Innovation That Matters

Spotted: A group of researchers at Tel Aviv University have used a 3D printer to create a cherry-sized heart out of human tissue. While 3D printers have replicated the structure of a heart in the past, this is the first time someone has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart, including cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers, according to professor Tal Dvir, who led the project.

The team took a biopsy of fatty tissue cells from the patient. That was turned into “ink” for the 3D printer. The result was a complete heart the size of a cherry. The technology to create a human heart would be the same, the team says. But scientists are still struggling to create enough tissue to print a human-size heart, among other challenges, like teaching the heart how to work. While the cells can contract, they do not yet have the ability to pump.

The plan is to transplant 3D-printed hearts into animals in about a year. “Maybe, in 10 years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely,” Dvir said.

Spotted: The Chinese video sharing site Kuaishou is allowing users to monetise their videos by linking them to online stores. For example, a farmer may post a video about their farm, and then use the site to sell fresh farm products. Other users post funny dog videos that link to pet food sales sites.

The site has built a reputation for posting videos of people performing crazy antics, such as putting firecrackers in their underwear or showing off their knife-spinning skills. But the site is also popular with ordinary people, who post videos of their daily lives.

Kuaishou has around 130 million active daily users, mostly in in lower-tier cities and rural areas. The site’s biggest rival Douyin, which targets users in China’s top tier cities, has also added e-commerce functionality, by integrating external online shopping links from Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce platform. Taobao has also recently launched an AI program called Alibaba Wood, which can produce up to 200 short videos of products in one minute and can automatically match the music style in the video to whatever people are selling.

Spotted: A German-Mexican collaboration is building beehives out of used plastic straws. Last Straw is a campaign to save bees and reduce plastic waste. The idea came to digital marketing agency Flock Linked by Isobar as a way to encourage people to stop using straws. It partnered with honey producers Son De Miel and digital production company Praxlab to create the campaign.

Last Straw is a prototype of a man-made bee hive, created entirely of used plastic straws. The team discovered that standard straws are the same size as Apis Mellifera honeycomb cells. Straws are also made out of the same type of plastic used to manufacture artificial beehives. That means it is more likely bees would accept the straw-based hive. The team worked with professional bee keepers and academics to design the hive and introduce the bees.

The prototype bee hive is already hosting a bee colony. The plans for the man-made hive are available online for free.

Spotted: A Finnish-based startup has created an app that coordinates all forms of city transportation into a single platform, potentially providing a single solution for all transportation needs. The Whim app eliminates the need for different passes and tickets. Instead of juggling each service’s payment service, users opt for different subscriptions.

The goal is to simplify travel and to make commutes “eco trips not ego trips”, according to Whim founder Sampo Hietanen. More access to alternative forms of transportation means “less traffic, less pollution, less stressful journeys,” Hietanen said.

Whim offers a variety of payment options, including pay-as-you go and monthly subscription fees. It is currently available in the West Midlands and Helsinki. It is expanding to Belgium this year.

Spotted: Researchers from MIT are growing better basil, with no help from genetic modification. Instead, they used machine learning to determine optimum growing conditions (24-hour exposure to light helps). The plants were grown in modified shipping containers. The environmental factors – like temperature, light, humidity – were controlled automatically. The study’s findings were published earlier this month.

“We were trying to use the machine learning to learn how to change the climate,” Caleb Harper, principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab, told the Boston Globe. “Could it look through all these variables and come up with alternative recipes that would change the climate to express more of what we wanted?“

The team will use the data from the basil project to study how to improve plants’ ability to fight diseases. The data will also be used to study how plants could respond to climate change.

Spotted:  French designer Philippe Starck has partnered with an algorithm to create a chair. The collaboration is a world-first, according to Autodesk, the software company that owns the algorithm. The chair is called A.I. in honour of the human-machine partnership.

The chair was created using a technique called generative design. That means Starck provided specific parameters — weight, strength, and stipulations for manufacturing (he also wanted it to be beautiful). The algorithm came up with designs based on those qualifications.

Autodesk previously partnered with the likes of NASA and General Motors to create other generative projects, but none of those have gone to market. The chair will be available for purchase this summer through the Italian furniture company Kartell.

The term green nanotechnology is actually used to describe two separate processes — making nanotech itself less toxic, and using it to make existing products and processes safer and more sustainable. Let’s look at some applications of green nanotechnology and how it’s being developed to drive sustainability.

Benefits of nanotechnology

Cleaning up: Researchers continue to find new ways of using nanoparticles to clean up toxic chemicals. For example, iron nanoparticles can be added to the toxic solvent tetrachloroethene (commonly used in dry cleaning). As the iron oxidizes, or rusts, it reacts with the tetrachloroethene to transform it into ethane, which is a safer hydrocarbon. Researchers are also working on ways to use nanoscale iron to reduce heavy metals and radionuclides.

Nanotechnology can be applied to water filtration systems to filter out bacteria and viruses. The wastewater is forced, under pressure, through nanoscale pores that are too small for bacteria or viruses to fit through.

Nanosensors are being developed that can detect contamination, pollution and pathogens in real time, allowing clean-up before a problem grows too large. Nanocoatings are being used to make substances such as paint, reducing the use of water and chemicals.

An Israeli company has also used nanotechnology to create an aerosol can that can spray without using ozone-harming chemicals.

