accept) that the newly endowed medical school, arts complex, or museum will pay homage. Hollywood mogul David Geffen, for instance, has a collection of all three.
But the American Cancer Society has taken that idea and largely democratized it through its new Heroes of Research program, which started last year as an extra incentive with ACS’s 12-to-24-hour Relay For Life events. ACS allows any family, school, church, or corporate team whose participants can raise $165,000 to name their own grant, typically after the people who inspired them to raise money in the first place. The teams then pick where to direct their grants from a vetted list of researchers working on different topics at different medical institutions.
For those participating in the memory of Hodges, Miners, Anderson, and Scherr, that was University of Texas, MIT, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and Duke University Medical Center, respectively. Initially, 10 teams earned the honor, with combined contributions that totaled about $400,000 more than what they all raised in previous years. It’s a concept that’s continued to gain steam. This fall, two other teams reached that milestone, averaging a combined $200,000 more than their previous annual totals.
ACS is the largest nongovernmental cancer research funder in the country. So the idea is to make the important research it backs feel less “nebulous” and “more personal,” says Maria Clark, the organization’s senior vice president of volunteer events. “The teams are extremely moved by it and they know that the work that they have invested in could be the cures for tomorrow,” she says.
Last year, ACS held 2,000 Relay For Life events, drawing 70,000 teams and more than 1.3 million participants, raising $170 million. While the group has worked hard to diversity how it raises money–soliciting traditional donations, an alliance with the NFL and NHL, separate breast cancer awareness walks, and various corporate sponsorships or contributions all play a factor–Relay For Life still accounts for 29% of it’s annual revenue. Since the effort started in 1985, people have contributed a total of $4.6 billion to ACS activities.
To that end, Heroes of Research provides top groups a new goal to reach or maintain, and gives everyone else more inspiration. The latest Heroes of Research include a corporate team from Nucor Steel in the St. James Parish of Louisiana, and a community-based one named Becki’s Bling Team in Glen Carbon, Illinois. Those groups will name their award and pick their researchers by the end of the year. Most then connect through conference calls that allow both the funders and the researchers to feel the impact of the work they’re doing more strongly.
“It’s really a movement,” says Sharon Byers, ACS’s chief marketing and development officer, about the overall Relay For Life effort. “People want to join teams and fundraise and see where the money goes and feel really great that they’re contributing in a really strong way in this fight.”
Tazo wasn’t kidding about their new campaign “Brew the Unexpected”: The tea brand has brought on RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Alyssa Edwards to be their inaugural camp counselor at Camp Tazo, a three-day sleepaway camp for adults in Austin. Just take your time to digest that sentence.
Camp Tazo is slated for next year and will feature an itinerary of activities meant to push people out of the comfort zones.
Even though Edwards, whose real name is Justin Johnson, didn’t win season five or All-Stars season two of Drag Race, she emerged as one of the most popular contestants from the show, most recently landing a Netflix docu-series, Dancing Queen, based about her Texas dance studio Beyond Belief Dance Company. Edwards’ southern charm, endless catchphrases, and signature tongue pop make her an ideal spokeswoman for any brand, which is why Tazo reached out to Johnson to bring Edwards’ energy to their campaign. But Johnson admits being very hesitant about the idea at first.
“When this was presented to me, it sat on my desk for a couple of days,” Johnson says. “I was skeptical, like this going to be ‘spill the tea’ or ‘what’s the tea’–those kinds of things. I open it up and it says, ‘Brew the Unexpected’–that caught me right there.”
Tazo commissioned a study for the campaign that found 75% of Americans wish they could get out of their comfort zone but don’t know how, and 72% regret not trying something new versus trying and failing.
It’s something just about anyone can relate to–and Johnson is no different. Before going on Drag Race, he hid the fact that he did drag from his dance students and their parents. So when the season five trailer dropped for the world to see, Johnson says he was bracing for the worst.
“I was very afraid that I was going to be judged, that my art would be judged, my work. And as a businessman I didn’t know if I was going to be taken seriously,” Johnson says. “I had so many what-ifs, but they’re like, we appreciate, we accept, and we celebrate everything about you, Justin. You are exactly what we hope our child can grow up to be.”
Having that personal connection to the campaign is what George Hamilton, marketing director of tea at Unilever, which owns Tazo, feels is at the heart of it all.
“In addition to having an amazing personality and wit, we were all deeply touched by Justin’s journey of taking his drag queen persona Alyssa Edwards public, and becoming a worldwide phenomenon,” he says. “Representation matters to us, and we’ve always looked at Camp Tazo as a true partnership with Justin, working closely together to make sure we’re crafting an authentic experience. Making Justin part of our core team is the only way to make this happen.”
