These 2 Los Angeles Startups Are on the Forefront of a New Space Health Care System

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College. Send tips or pitches to and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

space shuttle
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

As human space tourism ramps up, and we continue to explore deeper into the cosmos, one alarming fact is becoming more evident: Despite decades of human spaceflight, we still have very limited information about how going to space, or staying there for sustained periods of time, affects our bodies.

So far, flights to low Earth orbit are relatively stable, and thankfully no one has perished on a trip yet. But there’s also more to come; Virgin Galactic is planning more space tourism trips next year and beyond that, longer-term missions like Elon Musk’s pet project to colonize Mars could come with some serious health risks. And, like any mission to space, nearly every variable has to be considered before launch to ensure the people undertaking these journeys are as healthy as possible.

That’s where private industry comes in. There’s a handful of startups that are focused on developing technology to make it easier to monitor human health in space. And while it may seem like a far-away pipe dream, they’ll be the first to tell you that having startups begin to develop health care products for space-related exploration is key to ensuring there aren’t mass casualties.

“The truth is, there is little that is more complex than space, and biology, and these are not things that have fast development times,” said Elizabeth Reynolds, a biologist and director of the Starburst Aerospace Care in Space Challenge. The challenge recently awarded six winning startups (three were local to Southern California) a $100,000 investment from pharmaceutical company Boryung, support for on-orbit experimentation by Axiom, a Houston-based company making private space stations, and acceptance into Starburst’s 13-week accelerator program.

“As we talk about deep space exploration, that is a point where we get into high amounts of cosmic radiation and it's an environment that will kill us,” Reynolds said. “We need solutions that are completely untethered from Earth.” Reynolds said she was “less concerned” about space tourism, and more focused on long-term habitation.

Reynolds did note that there’s one easy option, one that NASA’s relied on heavily up until now: send robots into space to do human work. That’s possible, but she noted, “I cannot imagine a future where we continue to only explore space by robots.”

There’s a myriad of issues that people face when spending long durations of time in space. Some side effects can range from motion sickness to radiation poisoning to heart and muscle atrophy. Others include bodily fluid shifting due to zero gravity, changes in vision, loss of muscle strength and changes in gut biome behavior. Of course, there’s also a host of potential mental side effects too, including depression or anxiety. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing noted that these effects can also persist even after a person comes back from orbit.

Kay Olmstead, CEO of San Diego-based NanoPharma Solutions, was one of the companies selected by Starburst. She told dot.LA the company is working on a way to deliver drugs to people in space to maximize their effects.

Olmstead told dot.LA., NanoPharma “uses [a] nanocoating method developed by NASA to nanosize drugs to improve biosorption – [the] smaller the particle size, better solubility of [the] drug, hence better absorption into our body which is mostly water.”

The importance of nano-soluble drugs is key, since it could limit side effects that come from typical ingestion of drugs, such as liver and kidney damage, or systemic toxicology (when a drug is absorbed by or distributed to other parts of the body besides the specific target area), Olmstead explained.

She added that NanoPharma is working on using vacuum pressure in low Earth orbit to deliver drugs to diseased organs without needles, a potential groundbreaking solution since right now, most life-saving drugs need to be administered via IV and that’s “not suitable for space travelers.” Instead, NanoPharma is working to patent several methods of drug delivery including a nano-nasal spray and a nano-inhaler.

Olmstead noted that there’s a number of companies working on private space stations – besides Axiom, she also cited Northrop Grumman, Nanoracks and Sierra Space, who all have “grand plans of infrastructure building in space for private space travelers and in-space manufacturing.”

There’s a couple dueling local companies with ambitions to build private space stations as well: Vast Space, and Orbital Assembly.

Olmstead noted that there will have to be construction workers in space overseeing building of these outposts, and added, “Care for these space travelers and workers is the most important concern of these aerospace companies aside from the station building/maintenance.” She also said that outposts on the moon, which will likely be built after stations in low Earth orbit, come with “even more severe health hazards.”

Another local startup that won the Starburst challenge was Vibo Health. Based in Los Angeles and led by physicist and CEO Gil Travish, Vibo develops wearable health tracking technology that uses wrist scanning to give users insight into their health, with the goal of finding health risks without invasive tests.

