He Got A Rare Disease Diagnosis So He Rethought The Whole System

While working to understand not only his own rare disease but also how the broader healthcare industry develops treatments for rare diseases as a whole, Onno Faber uncovered the building blocks of his new company.

Onno Faber never expected to become a medical innovator. He was living the American dream. Born and raised in The Netherlands, Faber embraced entrepreneurship early, as the founder of a software engineering company during high school. He eventually moved to the U.S. to grow a technology company in the mobile communication space. But soon after arriving in Silicon Valley, he began to lose hearing in his left ear. “As it turned out, there was a brain tumor on my hearing nerve and further scans and research showed additional tumors in my brain and spinal cord”, Faber recalls. The eventual diagnosis was a rare genetic disorder called NF2, which leads to tumors of the nervous system including in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.

Rare Diseases Are Actually Common

“This is when I first learned about rare diseases,” says Faber. “My sensory nerves were threatened, I was deaf on the left side and there was the potential for serious vision problems and mobility issues.” After consultations with doctors, Faber was told there were no drugs for his disease and eventually found a treatment through his own research and community engagement that stabilized the tumor growth and insured he would not lose hearing, mobility, and vision for the time being. Faber recalls saying to himself back then: “Instead of thinking about it as a devastating diagnosis, how can I turn it, spin it around, and create a positive impact for all people finding themselves in a similar situation?”

onno faber

Faber researched his condition obsessively, working to understand not only his own rare disease but how the broader healthcare industry diagnoses and treats rare diseases. “The first thing I learned was that rare diseases are actually very common,” he says. “When you hear that one in 50,000 has my particular disease, that sounds ‘rare’. But as soon as I learned there are thousands of rare diseases, the reality is that one in 10 people in the US has a rare disease–or about 20-30 million people.”

Despite the surprisingly large market and the fact that 95 percent of rare diseases have no FDA-approved therapy, Faber also came to learn that there is a little commercial incentive to work on rare disease treatments. This revelation inspired a new-found passion and the founding of a rare disease “drug hunting” company built around patients and families dealing with these diseases. “We asked ourselves, what types of communities need to be built?” Faber recalls. “How can we align these communities to make the 10,000 small problems a big problem and ultimately create an algorithm and engine to scale rare disease diagnosis and treatment?”

Your Friendly, Neighborhood Sequencing Machine

As Faber continued his research, another tumor appeared, pressing against his brain stem. But Faber is a natural entrepreneur. Once that tumor was successfully removed, Faber didn’t let it bring him down. Instead, he decided to take things further. “A friend of mine was a computational biologist and had a sequencing machine in his living room,” Faber recalls. “That’s the advantage of living in Silicon Valley.” Faber was able to sequence and analyze his own DNA, and that led to a project with Google. As Faber remembers, “We had 400 people coming for a weekend to hack on the data and we eventually found the first drug that I tried to repurpose for my condition.”

This experience led Faber to continue working on how to combine sequencing and drug discovery into one continuous process. He launched Rarebase in 2020 with his co-founder. “The goal,” he says, “was to find ways to make the rare disease a scalable problem, and we wanted to start with the patient and the families.”

Building Knowledge at Scale

“Today, sequencing is mostly used for disease diagnosis,” Faber continues. “At Rarebase, we also use sequencing to find treatments. We can sequence every single experiment and, for example, can determine what a particular drug does to the expression of the DNA in a specific cell type. That allows us to create hypotheses around which drugs might reverse the underlying biology of a rare disease.” The goal, ultimately, is to use the platform to matchmake between drugs and as many of the more than 7,000 rare genetic diseases as possible.

The Road Ahead

Ask Faber what he is looking forward to, and he says, “the technology will evolve to become cheaper and more scalable so we can generate more and more data,” he continues, “and, ultimately, help rare disease patients find treatments so they can have a better quality of life. The technology is there. We just have to enable access so that rare disease patients can benefit from it too.”

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Expert Group Finds Covid Response a “Massive Global Failure”

Infectious disease and public policy experts investigated the global pandemic response, cataloged its many failures and assembled recommendations for future. But sadly their words will probably fall flat.

This month, a group of 40 experts in infectious disease and public policy from around the world published the results of a major new review of the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic, along with recommendations for how to emerge from this pandemic and prepare for future threats in public health. They also sought to draw lessons about how to better address other overarching global threats like climate change and achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Prof. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia, a prominent cheerleader for the SDGs, was a major contributor to the effort. Unfortunately, while their advice might have been useful two years ago for the pandemic, it seems unlikely to be heeded as countries increasingly choose to act as though the pandemic is over.

Assembled as a special global commission by The Lancet, the highly regarded medical journal, the commission was tasked with investigating various aspects of the Covid pandemic. According to a comment from some of the authors, their mandate was “to help speed up global, equitable, and lasting solutions to the pandemic.”

The group’s report pulls no punches. An editorial published by the journal alongside the study says that it “lays bare what has been nothing less than a massive global failure—a failure of rationality, transparency, norms of public health practice, operational coordination, and international solidarity.”

While the report itself is scathing, its findings will sadly come as a surprise to almost no one. Government responses came too slowly, the authors note. They let vulnerable populations fall through the cracks. Their attempts to combat disinformation were unsuccessful. “The result was millions of preventable deaths and a reversal in progress towards sustainable development for many countries,” the editorial continues. By the end of May, the study’s authors report, there were nearly 7 million reported global deaths from Covid, with more than twice that — a total of more than 17 million deaths — believed to be attributable to Covid but not accurately counted. Thousands are still dying each day around the world from the disease (over 400 daily in the U.S. alone, on average).

The authors blame much of this on a lack of cooperation among governments. Failures on this front, they write, include delays in notification about the original outbreak, a lack of equitable distribution of important supplies, taking too long to acknowledge that Covid is airborne, poor coordination about strategies to prevent transmission, insufficient funding, and a shortage of useful data, among others.