Johnson says camp played a huge role in his life growing up, so he’s been involved in every step building out the activities, which will, of course, include dancing among other things.
“I’m gagged that they were open to the idea and they were so inspired by my story, which for me is powerful in itself. And they were so accepting and understanding that this has to mean something to me,” Johnson says. “A brand can say, ‘we’re looking for ABC, and if you don’t fit ABC we’re moving on.’ They listened to me and they made the magic happen. It’s like this role was made for me.”
“And ‘Brew the Unexpected’ is me in full drag because you do not think there’s a tea campaign with a Texas, life-sized drag queen,” Johnson continues. “It’s not going to be people’s first image when they think of a new campaign for a tea brand but it’s fabulous. We live in a world where it’s time. This is the time.”
Tracey Ullman has made a successful career being just about anyone but herself. The Emmy-winning actress has spent more than three decades on TV slipping into the skins of everyone from Dame Judi Dench to German chancellor Angela Merkel. And now in the third season of her HBO series, Tracey Ullman’s Show, she’s being more topical than ever, grappling with the political dystopia sweeping the world à la Brexit and Donald Trump. Ullman calls this season her “mini Saturday Night Live.”
“This season is more immediate,” Ullman says in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation. “Telling long, winding stories didn’t seem to be right this year. It’s just all about the news, and people are obsessed with politics right now.”
And why be so topical now?
“I’ve earned it. I’m older,” Ullman says. “I can talk about politics and reflect and look back on things that have happened, and how it’s cyclical.”
In addition to her incomparable Dench and Merkel, Ullman adds British Prime Minister Theresa May and French First Lady Brigitte Macron to her stable of characters. There are more obvious ways into certain sketches (May having an abysmal video conference with Trump, or ribbing the age difference between the Macrons), but Ullman says her biggest challenge is finding her place in the sketches her team comes up with where there’s no clear entry point.
In this episode, Ullman explains how she tackles hard-to-crack sketches, and how her approach to comedy has evolved.
This week, explosive devices were sent to a number of high-profile individuals, including former President Barack Obama, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, philanthropist George Soros, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, CNN, Rep. Maxine Waters, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Robert De Niro. While the package directed at Soros was reportedly hand-delivered, the other devices were caught during the standard mail-screening process.
Even in 2018, that mostly comes down to the hard work of humans, and the occasional dog and or mouse. I write this knowing full well that my inbox will soon be filled with stories of bomb-checking robots and AI, but still: The first line of defense is pretty much up to us mammals.
According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, coming across a mail bomb is incredibly rare, with an average instance of less than 1 in 10 billion pieces of mail. (That doesn’t include the latest slate of bombs, though.) Such rarity doesn’t mean defense can be any less vigilant, since it only takes one bomb to cause serious damage or death. Inspectors must be constantly on the look out for some of the common warning signs of mail bombs, including a sketchy shipper who buys too much insurance for what he says is in the box. According to the FBI, misspellings, lumpy packages, odd return addresses, excessive postage, or even protruding wires or oil stains can also be warning signs.
CNN, now experts in the field, say the package delivered to its New York office was “wrinkled and damaged,” had misspelled names, and “one corner of the package was covered in stamps,” which is undoubtedly why it caught the eye of mail screeners. The Department of Homeland Security has put out a 57-page manual listing the best practices of mail screening.
— Gio Benitez (@GioBenitez) October 24, 2018
At the USPS, mail screening falls under the purview of Postal Inspectors and, if things get hairy, the Dangerous Mail Investigations Program, which uses “multi-tiered field-screening to declare mail as non-hazardous.” This is particularly true for mail sent to “high-profile venues,” including government offices and large-scale events like the Olympics and Super Bowl. While Postal Inspectors are well trained, they have technology to help, too, including portable X-ray machines and a biological detection systems (BDS) that trigger early-warning mechanisms in the event of “dangerous biologicals.”
There is also a special team of Postal Inspectors trained as Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Specialists, who respond to situations and create protocols in the event BDS detects a dangerous substance, which hasn’t happened yet out of 7 million tests. Due to the vigilance of the humans at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Mail continues to be one of the safest forms of communications in the world, although the latest slate of bombs may have affected their numbers.
To find out what happens after a bomb is found in the mail, check out this Motherboard story on how law enforcement tracks down the source of mail bombs and this Smithsonian story about how bomb-sniffing dogs are trained. They’re both fascinating.
