In 2020, California experienced its worst wildfire season on record, with 4.1 million acres burned and four of the state's five largest-ever fires. And so far, 2021 is shaping up to be even worse: With record droughts affecting the state, over 1.3 million acres have already burned, and fire activity is outpacing last year's record totals.
Though firefighters remain overworked and underpaid, they may soon have some help in their Sisyphean task thanks to Playa del Rey-based KSI Data Sciences, and other drone companies that are increasingly on the frontlines.
That's the same basic idea that KSI is pushing with their technology, but with a serious emphasis on transmitting video feeds from the air to the ground to a collection of stakeholders and decision makers.
"If you can put a camera up in the air that can detect heat, and can relay that information back to firefighters on the ground or to command centers, then you're really ahead of the game," explained KSI CEO Jon Gaster.
Drones offer a variety of advantages to fire departments and decision makers on the ground. They can get to places that winged aircraft can't and allow agencies to reduce risk by removing human pilots from dangerous situations.
Before a fire ever starts, drones can be used to survey at-risk areas to provide topographical information and details about vegetation encroachment. During a fire, thermal sensors onboard the aircraft can cut through the smoke and provide information about how intense the flames are and which direction the fire is moving.
Dirk Giles, the unmanned aircraft systems program manager at the United States Forestry Service, said the growth in drone technology over the last six years has been tremendous. And he's seen first hand how replacing pilots in the air with pilots on the ground has made the job safer.
"From a safety standpoint, now we can do it in the smoke, at night. We have teams that are flying almost 24 hours a day now," said Giles.
After the fire has burned through an area, firefighters can use the technology to survey for hotspots where flames might reappear.
Gaster said that a handful of departments around the U.S. and Europe are currently demoing KSI's platform, which is known as "Mission Keeper," but he's is reticent about disclosing the exact number of organizations until the technology is officially adopted. He would only say that his company is "getting a very good response." (Neither Cal-fire nor the US Forest Service reported using KSI tech.)
Having the information from the drones is one thing, but KSI is also working on artificial intelligence applications that analyze video feeds frame by frame to synthesize and present data from the air to command centers on the ground in a format that's easier to understand and use.
"Let's say that you have a circumstance where you're heading to a building where there's a fire. What's the building made of? What are their permits there? What are they storing there? What are the egress and exit routes? What are the surrounding areas and traffic patterns like?" Gaster explained. "A.I. should allow you to bring computer intelligence to what you're seeing and should allow you to make decisions with much better information with much better information than if you're just using an eyeball."
This idea of being able to separate the signal from the noise is a foundational part of KSI's technology, but it's one that Gaster said is often overlooked in the tech world.
"There are thousands of A.I. projects that've failed because they don't take into account the full value chain," he said. "They are great lab projects, but they don't bring in the CFO, the guy on the production line, the engineer, the fulfillment guy, the support guy."
Usability is a core principle of the business model as the company goes up against competitors like DJI, Drone Amplified, Bridger Aerospace, Insitu (a Boeing subsidiary ) and the Microsoft HoloLens.
Aside from fire departments, KSI has a diverse array of clientele in both the private sector (such as AT&T) and the public sector (the U.S. military). Though the company has raised $4 million since it was founded in 2015, the core LA team remains small, with five U.S.-based full-time employees, KSI also uses programming teams in Europe and South America as needed.
Gaster's pitch to his clients is a simple one: "If anybody is trying to figure out how to stream video from anything to anything, give us a call," he said.
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It seems like every week there's some new high profile data breach. Credit card numbers, addresses, nude photos, Democratic National Committee emails—you name it, hackers have stolen it.
Amit Saha, the CEO of Saviynt Inc, the El Segundo-based security vendor, said the problem has only gotten worse during the pandemic, with so many people working from home and using their personal computers to access corporate networks.
For Saha and his company's 750 employees, that's created a lot of work—and an opportunity. Saviynt announced Monday that they've secured $130 million in capital financing from HPS Investment Partners and PNC Bank to expand their cybersecurity SaaS technology. It's a big bet that the pandemic-fueled demand can help them build a more global company.
The principle behind the tech: trust no one. "Whenever someone is presenting an identity—claiming who they are—we do not trust the credentials they provide," said Saha. "Rather, we factor in all the different attributes. Where are they logging in from? How frequently are they accessing? What are they trying to access? Based on all those factors we decide what is the right level of trust we need to impart."
This concept of verifying identities and controlling who has access to what is paramount to maintaining network security.
Data breaches can start, he said, with something as simple as a contract HVAC worker clicking on a suspicious link and inadvertently installing ransomware on his home computer. Suddenly, hackers have a portal to a corporate network.