Perhaps the most useful part of the report comes in its recommendations for how we emerge from the pandemic. Proving that hope does indeed spring eternal, even as the authors acknowledge two-plus years of global cooperation failure, they say that “putting such cooperation into place is still urgent.” They recommend that governments remain vigilant about new virus variants and sound the alarm about waning immunity, both from natural infections and vaccines, which keeps populations at high risk of infection. They also call for coordinated surveillance systems. However, as more and more countries relax mitigation measures and stop collecting key data, that seems unrealistic. And the commission tasks the World Health Organization with the responsibility to ensure mass immunization across all countries. Oddly, the authors call for further investigation into the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for Covid, even though there is now fairly broad scientific consensus and strong evidence to indicate that the virus spilled over from an animal or animals at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China.

While these recommendations seem exceedingly unlikely to be enacted, especially on a global scale, the authors also addressed what needs to happen to prepare us better for future pandemics. Here, perhaps, there is a chance at least for individual governments and public health agencies to step up. The review also advises strengthening the World Health Organization with new regulatory authority — including the ability to investigate outbreaks on the ground without political interference — and with a bigger budget to allow it to oversee and coordinate the response to new infectious diseases. The commission calls for a new global surveillance system that would build on existing programs and add new capabilities in disease forecasting and mitigation strategies.

“It is certain that future pandemics will arise from interactions between humans and animals,” the group writes. Whether that happens a year from now or 100 years from now, being prepared for it can only help. While our response to the Covid pandemic may have been a failure, we could still salvage something from this crisis if we learned important lessons and used them to do better next time.

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Solar Sovereignty: The Promise of Native-Led Renewables

“We’re training a workforce of solar warriors,” says the cofounder of Indigenized Energy Initiative.

The lands of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe sit atop the largest remaining seam of low-sulfur coal in the country. Despite decades of pressure from coal companies, and sometimes even its own Tribal members, the Northern Cheyenne has rebuffed the industry — and its promised riches.

To help keep the coal in the ground, the grassroots group ecoCheyenne, founded by Tribal member Vanessa Braided Hair, went door to door across the 450,000-acre reservation to raise awareness about the harms — both local and global — to mining their coal deposits. The work paid off in 2016 when the Tribal Council passed resolutions against coal and in favor of clean energy.

It was a big environmental win — and no small feat for a community that could use both jobs and money. But after saying “no” for so long, the Tribe needed something to say “yes” to.

A few phone calls led them to Chéri Smith, a descendant of the Mi’Kmaq Tribe, who at the time was working as the head of workforce strategy and training development for renewable-energy company Solar City (later acquired by Tesla).

With the help of the company’s charitable foundation, she established a team that installed an 8-kilowatt solar system on the home of a Tribal elder. The small project made a big difference in reducing the elder’s energy bills, but it also led to much more.

“In that moment, it was like my ancestors spoke to me,” Smith told The Revelator. “I knew I had the skills, a network, experience and resources that could make a difference and help change the trajectory of this Tribe and others.”

Smith left Tesla and started her own nonprofit to help guide further solar development on Native lands — including more projects with the Northern Cheyenne.

“I spent five years gathering this team and trying to flesh out an approach to developing renewable energy as a means to mitigate climate change, eliminate poverty and restore sovereignty in Tribal communities,” she says. That team, now called Indigenized Energy Initiative, also includes Vanessa Braided Hair, her father Otto Braided Hair Jr., a traditional Tribal leader, and Cody Two Bears — who helped lead the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock as the youngest Tribal council member of the Standing Sioux Tribe.

The Revelator spoke with Smith about why jobs should come with clean energy, how to scale Native-led solar projects, and what hope looks like for young Tribal members.

How does Indigenized Energy Initiative work?

There’s been a lot of solar development recently on Tribal lands that’s philanthropically funded. It’s good. It’s well-intentioned, but it doesn’t take a holistic, systems-based approach and it often leaves Tribes worse off than before.

Our solution takes a very culturally sensitive, inclusive and systems-based approach to addressing the economic, climate and energy challenges that Tribes have with solar and, in the future, other renewables.

We only build projects with philanthropy as a demonstration of what’s possible. The rest of it is done with federal money and Tribal money. And we — Indigenized Energy Initiative — run on philanthropy so that we can offer our services to Tribes at no cost.

When a Tribe approaches us, they say, “How much does it cost to have your help?” We say “Nothing.” We can do the initial energy planning and work with them to build their capacity, develop projects, help them procure federal funding, and help administer those funds at no cost.

Many are skeptical, of course. But because we’re Native-led, and we have Otto Braided Hair and Cody Two Bears visit a Tribe for the first time, there’s a trust level that’s higher than if we were to just walk in off the street.

That’s the first step.

There’s also a ton of federal funding available right now, but most Tribes historically haven’t had the resources to take advantage of that. There are some — and a few that have established their own utilities. That’s now the end goal for most of the Tribes that we work with — they want to become sovereign.

How can a Tribe be sovereign if they’re dependent on the very colonial construct that puts them in this predicament in the first place? It’s really important that this development be done by Native people, for Native people, because solar and other renewables can be almost as extractive as fossil development if they aren’t done right.

Why focus on solar?

Three factors are really converging to make this the ideal time to deploy this new approach to solar development in Tribal communities.

The first is that — and I’m speaking in the words of Otto, my cofounder — he and many other Indigenous people feel that they’re on a trajectory toward extinction and are desperately in need of life-changing interventions, as opposed to Band-Aid remedies.

Second, as coal and other fossil fuels continue to become less economically viable, displaced workers from these industries — including many members of Tribes who have been working for the coal mines and coal plants in the area — are well positioned to become the workforce that’s needed to deploy these renewable technologies in their own community.

Third, solar is now the lowest cost form of energy. And it’s a well-established and reliable investment.

We’re taking advantage of this convergence of these powerful dynamics and we’re working to secure the place that Indian countries should hold in this global effort to advance solar and renewable technologies in communities that can really benefit the most from their effects.

What are the obstacles for growing solar systems on Native land?

