Virtual CommunicationRead More
For most of history, science fed technology. But now the process has flipped and technologies like virtual and augmented realities (AR & VR) offer great communication opportunities for the scientific world.
Humans are visual animals, a fact more observable in today’s modern world, than ever before. Now, through our social media culture, most content we consume is visual (for example: videos, infographics, pictures, etc.). A visual impactful message that can be quickly digested and more information retained than from reading a long written essay.
Like Marshall Mcluhan said, “the medium is the message.” In other words, the form of the medium can affect people according to the evolution of each new technology produced. This idea perfectly represents the impact of AR and VR.
In just a few years VR and AR have been used to create many new ways to approach the customer, and despite some wonderful early uses, we have only begun to scratch the surface of this technology.
By the way… Is there a difference between AR and VR?
Augmented Reality: This technology allows us to see virtual things (animals, articles, people, etc.) in our own environment, thanks to special glasses or screens. The best way to make you understand is to talk about the most viral application of 2016: Pokémon GO. With this application people can hunt Pokémon everywhere, just by filming their environment. For now, it is the best example of mainstream consumption of AR. Since then several brands have made their “AR baptism”, like IKEA, Lego, Starbucks even Pepsi (to mention only the most known) with even more inventive ways of advertising their products.
Virtual Reality: It uses the same technology as AR but here the user is conveyed to a totally different world, a virtual one, thanks to glasses. In addition to the visual alteration, there are various other accessories, which can add further effects (touch, move, smell / levers, treadmill, bike…).
VR has not gone unused by businesses. It can be an immersive experience for the user and a big promotion for the brand. For example, Marriot Hotel used it to “teleport” newlyweds to their dream destination for their honeymoon. Another wonderful use of this technology, was adopted by Merrel, who used the VR technology for the launch of new hiking shoes. Their experience, called Merrel TrailScape, offered customers the possibility to go on a virtual mountain hike all from the safety of the store.
These two technologies, beside their recreational aspects, offer plenty of possibilities in terms of communication and especially in customer commitment. Businesses merely need to have the imagination and the capacity to use it. Instead of riding on the AR and VR trend, it could be used to attract new targets and mix it with an inbound strategy* to create a new value for business content.
It could even be useful for internal communication. Some of the international car brands, including Volkswagen and BMW, use AR for their production division to explain to their team the assembly process or to show the location of any problems with a product.
If we dig deeper, this technology could be used to collect new kinds of user data information. For example, through an immersive experience, the VR devices could be capable of recording our facial expressions and establish whether we enjoy what we’re seeing or understand the message being presented. A marketer could then use this information to better design their content. Basically, VR and AR could be the Swiss Army Knife for marketers, because it is more than a medium, it is also the channel and the platform. These two technologies could be the spearhead for the brand’s message.
Outside of its communication use, AR and VR technologies can be useful in the healthcare sector, especially for the treatment of phobias like agoraphobia. Also, early medicinal research has investigated the use of virtual reality as glasses that restore vision to blind people. Of course, a cure is still in the experimental stage, but these are still the beginnings of bright future for AR and VR.
If this article piqued your interest and you would like to learn more about AR and VR, you will be happy to know that the 4th international VR & AR conference is being held in Manchester on the 21st and 22nd June 2018. For more information follow the link
* Inbound strategy: with this strategy the customer is attracted directly to your website, through relevant and helpful content (White papers, blogs, infographics, videos, newsletters, off-line events…). The opposite of this strategy is advertising because it is the brand that attracts the customer.
NewGenApps: Augmented Reality Technology: How does AR work?
Cramer: How VR is shaping the future of brand experiences
YouVisit: 10 Common Questions about VR marketing answered
The Verge: The eSight 3 is an AR headset to help the legally blind see
MDTmag: VR headset restores sight to the blind
Volkswagen: Virtual Technologies
The Drive:BMW uses VR to build prototypes
This blog was written by our Planning Intern, Flovia Busato.