"That contractor's access got compromised and that compromise, in turn, leads to compromise on some other access," said Saha. "The hackers are able to hop from one system to another until they got to the right set of resources, which in turn leads to breach of sensitive data or in some cases breach of your IP. The IP could be a movie…without naming names," he said in what seemed to be a nod to the infamous 2014 hack of Sony Pictures.
Saha said the funs will help the company expand to new geographic markets. The company has a strong presence in North America and India, and much of the new cash is earmarked to help them build up a presence in other countries.
Additionally, some of the funds will be used to invest in system integration partners like Deloitte, who help to install Saviynt's technology on corporate networks, many of which are cloud-based and require extremely fast response times and greater degrees of scalability than traditional on-premise networks.
The rest of the money will go towards research and development as the company seeks to bring new products to market that allow the company to verify human and machine identities across networks.
If the company has its way, their "Zero Trust" philosophy could help companies like Sony, or Facebook, or LinkedIn, or Yahoo, or Alibaba, or Marriott, or AdultFriend Finder, or Adobe, avoid another embarrassing breach.
"We are all about, 'how do we secure the person's access?'" Saha said. "How do we assure that people accessing that resource are the right people and that they're behaving the right way?'"
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Soylent wants you to know it's not the same dystopian tech bro food liquid that it used to be. With a new strategy and an updated formula, the Downtown L.A.-based nutrition tech company is no longer billing itself as the only thing you'll ever need to eat again… although CEO Demir Vangelov says a 100% Soylent diet is still possible, just not recommended.
"We've shifted from being a meal replacement company to a complete nutrition company," says Vangelov.
Unlike the company's original CEO Rob Rhinehart, Vangelov brings food industry experience to the business. Before joining Soylent as chief operating officer and chief financial officer in 2018, he was the CFO and COO at Califia Farms, a plant-based milk company also based in California.
As Soylent has matured—and especially since he became CEO in 2020—the 20-person company has sought to distance itself from its Silicon Valley roots. Soylent's goal is not to "disrupt" nutrition, but to supplement it.
This pivot has also come with financial gains. The eight-year old company turned a profit for the first time in years in 2020, thanks to a new formulation, new flavors and a continued focus of premixed, bottled products available in retail locations rather than the traditional mail-order powder the company launched with. The premixed protein drinks are sold at Walmarts and in drug stores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and, most recently, CVS.
That level of distribution, Vangelov says, has made Soylent into the largest provider of plant-based protein beverages in grocery stores in the U.S.
To long-time Soylent followers, this move to prepackaged, flavored drinks may seem to be a stark departure from the original business model. The company began as mail-ordered powdered formulation that Rhinehart, a Silicon Valley computer engineer dreamt up in response to his busy lifestyle and the high cost of eating well.
The new iteration comes in eight flavors, including, café chai, banana and "original." (Full disclosure: I ate plenty of "original" flavored Soylent back in 2016 and 2017. It was paste-y, rich, and sort of nutty. It tasted like what it was: Something that was filling, probably not bad for me, and designed by people who seemed to hate food and eating.)
As easy as it is to make fun of Soylent, it's got a lot of things going for it. It's vegan. It's gluten free. It contains 100% of all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals a human being needs. It's a liquid, which is convenient for people who can't chew or don't like to chew. It requires essentially no culinary skills to prepare. It's even cheap—as low as $1.50 per meal in its original powdered formulation.
Jane Burrell, a dietician and professor at Syracuse University, says there are other considerations to make when weighing a cuisine. "It does have a lot of nutrients in it, but it's not a very satisfying and fulfilling way to eat," she said.
"We think about eating as really nourishing your body in terms of the nutrients you need, but it also makes you feel good and gives you a connection with people. It's the context of eating and thinking about your culture and all those things that make you a person. That means eating food that has textures and flavors and smells and brings back memories and feelings."
Of course, not every meal needs to be a culinary experience either. There are plenty of use cases where Burrell says Soylent makes sense. People are actually busy and healthy food often takes time to prepare. If having a Soylent drink keeps you out of the drive-thru line, great, says Burrell.
There's also something to be said for how the drink can help consumers gain or lose weight thanks to how precisely it's formulated. There's no guessing about calories or portions. If you eat a scoop, you know exactly what you're getting.
The company has had success in hospitals, where doctors have used Soylent with patients who are having trouble eating for one reason or another.
"We did a scientific study at UCLA with the throat and neck cancer department. They were extremely happy with the performance," says Vangelov. "The takeaway was that this was the best performing nutrition that they'd seen."
With a freshly-inked deal with CVS and existing distribution channels at Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Target and Wal-mart, the business is transitioning from the first food tech company into the largest provider of plant-based protein beverages in grocery stores in the U.S.
Is it soulless? Maybe, but who cares? It's healthier than the average American diet and better for the planet. It's not going to become the only food anybody eats, and it doesn't want to. Soylent is finally becoming what it has always been: bland.
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