Farm-To-Closet: New York’s Latest Fashion Startup Goes Old School


From farm-to-table we’ve moved to farm-to-closet.

One-year-old startup, is rethinking the way clothes are produced, spending more time on the farm, less time in the shop.

“We want to make products where they are made most beautifully,” says Maxine Bedat, co-founder of Zady, referring to the latest addition to the online boutique- a hand-knit woolen sweater from Oregon.

It marks the beginning of a private label for the Zady brand, which to date has curated pieces from artisans and small businesses around the US and Europe.  It’s fair to say that Zady isn’t just selling you a piece of clothing, but a story – a growing trend in e-commerce businesses.

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(Photo Credit: Zady)


Test Driving the Tesla

If you haven’t driven a Tesla yet, you should.

This month, the electric car company is partaking in a ping-pong match.  Five states (Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California)  are vying for the next Tesla factory, where the manufacturer will produce lithium-ion batteries for its Tesla S model, and subsequently, 6,500 jobs for the local economy.

Everyone wants Tesla to succeed.

California is even offering to waive regulatory procedures, which in true government fashion can lag on for years, to ensure thatTesla’s new plant is up and running within the next two years.

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla, is leaning towards Nevada.  But no official decision has been announced yet.

Musk has recently become the poster child of innovation.  Though based in Silicon Valley, he’s not dappling in just another tech startup.  He’s already sent rockets to outer space (for NASA), is experimenting with reusable rockets now (ones that land gently back on the Earth and can be launched again), and is developing a 35-minute, 760 mph ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the “hyperloop.”   Oh, he also created Paypal, the money transfer platform, which he sold to eBay for $1 billion.

He’s making science cool.  More so, he’s using technology for some serious problems, namely our havoc on the environment.

That’s why this week, when dear friend and Tesla owner, Curtis Kodama, offered me a chance to drive his car, I was thrilled.  Kodama is not a fan of speedy race cars; he drove a pickup truck and a sedan for decades, till he wore them down, before investing in the Tesla.  He wanted to experiment with a new, cleaner option.  And he’s thrilled with the results.

The Tesla S does 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds.  It’s considered to be one of the safest cars (watch the video of it navigating an obstacle course in the snow).  It’s impeccably styled and beautifully quiet.  It can be driven for 240 miles on one charge, enough coverage for daily drives to work and school.

But, most of all, Kodama says, I was surprised by how it’s sold. “It’s like buying a computer.”  Tesla sells the car online. Its stores (in Santa Monica and Topanga Canyon) are merely for window shopping.

When I decided to buy the car, Kodama says, the Tesla rep just sat me down and walked me through the options online and even told me the ones that would have been a waste of money.

Money is not at the heart of the company.  Yes, Musk may be a rich man today.  But, his ambitions go beyond wealth.  He’s made the Tesla design public, available for other car manufactures to copy.  In fact, he wants them to.

He was recently on the Colbert show, where he rationalized this decision:  “If we’re all on a ship, and the ship is sinking, and we’re bailing out water, and we have a good design for a bucket, we should share that.  Because, well, we’re all sinking.“

That’s why he wants the next line of Tesla’s to be priced at $35,000, making it an affordable option for everyone.  But, Tesla’s next model, he says, will be more like the S, less like a hybrid – not boxy, unattractive, and golf-cart like.

Despite all the public love for Tesla, everyone isn’t a fan of electric cars.  Some Silicon Valley venture capitalists have been quick to point out that the batteries are not bio-degradable.  So, what will happen to the batteries at the end of the car’s life?  And yes, they’re plugged into a socket for charging, that uses “dirty” energy to power it.  Rather, these VC’s are rallying for (and putting money into) alternative fuel sources, such as fuels made from agricultural waste.

Musk, the inventor, is already working on a solution: solar-powered charging stations free for Tesla’s and other electric vehicles.  As for the batteries that’s yet to be determined.

Till date, though, Tesla has clearly emerged as the best alternative vehicle to our gas guzzlers.   A quick ride around town is likely to get nay-sayers to think otherwise.  The car drives beautifully, is spacious, with an attractive dashboard that’s connected to your smartphone, displaying maps, stats, mileage and more on a large screen.

It certainly doesn’t feel like a compromise, in any way.  See for yourself.


Can Traditional Bhutan Survive Tourism?


Bhutan is commonly described as “heaven on earth.”

Heaven, though, has been getting a lot of visitors recently.

In 2013, Bhutan had nearly 120,000 visitors—the highest in its history, according to the Bhutan Tourism Council. Americans made up the largest foreign market with about 7,000 visitors, despite the daily $250 tariff (which includes basic food, accommodations, transport, and a guide). Visitors from India, Bhutan’s neighbor, however, still dominate in terms of annual visitors, largely because they’re excused from the tariff.