Will YouTube ever be the same again?Read More
What is YouTube?
YouTube has been a popular streaming site for just over a decade now and as of 2017 is the second most used website on the internet. Its popularity has stemmed from the creative freedom that it allows its users to have, whether they’re looking for videos branching out from film reviews or something completely different, like makeup tutorials. A key selling point for YouTube is that anyone with a camera and an idea can upload a video to the site without going through any filters that try and dilute down the content that they intend to upload. The intimacy between the creators and viewers on the website turned the small video sharing site of 2005 into the digital juggernaut that it is today. However, as YouTube grew bigger in popularity, it attracted bigger companies that wanted to advertise on the site. Although that meant great things economically, it also meant increased risk of slipping up.
On the 17th March 2017 The Times published a disparaging article on YouTube. They had discovered that adverts from big companies like BBC and L’Oreal were showing up on videos displaying hate speech and non-brand friendly videos that might tarnish the reputation of such companies if seen by the wrong people. As this article started to trend online, it reached the eyes of many companies that acted quickly by pulling their adverts from the site. This exodus of ads included companies like Pepsi, Walmart, GSK, Johnson & Johnson and many more. Many among the YouTube community came to know this as the “Adpocalypse” since adverts were sparse on the site. According to analyst firm Nomura Instinet, YouTube could’ve lost up to $750 million because of the drop of adverts on the website.
Effect on YouTubers
Every video on YouTube is able to make money for the creator of the video and for YouTube itself. In simple terms the money comes from the adverts that pop up on the video and the more views that a video gets, the more money the video makes. After the “Adpocalypse” many of the videos on the site started to make significantly less money because no adverts were appearing on them anymore. This started to become a problem for people who made a living from creating videos on the site because they were getting very little income. This led to YouTubers venturing into new opportunities such as another live streaming website called Twitch and other forms of social media like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. A lot of YouTubers dropped out of school when they became popular so very few have a backup job that they can rely on if anything goes wrong.
Attempt to Recover
YouTube always had guidelines that people uploading a video must adhere to but they were so lenient that most videos aligned within the rules anyway. However, with adverts appearing on videos that shouldn’t have been allowed on the website, the rules were strictly tightened in an attempt to stop anything like the “Adpocalypse” happening again. These new rules have changed YouTube since creating videos is a more cautious process now that content creators are being monitored a bit more closely. This has made the platform a lot more family friendly, which has annoyed the fans who dislike television for the same reason. One of these new rules are to stop swearing as much, which has also angered the viewers because they came to YouTube for raw and real content from their favourite creators, not people who have to censor themselves in order to make money. Another rule that has stirred some controversy is the ban of graphic content in videos. This is especially affecting independent news channels that can’t make money on their videos if they show any footage of terrorist attacks or police shootings that bigger news stations like CNN or BBC can share on television.
As always YouTube are trying to fix some of the problems and resolve some of the issues that their new set of guidelines have brought with them but the “Adpocalypse” has really got people wondering if YouTube will ever be the same again.
What are your opinions on YouTube? Do you think it’s changed? Tweet me your thoughts @ollieatnotch
Snapchat, black boxes, struggling artists and a Nobel Prize in Economics – On the future of modern advertising (2/2)Read More
Last week, I outlined the rapidly changing features of the marketing landscape. We live in an era where we have all the information we could ever want on tap, and with people’s attention ever more difficult to acquire, modern marketing just isn’t keeping pace. The ‘content orientated’ approach has failed to remedy the general apathy towards marketing, except in certain cases that we will explore further in this article. If you haven’t read part 1, you can check it out here.
I stated previously that people inherently associate adverts and marketing with just ‘noise’, and that a lack of authenticity prevents people from engaging with the vast majority of the messaging out there. Why do I feel authenticity is important? Well, let’s look at some of the success stories out there, identify what they have in common, break down those ideas and suggest how you can apply them to your business.