Developers recognize the tremendous value of the land that these Tribes have and they’re bringing in their own people, importing their own labor. They leave the Tribe with a lease payment [for the solar project]. That’s OK. That’s nice. But it doesn’t transform the economy for the Tribe. It doesn’t employ Tribal members and it doesn’t establish businesses.

Usually how it works is that an external developer approaches a Tribe and says, “Hey, there’s this funding available. Let us work with you.” And they end up milking consulting fees and everything else out of that grant. The Tribe ends up with a very small amount of solar, and it’s the developer that gets the bulk of the profit.

Our approach is different. For example, the Northern Cheyenne that we’ve been working with for the longest time — a subset of us for 10 years now — we’re doing a $4 million Department of Energy project there.

When we come in, we’ll help them procure the solar. We may take a small amount from the federal grant. For example, this $4 million project, we’re making $75,000, but we’ve put in four years of work.

This year we’ll be erecting — depending on the supply chain — 1.25 megawatts. That includes 15 10-kilowatt residential systems on the home of elders whom the Tribe identified as being in need. Then we’re doing three larger, commercial-sized systems on a water-pump facility, a Head Start childcare facility, and a high school. And then we’re doing a 1-megawatt array that will be in the shape of the morning star — the Cheyenne are known as the morning star people.

That’s just the start. The Tribal energy manager’s vision is the creation of a Tribal utility and that’s the end game, but there’s a big delta in between now and when the Tribe can disconnect from the utility.

We also just signed a memorandum of understanding with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. They’re one of the richest fossil fuel developing Tribes in the nation, and they called us and said that they need to divest. I was just in the Menominee homelands — so-called Wisconsin — in August for a signing with the Menominee Tribe. They have a sawmill and a small casino. We’re going to be electrifying their mill with solar, and their goal is a Tribal utility.

And there are others. We’re working with eight Tribes now. The number of Tribes that we can help depends on our capacity, and right now we’re limited only by funding.

The Inflation Reduction Act will make developing solar on Tribal land more beneficial. It’s momentous. But with that also comes the potential for exploitation of Tribes. And this is where we come in. Our most beneficial role that we play is that of a buffer between Tribes and colonial, Western energy business utilities, developers and even policymakers.

How does your effort help provide jobs?

Young Native peoples’ lives are so difficult. Every day is filled with trauma. Historical trauma and present-day trauma, depression, suicide, poverty, racism and being basically exiled to the most godforsaken parcels of land. It’s not like when reservations were formed, they gave them the cream of the crop as far as land. It’s hard. Things don’t grow. It’s hard to make a living. The sustenance lifestyle doesn’t really work well.

That’s why our first step is to go to the community and talk with young men and women about our Native-led training programs. The work is very physical, so it’s mostly young men and women that tend to be attracted to it, but we do have older folks.

IEI residential project on Standing Rock at the home of Tribal elders. Photo: Sarah Yeoman

We’re training a workforce of solar warriors who are installing this infrastructure on their own homeland, for their own people. They have well-paying jobs. And while they’re waiting for all the work to begin on their reservations, they’re working for solar companies right now.

It’s especially poignant when you have a Tribal member who says to you, “I was planning to commit suicide this week, and you guys came, and now this is hope.”

Not only is it hope, it’s happening. I can’t express the power of it. It is a beautiful thing. To be able to have a well-paying job that’s doing something that’s good for the Earth, good for their people, and they don’t have to leave the reservation to get the job — it’s life-changing.

What can people do to help scale Native-led solar projects?

Awareness is the first step. I’m not kidding, there are actually people who aren’t even aware that Indians still exist.

There are 563 federally recognized Tribes in this country. We want all of them to be able to have these skills and to be able to do this themselves. We are working closely with the federal government. We have excellent relationships with the Department of Energy, Interior, the National Renewable Energy Lab. They’re just now seeing that they need NGOs like mine to bridge that trust gap and help bring this funding into Indian country in a way that is logical, feasible, and that Tribes can use effectively.

What was happening before was that money was being thrown at Tribes with a match requirement.

For example, this $4 million project on the Northern Cheyenne, the federal government wanted the Tribe to pay $2 million of it. The Tribe doesn’t have $2 million. So we negotiated on their behalf and got the match down to $800,000, which we’re in the process of raising. I still have $300,000 left to raise, and that shouldn’t even be the case.

We also need philanthropy to step up — and they are, but it’s not enough yet. Native American causes only receive 0.6% of philanthropic donations in this country. We need an endowment for this. We need $10 million a year for 10 years and then we can bring this to every Tribe. It’s time for the people with the money in this country to make reparations in this way. We’re a first-of-its-kind initiative. We need support and we need partners of all kinds.

The most important thing is that Tribes want to do this. They’ve stood bravely in the destructive path of fossil development. But few possess the capabilities to pursue clean energy in a way that is beneficial and inclusive. And this is that way.

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Green PCs Get an A for Effort

Conventional wisdom has it that PCs and electronics are just bad for the environment – think nasty chemicals, extreme water use, and e-waste. Manufacturers are making progress, with more on the horizon.

Conventional wisdom has it that PCs and electronics are just bad for the environment. While silicon makes up most of a computer chip’s wafer, all sorts of funky, toxic elements have been used in traditional PC manufacturing, like cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, boron, and phosphorus. It’s like the periodic table of nasty elements. Some, like arsenic for example, have been phased out of modern PCs, replaced with less toxic substances. Still, despite the fact that computers continue to decrease in size, they require 10 times their weight in chemicals and pollutants during manufacturing.

About 25% of a modern PC is made from plastic. Creating a silicon wafer, the material from which chips are manufactured, is a very water-guzzling process. Water is needed to rinse and clean semiconductor wafers during manufacture.  And not just any water.  It needs to be ultrapure water (UPW), which is thousands of times purer than drinking water. It takes roughly 1,400 -1,600 gallons of municipal water to make 1,000 gallons of UPW, and fabs use up to 5 million gallons daily.