As a landlocked country with a mountainous terrain and a largely agricultural population, Bhutan is turning to tourism for revenue.  And rightly so: its historic Buddhist monasteries nestled atop cliffs at high altitude, with majestic views of the Himalayas in the distance, make for the ideal photo op.


The Himalayan kingdom started welcoming visitors nearly 40 years ago.  But, it’s really in the last decade that Bhutan has seen an influx of tourists, especially those from beyond Asia.  The country prizes its natural beauty: in fact, Bhutan’s constitution carries a clause stating that 60 percent of its land will always be kept as forest.

That’s been Bhutan’s selling point: its quiet, spiritual, and earthy nature make it a good place to disconnect from the frantic ways of modern life.  As tourists pour in from around the world, the newly-formed democracy is trying to balance growth and modernization with heritage. The question is: can it be done in a mindful way?

Sitting outside the Druk Hotel in Thimphu, one of the oldest hotels in the country, it appears as if modernization has already arrived.  Three young Bhutanese men are preparing for a street fair with a live concert. U2 and Coldplay ballads blast into the town square as the men test the audio system. An elderly gentleman, sitting on the steps, facing the sound stage isn’t entertained. He says he just wanted to rest quietly before resuming his walk up to the stupa, a Buddhist shrine dedicated to the 3rd King of Bhutan. Disgruntled, he gets up and walks away.

Nearby, a hole-in-the-wall barber is snipping away.  He’s from the Indian state of Bihar and is styling a young Bhutanese mane into the latest hair craze: a sort-of disheveled, layered look for men, globalized by South Korean pop stars. The world has clearly reached Bhutan, and the young members, at least, are enjoying it, often to the chagrin of the older generation.

The rise in tourism has also meant more jobs for the younger generations. Over 2,000 people graduate from university each year in Bhutan, and they yearn for professional work. The government is hoping tourism can keep them from migrating to nearby India or Thailand.  There are over 11,000 travel operators in the country, and the industry employs nearly 30,000 people. Plus, its easy for entrepreneurs to start their own businesses—all you need is a computer and an Internet connection.


For the full story, please go to Daily Beast.


Next “Sharing Economy” Step: Backhoes on Loan

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In some cities, the “sharing economy” is moving beyond cars — to tractors. MuniRent, a Michigan-based startup that wants to shake up the world of municipal procurement, was recently picked by Code for America’s accelerator program as one of the top five startups in the country working to improve government through technology.

Small and mid-sized cities struggle with acquiring, maintaining and paying for heavy equipment like trench diggers, street sweepers, tractors and backhoes. Rather than cities investing in such specialized equipment, MuniRent is developing an online marketplace for cities to rent bulky equipment from each other.

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Bite-Size Payments Go Global: Solar’s Next Challenge


d.light sells solar devices to over 60 countries.  They claim they’ve impacted 36 million lives with 6 million d.light units.  Hefty numbers.  But that’s not enough.  Now, they’re going for universal access to energy.

To give everyone light, interestingly, doesn’t mean just more lanterns and LEDs.  Rather, success lies in financing.  So, the solar company is developing financial products to help get light into the hands of its customers.

The standard model, a simple kerosene replacement, is priced at $30.  Anything that exceeds that price tag (d.light sells home systems that go up to $150) becomes too expensive for a low-income African and Indian consumer to pay upfront in cash.  That’s why pay-as-you-go, or paying in bite-size pieces, is the best solution for larger price tags.  This July, d.light said that it had sold 500,000 financed units globally.

For the full story, please go to


What Silicon Valley is Missing Out On: The Rise of The Rest


Steve Case, former CEO of AOL, is looking for new startups to invest in but he’s not headed to Silicon Valley.  This summer, he visited Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Nashville on a bus tour aptly called “The Rise of the Rest.”  What he found, he says, is a resurgence of American entrepreneurship and venture capitalists, who are glued to the Valley, should perk up.  Opportunities abound in the heartland.

Last week, I spoke with Case about what the Valley is missing out on and how entrepreneurship in America’s “other” cities is gaining traction.

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Mobile Microscopes: Snapping The Future Of Health Care

Oto, the modern otoscope using a smartphone camera, automatically produces an image of the patient's ear, making it easy to detect infection.  Photo Courtesy of Subject.

Smartphone cameras can do so much more than capture selfies. They can detect everything from an ear infection to cervical cancer.

mHealth has been fixated on SMS-based applications.  Using texts, health workers catalog data and communicate with each other.  But, another breed of entrepreneurs have been tinkering with smartphone cameras, developing attachments that screen for cataracts, diabetes, cancer, and infections.  They’re testing them in developing countries to see if health workers, empowered with smartphones, can help diagnose patients remotely.

“As soon as cameras started appearing on phones, I began wondering how they differ from the scientific cameras that we use in lab and whether they could be converted into microscopes,” says Daniel Fletcher, a professor of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley.  Fletcher went on to develop a semester project for his students.  The goal?  To design amobile phone microscope.