How Boeing made a billion dollars selling planes to ordinary people
The aviation industry is one of incremental improvements and a relentless dedication to efficiency. As an example, 10 kilos saved on slightly thinner rivets made possible by material advances can amount to tens of thousands of pounds saved in fuel costs over the lifetime of a plane. This is the kind of information that carriers, the companies who buy aircraft from the manufacturers, want to hear about. For the last few decades, this is where the vast amount of messaging has been directed. This means that, save for aircraft that are particularly ‘iconic’ like the 747 Jumbo, A380 and the Concorde (which also happens to be the least profitable for both airliners and manufacturers), ordinary consumers simply are unaware about the differences between the myriad of other models out there. Unless you’re a plane geek, could you tell the difference between a 777 and an a350? Why would you even need to?
In the run-up to the launch of their newest 787 aircraft, Boeing tried something different. They put a concerted effort into a commercial awareness campaign pitched directly at the customers of airliners. Their new machine was not visually distinctive or physically impressive, so it had very little appeal in the way the aforementioned iconic planes did. Instead, they pressed the tangible benefits of travelling on their aircraft to consumers, they invited countless documentaries and news into their factories to explain their manufacturing processes, and they branded the machine the ever-so-slightly cheesy ‘Dreamliner’. They gave this huge B2B proposition a decidedly B2C face. This campaign was extremely successful, and pretty soon customers began inquiring with their favourite carriers about when they could fly in this new machine.
What Boeing had recognised is that awareness is just as important as directly appealing to the people who make the purchasing decisions. Decision makers in a B2B setting are still human, and the impact your brand has on a much wider scope of people can influence them in a very positive way. If you can sell the idea and engage a broader variety of people who aren’t even involved in the more mundane B2B calculations that go into the final purchasing decision, then you will appear all the more authentic. Not only does it convey enthusiasm for your product and forces you to articulate its benefits in creative ways, but if successful it will build a mythos. Getting your name out into the public consciousness pays itself off in spades when the person you are pitching to has already heard of you before you walk through the door.
Make art, not ads. Inform, don’t sell.
One of the key reasons why Boeing was so successful in this endeavour is because most of the marketing pitched at the public was not aimed at selling. There was no sense that it was KPI driven material, designed with financial performance in mind, but instead created as if the content itself had intrinsic value. In other words, much of what Boeing did was more like art than advertising.
One of the reasons why people are so turned off by typical advertising is because many talented marketers are not thinking like their clientele. They are under pressure to generate a high ROI, which has led to a significant impact, in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle, on their work. As we explored in the previous blog, people don’t engage with abstractions and statistics, they engage with a story and creative messaging, both of which appear completely inauthentic if they are done with transparent and negative associations of ‘the sale’. The experience of an ad or marketing message from the perspective of the customer is primarily an aesthetic one. If you want to create a positive association with your content, you must stop thinking in terms of ads and start thinking in terms of art and aesthetics. Capture the imagination of your audience.
The rise of influencers, many of whom are people who have gathered a large following from simply producing content online for their viewers, demonstrates that there are far better ways to create a compelling narrative than what most of the industry is currently capable of. Take for example a content creator like Linus Tech Tips, a tech advice channel that spends half the time producing paid for, sponsored ad spots. What companies like Intel have realised is that working with these types of people can pay significant dividends, and just by sponsoring whatever is produced, they earn very positive, credible exposure. The next step is to move from simply sponsoring and buying influencers, to becoming one yourself.
The key is to allow creatives, whether they be in-house or influencers (who will often not work without), significant creative freedom and distance from business metrics like ROI. This is vitally important because it makes it more likely that the resulting content feels independent, intrinsically valuable, and most importantly, authentic.