Toxic paints are often used in the computer chassis finishing process.  And anyone who’s un-packaged a new laptop or PC knows that there’s an awful lot of stuff used for sending it around and making the package look cool — paper, styrofoam, and plastics. (Though Apple gets kudos for pioneering all-recyclable packaging, long ago.)

What’s equally as distressing is that, unlike a washing machine for example, which can last 20+ years, a PC is designed to become obsolete. the entire industry has been predicated on the need to have the latest and greatest– there’s always the promise that next year will bring a faster chip, more memory, better graphics, and sound.  The numbers vary, but three to four years of ownership is about the average lifespan of a PC, or a smartphone.

All of this makes E-waste the world’s “fastest-growing waste stream”, according to the World Economi Forum . In 2018, an estimated 50 million tons of e-waste was generated. And compounding the e-waste problem is that most of that trash gets shipped to far-off and generally much poorer places where the runoff and toxins then pollutes streams and rivers and local ecosystems.

Cleaning Dirty Laundry

The electronics industry has started trying to own up to its less-than-green practices, however, and yes has made strides in cleaning up everything from its supply chains to its factories and fabs, to the device’s components. But much of this effort goes unnoticed by either consumers or enterprise customers

Take a look at EPEAT, a project of the Global Electronics Council, a nonprofit created by the industry. EPEAT maintains a registry of electronics products and their ratings in much the same way that the LEED ratings are given to green buildings.  LEED gets a lot of public attention and marketing; EPEAT not so much.

Looking at the gold-rated products on EPEAT’s list, I found Acer at the top. I spoke with Eric Anderson, Senior Marketing and Brand Manager at Acer about the company’s efforts to go green, both in its internal operations and in its newest green product line, the Vero.

“From the top down and bottom up, our clients have been asking for a focus on green initiatives. Faced with real world challenges, like existing plants and manufacturing facilities, one of the first initiatives Acer concentrated on was creating less waste in its factories, more local supply chain sourcing, and more energy efficient operations,” says Anderson. While none of these efforts are seen by the end user in the final product, the results have been a dramatic refocusing of efforts on sustainable buildings, on optimizing energy consumption and on finding sustainable ways to move products around. The impressive steps Acer is taking internally are documented in this report to European Union regulators and procurement experts. The EU’s own agencies are determined to see action taken as they continue to procure PCs.

The Acer Vero line was built from the get go to be sustainable. There are VERO notebooks, tablets and even projectors. The company reconceived everything:

  • recyclable packaging
  • cutting back on the ink used in packaging, and making sure it’s non-toxic
  • ensuring the machine can be easily upgraded, thanks to a few screws that open the chassis, thus lengthening the product’s life.
  • Touchscreens and cooling fans use “Ocean Glass,” which is made from plastic bags and trash fished out of the ocean.
  • Scrap materials used in production are all recycled. Thirty percent of the keycaps and chassis are made from recycled plastics.
  • The chassis is paint free

Other elements of the VERO line are more cosmetic and reinforce green behavior.  Using mica in the chassis gives it a “sustainable look”.  Acer has  even gone so far as to style the “R” and “E” keys to enforce the message “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.” And of course, the machines are available only in “natural colors.”

The Acer Vero is waving its sustainability flag. Hopefully this creates a more educated consumer.

Michelle Chuaprasert, Senior Director of Innovation and Sustainability at Intel, believes that while green solutions are very much in progress, they may not be touted as much as they should be. An engineer by training, she has been putting great emphasis on both greening production and working with partners to create greener product designs. “One of our goals was to tackle water management, “ she says. “The goal is to be water positive in terms of reuse and recycling by 2030.” She reports that Intel is 99 percent of the way there. Over 80 percent of the energy used in its plants comes from renewables including solar and wind. New production facilities are LEED certified.

On the product side, Intel is looking for a 10X increase in energy efficiency (measured in the performance per watt of its chips)  by the end of the decade.  The company has even designed its own NUC PC using recycled packaging and plastics, aiming to keep materials out of landfills.

“When we work with our OEMs our teams co-engineer to look at where we can meet sustainability targets without sacrificing performance,” says Chuaprasert. “We have the biggest impact on the motherboard itself by choosing the greenest components with the highest energy efficiency.” In the future, she says, Intel will be looking at bio-based materials.

So here’s the thing. These are two examples of companies that deserve an “A” for effort, but the PC industry is not even close to mitigating the damage that’s been done to the environment through usage of its technology.

So how do we step up the pace?  Some of that falls on consumers, too.  We need to amplify best practices like these, so that we all can model green behavior. Governments, educators, and other larger purchasers of PCs should insist that manufacturers meet the EPEAT Gold standard. And the industry needs to educate us better about the steps it is taking down the green path.

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Major Investment in Air-Conditioning Needed to Address Future Heat Waves

More than 80% of urban residents will need air-conditioning by the 2050s, but many of the world’s poorer countries may struggle to meet that demand.

During Europe’s mid-July heat wave—when temperatures topped 40°C—countries such as Spain and Germany recorded thousands of excess deaths as people succumbed to heat-related injuries and illnesses. Earlier this year, India and Pakistan experienced their hottest March on record, with an unusually early heat wave that killed at least 90 people.

By the 2050s, large swaths of the world will need some form of air-conditioning (AC) to ride out these extreme heat waves or face deadly consequences, according to new research published in Energy and Buildings. But few countries have anywhere near enough cooling capacity to protect residents.

Heating Beyond Human Limits

With our unique ability to sweat off excess heat, humans have adapted to life in a wide range of climates. But there is a limit to what we can tolerate before our internal cooling system can no longer operate. Evaporative cooling of sweaty skin is particularly inefficient when the surrounding air is already heavy with humidity.

When the mercury spikes, people around the world turn to shade, swimming, and fans to keep cool. Relatively few rely on air-conditioning. In the hottest regions of the world, including Indonesia and India, only about 8% of homes currently have an AC unit. In Europe, that number tops out at 20%.

With more frequent heat waves on the horizon due to climate change, mechanical cooling may become a necessity, however. “Severe heat has acute impacts, and air-conditioning is an extremely effective way to protect against those impacts,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study.

