Company Highlight: Recombine

[By: Dan DiGiorno]

During the second day of Innovtrip we had the opportunity to visit Recombine, a biotech company focused on providing information about fertility. One such service is CarrierMap, a genetic screen using methods such as Illumina infinium and sequencing to determine which genetic mutations parents may have that could affect their children’s health. Another service, ChromoMap, uses cell-free fetal DNA from the mother’s blood to assess the fetus’s chromosomal health with no associated risk of miscarriage. It was particularly interesting to learn about some of the rationale behind what Recombine tests for. For example, they primarily screen for autosomal recessive and X-linked genes, as opposed to more complicated forms of inheritance, because these screens are verifiable. This assures that they can provide accurate information to their clients, something that our hosts placed particular emphasis on.

As a senior about to enter the workforce, it was enlightening to get to hear about our hosts’ carrier paths. Although they both currently work at Recombine, one of our hosts had recently joined after working in consulting whereas our other host had started as an intern the summer after his junior year at Princeton. They were also able to offer some good advice about choosing a company to work for, and suggesting looking into who is investing in a start-up since it is important that investors have knowledge of the subject and a similar vision of where the company is going.

Recombine presented to us not only an example of how a company can use technology to impact the lives of their clients, but also an example of a company with a clear vision and a strong sense of ethical obligation.

 

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Palantir

By: Omar Mukadam

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During the evening of the second day of InnovTrip, our group paid a visit to Palantir, the secretive Silicon Valley based company that fascinated me ever since I heard about the mysteriously enormous impact it has on the world through its powerful data analysis software. It maintains an iron dome of secrecy and surreptitiousness about what it exactly does while growing into a multi-billion dollar company backed by some of the world’s most powerful federal agencies and private investors.

 

After being greeted by our cordial Palantir host who also happened to be one of their university recruiters, we were whisked away to a spacious conference room where we were treated to cupcakes, drinks, and a Palantir gift bag filled with tokens and artifacts. Two Palantir employees, Alexander Rilee and Shreya Murthy, both of whom attended Princeton and graduated in the class of 2013, joined us promptly. Alex was an Electrical Engineering major and Shreya was a Politics major. They began describing what Palantir was all about (to the extent that they were allowed to) and gave an overview of their specific roles within the company. Following is a gist of what they told us.

 

Essentially, Palantir’s mission is to solve the world’s most important problems for its most important institutions using a product-first approach rooted in data analysis. Its customers include state and local governments, national and international intelligence agencies, and private companies in virtually all kinds of industries. How does it take on this daunting task? The answer lies in data – LOTS of data. The world’s biggest companies, institutions, and federal agencies have a plethora of data at their fingertips ready to be cracked and analyzed. However, most of these massive data sets are so fragmented and muddled that practically nothing useful can be gleaned from them. This is where Palantir comes to the rescue. Palantir’s flagship data mining system allows its clients to easily and intuitively connect the dots between different points of interest using a natural language based approach that makes it orders of magnitude easier for human beings to sort through and analyze heaps of data. These remarkable abilities are made possible by Palantir’s flagship products like Gotham and Metropolis. While most of Palantir’s success stories are and will remain veiled in a cloak of mystery, some “unclassified” examples stand out, such as the Los Angeles Police Department’s remarkable success with using Palantir software to its defectives and cops to more effectively solve and fight crimes.

 

After hearing from Alex and Shreya, we had a short tour of Palantir’s NYC office, a multi-story complex filled with sagacious engineers and scientists spread throughout open offices filled with humming computers and servers. Upon concluding our visit, I left with a fresh sense of how enormous of an impact a single company can have on the world if it has the right combination of talent, resources, and a commitment to the betterment of mankind.

 

 

 

Company Highlight: AppNexus #2

[by Monica Shi]

On Tuesday night, we visited the AppNexus office for an office tour and alumni reception. AppNexus, founded in 2007 by Princeton grad Brian O’Kelley, is a global technology company that specializes in programmatic online advertising. Publishers, advertisers, agencies, and advertising technology companies use the AppNexus platform to execute tens of millions of transactions per day. A buyer can use AppNexus to bid on ads based on metrics such as type of user, geography, or time of day. A seller can use AppNexus to sell their impressions to those buyers. The company’s mission is to improve the digital advertising ecosystem for publishers, advertisers, and consumers. AppNexus offers a variety of both technical and non-technical roles for current students and new grads. Since AppNexus deals with tons of information, a lot of engineering roles are centered on big data and data science. However, the company also offers positions in departments such as marketing, sales, services, and product.

