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Amnon Dekel

I always enjoy Jeff Pulver’s networking “breakfasts” which he holds around the world. Pulver, a VoiP superstar and lately startup angel with a passion for Israel, usually hosts his breakfast shindigs in Tel Aviv, but last week he came to Jerusalem.

I approach a networking event like a Kiddush at shul. You want to flit around as much as possible (while not being too rude with quick getaways) but if you find yourself talking to someone particularly interesting, you stay put.

That was the case when I met up with Amnon Dekel. Dekel is an old friend (he used to run the Digital Media Studies program at the IDC in Herzeliya and hired me to teach a course) and he’s about to turn in his doctoral dissertation to Hebrew University. The topic: “indoor navigation.”

Dekel has identified a problem you probably never thought about, but that’s a potential “next big thing.” Mobile phones are great at using GPS to find their position outside. But they don’t work so well under a roof of, say, a library.

Dekel’s research specifies a methodology for locating objects such as books, and it doesn’t require transmitters to be installed all over the ceiling of the space. The idea is that you’d type in the title or author into your phone, and you’d receive a map telling you exactly which floor, section and even shelf you should head to.

Dekel has built a working prototype in the Harman Library on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. His tests show that, using the system, it takes only half the time to find a book and people make less navigation mistakes and need less help from others to find the book.

The same technology could be used in warehouses, bookstores and manufacturing plants, Dekel says.

That’s not to say that it’s easy – staff at the physical site need to input data, items may need to be scanned – but it’s a fascinating start.

The system has yet to be commercialized (venture capitalists – take note). But, who knows (and Dekel will scold me for writing this), you could eventually crown yourself mayor of the Dewey decimal system!

This article appeared last year on the Israelity blog.

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A New Patch Promises to Knock Out Acne

by Brian Blum on November 17, 2010

in Products,Research

Teenagers suffering from acne will try anything to make the redness and infection go away, but current treatments have mixed results and numerous applications are usually necessary.

Now, Oplon, a three-year-old medical materials company in Rehovot in central Israel has come up with a unique “patch” that radiates an “energy field” that can knock out acne for good.

Beyond acne, Oplon, has high hopes for its technology which can also keep milk from spoiling, wipe out bacteria inside juice boxes, and even reduce the number of infections associated with hospital catheters.

Oplon works its magic by manufacturing polymers – a type of plastic – that have a very specific function: They disable microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. The polymers create an energy field “that can kill every microbe ever heard of,” says Omer Gonen, Oplon’s CFO. The energy field is safe: “It doesn’t radiate, it doesn’t heat and it doesn’t chill.”

Rather, it’s a chemical adaptation of a mechanism that has long existed in nature to help animals and plants defend against similar attackers. Indeed, these energy fields are “all around us,” Gonen says. “They’re in the air, in the room, and it’s much more energy than we create with a polymer.”

Oplon’s acne treatment consists of a patch with the polymers inside which the acne sufferer applies overnight. Within six hours, the redness, pus and pain associated with the acne will be significantly reduced, Gonen says. “After 24 hours, the spot will be practically fully healed.” Best of all, “In most cases, it’s a one-time treatment,” he adds.

However, parents shouldn’t be too quick to rejoice, Gonen quips, “We don’t solve all the teenagers’ problems. Just the acne.” The acne patch, considered a ‘medical device’ and not a drug, will be on Israeli pharmacy shelves early next year, sold over-the-counter, with no need for a prescription.

Marketing to the US and Europe will come only after the patch has been thoroughly tested in Israel. In that sense, the country will be a sort of national guinea pig. “Israel is a controlled environment. We’re a relatively small country,” Gonen explains. “After a year or so, we’ll have a better sense of customers’ reactions.”

The price has yet to be determined, but Gonen is confident that it “won’t be a big barrier.” And if Oplon can break in, there’s a very large piece of pie waiting to be gobbled up – the market for acne solutions is estimated at $60 billion, he says.

A cure for acne is just the start. The same material in the polymer patch can be applied to the inside of milk and juice cartons to zap bacteria. That would represent a sea change for food manufacturers who today have two main options for keeping their products fresh. They can add preservatives or ‘hot fill’ the carton with a beverage heated to 70 degrees Celsius.