An Air-Conditioned Future

To assess how actual heat stress and risks will change, scientists turned to the perceived temperature, called the wet-bulb temperature, which conveys how hot it feels considering humidity, temperature, Sun angle, wind, and cloud cover. On days when the wet-bulb temperature exceeds the threshold above which the human body cannot easily adapt, air-conditioning would be needed to limit excess deaths.

In the new study, the researchers used climate models to predict the number of days when that threshold would be passed in urban areas around the world under both a “business-as-usual” greenhouse gas emissions scenario and one in which emissions increased drastically by the 2050s. They then calculated the cumulative electricity demand from air conditioners in each country during these extreme heat events, assuming each unit was on for 6 hours a day.

As part of the Harvard-China Project, the scientists had been researching how to decarbonize India when they realized they needed to understand how energy demand would increase because of climate change, said Peter Sherman, a climate scientist at Harvard University and lead author of the study.

Previous studies had projected demand from gross domestic product and population growth, he said, “but what’s often not considered is increased demand for electricity associated with air-conditioning.”

Because climate models are global, the group decided to provide these estimates for countries around the world, Sherman said.

By the 2050s, in the high-emissions scenario, more than 80% of urban residents in most countries (including wealthier countries such as the United States and Japan, and developing countries such as India and Indonesia) will need air-conditioning to ride out extreme heat waves. In the United States and Japan, 90% of homes already have at least one air conditioner, so installing additional units does not pose a major challenge. However, in Indonesia and India, only 8% of homes have units. In Indonesia, air-conditioning during days when the wet-bulb temperature exceeds the threshold could account for up to 75% of the country’s current total electricity demand, according to the study.

Considering population growth, urbanization, and climate change over the next 30 years, some of the world’s hottest places will need major investments in air-conditioning to meet demand during extreme heat events, according to the study. The tropics are particularly vulnerable because their high heat and humidity make for deadly wet-bulb temperatures, and some of these areas have the lowest current rates of AC use. These areas are also highly sensitive to the different emissions scenarios the study evaluated.

Residents of urban centers in the tropics, therefore, face a particularly tough cooling future, especially if the world does not curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“The largest source of uncertainty in the future climate is the human dimension,” said Diffenbaugh.

Cooling Begets Warming

When calculating energy demand, the researchers assumed that increased air-conditioning usage will come in the form of ductless mini split units—wall-mounted air conditioners designed to cool a single room. However, these units have a high up-front cost, and in developing countries, cheaper, less efficient window units will likely fill the demand, said Shelie Miller, an environmental engineer at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study. “If anything, [the study’s researchers] may be underestimating the electricity demand because they are assuming a much more efficient unit than window ACs.”

But blanketing the world in even high-efficiency air conditioners would strain electrical grids and generate greenhouse gases.

Air conditioner manufacturing and usage account for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the aviation industry produces, said Jason Woods, a research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory who was not involved in the study.

“More air-conditioning means more carbon dioxide emissions, which then means more climate warming, which means more air-conditioning energy use,” Woods said. To break that cycle, we need to develop more efficient cooling technologies and power those systems with renewable energy, he added.

Unequal Cooling

The findings highlight widely disparate access to cooling between wealthy and developing nations. Some studies have shown that the gap exists even within individual countries or cities.

“It’s the more affluent people who have access to this cooling,” said Neil Jennings, a geographer at Imperial College London who was not involved with the study. “The presence of that cooling then means that more heat [from the units] is being dumped out into the streets, which then means that those who don’t have access to cooling are exposed to even higher temperatures.”

Renewable energy sources, more efficient cooling solutions, and a return to traditional building practices—such as using dense building materials, windows, and shade to maximize insulation and airflow—may be needed to address the growing number of extreme heat days projected to hit some countries, Woods noted.

“I think [the study] really highlights the need to have action now,” Miller said, “rather than as things continue to get worse over time.”

—Jennifer Schmidt (@DrJenGEO), Science Writer

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5 Most Sustainable Startups 2022

It’s not just big corporations that are making a significant impact. Here are five startups raising the industry standard for sustainable solutions to our biggest problems.

With so many name-brand corporations making ambitious pledges to become net-zero emitters, it is easy to overlook the smaller, less well-known startups that have treated climate change as a primary concern from the get-go. In order to go back in time and repair the damage done to our planet, we need all hands on deck. Whether it is a massive conglomerate or a small startup, restructuring modern society will require innovation. So, in addition to highlighting 10 well-known companies making real progress, here are four startups pulling toward the same goal.

Kidizen

Kidizen co-founders Dori Graff (R) and Mary Fallon (L). Photo courtesy of Kidizen.

2.2 billion pounds of children’s clothing ends up in landfills every year according to EPA estimates. This amount equates to roughly forty-five pounds per child per year. Kidizen, a leading re-commerce company in North America is cutting down on the amount of children’s apparel ending up in U.S. landfills. Founders Dori Graff and Mary Fallon are finding success in creating a business model that empowers parents to easily resell gently used brand-name children’s clothing to other moms and dads who are seeking quality garments at a discount. “As the entire fashion and apparel re-commerce market scales, we know we will make a significant dent not only in the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills but also, hopefully, lowering voracious global demand,” commented Graff, the Kidizen CEO.

AERA

AERA shoes are 110 percent sustainable, meaning that each pair purchased actually has a negative carbon footprint. Photo courtesy of AERA.

AERA is another example of a startup that is revolutionizing the fashion sector. Founder and CEO Tina Bhojwani, who led Dolce & Gabanna in a past life, launched the shoe company in 2019 to create an all vegan, net-carbon negative alternative for luxury footwear shoppers. Only a few years into her business plan, the fast-growing enterprise has quickly been embraced by high-end retailers and celebrities alike, and in doing so, has given the rest of the industry cover to launch more mass-appeal vegan shoes. “Our mission is twofold: to show that style, design, and luxury quality can go hand in hand with sustainability and to prove that profit and purpose can coexist,” remarked Tinha Bhojwani, the CEO of AERA. “For us, it was important to present beautiful, comfortable shoes to the world, and the icing on the cake is that they are vegan, carbon negative, and B-corp certified. My hope is that the work we are doing at AERA can inspire both the industry and consumers to think differently about how we produce and shop so that together we can address the social and environmental issues we collectively face,” remarked Bhojwani. And with sales of AERA at Saks Fifth Avenue going through the roof, it’s easy to see why more accessible brands like Steve Madden, Jessica Simpson, and Guess might want to follow suit soon.