When UPS launched in Seattle in 1907, it made deliveries on foot and by bicycle. Five years later, it had its first Model T delivery car. Today, the company brought a delivery bike back to the city in an experiment that–if successful–it hopes to replicate throughout the U.S.
“This is our first iteration of what a modular urban delivery system might look like,” says Scott Phillippi, senior director of maintenance and engineering at UPS.
The company’s new custom-designed electric trike is narrow enough to fit in a bike lane or even on a sidewalk, avoiding traffic in dense urban areas–and, unlike a regular delivery truck, it can also avoid blocking traffic and creating gridlock itself. A cargo box slides easily on and off the chassis of the bike. “You can load [packages into] the container boxes back at the UPS facility–preloaded with a route already in mind–so you don’t have to rehandle the packages,” says Phillippi.
In Seattle, a regular delivery vehicle will tow a trailer with four of the bike-size cargo boxes from UPS’s distribution center into the city’s downtown. Then it will drop them off for a bike delivery person–UPS calls them “industrial athletes,” though an electric motor can do some of the work–to transfer onto the bike and bring into congested areas, like Pike Place Market, that trucks can’t currently access directly. Right now, trucks are often forced to double-park on the periphery as drivers walk back and forth. (UPS is increasingly switching to electric trucks, but they can’t solve the challenge of traffic congestion.)
UPS tested an earlier version of an e-bike in Portland and Pittsburgh, but Seattle’s new modular system and the ability to preload boxes at the distribution center makes it different. “It has a lot more flexibility in this regard,” says Phillippi. “That’s something we learned along the way–it needs to be a bigger scope for an operating plan to have a chance to be efficient. It needs to be more than just a standalone bike.”
The earlier bikes, he says, could only operate at a small scale. But the new system could perform as efficiently as driving, perhaps even more so. Although the small cargo box has only about a tenth of the capacity of a regular truck, at 95 cubic feet and 400 pounds, because the vehicle can easily fit in places where other trucks can’t, it can potentially save time.
The company already uses e-bikes in some congested European cities, including some modular versions with cargo boxes that can come off the bike. But because the European design wasn’t compatible with American trucks, UPS worked with Silver Eagle Manufacturing, a Portland-based truck and trailer manufacturer, to make a new version for Seattle.
UPS partnered with the city on the project. The University of Washington Urban Freight Lab, an initiative that pairs transportation engineers and urban planners with transportation companies, will study the vehicle’s performance over the next year–particularly whether the bikes can reduce the company’s overall “dwell time” of trucks, helping cut both pollution and traffic.
After the pilot, the company may further iterate on the design, but hopes to understand if the system works well enough to expand to other parts of Seattle, and then other cities. “I think in a short amount of time we’re going to know how efficient it is,” Phillippi says.
When she announced a new $36 million fund for black female founders earlier this year, Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton dubbed it the It’s About Damn Time Fund. The venture capitalist, who appeared on Fast Company‘s October cover, has spent the past three years investing in underrepresented founders with the thesis that the way venture capital is distributed–with the majority of it going to white men–doesn’t reflect the way talent and good ideas are dispersed in the real world. But speaking at the Fast Company Innovation Festival earlier this week, she offered a different reason for not wanting to be pitched cannabis ideas by white men: the inequality of our criminal justice system. And for Hamilton, it’s personal.
“My brother has gone through so much because he’s been caught and gone to jail for having a small amount of weed. He’s had so much of his life destroyed and is trying to turn it around,” she explained in a conversation with Fast Company contributing writer J.J. McCorvey. “At the same time, I still get approached by white men [who want me to invest in] their cannabis companies because I’m black and I’ll ‘get it.’ I say no. I’m not the one for that. But if you’re a black woman or a black man with a cannabis company, let’s set up a conversation.”
Hamilton also offered a sobering assessment of the scale of the problem her diversity-focused venture firm is trying to address. “To be honest, $36 million, $100 million–this is all a drop in the bucket compared to what’s available to other founders,” she said.
That puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on black entrepreneurs–herself included–to overdeliver. “You want [to have] the representation, the examples, the case studies [of black founders]. But it shouldn’t be on any one person’s shoulders to represent an entire race,” she explained. “Someone said to me, ‘You have to give them the best-performing [venture capital] fund of all time. And I’m like, no I don’t. But that’s [what happens when you’re] the poster child.”
This dearth of representation is particularly problematic when a black founder falters. “No one said, [after Travis Kalanick was forced to leave] Uber, ‘Oh, those white men. We probably shouldn’t have invested in them,'” Hamilton said. The narrative around a black founder’s failings, she pointed out, can often have racial overtones.