The curious case of Denny’s Diner
Denny’s has about 1500 locations across the US and it boasts a follower count of 374,000. Burger King conversely has about 7000 locations and has 1.5 million followers. With that in mind, note the significantly diverging engagement figures of Denny’s vs the much larger Burger King. With a fifth of the followers, Denny’s regularly gets over 10 times the engagement. What’s more is that they do not pay Twitter to place their tweets in others’ timelines (like Burger King does for its promotions), instead they rely on the strength of their content and word of mouth. Their social media marketing is so strong that other people will actively spread it for them, and although most of what they produce is related to their business (to great comedic effect I might add), it never pushes the sell. It comes across as genuine and authentic, not crafted in a corporate environment that most people just can’t, or don’t, want to identify with.
So humour is a tool that one particular consumer-orientated company is using, what could a large B2B firm possibly learn from something like that? The broader point of the Denny’s example is that intrinsically valuable content is useful for building a broad base of engagement. This will then have a positive influence on your core business through heightened awareness and a more pervasive narrative. Even if your product is not something that might be considered conventionally ‘sexy’ like a jetliner, there are alternative ways for these types of companies to still get their faces out there. Doing things like sponsoring competitions, particularly at the secondary and tertiary education level, will generate important name recognition in the years to come. Creating high quality content which explains the innovation and relevance of what you do, and delves into the various applications it has, will generate powerful engagement if done correctly. Just look at a company like Apple go into exhaustive detail about its anodisation process. Most people have a reason for why they do what they do, chances are good that you fell in love with the field at some point. There is always a story to tell, you just need to find the right way to tell it.
Build yourself a black box
If you’ve ever been on a commercial aircraft, maybe even the previously mentioned Boeing Dreamliner, you’ll know that your tray table must be stowed and your seat upright for takeoff and landing. You have to watch the same safety video every time and, if you’re a frequent flier, you probably could operate one of those weird yellow oxygen masks in the dark. That said, each and every one of those routine operations has been borne out of an ingrained sense of learning in the aviation industry. Every safety procedure is there because of a previous failure or accident. This is because everything is recorded and measured, in the form of a piece of crash-proof hardware called the ‘black box’.
In his book ‘Black Box Thinking’, the author Matthew Syed goes into deep detail about how the practices of the aviation industry are relevant to almost every field. He argues that to think in ‘black box’ terms is to meticulously record and learn, to set up ‘feedback loops’ where the impact of each decision can be measured and future actions can be modified by the resultant learning. In marketing, this means heavily utilising analytics to ensure your goals are reached, but also by refining creative processes. This might seem implicitly contradictory to my previous statements about the need for creativity and breaking free from the constraints imposed on authentic messaging by business metrics, but here this is not the case. What I am arguing is that the goals of the messaging must be different from purely business metrics and not that all metrics are worthless. We are able to appreciate how good the likes of Denny’s and Boeing’s efforts are in part because we are able to measure their success. We are just using more than straightforward KPIs as a metric.
In practice, this strategy is about allowing for explosive outbursts of creativity in your marketing and messaging. After this, you gradually sharpen and refine them into a honed representation of your brand or product. It’s about establishing a solid feedback mechanism so you aren’t just wandering in the dark with your ideas, but using a variety of performance metrics to measure their impact. Crucially, this cannot happen at the cost of the ‘human touch’ that makes something relatable or engaging.
Instituting a culture of creativity
Creativity, or more specifically originality, is a difficult thing. It is a function of many things; the right environment, challenging work, an emphasis on approaching problems differently, and everybody needing slightly different stimuli in order to achieve their best output. The key to generating compelling, authentic content is to build a culture and ethos that actively values original thinking. What gets people excited to go to work in the morning is not the prospect of their pay cheque, but an overarching goal. Whether it be Steve Jobs proclaiming he wants to ‘put a ding in the universe’, or Skype ‘disrupting through innovation’. This just isn’t about creating a meaningful product of service, instead it is part of the direction for the company as a whole, including marketing and advertising. Ensuring you don’t define this purpose from the top down is also the key to some of the biggest success stories of the 21st century. By allowing this purpose to be shared and contributed to by everyone is vital to establishing a cohesive culture.