Steele Brands

Some call Steele Smiley a modern day Ray Kroc who envisions a healthier, more sustainable future for fast-casual dining. Photo courtesy of Steele Brands.

Another explosive startup that is taking an indirect albeit powerful swipe at global carbon emissions is Steele Brands, an innovative chain of fast-casual restaurants centered around healthful eating. The genius of founder Steele Smiley’s vision is rooted in creating plant-based protein alternatives to some of America’s favorite fast foods. Steele Brand’s Stalk & Spade franchise is a fast-growing 100 percent plant-based alternative to McDonald’s while his Paco & Lime brand has clearly set its sights on dethroning Chipotle from its thirty-year run as the unofficial global purveyor of bespoke Tex-Mex. And with over 10 percent of current global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions directly linked to livestock, Steele is betting that his initiatives will take a bite out of global beef, pork and poultry consumption.

Puris Foods

Tyler Lorenzen (L) is CEO of Puris Proteins and his sister, Nicole Atchison (R), is the CEO of Puris Holdings. Photo courtesy of Puris.

When it comes to plant-based proteins, further upstream in the supply chain sits Puris Foods, a fast-growing supplier for the global food industry. The company is helmed by Tyler Lorenzen, a former NFL tight-end who hung up his cleats to join his sister, Nicole Atchison, a PhD in biomedical engineering, to build what has become one of world’s largest suppliers of pea-based protein inputs–the key ingredient in many retail plant-based foods including Beyond Meat. After recently securing a $75 million cash injection from global agricultural behemoth Cargill to expand its production capacity, Puris is now setting its course to address global markets with its disruptive protein business and, in doing so, is reframing global eating practices for a far more sustainable future.

CleanO2

Clean02 is turning carbon waste into cleaning products. Photo courtesy of CleanO2.

Leading the charge to tackle climate change head-on is Canadian start-up CleanO2. The company recently made headlines after securing a sizeable investment from Regeneration, a VC fund backed by actor cum environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio. Using proprietary technology to capture carbon-rich heat waste originating in residential buildings (such as boilers and heating tanks) CleanO2 converts it on the spot to a compound that can be repurposed into a variety of household bath soaps and cleaning products. Cofounder and CEO Jaeson Cardiff is creating a vacuum that sucks up wayward carbon emissions to build a carbon-based product retail empire.

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Sustainability Software Takes the Spotlight

New tools help leaders preserve the planet—and increase profit.

Today’s buzz-phrases for tech proficiency in business are well known. Data drives innovation. AI is the future. The sustainability-related perils facing business are established too. Greenhouse gas emissions must reach net zero within decades. Climate catastrophes are increasing at a staggering rate, and threaten not only social contracts but the bottom line. What isn’t so obvious? How to bring the former and latter together in a way that helps solve the issues. Enter sustainability software and the emerging arena of integration within it.

Integration may sound simple, but the reality is much more complex. Gathering vast amounts of sustainability-related data across a business’ divisions is a giant undertaking in and of itself. Getting that data into a single source of record, and using sustainability-focused software and analytics that themselves are integrated to work together can yield insights that are crucial in a business world increasingly under pressure to meet compliance demands and achieve economic goals in a new way. Yet solutions have been lacking until now.

As sustainability climbs higher on the corporate agenda, technology leaders are focusing on innovations that help companies increase their ESG successes and accelerate innovation and growth at the same time.

At the head of the—still slim—pack is IBM. A dominant force in business since its inception over a century ago, it’s ideally situated to address this challenge, providing strong data foundation tools for decades. In many ways, that still lies at the heart of their approach. But their capabilities for organizations to harness that data and turn sustainability ambitions into actions reached a new level this past January. 

It was then that IBM acquired Envizi, a critical piece of the puzzle for connecting sustainability into broader business operations. A “sustainability performance” tool for ESG management, reporting and analytics, it allows for automated collection and consolidation of more than 500 types of data, which is then displayed on simple-to-use dashboards that are accessible to all types of business stakeholders. This data can range from air travel costs to measurable elements of diversity and inclusion initiatives to real estate holdings’ energy metrics. Having unified it into one place, Envizi can help companies identify issues like energy use inefficiencies, measure progress on how they are tracking against specific sustainability goals, and streamline compliance reporting—with capabilities for reporting against a multiplicity of ESG frameworks.  

That’s just the beginning. Other AI-powered tools from IBM measure and analyze everything from cloud workload optimization, to the health and efficiency of physical assets, to supply chain metrics, to possible disruptive environmental events. Yet, again: It’s not only the integrative capabilities of the tools to bring data together within their own dashboards but their ability to work together that’s key to helping companies turn their eco-ambitions into action. These integrated capabilities have just begun to be rolled out, and will continue to grow over time—opening a new world of possibilities for connecting sustainability to daily business processes. In the words of Christina Shim, head of Strategy and Sustainability for IBM Sustainability Software, the question is, “How can we leverage AI to support the average worker, and make it easy for them to understand and do their part in driving sustainability?” Now, “With a couple of clicks, they can do the analytics that they need to do. Then they can put those insights into the business and make sure those are action-ed upon.” All automatically, at least in technological terms.