As for Elon Musk, who unabashedly smoked a joint during a live-streamed taping of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast last month, Hamilton said he didn’t take nearly the reputational hit that a black founder would have if he or she had done the same thing. But Hamilton bears no grudges. “Elon Musk, I like him,” she said. “He can be my butler if he wants to later in life. I’m open to allowing that.”
Like most cancer patients, 65-year-old Lynn Godfrey remembers the exact moment her life fractured irreparably into “before” and “after.” It was a January afternoon 10 years ago, and she had been taking a shower in her home in Pune, in western India. January is a relatively cool, dry month in the city, and Godfrey was enjoying the warm water when she suddenly felt a lump on her right breast.
Worried, she consulted her family doctor, who immediately booked her in for an ultrasound and tissue biopsy. When the results came back three days later with a “malignant, stage two breast cancer” diagnosis, Godfrey was in shock. “I didn’t know anything about cancer,” she recalls. “I had absolutely no clue.” No one had ever told her that growing older put her at greater risk of getting the disease, or that having regular mammogram screenings could help detect it early.
Godfrey’s plight is emblematic of the estimated 150,000 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in India. “Awareness is the main issue,” says Mandeep Kaur, a breast cancer surgeon at Manipal Hospital in New Delhi. Many experts, including Kaur, blame late diagnosis, stemming in part from poor disease awareness, for the alarmingly high breast cancer mortality rate in the country. Godfrey, whose cancer is now in remission, is one of the lucky ones — one in every two Indian women with breast cancer do not survive. Only 66 percent live past five years of being diagnosed, compared to rates of around 90 percent in the U.S., Australia, and other Western countries.
To tackle the problem of late diagnosis, a number of companies have developed new screening devices in recent years. They employ different technologies, ranging from artificial intelligence and machine learning to thermal imaging and immunoassays, but all strive towards the same aim: to make screening more accessible and affordable to women living throughout India. Whether these companies — Niramai, MammoAlert, iBreastExam, just to name a few — can actually lower breast cancer mortality rates remains to be seen, but for now they seem to be making headway with early detection.
“The kind of patients we’re meeting are mostly stage three and four breast cancers,” says Kaur. “I’ve seen women with breast cancers who have badly infected wounds, fungating masses.”
It’s a trend that spans the country, regardless of economic or educational strata. “Surprisingly, both in urban and rural areas, you find people coming in at the later stages,” says Ravi Mehrotra, director of India’s National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research.
And the later cancer is diagnosed, the less likely it is to be successfully treated. In one study, researchers estimated that 10-year survival rates for women in the northern Indian city of Lucknow fell from 75 percent for stage 1 breast cancer patients to 5 percent for stage 4 patients. Early detection offers a solution, but the reality of implementing widespread screening in a country with 1.35 billion people is challenging, to say the least.
Sixty-six percent of India’s population lives in rural areas, where poor transportation links and a lack of electricity are common problems. Doctors are also in short supply, with roughly one radiologist per 100,000 people (the ratio in the U.S. is 10 times higher). Which is why all the new screening devices being developed are battery operated, easily portable, and simple enough to use with minimal training.
Crucially, they’re also less invasive than mammograms, the traditional tool for diagnosing breast cancer. Not only can mammograms be painful, but they also require women to undress. “Typically, women are very shy. They do not like exposing themselves,” says Nidhi Mathur, co-founder of the company Niramai, which means “being free from illness” in Sanskrit.
To enhance privacy, Niramai’s screening tool works by capturing thermal images of a woman’s breast using a tripod-mounted camera roughly the size of a water bottle. The woman sits alone in a room on a stool before the thermal camera and waits 15 minutes for her body to reach “equilibrium state.” The camera then takes pictures. All of this occurs without anyone seeing the woman’s bare breasts.
The images, each approximately 80,000 pixels, are used to create a heat map of her chest. The company’s software then uses algorithms based on artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze it for abnormal temperature distribution patterns. “Typically, when there is a tumor, there’s higher metabolism, higher blood flow,” explains Geetha Manjunath, the company’s other co-founder. This increases the temperature in the tumor region, resulting in a special pattern that can be detected with the screening tools.
A test with Niramai currently costs about $20, which Manjunath expects to “fall further as volumes pick up.” By comparison, a mammogram in India typically costs between $20 and $50. The technology is currently employed in 11 hospitals and diagnostic centers across five cities: Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), where the company is based, as well as Pune, Mysore, Hyderabad, and Dehradun.