The first part of our visit consisted of a Q&A session with Princeton grads currently working at AppNexus. We had the chance to ask them questions regarding what exactly AppNexus does, their opinion on the current state of the digital advertising ecosystem, and their experiences working full time in New York City. We then had a networking session with Princeton alums working in a variety of industries. I spoke with an oncologist, data scientist, product manager, and management consultant, and in the process, learned a lot about their experiences in their respective fields. To cap off the night, we took a tour of the office.

AppNexus strikes a nice balance between a startup like Graze and an established tech company like Google, and it was great being able to learn more about the company culture and mission.

Company Highlight: Graze #2

[by Amanda Shi]

On the first day of InnovTrip, we visited Graze, a UK based snack company that produces and delivers snack subscription boxes. In 2013, Graze expanded to the US, with its headquarters in Manhattan and distribution center in Jersey City. Graze develops healthy snacks that do not include genetically engineered/modified ingredients, artificial flavors/colors, high fructose corn syrup, or trans fats. To customize snack boxes, Graze uses an in-house algorithm, DARWIN (Decision Algorithm Rating What Ingredient’s Next) that takes user preferences into account. Graze has open roles in many fields—from marketing to engineering—but mainly focuses on operations and data science.

The Graze visit was my favorite, because it was one of the few companies we visited that was very open and honest with sharing information and answering our questions. Even though Graze isn’t viewed as a traditional “tech” company, they incorporate a lot of data science and optimization into their daily operations to maximize both profits and customer satisfaction. I found their supply chain optimization problems fascinating, and appreciated that the company strives to make data-driven decisions.

Graze is evidence of the global impact of technology—it has catalyzed the rapid evolution of every industry.

David Kirkpatrick: The Reading List

[by Nuss Visatemongkolchai]

The January 2016 InnovTrip wrapped up with a dinner with David Kirkpatrick at a lovely pizza place in midtown Manhattan. While he’s best known as the author of “The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World“, David is an incredibly prolific writer and reader, we’ve learned. We couldn’t leave without some book recommendations, of course (descriptions courtesy of Amazon.com):

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

by Brad Stone

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The definitive story of Amazon.com, one of the most successful companies in the world, and of its driven, brilliant founder, Jeff Bezos.

Amazon.com started off delivering books through the mail. But its visionary founder, Jeff Bezos, wasn’t content with being a bookseller. He wanted Amazon to become the everything store, offering limitless selection and seductive convenience at disruptively low prices. To do so, he developed a corporate culture of relentless ambition and secrecy that’s never been cracked. Until now. Brad Stone enjoyed unprecedented access to current and former Amazon employees and Bezos family members, giving readers the first in-depth, fly-on-the-wall account of life at Amazon. Compared to tech’s other elite innovators–Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg–Bezos is a private man. But he stands out for his restless pursuit of new markets, leading Amazon into risky new ventures like the Kindle and cloud computing, and transforming retail in the same way Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing.

Read more

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

by Ashlee Vance

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New York Times Bestseller – Named One of the Best Books of the Year by The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Audible and Amazon
In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, veteran technology journalist Ashlee Vance provides the first inside look into the extraordinary life and times of Silicon Valley’s most audacious entrepreneur. Written with exclusive access to Musk, his family and friends, the book traces the entrepreneur’s journey from a rough upbringing in South Africa to the pinnacle of the global business world. Vance spent more than 30 hours in conversation with Musk and interviewed close to 300 people to tell the tumultuous stories of Musk’s world-changing companies: PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity, and to characterize a man who has renewed American industry and sparked new levels of innovation while making plenty of enemies along the way.

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

by Stephen Levy

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Written with full cooperation from top management, including cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, this is the inside story behind Google, the most successful and most admired technology company of our time, told by one of our best technology writers.

Few companies in history have ever been as successful and as admired as Google, the company that has transformed the Internet and become an indispensable part of our lives. How has Google done it? Veteran technology reporter Steven Levy was granted unprecedented access to the company, and in this revelatory book he takes readers inside Google headquarters—the Googleplex—to show how Google works.

Read more

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

by John Markoff

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Most histories of the personal computer industry focus on technology or business. John Markoff’s landmark book is about the culture and consciousness behind the first PCs—the culture being counter– and the consciousness expanded, sometimes chemically. It’s a brilliant evocation of Stanford, California, in the 1960s and ’70s, where a group of visionaries set out to turn computers into a means for freeing minds and information. In these pages one encounters Ken Kesey and the phone hacker Cap’n Crunch, est and LSD, The Whole Earth Catalog and the Homebrew Computer Lab. What the Dormouse Said is a poignant, funny, and inspiring book by one of the smartest technology writers around.