Right now, Vibo has a growing business terrestrially, but Travish told dot.LA he’s eager to see how the tech could be applied to astronauts. “It is a niche, of course, but it's a growing niche,” Travish said. He noted that Vibo hopes to do in-space testing within the next two years.

For now, though, both Vibo and NanoPharma said they will continue developing and testing their technology on the ground with the goal of bettering patients’ lives here on earth. Travish said he’s optimistic that the work will not only better conditions for space-faring humans, but also unlock information about the human condition.

“It’s not just about going to space, it’s about learning more about ourselves,” Travish said.

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Creandum’s Carl Fritjofsson on the Differences Between the Startup Ecosystem in Europe and the U.S.

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Carl Fritjofsson
Carl Fritjofsson

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Creandum General Partner Carl Fritjofsson talks about his venture journey, why Generative-AI represents an opportunity to rethink products from the ground up, and why Q4 2023 and Q1 2024 could be "pretty bloody" for startups.

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AI Is Rapidly Advancing, but the Question Is, Can We Keep Up?

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
AI Is Rapidly Advancing, but the Question Is, Can We Keep Up?
Evan Xie

One way to measure just how white-hot AI development has become: the world is running out of the advanced graphics chips necessary to power AI programs. While Intel central processing units were once the most sought-after industry leaders, advanced graphics chips like Nvidia’s are designed to run multiple computations simultaneously, a baseline necessity for many AI models.

An early version of ChatGPT required around 10,000 graphics chips to run. By some estimates, newer updates require 3-5 times that amount of processing power. As a result of this skyrocketing demand, shares of Nvidia have jumped 165% so far this year.

Building on this momentum, this week, Nvidia revealed a line-up of new AI-related projects including an Israeli supercomputer project and a platform utilizing AI to help video game developers. For smaller companies and startups, however, getting access to the vital underlying technology that powers AI development is already becoming less about meritocracy and more about “who you know.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk scooped up a valuable share of server space from Oracle this year before anyone else got a crack at it for his new OpenAI rival, X.AI.

The massive demand for Nvidia-style chips has also created a lucrative secondary market, where smaller companies and startups are often outbid by larger and more established rivals. One startup founder compares the fevered crush of the current chip marketplace to toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic. For those companies that don’t get access to the most powerful chips or enough server space in the cloud, often the only remaining option is to simplify their AI models, so they can run more efficiently.

Beyond just the design of new AI products, we’re also at a key moment for users and consumers, who are still figuring out what sorts of applications are ideal for AI and which ones are less effective, or potentially even unethical or dangerous. There’s now mounting evidence that the hype around some of these AI tools is reaching a lot further than the warnings about its drawbacks.

JP Morgan Chase is training a new AI chatbot to help customers choose financial securities and stocks, known as IndexGPT. For now, they insist that it’s purely supplemental, designed to advise and not replace money managers, but it may just be a matter of time before job losses begin to hit financial planners along with everyone else.

A lawyer in New York just this week was busted by a judge for using ChatGPT as part of his background research. When questioned by the judge, lawyer Peter LoDuco revealed that he’d farmed out some research to a colleague, Steven A. Schwartz, who had consulted with ChatGPT on the case. Schwartz was apparently unaware that the AI chatbot was able to lie – transcripts even show him questioning ChatGPT’s responses and the bot assuring him that these were, in fact, real cases and citations.

New research by Marucie Jakesch, a doctoral student from Cornell University, suggests that even users who are more aware than Schwartz about how AI works and its limitations may still be impacted in subtle and subconscious ways by its output.

Not to mention, according to data from, high school and college students already – on the whole – prefer utilizing ChatGPT for help with schoolwork over a human tutor. The survey also notes that advanced students tend to report getting more out of using ChatGPT-type programs than beginners, likely because they have more baseline knowledge and can construct better and more informative prompts.

But therein lies the big drawback to using ChatGPT and other AI tools for education. At least so far, they’re reliant on the end user writing good prompts and having some sense about how to organize a lesson plan for themselves. Human tutors, on the other hand, have a lot of personal experience in these kinds of areas. Someone who instructs others in foreign languages professionally probably has a good inherent sense of when you need to focus on expanding your vocabulary vs. drilling certain kinds of verb and tense conjugations. They’ve helped many other students prepare for tests, quizzes, and real-world challenges, while computer software can only guess at what kinds of scenarios its proteges will face.