That research flourished into a startup, CellScope, which has redesigned the otoscope- the tool doctors have long used to peek into your ear canals. This updated version, nicknamed Oto, attaches onto an iPhone, generating an image of the ear.  It’s not just for doctors: parents, school nurses, and caretakers can use it for a quick read of a child’s ear.  And it’s not limited to tech-friendly households in the Bay Area.  Given that most children suffer from an ear infection before they reach seven years of age, it’s targeted for a global audience.  One caveat, though.  It’s been designed with the iPhone, which is unlikely to be in the hands of health workers globally.

While Fletcher and his students are foraying into other applications of the mobile microscope, such as examining your skin or testing for malaria and Tb, MIT’s Ramesh Raskar has become known as the ‘Eye Guy.’  As the head of the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture research, Raskar surfaced first in 2011 with a mobile tool for doing eye exams in developing countries – EyeNetra.  EyeNetra was prototyped at MIT but went on to become a commercial startup, backed by Khosla Ventures.  The company, and its investors, however, declined to comment on the status of the company, its reach, and the price point of EyeNetra.

Two years later, the Indian-born scientist produced another camera-based diagnostic tool, EyeMITRA (MITRA: Mobile Retinal Imagining and Predictive Analytics).  This one, he argues, has the capacity to do much more than just fit you for glasses.  A quick glance through the attachment, placed on the camera lens of a smartphone, can detect diabetes – one of the leading causes of blindness globally.  Destined to be $20 to $50 per piece, he says, EyeMITRA is geared towards developing countries.

Dr. Ramesh Raskar showcases EyeMITRA, which detects diabetes using a smartphone camera lens and attachment.  Photo Credit: John Werner

For Raskar, technology needs to be low-cost and accessible.  As a scientist and a self-professed “world citizen,” he says, “it’s our responsibility to create tools that have impact.”

“A doctor can save a life at a time.  As a technologist, we can save tens of lives at a time with what we create.”

The Israeli startup, MobileOCT is doing just that, aspiring to help the nearly 500,000 women around the world who are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year.  They’ve transformed a smartphone camera into a mobile colposcope marked at $400 (compared to $10,000 for a traditional testing device).  Bruce Kahn of Scripps Clinic in San Diego, a partner for MobileOCT, says that the device could replace pap smears.  It’s not merely for developing countries but for women globally.

mobileOCT is a smartphone-based device to detect cervical cancer. The attachment snaps onto the camera of a smartphone.  Photo Courtesy of Subject.

At Stanford’s Prakash Lab, not too far from Fletcher’s cohort, Manu Prakash, a Bioengineering professor, and his students have developed another smartphone-based health tool: OScan.  Designed at two different price points, for developing and developed countries, OScan performs a scan of the oral cavity, using a smartphone camera and an attachment.  Prakash is an an advocate of frugal science, which he defines as “bringing scientific capabilities outside the lab and into the field.”  OScan will be tested in the US, India, and Botswana in clinical settings and non-traditional posts, such as a tobacco shop, he says.

Much like Raskar, Prakash’s foray into science stems from an upbringing in India that exposed him to health inequities, financial limits, and simply different behavioral patterns.  For instance, Prakash’s friends and classmates often chewed tobacco, starting at an early age.  With little dental care, and prolonged use, that damages the oral cavity.  Prakash explored the issue further, seeking a solution.

“I went and visited several clinics and screening centers in India to understand how they uncover patients– and was shocked to meet patients who show up so late that they have no options, with very little success rates for these surgeries,” he recalls.

While these smartphone-based innovations are quickly catching on, Prakash says they still have some hurdles to overcome, including closed APIs and limited specs. “Many parts used in smartphones are not available to be implemented in other applications. This closed approach hurts applications in new areas.”

Fletcher also recognizes the challenges with smartphone parts. “The lens is designed for conventional photography, not microscopy.  The optical performance could be improved if the lenses we add to covert the phone into a microscope were designed together with the camera lenses,” he says.

Plus, it’s not as simple as developing technologies and dumping them into new hands, Prakash argues.

“Too many times, we think technology, specially smartphones, is the answer. I strongly believe it’s a story that’s skewed.  It’s people who provide health care and we need to enable tools to give them capabilities in the field.”

Students at the new Srujana Innovation Center in Hyderabad explain their projects to  India's former president Dr. Abdul Kalam.  Photo  Credit: John Werner.

Raskar is trying to get closer to grassroots innovations.  He’s developed a collaboration with the Hyderabad-based LV Prasad Eye Institute to help local students engineer new solutions for better eye care.  Inventions with commercial viability will get support from the mentors, he says, and intellectual property rights will be provided to the inventor.  Raskar calls it “designing in context.”

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