Read more

Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots

by John Markoff

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In Machines of Loving Grace, New York Times reporter John Markoff, the first reporter to cover the World Wide Web, offers a sweeping history of the complicated and evolving relationship between humans and computers. Over the recent years, the pace of technological change has accelerated dramatically, reintroducing this difficult ethical quandary with newer and far weightier consequences. As Markoff chronicles the history of automation, from the birth of the artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation communities in the 1950s, to the modern day brain trusts at Google and Apple in Silicon Valley, and on to the expanding tech corridor between Boston and New York, he traces the different ways developers have addressed this fundamental problem and urges them to carefully consider the consequences of their work.

We are on the verge of a technological revolution, Markoff argues, and robots will profoundly transform the way our lives are organized. Developers must now draw a bright line between what is human and what is machine, or risk upsetting the delicate balance between them.

Read more

That’s a lot of awesome books, and we can’t wait to start diving into them either, but don’t forget to check out Techonomy Magazine as well!

Company Highlight: AppNexus

[by Douglas Diehl]

On the evening of Tuesday January 26, Princeton Innovation visited AppNexus, a global online advertising company. AppNexus boasts the world’s leading independent ad tech platform. During the visit, we had the opportunity to hear from three AppNexus employees who gave us an overview of the company. They explained the process of real-time bidding that takes place in an electronic platform in fractions of seconds.

For example, when you visit a website, it is possible that AppNexus mediated the bidding process for the advertisements you will most likely see. I personally had never thought too much about where the advertisements on the page come from, or how multifaceted and coordinated the process must be. The size of the advertisement must be taken into account, the preferences of the viewer, and the highest bidder is able to win.

Additionally, we learned that without advertisements, many companies would be unable to run their content online for free, content that we would not like to pay for and that we just assume is free. Yet, business that have online presences use advertisement space as a way to bring in capital that keeps websites operating. I also enjoyed a brief discussion on ad blockers, because it appears that there are differing perspectives on the matter. On the one hand, an employee at AppNexus explained the viewpoint that ad blockers are bad for the Internet in general. On the other hand, an employee at Google, a competitor in this industry, held the position that ad blockers are a response to the uncontrolled flow of ads that take over computer screens and adversely affect the visitors’ online website viewing experience.

A particularly nice part of the visit was a complete tour of AppNexus’s floors. From the lobby entrance to the building, quite small and unimpressive, the floors stood in stark contrast; they were impressive and grand. In addition to large open concept workspaces, AppNexus had historic elevators, a comfortable library, an auditorium space, and a basketball court. Additionally, it was interesting to see a timeline of AppNexus on the wall of one of their floors, which detailed all of the accomplishments of the company. Lastly, AppNexus graciously hosted a Princeton Innovation alumni reception on their main floor, which enjoyed many dynamic conversations and provided a greater idea of the varied fields of Princeton alumni in science fields.

Company Highlight: Celmatix

[by Jonathan Lu]

Celmatix is a biotech startup focused on developing a clinical test for fertility. Their main product is Polaris, an algorithm that analyzes a patient’s clinical data and outputs risk factors in fertility. At fertility clinics across the country, physicians use Polaris to inform treatment of their clients. We sat down with James Leslie, Chief Financial Officer, and Sam Globus, Manager of Scientific Operations, to talk about the exciting research and work being done at this STEM startup.

Sam began by telling us about the science behind the company. The company had access to 250,000 patient cases of fertility, as well as 300 whole genome sequences. These data form the basis for their algorithm. The company’s bioinformaticians use statistical modeling to identify the effects of certain genetic variants to the fertility cycle. With this information, the company enhances Polaris, their genetic testing algorithm. The company is clearly invested in the fundamental scientific research, publishing papers and submitting abstracts to conferences. One surprising research finding was that many patients are first recommended cheaper, but ineffective treatments, such as non-in-vitro fertilization (IVF), when they should move directly to the more expensive IVF treatments. Finally, James and Sam stressed that fertility is extraordinarily complicated, and Polaris is constantly being refined.

 

We then talked about the differences in scientific research between industry and academia. Most projects in academia are headed by individual grad students; we were curious how Celmatix were able to get each of its 50 members to collaborate and work toward the same goal. The answer? Create a culture of collaboration, through weekly meetings and social events, like trivia. By fostering friendships between its employees, Celmatix encourages them to feel comfortable reaching out and asking each other questions. “There’s something wrong if you’re working alone in your cubicle all day,” as Sam put it. Another difference between academia and industry is the managers. For a company to grow and to have a positive working environment, it needs managers like James to do culture reviews, hire employees, and create open channels of communication. Culture was clearly more emphasized in the collaborative company setting than in the academic setting.