Both of those solutions have serious downsides. Preservatives may lead to health problems while hot filling destroys much of the nutritional benefit. Both affect taste. Hot filling also requires thicker plastic to hold the liquid while it’s cooling, which costs manufacturers more and causes additional damage to the environment.

Conceivably, a milk carton with Oplon’s polymers wouldn’t even have to be refrigerated after opening, Gonen suggests.

While the acne patch is essentially a stand-alone product, advancing fairly quickly, Oplon’s progress with the beverage-makers is somewhat slower. While it offers them many benefits, it also requires serious buy-in. Manufacturers would have to purchase new carton material, since you can’t just ‘spray’ the microbe-eating polymers on existing cardboard boxes. Nevertheless, Gonen is optimistic that Oplon can “correctly engineer the prototypes to fit a production line of a major company.”

A third application in the Oplon pipeline involves urinary catheters which, Gonen claims, are responsible for a full 50 percent of hospital-acquired infections (affecting some 90,000 Americans a year), resulting in more days away from home, greater expense, extra antibiotics and, of course, increased discomfort for the patient.

Gonen says that Oplon’s material can even kill “super bugs” – those microbes resistant to all current antibiotics – like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and VRE (Vancomycin-resistant enterococcus). Oplon is just beginning clinical studies with catheters, so we’ll have to wait a little longer for that application.

As is often the case, Oplon’s polymer product line was discovered entirely by accident. The company was founded by a number of scientists – both chemists and physicists (key among them was Uriel Halavee who founded printed circuit board maker Opal which was sold in 1996 to Applied Materials). The scientists were working on an intra-cellular drug delivery system but the experiment went wrong.

“If it was me, I would have thrown it all in the garbage can,” Gonen smiles. But the scientists reviewed their formulas and realized they were on to something even bigger. “It really was a mistake,” Gonen says modestly. “Like the discovery of penicillin.”

Oplon is headed by Avi Shani, a 42-year-old father of five who’s a physician by training. The company has 15 staff members and is looking to triple in size in the coming year. While Gonen wouldn’t reveal the source of the funds for that growth, he allowed that Oplon is “in contact with some huge potential partners.” The company previously raised $5 million from Wanaka Capital Partners in 2008.

Oplon’s products represent a “huge platform that will enable us to continue developing products for many years to come. Each product has a market in the billions,” Gonen concludes.

We’ll have to wait and see whether Oplon achieves all of its ambitious goals, but in the meantime the teenagers can break out the bubbly – acne relief is on its way.

This article appeared originally on the Israel21 website.

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Multitasking in Tel Aviv

by Brian Blum on July 14, 2010

in Entrepreneurs,Social Media

From right to left: me, Benjy Lovitt, Lior Manor and his iPad

From right to left: me, Benjy Lovitt, Lior Manor and his iPad

A recent episode of the NPR program Science Friday featured an interview with Clifford Nass, the author of the forthcoming book “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” about whether human beings are truly able to multitask. His conclusion: not really.

Nass says that we have the illusion of multitasking, but in reality, we are switching from one task to another so quickly it seems like we’re doing more than one thing at once. The problem is that, every time we switch, there is a micro-millisecond delay and that teeny tiny pause causes us to be less productive even when we feel we’re sailing high.

I had a chance to experience the woes of obsessive multitasking first hand earlier this week when I attended the 140 Characters conference in Tel Aviv. The event, produced all over the world – including Israel – by social media and VoIP guru Jeff Pulver, is dedicated to exploring the “real time web” (a fancy way of referring to web and mobile services that let you follow a stream of never ending status updates as they happen).

As I sat in the lecture hall at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College listening to the lectures (which, in true short attention span spirit, were allotted on average no more than 10-15 minutes each), I had my laptop with me open to TweetDeck, a Twitter desktop client where I could follow along as much of the room was “live tweeting” what was happening on stage; Gmail – which I checked incessantly while simultaneously chatting with people both in and outside of the room itself; Facebook – of course (just for fun); an Excel spreadsheet of all the attendees sent by Pulver – so I could scope out who to approach during the networking breaks; a live video stream of the conference itself (with a slight time delay); and Evernote – a application I used to take notes on my laptop which were then automatically synched to my home computer, iPhone and (when I get one) iPad.