There are concrete, solid changes you can make to encourage this type of thinking. One company, Atlassian, gives their employees one day at the end of each month to work on anything they wanted to, with anyone they wanted and anywhere they wanted, with the only rule being that they show the company what they did at the end of the day in a party-like atmosphere. What they discovered is that more software bugs were fixed in that one day than in an entire month. This is not something to be reserved for creatives either, everyone has probably had an idea about how they might improve their work or some other aspect of the company, but has not had the opportunity to try. Even if they don’t succeed, they tried and learned something, which is valuable experience. There are countless more examples of this type of practice bringing in great results.
Another important aspect of creativity is conflict. Creativity flourishes when it is given parameters to work with and around. For example, research shows that mind-mapping is a wholly inadequate way of finding solutions to problems as a group because of the social biases in the workplace tend to compel people to agree with one another and not challenge assumptions. Instead, one of the most effective methods is to allow people to bring their solutions to the table, instruct the group to explicitly find problems with the solution, and then work together to fix them.
Doing this right takes a lot of institutional learning and experience, and will not necessarily yield results right away; building a culture takes time. But done correctly, your content marketing will be authentic enough to be appreciated as intrinsically valuable. This translates into a positive public narrative about your company, which will ensure that your customers, whether they be consumers or other businesses, will want to buy your products or work with you.
Thanks for reading. What are your thoughts? Let me know at @Notchcom
Snapchat, black boxes, struggling artists and a Nobel Prize in Economics – On the future of modern advertising (1/2)Read More
Recently YouTube, one of the world’s largest ad distributors, announced that it was cutting unskippable 30 second ads from its offering to businesses, citing a reduced inventory and high user turnover as one of the key problems with the format.
The landscape that marketers and advertisers alike will find themselves in, in the very short future, is changing rapidly. The rise of ad-blockers, the rapidly deteriorating state of monetisation via advertisement, and the popularity of subscription services and on-demand media, make opportunities for attracting customers significantly more scarce. But this is actually a huge opportunity for savvy operators to differentiate themselves in such a way as to not only survive this brave new world, but to thrive in it. So what lessons are there to learn and how can they be applied to your business, no matter what field you are in?
It’s a ‘Snap’ world now
In 2013, a bizarre application made its name (and billions of dollars in valuation) known across the world. Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging app, essentially removed functionality found in other communication applications, and became a huge sensation. This is a key clue to what the future holds, as it represents the next big leap in what has been a decade long paradigm shift from old media to new.
It might be tempting to look at the likes of Snapchat and Twitter and grumble about declining attention spans that can’t pay attention to anything longer than 140 characters or a few seconds of time, but there is more refined analysis to be had here. The fact is, we have an awful lot competing for our attention in the modern world, more than any other time in human history. In order to get anything done, we have to dedicate focus to it, and that represents a larger opportunity cost than it ever has done before. Advertisements are unpopular, particularly ones that hold you as a captive audience like YouTube’s unskippable 30 second ads, because they are just noise that keeps us from what we are actually interested in, and this cumulatively costs a lot of time.
Snapchat is popular because it condenses entire stories into bite-sized chunks. It is unobtrusive in its delivery, and because nothing holds any permanence, it means you are focused entirely on the here and now. Everything is always relevant and current, and the format is personal and intimate. This is in stark contrast to old media, where content is served essentially to a captive audience. Even the most ardent advocate of this type of marketing has been sat, gripped to their seat watching a favourite TV series or film, only for a climactic moment to be interrupted by an overly bright ad with hokey dialogue and recycled clichés.