For clinical screening, the effectiveness of a given device is typically determined by two measures: sensitivity and specificity. “Sensitivity” refers to a test’s ability to correctly identify those with a disease. “Specificity” refers to a test’s ability to correctly identify those without a disease. So far, the company has reported results from two clinical studies, with the most recent showing that Niramai’s rates of sensitivity and specificity are both above 90 percent, significantly better than mammography on both measures. In addition, Niramai was found to be 18 percent more sensitive than its human counterpart at analyzing thermal images for potential malignancy.
Unfortunately, a screening tool like Niramai wasn’t an option for Godfrey 10 years ago. She continues to have yearly check-ups but says she gets “so scared” when she has to do a mammogram because she lost part of her right breast following a lumpectomy. Although she has yet to try Niramai, Godfrey thinks it sounds “very good [because] it’s non-invasive and you’re not getting any pain.”
Others are less convinced. “There aren’t a lot of data to support the use of thermal diagnostics as being better than standard screening today,” says Gilberto Lopes, who studies how cancer control can be improved in low- and middle-income countries at the University of Miami. So far, the two Niramai studies conducted have involved some 300 Indian patients in total, although the company says more trials are currently underway.
Another screening tool being developed is MammoAlert, which will be launched in Gujarat State early next year. “It’s a little lab in a box…a portable system which comes to you,” says Sanjeev Saxena, the founder and CEO of POC Medical Systems, the California-based company that developed the test.
MammoAlert works by performing an immunoassay on a blood sample — just a finger prick is needed, similar to what diabetics do to test their sugar levels. The sample is analyzed for four protein markers known to be associated with breast cancer. “Then we add an algorithm on top of that, which has been trained using deep machine learning and AI, to analyze what is the probability that somebody has breast cancer,” says Saxena. The results are available in less than 30 minutes and are relayed via a smartphone app to the test operator, physician, and patient.
MammoAlert is a test that “can be done in whatever rural community, slums, et cetera, at a very low cost and early,” says Saxena. It has a specificity and sensitivity of more than 85 percent compared with rates closer to 70 percent for mammography in a country like India, he adds, and costs less than $5 per test. While the specific location of the tumor still has to be confirmed via mammography or other methods, the technology has the potential to speed detection of breast cancer in millions of women around the world.
While this sounds promising, more data is needed to confirm that MammoAlert actually benefits patients. Saxena says MammoAlert has been tested in eight clinical trials involving more than 1,000 samples, but the findings are still in publication and therefore not yet publicly available. “MammoAlert is at even earlier stages of development” compared with Niramai, says Lopes. “This is a blood-based diagnostics, and these tests are in the very early stage of studies.”
There’s a third screening tool, however, that has been tested in a wider swath of the population. Since 2015, the FDA-cleared iBreastExam has been used with more than 150,000 women throughout India, as well as in six other countries: Botswana, Indonesia, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, and Oman.
iBreastExam is a handheld, wireless device slightly larger than a supermarket barcode scanner. When placed upon a patient’s breast, the scanner’s 16 sensors measure tissue stiffness. Hard lesions — indicative of a tumor — are flagged in real time on an accompanying smartphone app with a reported sensitivity and specificity of 84 and 94 percent, respectively.
The effectiveness of iBreastExam at detecting lesions was demonstrated in a large-scale study involving more than 900 women in Bengaluru. Mandeep Kaur, the breast cancer surgeon, also used the device during a year-long trial at the New Delhi hospital where she was practicing in 2015. The device made a huge difference because “screening is not a very acceptable idea,” she says. Even if a woman initially agrees to it, she may lose interest by the time her appointment arrives four to five months later.
“This tool gave us the opportunity to screen women there and then,” says Kaur. “It gave me that calling point where I can pick up this disease that has manifested already.”
And that’s precisely the aim founder Mihir Shah had in mind when he developed iBreastExam. “I’d like all women to have easy and affordable access to early detection,” says Shah, whose device offers screening for less than $4 per test.
“I think it’s the choices we’re giving women,” says clinical psychologist Rebecca D’Souza of the new screening tools that are emerging. D’Souza works at the Nag Foundation, a cancer charity based in Pune. “We have to be open to newer technologies, especially in countries like India where we’re looking at lower cost.”
“Breast cancer is one of the easiest cancers to solve,” says Niramai’s Mathur. “People don’t have to die from breast cancer.”
Sandy Ong is a freelance science journalist based in Singapore. She covers stories about science, technology, health, and the environment in Asia and beyond.