And if the lectures ever got boring, I’d brought with me a copy of an article I was working on that needed an edit.

By the time the conference was over, I actually breathed a sigh of relief as I finally caught a break in the long drive back to Jerusalem.

Not so for Michael Matias, a 14-year-old who took the stage for his 10 minutes of fame to tell us about “growing up in real-time.” My multitasking experience is his daily reality. He adds to the mix doing homework while simultaneously watching TV on his laptop (42-inch flat screens are so 2006) and playing online chess and poker. He says he spends at least 5 hours a day online, not including class when he often uses the school computers. When he needs to study, it’s as likely to be via video conference than an in-person cram session.

Matias is a relative pauper when it comes to Facebook friends – he only has 300 and says he only accepts someone he’s met in person. Although he does spend time with people in the so-called “real world,” he told the audience that in some ways he actually prefers his online world. “It brings me closer to them. I can hang out with more than one person at the same time.” No, he doesn’t think he spends too much time online and, when asked which of his real-time tools he’d give up if necessary, he quipped that he couldn’t. “It would be like choosing between my mom and my dad.”

The rest of the conference was interesting (if less shocking). Israeli comedian Lior Manor did “Twitter magic” – he asked the audience to tweet a number between one and 140 (get it, the 140 character maximum Twitter imposes), then he picked a number from his real-time Twitter stream and did a card trick in person – no different than what magicians have been doing for years except that he used an iPad to display the input.

Yossi Taguri talked about his latest startup Fiidme which lets you “share your satisfaction” about food. “If you’re in a restaurant,” he explained, “you can ask your friends what’s good on the menu and they’ll tweet you their recommendations.” With a grin, he added that they also “thought it would help us get free lunches.” His business partner Lior commented that being in a restaurant “without wireless is very frustrating.” (Whatever happened to the romantic candlelit dinner?)

There was also a session on using Twitter to do good in the world: an Israeli company called JustCoz lets you “donate” your Twitter status to organizations to raise awareness about their causes. In just under a month online, 100 organizations have signed up for the free service, gathering 1,200 supporters which provide re-tweeting access to more than a million people.

Now that’s a great idea from the real time web…if we can actually take a moment away from our incessant multitasking to participate.

Oh, and about that article I was writing? I guess I succeeded because you’re reading it now.

This article was originally posted at Israelity last week immediately following the 140 conference.

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Image from Mary Lindsay's blog

Image from Mary Lindsay's blog

When the web first started becoming paramount in how people consumed news, there was a lot written about the dangers of information “narrowcasting” and how it would result in a populace that knew little about what happening outside their own limited sphere of interest. Traditional print newspapers and magazines were lauded because by their very nature they enable readers to serendipitously stumble across news they might not have searched for on Google.

An interesting interview on a recent episode of NPR’s On the Media with Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center, and Clive Thompson, a writer for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, suggested that – surprisingly – social media could be an answer.

Thompson cited the research presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” about how many people someone can actually have as friends or colleagues. The number, says Gladwell, is 150; human beings can’t really keep track of more than that. But on social media, that number jumps to the hundreds (and in some cases, particularly on Twitter, the thousands).

I have over 600 Facebook “friends.” Do I know all of them well? Certainly not. But something interesting happens when it comes to learning about news. The more “friends” we have, the more likely it is we’ll learn something about a topic we didn’t expect to and likely wouldn’t have searched for either.

And if enough of our friends share or re-tweet on a particular subject, we will come to think this is “important” (even if it’s really about some ludicrous boy in a balloon). More seriously, the tweets emanating from Iran during the recent mini-revolution definitely opened many new eyes.

Admittedly, most of our friends are “like us” in terms of educational backgrounds and socio-economic standards. But some of those friends may have a wider circle that includes one or two more exotic colleagues. And I have not been terribly discriminating about who I “friend” – when I have a question that I need answering, I then have a wider circle to whom I can publish.