What does this look like in practice? Each organization is in a different place in terms of its technological sophistication and sustainability goals, and Shim notes that even most Fortune 500 companies still use manual spreadsheets to gather data. A company’s location can dictate things like disparate country regulations they need to follow as well. But an example of sustainability tech in action is illustrated by Sundt & Baelt, which operates and owns some of the largest infrastructure projects in the world. Among the projects: the eleven-mile Great Belt Bridge in Denmark. In the past, maintenance inspections had to be performed manually—with mountaineers climbing the bridge’s side to complete certain tasks. Now, using software tools from IBM, drone photos illustrate structure status more safely, AI and 3D models help identify cracks and corrosion areas, and insights are available remotely—all of which drive key decisions about bridge maintenance. As a result, the bridge is expected to last a century longer than it would have otherwise—saving as much as 750,000 tons of CO2 emissions. Maintenance productivity is expected to increase by up to 25%. 

Sundt & Baelt qualifies as a trailblazer. But the need for sustainability software is exploding in businesses regardless of their point of view on ESG alone. Companies know they’re on the verge of being compelled to meet environmental regulations in many instances, and they’re seeing sustainability issues affect the bottom line and relationships with both customers and investors. Last year, sustainability and social responsibility tied as the third most important concern for large organizations in a report from Forrester Research. Yet fragmentation of data is still rampant, and the information that is known is often going under-utilized. An IBM study showed that 44% of CEOs cite lack of data insights as a problem when it comes to meeting sustainability goals.

Shim, who will be featured at Techonomy’s The Health+Wealth of Our Planet conference during Climate Week, on September 20, is optimistic about technology’s ability to help companies get up to speed, and spur growth and innovation. She also foresees a world in which the sustainability problem is understood more holistically. “Right now, the siloing between the environmental piece and what else is happening in the business around social, community issues—that decoupling is very forced.” She cites supply chain as one example—an area where carbon emissions are getting most of the prioritization today, but where other important ethical issues like labor practices are also highly relevant and should be considered. Such dividing up of the issues “is not how the world works…The way people need to think about it is, these are all interrelated.” 

For more on the future of climate, business and sustainability, register for The Health+Wealth of Our Planet conference, presented by Techonomy and Worth, here.

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Purpose-Built Clouds Fly Even Higher

New “Industry Cloud” solutions reduce cost and accelerate innovation. The end result will be better outcomes for patients, businesses, and society.

Picture this: You’re a patient with a life-threatening illness who learns that the medication you need will be brought to market years early. Or you’re a pandemic-pounded executive able to charge customers via an innovative new business model—and you can suddenly set it up within weeks instead of months. Or even–You’re a researcher who moves from a flawed hypothesis-based clinical trial to a better one, due to datasets that become complete so quickly that such a thing has never been achievable before.

All of these scenarios might sound, and indeed still largely are, futuristic. But they’re not far off, due to an increasingly sophisticated and novel approach to technology known as “industry cloud.”

In a sense, industry cloud is simply the next step in the decade-plus transformation of business prompted by the rapid evolution of internet-based servers and storage, and special software built to take advantage of it. (So potent does basic cloud remain that nearly $500 billion will be spent on it this year by companies and organizations, a 20 percent increase over 2021.) But industry cloud is more. It is a breakthrough in its own right. Instead of a catch-all version of cloud, which is what most businesses and other organizations still essentially use, it’s designed and architected, first, to meet a specific industry’s objectives. It does that using templates outfitted with industry-specific features and functionality, and then it’s contextualized further to meet an organization’s needs thanks to a dedicated digital engineering team.

How does it work, exactly? Industry cloud can be thought of as a set of layers, from basic cloud infrastructure at the bottom to those bespoke bells and whistles at the top. Ryan Lockard, Global CTO, Cloud Technology Services at professional services company Cognizant, cites Philips HealthSuite, a template platform it offers in partnership with the leading health tech company, as a prime example. HealthSuite is pre-formatted to be legally compliant in the strictly regulated healthcare industry, exceptionally secure in a space where patient data confidentiality is key, and particularly cost-effective. “If you think about industry cloud as a house, then for this tool AWS [Amazon Web Services] poured the foundation, Philips put up the walls and the roof, and then we, Cognizant, customized the inside—the fit, the treatment of the kitchen, and all of that.”

So far, so good. Among the many organizations that use it, including those in biopharma, medical devices, hospital systems, and others are giants like Novartis. The pharma company specifically uses it to help reduce notoriously high patient dropout rates in clinical trials, employing HealthSuite’s simplified remote monitoring capabilities. (HealthSuite achieves this ease of remote use via by being designed to be compatible with a wide array of wearables, medical devices and apps.) Another early HealthSuite adopter, a global company which specializes in eye and vision care products, was able to transform cataract surgery by using predictive models based on the system’s customized data gathering and sharing capabilities, which span doctors, patients, and researchers. That company now anticipates and pinpoints surgical problems before they appear, and implements better solutions once they do.

Given industry cloud’s utility and, in a sense, the straightforward philosophy behind it, one might wonder why something like this hasn’t been on offer earlier. The reason is at least understandable: Costs would have been prohibitive if it needed to be created from scratch for each company. (In the same way that it did with Philips, Cognizant works with initial clients in diverse industries to co-create a basic industry cloud template. Then it takes this to market in conjunction with those clients, or sometimes on its own, using different deal structures.) The dust also needed to settle after the initial rush to a cloud-everything, all-the-time approach that executives across business adopted in the wake of cloud’s creation. That process went on steroids during the pandemic. “We’re definitely in a place where…leaders are now past initial cloud investment,” says Cognizant Americas Strategy and Innovation leader Brian Williams, who helped create HealthSuite. “Now executives are saying, ‘What do I do after [that basic stage of] lift and shift? How can I innovate on the cloud with new business models, new value, and capture opportunities?” Cognizant calls this moving from a “cloud first” to a “cloud smart” approach, in which industry cloud is at the tip of the new trend’s spear.

And it’s only gaining popularity. Cognizant isn’t alone in offering industry cloud, of course; everyone from so-called “hyper-scalers” like Microsoft to outfits like software company Red Hat (owned by IBM) have their own versions. But what sets Cognizant apart is the robustness and specificity of its offerings in banking, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and other industries, and its status as a services firm specializing in digital engineering rather than the cloud product itself. “When you think about a hyper-scaler [or other software provider] giving you the solution to simplify your technology landscape, it’s going to be that hyper-scaler’s product answer, right?” says Lockard. “But Cognizant is basically agnostic to the technology that you use. We’re just the integrator of the technologies. So in that sense we’re in a uniquely positioned space to have a strong point of view on this” and to keep customers’ needs paramount.