Preserving the environment: Nanoparticles have been used as additives in glass, paints and film coatings to allow these materials to reflect or transmit specific wavelengths of solar energy, including heat energy. This allows windows and walls to either reflect or absorb heat, depending on the season, reducing energy bills.

Researchers are working on a way to make batteries out of electrodes packed with nanorods. These could be used to generate energy from the difference in salinity (levels of salt) between seawater and fresh water.

Green nanotech can also be used to solve problems caused by nanotech itself. Most sunscreens contain nanoparticles of titanium dioxide or iron oxide, which is toxic to marine life. Researchers at the University of Tennessee are working to create a greener alternative using nanoparticles extracted from English ivy. The particles are biodegradable, water-resistant and block UV rays.

In fact, there may be many green uses for naturally-occurring nanochemicals. Gold nanoparticles are used in applications such as fuel cells and chemical sensors, but producing them requires large amounts of toxic solvents. Researchers at the University of Oregon have developed a way to develop gold nanoparticles using non-toxic solvents and nano filtration. The process is greener, faster and cheaper than the previous method.

Cleaner energy: Researchers at the University of Antwerp and the University of Leuven in Belgium have created a device which uses a membrane created from nanomaterials to extract hydrogen from air pollution. This hydrogen can then be stored as a potential clean fuel source. The device runs on solar power. It could allow cities to convert their air pollution into an abundant source of clean energy.

At the University of Texas at Dallas and Hanyang University in South Korea, material engineers have developed a yarn made of spun carbon nanotubes which produces an electric current when stretched. The researchers created a shirt from the yarn that produced an electrical signal each time the wearer breathed. The signal was strong enough to power a sensor. They also demonstrated a way to use the yarn to harvest energy from waves.

Turning motion into energy is also the goal of researchers at Vanderbilt University, who have developed a system that uses nanotechnology to harvest energy from human motion. They have created nano-sheets of black phosphorous just a few atoms thick. Bending or pressing the nanosheets produces a small electrical current that can be harvested and stored in a battery. When incorporated into clothing, the sheets are capable of producing an electric current from basic activities such as sitting, standing and walking.

What’s next: Most of the green nanotech applications mentioned above have actually been created. The next steps will include making them work at scale, and for the right price. Yet, these innovations highlighted are only the tip of the green nanotech iceberg. Scientists around the world are continuing to work on new ways of using the tech to save energy and to clean up waste.

Spotted: London and Berlin-based startup Medbelle is building what it calls the first “digital hospital.” The project allows patients to book their medical procedures through a web and app-based platform. After registering, a patient’s details are accessible via a web portal and app. The end goal is a platform where both patients and care providers can access all information from one digital source.

“Our vision is to create a world in which all patients can navigate their treatment journey digitally and receive personal care at the click of a button,” Medbelle co-founder Leander de Laporte told Tech Crunch “There is a massive lack of digitisation and patient care for medical procedures and little sight of someone changing this entirely. This results in a lack of quality and price transparency, bad communication and patients feeling left alone and neglected in their treatment journey.”

Medbelle raised $7 million in Series A funding. Currently, Medbelle only works with private patients, but it is hoping to collaborate with the NHS and more insurance providers in the future.

Spotted: Coca-Cola is trying out a new communication strategy in South East Asia based on the idea of “experience.” The company hopes that its “integrated brand experience” (IBX), with a focus on shaping new consumer habits, will help it to stay relevant as consumer tastes shift away from fizzy drinks and towards healthier alternatives.

This approach isn’t exactly ground-breaking in general world of marketing, but few FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) brands have made this shift. “Experience is not new, but I think for a brand like Coke or the Coca-Cola Company in the packaged goods industry, we have to think differently. We have these old rules, but you need to break those rules,” Pratik Thakar, director of integrated marketing communication of Coca-Cola ASEAN, told The Drum.

Changing consumer habits toward healthier drinks are a driving force here. At the start of this year, Coke launched its energy drink Coca-Cola Energy. Last year, the company acquired Costa Coffee and sports drink BodyArmor. Coke also used crowdfunding site Indiegogo to launch its premium Swiss water brand Valser in the North American market, and is rebranding older products and investing more in its lower-sugar variants.

Coca-Cola is also focusing much of its product expansion on the fast-growing South East Asia market. Coca-Cola Clear with lemon was launched in China in 2017, and the company has been launching products every week in Japan, many of them as marketing experiments. For example, the company launched Coke with Coffee in Japan, designed specifically for people looking for a pick-me-up during an afternoon energy slump. The company has also launched Coke plus Fibre in Japan. The company claims the drink, which is is targeted at the over-40s, lowers the body’s fat absorption.

Spotted: Panasonic has created a transparent, integrated television screen. Designed in partnership with Swiss furniture company Vitra, Vitrine initially appears to be a clear sheet of glass. Set in a wood frame, the display transforms into a high-quality OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen.

OLED technology uses organic films placed between two conductors. When electricity is applied, the films light up. This allows OLED screens to be much thinner than other display designs. When not in use, and with all technical components hidden within the wooden frame, the display operates seamlessly as a piece of furniture. It can also be used to provide additional lighting when not being watched.

The screen formed part of Vitra’s 2019 Salone del Mobile exhibition. As a concept design, Panasonic is actively seeking feedback and expressions of interest before considering any further production.