A recent Forbes editorial by academic Thomas Davenport suggests that, while AI is getting all the hype right now, other forms of computing or machine learning are still going to be more effective for a lot of basic tasks. From a marketing perspective in 2023, it’s helpful for a tech company to throw the “AI” brand around, but it’s not magically going to be the answer for every problem.

Davenport points to a similar (if smaller) whirlwind of excitement around IBM’s “Watson” in the early 2010s, when it was famously able to take out human “Jeopardy!’ champions. It turns out, Watson was a general knowledge engine, really best suited for jobs like playing “Jeopardy.” But after the software gained celebrity status, people tried to use it for all sorts of advanced applications, like designing cancer drugs or providing investment advice. Today, few people turn to Watson for these kinds of solutions. It’s just the wrong tool for the job. In that same way, Davenport suggests that generative AI is in danger of being misapplied.

While the industry and end users both race to solve the AI puzzle in real time, governments are also feeling pressure to step in and potentially regulate the AI industry. This is much easier said than done, though, as politicians face the same kinds of questions and uncertainty as everyone else.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has been calling for governments to begin regulating AI, but just this week, he suggested that the company might pull out of the European Union entirely if the regulations were too onerous. Specifically, Altman worries that attempts to narrow what kinds of data can be used to train AI systems – specifically blocking copyrighted material – might well prove impossible. “If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating,” Altman told Time. “We will try, but there are technical limits to what’s possible.” (Altman has already started walking this threat back, suggesting he has no immediate plans to exit the EU.)

In the US, The White House has been working on a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” but it’s non-binding, just a collection of largely vague suggestions. It’s one thing to agree “consumers shouldn’t face discrimination from an algorithm” and “everyone should be protected from abusive data practices and have agency over how their data is used.” But enforcement is an entirely different animal. A lot of these issues already exist in tech, and are much larger than AI, and the US government already doesn’t do much about them.

Additionally, it’s possible AI regulations won’t work well at all if they aren’t global. Even if you set some policies and get an entire nation’s government to agree, how to set similar worldwide protocols? What if US and Europe agree but India doesn’t? Everyone around the world accesses roughly the same internet, so without any kind of international standard, it’s going to be much harder for individual nations to enforce specific rules. As with so many other AI developments, there’s inherent danger in patchwork regulations; it could allow some companies, or regions, or players to move forward while others are unfairly or ineffectively stymied or held back.

The same kinds of socio-economic concerns around AI that we have nationally – some sectors of the work force left behind, the wealthiest and most established players coming in to the new market with massive advantages, the rapid spread of misinformation – are all, in actuality, global concerns. Just as the hegemony of Microsoft and Google threaten the ability of new players to enter the AI space, the West’s early dominance of AI tech threatens to push out companies and innovations from emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, and Central America. Left unfettered, AI could potentially deepen social, economic, and digital divisions both within and between all of these societies.

Undaunted, some governments aren’t waiting around for these tools to develop any further before they start attempting to regulate them. New York City has already set up some rules about how AI can be used during the hiring process while will take effect in July. The law requires any company using AI software in hiring to notify candidates that it’s being used, and to have independent auditors check the system annually for bias.

This sort of piecemeal figure-it-out-as-we-go approach is probably what’s going to be necessary, at least short-term, as AI development shows zero signs of slowing down or stopping any time soon. Though there’s some disagreement among experts, most analysts agree with Wharton professor and economist Jeremy Siegel, who told CNBC this week that AI is not yet a bubble. He pointed to the Nvidia earnings as a sign the market remains healthy and not overly frothy. So, at least for now, the feverish excitement around AI is not going to burst like a late ‘90s startup stock. The world needs to prepare as if this technology is going to be with us for a while.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe took to Instagram last weekend to answer questions from the public about his company and its future. Topics covered included new colors, sustainability, production ramp, new products and features. Speaking of which, viewers also got a first look at the company’s much-anticipated R2 platform, albeit made of clay and covered by a sheet, but hey, that’s…something. If you don’t want to watch the whole 33 minute video, which is now also on Youtube, we’ve got the highlights for you.

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