Marketing in its original form was typically rooted around finding consumers who have a need, and informing them about how their product fulfils that need. This strategy typically only works if people and businesses always know what their needs are, and it creates a hard ‘ceiling’ of potential customers, but the biggest success stories often come from creating a product people don’t know they need until they actually use it. This involves telling a story that people can buy into, an idea, something that can entice them into buying into the company and the product. The problem is that the stories have become long and bloated, they sometimes try so hard to hide their commercial nature that it becomes painfully obvious, and they often just aren’t actually any good in the first place. How is this model meant to survive in the era of Snapchat? Where there is a huge opportunity cost for simply reading a handful of paragraphs, that time that could be better spent watching funny videos on YouTube or the latest drama on Netflix. On this very blog post, no matter what you consider its quality to be, it’s unlikely that more than 50% of people have read this far (a thank you to those who are still with me!).
The rise of content marketing
Daniel Kahneman, author of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ and the winner of a Nobel Prize for his acclaimed work into the study of human bias, details research in his book on how humans weigh up information to make decisions. One useful takeaway from his research is that humans are pretty poor at visualising abstract information. We can understand it on a logical level, but it is hard to create emotional buy-in without something more tangible to back it up. This makes intuitive sense. A chart with a list of percentages is less useful than a helpful visualisation, such as a graph or infographic. Perhaps most importantly though, he concludes that handling such abstraction is significantly more taxing of our finite mental resources. Modern advertising has to give people a very good reason to buy in, before it makes its case.
The industry’s response has been the focus on content orientated marketing or ‘content marketing’. This approach recognises that simply pushing products to sell resonates only with an exceptionally small number of a potential customer base. Content is presented as an experience, and can be found in almost any form. The majority of the time it is presented in extensive social media engagement, videos, articles, et cetera. They will typically contain a somewhat clever metaphor or idea, the bad ones will be based on a terrible pun.
Creating this much volume and trying to maintain quality is expensive and time consuming, and though a select few achieve huge success, there are plenty of companies of all sizes who have seen little return. So why are people more disaffected than ever before? Why are they not spending their valuable attention on all of this stuff? Well because, despite the change in approach, the way the stories are delivered still sucks.
Authenticity, not content, is king
Most marketing departments do not set out with the goal of creating bad campaigns. They do it almost entirely by accident, with the help of a couple of shibboleths that have gone unchallenged in the industry for years. There is a shortage of the kind of blue sky thinking required to really engage people, and cut through the aforementioned noise. Make no mistake, the competition between adverts is cutthroat, you’ve got to be bold to stand out. Because there is so much volume, people have developed a built-in instinct for what an ad looks like and sounds like, and once that association has been made, all that work towards a content-orientated strategy will likely fall flat on its face. This is because it lacks authenticity, it tries to hide its KPI-driven ulterior motives beneath a veneer that barely conceals it. The creative direction is often cliché-driven and overly padded. Social media strategy is a good example of companies recognising the need to engage on these relatively new platforms, but being stuck in an old mindset that has not adapted with the technology. Tweets and posts are meticulously planned out and rather than resembling the distinctly ‘social’ nature of that platform, each one instead feels like a mini press-release. A web-advertising campaign across multiple socials, YouTube, Google et al, will cost a significant amount for a comparatively paltry amount of engagement. If you look at genuine content creators, people who make a living from these platforms, they are often able to generate tens to multiple thousands of times the interest with no spend whatsoever. It’s not even that their content isn’t commercial in nature, many of them create content explicitly related to products and brands. Something crucial is happening with respect to the interaction between the audience and the content.
This applies just as much to B2B as it does to B2C. B2B marketing has come a long way since ads were just a product with a list of bullet-points on a neutral colour, but it still has a reputation for being tediously dull in many sectors, particularly mature ones. The scarcity of attention applies just as much to business people as it does to consumers, and if anything, authenticity is of greater consequence when companies are being asked to stake a significant investment in you and your product. The only significant difference between the two is the needs you are fulfilling and the corresponding messages you want to send.
So what can a company, irrespective of its size, do to adapt and succeed in this environment? Watch this space for part 2!