Next, we talked to Ana, Anja, Anthony, and Nick about their work. Anna was a molecular biologist who dropped out of her postdoc to come work at Celmatix. She “wanted to make an impact”, and found more potential for it at Celmatix than in academia. Now, as a cell cycle geneticist, she performs sequencing experiments and reviews the literature on genetic fertility. Anja and Anthony were data scientists. They trained statistical models on the features within patient clinical data (e.g. ethnicity, age, disease history) to make predictions about fertility, while also integrating information from the 300 whole genome sequences. Finally, Nick (EEB ’11) was a platform development manager, working on making the user experience as smooth as possible for the physicians. When asked about their favorite part of working at Celmatix, some mentioned the flexibility. “I like that I can go and talk to literally any other employee in the company when I have a question.” Others mentioned the impact. “We are building software that could directly improve people’s lives.”

We ended our visit with a general discussion of what it was like to work at a startup. Sam felt that a startup job puts one in a better position for career development. “Unlike at corporations, you are not pigeonholed into one area. Maybe the money isn’t as good, but at a startup, you will gain much more experience. You will be pushed to learn all sorts of new things, and you’ll better understand what it takes for a company to be successful. You have fluidity: my job has changed in so many ways since I began working here. And even if you don’t succeed, employers will think higher of you for having that experience.” James then talked about the traits of a successful startup. “You need to have investors buy into the vision. Especially at a STEM company like ours, they need to understand the science, understand that it will take time to develop a good product. Otherwise, the investors will rush, the product will be rushed, and the company will lose.”

Our trip to Celmatix was exciting and enlightening. We’re grateful to everyone there for having us!

Company Highlight: Graze

[by Kaijia Tian]

The Company

Graze is a subscription snack company that delivers 8 snacks right to your door. Customers list their preferences when they sign up, and Graze uses their algorithm, DARWIN, to give the customers what they want while introducing them to new snacks that fit their tastes. The company responds quickly to food trends such as kale and Sriracha, but always ensures that their products both taste good and make you feel good. Every snack is portion controlled and only ingredients from small suppliers who do not compromise on quality are used.

My Experience

When we visited Graze, we talked to Jordan, the supply chain manager, and Jack, both Princeton graduates of the Class of 2010. Jordan’s job is to determine what goes into each box, because the customers all have different preferences and live in different parts of the country. What made Graze stand out from some of the other companies we visited was how transparent they were with how the company worked, even showing us the algorithm they use on a daily basis to fill a subscription box with customized snacks. During the presentation, when explaining the company’s relationship with individual suppliers, Jack said, “People sign up [for Graze] to discover new snacks, but Graze discovers it first.” Since the start of the company, Graze has developed over 100 snacks for customers to choose from. What I thought was really interesting was how they put out the shipments to different states on different days to ensure that the snacks will be delivered to all 50 states on the same day.

Takeaway

Visiting Graze made me realize how health conscious our generation has become. Boasting portion-controlled snacks and priding themselves on working with small suppliers, Graze has been on the rise ever since its establishment in the US in 2013. Every snack is stamped with a health badge and every box comes with a pamphlet that contains detailed nutritional information on all the snacks. The subscription food market is still young and Graze is one of the few players, which makes for quick and easy expansion, but what surprised me was the fact that they plan on retailing their products in stores as the company continues to grow. Not everyone likes the idea of a subscription box, but I think it’s what makes Graze unique. Once the snacks are on the shelves, the customers are going to lose the experience of having a unique, personally customized box of snacks. In addition, the fact that a snack subscription company utilizes an algorithm for composing individual boxes has inspired me to take more computer sciences in the future.

Company Highlight: D. E. Shaw Research

[by Catherine Wu]

D. E. Shaw Research (“DESRES”) is based in lower Manhattan and conducts advanced research within computational biochemistry. The company builds supercomputers (the Anton series) that are used do perform molecular dynamics simulations, which are used to conduct scientific research with a focus on computer-aided drug design. There is also work in designing and implementing novel algorithms that advance the speed and granularity of computation.

During the InnovTrip visit, the participants were joined by several DESRES researchers in a spacious conference room for a few presentations. The scientists walked us through the design process of the Anton supercomputer and discussed how Anton is advancing and revolutionizing research by demo-ing the biomolecular simulations that Anton makes possible. We were introduced to how the supercomputer is facilitating drug discovery by modeling protein interactions on the scale of 10^-15 seconds, which is orders of magnitudes faster than previous attempts and thus allows for improved accuracy. The firm is continuously improving the supercomputer design and completes a new computer about every 5 years. We then saw a copy of Anton 2 that was located in the office and learned some details about the system, including the innovative cooling system that was specifically designed for it.

My biggest takeaway from the visit is how important hardware design is to pushing drug frontiers. In the Princeton classes I took, the focus has largely been on software and this was the first time that I was really exposed to an application where hardware design is the most challenging and essential part of the project.