Cognizant is also forward-thinking in bigger ways. Lockard foresees a day when industry cloud transcends business concerns alone. “Let’s take away the capitalistic hat and think about this for a moment from a human level,” he suggests. “Today every provider, payer, and other institution in the field maintains its own datasets,” he continues. “But as we start normalizing against a smaller number of industry cloud solutions, by the nature of that contraction we’re creating a more normalized amount of data.” As a result, healthcare data, to use one important example, will become increasingly standardized. He continues: “That will allow us to accelerate time to insight and the time to novel discovery, so that we can bring about an even better understanding of anything from drugs to disease to mitigating factors” because the information can be shared across entire ecosystems of academics, patients, doctors, and businesses more inclusively. The end result, he promises, will “bring about better outcomes not only for patients, but better outcomes for society.”

To learn more about Cognizant Cloud Solutions, click here.

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The Business of Business is Climate

The climate is telling us something’s wrong. Business is starting to hear the message. U.S. Steel, Ericsson, and other companies are changing, and finding new ways to work with environmentalists.

How bad does it need to get? As we at Techonomy prepped for our recent conference on business and climate, we talked to businesspeople of all sorts, as well as climate scientists, environmentalists, and investing experts. As we did, global weather was in a historic tailspin which certainly is just the tip of a melting iceberg yet to come. Tens of millions of Pakistanis are fleeing still-rising waters. A heatwave with no precedent afflicts much of Western China. Europe had its hottest summer in history. And the Yangtze, Rhine, and Colorado rivers are all drastically lower than in memory. 

Across the U.S., we’re feeling it strongly. Temperatures recently broke 100 degrees fahrenheit in Palo Alto, the center of our old world, back when we thought the internet was the most important topic. (And it hit 116 in Sacramento.) And in just a hint of the kinds of second-order effects that are likely to begin afflicting more and more of us, 200,000 residents in predominantly-Black Jackson, Mississippi were without safe water after floods devastated the city’s infrastructure – an example of what some are calling “environmental racism”. 

Yet the world proceeds on its blithe course. It continues to be considered, at least in the U.S., acceptable discourse to deny that global warming is caused by humans. Some states, notably Texas and Florida, are actually trying to punish investment firms that take global warming seriously. And just about all of us still behave as if things are basically the way they’ve always been. We drive our guzzlers, we keep buying things we don’t need. Many of us still fly around, even though that is generally how individuals contribute most to climate-warming emissions. 

It feels heartening, on a day to day basis, when we talk to people like Rich Fruehauf, chief strategy and sustainability officer at U.S. Steel. Contrary to what many might expect, that company is taking extensive steps to reduce emissions. Steel is a big contributor to global warming–some estimates suggest the industry contributes up to 8 percent of global CO2. But we need it for the green transition, for electric infrastructure, charging stations, new utility transformers, and transmission lines, not to mention e-vehicles. Did you know that two-thirds of American steel mills now use “electric arc furnaces”, which create only one-quarter the greenhouse gasses that traditional blast furnace steel plants do? Such electrically-powered plants produce new steel from recycled scrap—old cars, washing machines, and the like.

Another speaker who gives us hope is Heather Johnson, chief sustainability officer at telecommunications giant Ericsson. It’s had active work in this area for well over a decade, and is committed not just to “net zero” emissions by 2040 in all its operations, but also in the use of its products by customers. We had a good conversation in our prep call about how that sort of ecosystem pressure will generate reductions across supply chains, as companies of all sorts, we hope, adopt increasingly-stringent goals. (A similar conversation emerged in our recent virtual roundtable on carbon accounting–it’s worth watching.)

Speakers at the conference were enthusiastic about the just-enacted U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which this crowd more often thinks of as the “Carbon Reduction Act,” even though they wish it had done much more. The bill allocates a historic amount of federal dollars for climate tech and climate action. Among many follow-on benefits is that investors will gain reassurance that climate-friendly corporate actions will be profitable. Climate tech companies will also see prospects brighten as their products and services find larger and more reliable markets.

We need systems thinking to address our interlocking crises, and there’s not enough of it. One entire session at the conference focused on that, with speakers from our partner Deloitte as well as Citi and environmental group RMI. And Elizabeth Sturcken, who heads the EDF+Business program at the Environmental Defense Fund, another of our partners, interviewed authors of the important recent book Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving our Climate Crisis Now

But there’s just so much to do, and still not nearly enough being done. It’s the inevitably slow pace of emissions-reduction progress, alongside the quickening pace of climate degradation, that is most disturbing. And the challenge is made dramatically greater by the fact that well over half the planet remains justifiably intent on accelerating their pace of economic development. It is not just incongruous but also unethical for us to live the way we do while billions have so little power or water or infrastructure. As we steadily reduce the global inequality gap, which we must, we and they have to find ways for those billions to improve their standard of living without concomitant increases in emissions. 

If we don’t, and don’t simultaneously reduce our own developed-world carbon footprint, the prognosis is unbelievably grim. Temperatures will increase considerably from here anyway, no matter what we do. We’re barely past one degree celsius over historic levels so far, and even major emissions reductions will likely not keep us to less than two degrees in coming decades. That’s one reason a recent study calculated that, as a Guardian headline put it, “Major sea-level rise caused by melting of Greenland ice cap is ‘now inevitable.’” And Bill McKibben points out this week in his superb newsletter that weather extremes grow worse exponentially–not linearly–as temperatures go up.

Our conference was all about the ways this complex and scary set of realities must transform the conduct and nature of business globally. We’re happy to have been able to bring together not just the speakers we’ve mentioned but also pioneers like Eileen Fisher and newly-passionate business thinkers like Seth Godin. It’s just the beginning of a transformed economy. We hope.

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