The issue of serendipity in social media has come up recently with one of my clients. The client has a particular organizational focus, and most of what we post relates to that topic. But sometimes we also publish links to articles off-topic which we feel will be interesting to our readers. It’s a way of keeping the site timely and relevant. But it also has the effect of populating our fans’ activity streams with news they might not have seen otherwise.

So, if part of the product management services you provide your clients includes preparing and executing on a social media “content plan,” keep in mind the serendipity effect. It can help establish you more as a destination site within the social media universe…and it’s good for the world too.

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BullseyeFollowing up on my previous post, it appears that consumers are not so happy with behavioral tracking on the Internet. According to a new survey from professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Berkeley, two-thirds of Americans object to being tracked by advertisers. And if those consumers learn exactly how they’re being followed, the percentage increases even more.

The study, reported today in The New York Times, was conducted by telephone not via the web and included 1,000 adult Internet users. Some of the highlights:

  • Tailored ads in general did not appeal to 66 percent of respondents. More important: 55 percent of those in the 18-24 group were opposed to being tracked (somewhat of a surprise given that anecdotal evidence says that Facebook users don’t mind handing over personal information).
  • When the respondents were told that part of that tailoring was tracking what they were doing on specific websites, an additional 7 percent said those ads were not OK.
  • And when they learned that tracking was also being done on additional websites, another 18 percent were upset.
  • The worst: when respondents learned that advertisers could track them offline, the percent of disgruntled consumers jumped an additional 20 percent.
  • On the other hand, 51 percent said it was OK to follow them if it meant customized discounts and 58 percent didn’t mind getting tailored news.

The survey is bound to fuel the legal ambitions of lawmakers looking to score points with privacy ravaged Americans. Representative Rick Boucher of Virginia and David Vladeck, head of consumer protection for the FTC, say they both are looking at data privacy issues closely.

On the question of laws, the survey found that:

  • 69 percent of American adults feel there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything that a website knows about them.
  • 92 percent agree there should be a law that requires “websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual, if requested to do so.”
  • 63 percent believe advertisers should be required by law to immediately delete information about their Internet activity.

Marketers of course argue that, without advertising, free content couldn’t exist online. There’s no debating that. The issue, as I posed in my previous post, is that consumers have a right to know – and to opt out – of being followed without their knowledge during their travels on the net.

Would that there was such a backlash at the casinos.

You can download the full 27-page report from The Times website.

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A Social Media Proposal

by Brian Blum on August 8, 2009

in Social Media

This is what social media is all about…a wedding proposal via YouTube and posted to Facebook. It’s in Hebrew, but you get the idea.

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Move over Twitter, Here Comes Flutter

by Brian Blum on August 4, 2009

in Social Media

There have been some very funny social media parodies that have swept the web. CollegeHumor’s Web Site Story and the BBC’s What if Facebook Were Real?

The latest to come across my desk is this take on a new nano-blogging service with a maximum of 26 character updates: Flutter. Enjoy!

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Publishers who want to more widely distribute their content should pay attention to new data from AddToAny. According to the firm, more people use Facebook to share links than any other service, including e-mail.

Facebook accounts for 24 percent of uses of a widget created and marketed by AddToAny to share links to articles, videos and other content. E-mail came in at only 11.1 percent.

Yahoo’s properties, which include Delicious, Yahoo Bookmarks, Yahoo Buzz and Yahoo Messenger, came in second at 14.4 percent. Twitter came in third with 10.8 percent.

The results from this report are important. Most newspapers distribute headline and breaking news via e-mail, but how many have a regular publishing strategy focused on social media applications? Yet that’s where the sharing, re-publishing and re-tweeting is happening, not with forwarded e-mails.

The data isn’t all that surprising. Already in March, a Nielsen report, “Global Faces and Networked Places,” found that by the end of 2008, social networking had overtaken e-mail in terms of worldwide reach. According to the report, 66.8 percent of Internet users across the globe accessed “member communities”—social networking or blogging sites—compared with 65.1 percent for e-mail.

Nielsen also found that social communities accounted for nearly 10 percent of all Internet time.

For more articles on newspapers and classified advertising, visit the industry experts: AIMGroup.com.

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