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Of drug discovery, spirals of debt and remote hackathons
Tech Bites #0. Your monthly dose of thoughts and learnings about the impact of tech
Drumrolls, please….Welcome to Tech Bites, a newsletter where I share my two cents (and pennies) about the impact of tech. I’m Asta by the way.
Thank you for putting your faith in me by subscribing. Hope you’ll enjoy this newsletter :)
This is Issue #0. Think about it as a trial run before Issue #1 drops in your inbox on the last Sunday of May. Feedback is welcomed.
1. #YAY - how tech does good 👏🙌🏾
AI Drug Discovery may not save us all but it will make our lives easier
Mentions of AI may evoke images of robots ready to steal our jobs and autonomous weapons ready to kill us at the drop of a hat. But sometimes we forget that AI can be a force for good.
Evidence: drug-discovery startups.
Benevolent AI, a UK based unicorn has used its tech to look for existing drugs that could treat Covid-19. So has Deargen, a South-Korean startup that has used its deep learning model to find potential treatments among antiviral drugs. Insilico instead used AI to look for new molecules and planned on synthesizing and testing 100 of them.
The race is still on for finding an effective treatment. Remdesivir, developed initially to treat Ebola, seems to show promise. And until we’ve found one (and a vaccine) we won’t be safe. But we will continue to see startups shortening how long it takes to identify new treatments, cut significantly R&D costs, and get treatment to people sooner. I don’t know about you but I’m all for it.
2. #NAY - how tech does bad 😭🤦🏾♀️🤔
Spirals of debts - when tech for good goes bad
Tech innovation can be an amazing tool for financial inclusion.
Every time I go to Ivory Coast, I understand why people prefer hiding their money under mattresses and why mobile money has exploded. Banks are inefficient: they charge high fees for sub-par service (e.g. having to spend a whole day queuing to put money in your account), they ask for crazy amounts of money in the bank if you want a loan. So people make do. They invest in jewellery and land if they can. They pay regularly into common pools of money that get distributed in rotation to each paying member every week, month or quarter, depending on the rules agreed.
Fintech promises to do away with all the inefficiencies within the financial industry. And I can’t lie and say that I don’t see the sector as a beacon of hope.
But this article, “Perpetual Debt in the Silicon Savannah”, is a cold shower. Digital lending apps can be a lifesaver but can turn into quicksand before you blink, trapping you in a spiral of debt.
Newspapers report that mobile lending underlays a wave of domestic disarray, violence, and even suicide. One young man in Meru described it as a “can of worries.”
It is a cautionary tale. There is a dark side to a fintech solution designed to democratise access to financing. And so many questions come to mind. Is a permissive regulatory environment in the name of innovation always good? And if it isn’t how do you strike the balance between allowing innovation to thrive without putting your citizens at risk? Is digital lending in emerging economies becoming as predatory as payday loans with their endless nudges to borrow?
3. Learning moments 🤔
If there is one thing this pandemic has shown me is that there’s still hope for humanity. Startups all around the world are doing good...and so are the tech giants, making us momentarily forget their sins.
But beyond well-funded startups, we’ve got the tech community taking part in (ofc remote) hackathons and building solutions to tackle the pandemic in their spare time.
I was lucky enough to take part in the EUvsVirus, organised by the European Commission in 3 weeks! The time it took to put this together is itself noteworthy. Would this have been possible pre-Covid? Doubtful.
The hackathon was great and so were my teammates (colleagues from work who got roped in somehow). 3 days and 2160 projects later... some projects will die a quick death (my project for instance), but others will continue and will have a real impact. How cool is that?
If we can come together to try and fight a pandemic, everything is possible. Maybe we’ll continue to come together post-Covid to solve other global challenges. #techforgoodyay
4. Attention-grabbing stuff
1. Mary Meeker’s Coronavirus Trends Report. Okay, okay...it’s Bond Capital’s Coronavirus Trends Report. But still, we know the Queen of internet trends is behind this. MUST-READ. Seriously.
2. The world after covid-19: Kishore Mahbubani on the dawn of the Asian century. My beloved Economist dropped this gem. The Asian Century may be coming earlier than we thought. For some, this is but wishful thinking and the West will continue to prevail. But the cracks in the system are laid bare. And if Asian countries play their cards right and the US continues to fumble...well.
3. David Chang isn’t sure the restaurant industry will survive Covid-19. If you love food documentaries on Netflix, chances are that you know who David Chang is. This interview happened what feels like 300 years ago in Corona times. But it’s still worth a read if only to understand what a renown restaurateur think is happening to the hospitality industry.
4. Confucianism isn’t helping beat the Coronavirus. Let’s abandon Eurocentrism for once, admit praise when it’s due and stop hiding behind “well...they’re doing well because.. culture”. South Korea did well. Others countries...not so much. The end.
5. Covid-19 has blown apart the myth of Silicon Valley innovation. Food for thought!
Big tech doesn’t build anything. It’s not likely to give us vaccines or diagnostic tests. We don’t even seem to know how to make a cotton swab. Those hoping the US could turn its dominant tech industry into a dynamo of innovation against the pandemic will be disappointed.
5. Podcast corner
The Rise of Digital Dictators. A discussion about the use of tech by authoritarian regimes.
4 podcasts about businesses coping with Covid-19. I share my favourite podcasts about how businesses are coping with Covid.
6. #startupcrushon 🥰🥰🚀
Chatterbox is an online language learning platform matching learners with native language coaches from the refugee community. They have a B2B and a B2C proposition, so if you’re thinking about picking up a new language or improve your existing skills, go check them out.
What makes them different?
The combination of language coaching with “AI-powered self-study courses”.
The team. Mursal, the Founder & CEO knows exactly what problem she’s solving. She saw first hand her family struggle to gain employment after becoming refugees. The COO, Guillemette is a YC alumna and has built other startups before.
Its social good element. There are plenty of language platforms out there (e.g. italki, Babbel and Duolingo) in the mobile language learning space. But none are opening up opportunities for a marginalised population facing a myriad of challenges gaining employment.
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I’ve given you my two cents. I’d love to hear yours. Did you like the newsletter? What would you improve? Just hit reply or find me at @astalagriotte on Insta, Twitter or Linkedin. Keep the feedback coming.