Gaby’s Top 5 Science moments 2016Read More
This year for my top 5 science moments, I have taken a different tactic to past yearly reviews. I have resisted the temptations to choose a discovery from each discipline of science for the sake of balance and, instead, have included the stories that spoke to me. So, if you are looking for a wide-reaching view of the science of 2016, then this may not be for you. But if you are interested in the science discoveries that captured the imaginations and hopes of this geneticist then grab a cuppa. Here is my top 5 moments from 2016.
5. Pocket-sized DNA sequencer
The ability to sequence a genome and read the code to life is arguably one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of modern science. However, the hardware involved is normally at least the size of a microwave oven and can be very fragile. This year, a biotechnology company made a significant breakthrough with a sequencing machine, the MinION. This sequencer is only 86 grams and is small enough to be forgotten in a pocket! This year however, it was proven to be not only functional but has also been shown to work in microgravity.
In June this year the MinION was sent to the International Space Station to be tested on board. The future holds great things for this technology and space exploration. In theory, the crew could use it to quickly identify the precise cause of any illness to ensure that it is treated effectively. This type of diagnosis is imperative for future missions to Mars and beyond when there is no possibility to restock the limited supply of antibiotics.
However, it is not only for space travel that this development will be useful. Reducing DNA sequencing to a small size means it could be combined with other technologies to allow patients to monitor levels of certain DNA sequences at home. In theory, cancer patients could track the progress of their disease by the level of fusion chromosomes and HIV patients could monitor viral levels as easily as diabetics can monitor their blood sugar.
Whatever the future uses are, the pocket-sized DNA sequencing technology opens new doors for genomics, therapeutics and disease management.
4. Promising results from stem cell treatments for stroke
Stroke research, especially developing therapies, is a complex field that is subject to many challenges. For a long time, the industry belief was that the most effective treatment for stroke would be one that can be administered to patients as soon as possible after the fact, even in the back of an ambulance.
However, new research from Stanford University has broken new ground with a treatment that can be administered 3 years after a stroke. Adult mesenchymal stem cells were injected into the brain of volunteer stroke victims between 6 months and 3 years after the stroke had occurred. Normally, after 6 months doctors would expect no future improvement to occur. However, after the procedure, one patient regained movement in her right arm and right leg even after being confined to a wheelchair for the previous few years.
Mesenchymal stem cells have interesting therapeutic potential as they have been shown to repress the immune system which may have contributed to the high success rate and low number of side effects observed in this trial.
Whatever the theory and the reason behind the success, this trial has paved the way for more successful therapies for stroke victims and has given hope to those that currently live with a disability as a result.
3. Progress in the field of human CRISPR research
2015 was undoubtedly the year of gene editing. As Science’s breakthrough of the year and with multiple advances, it was the beginning of the gene editing revolution. As a result, this year was expected to be when all of that research and progress was finally applied and the true value of CRISPR was revealed. It did not disappoint.
2016 saw the first human trial in China using CRISPR-Cas9 in an experimental therapy for a patient with advanced lung cancer. In this trial, CRISPR was targeted to PD-1 in the targeted cells, which aimed to induce cell death and halt the growth of the cancer.
Equally notable progress was made closer to home in the USA with the start of a safety test of CRISPR for human use. The safety test is administering CRISPR to 18 patients with various cancers but will not be assessed for efficacy. The completion of this safety screen should allow the development of CRISPR therapeutics in the USA and encourage investment into applying CRISPR to proven gene editing based therapies. Such proven techniques include the removal of rejection genes with TALENS by Great Ormond Street Hospital or the addition of HIV resistance genes to patients using techniques done with ZFNs.
The approval of these trials is a big moment for gene editing based therapeutics. After the death of Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, the industry is understandably cautious surrounding these techniques. However, recent developments, improvements and precautions for conflict-of-interest all contribute to making CRISPR-based therapeutics that little bit closer.
2. The continued race for a Zika vaccine
Two years ago, the first reports began to surface about the outbreaks of microcephaly in South America. Quickly, research abounded into the detection of the cause and the Zika virus made headlines worldwide. Reminiscent of the Ebola outbreak, a known virus became more dangerous and was posing a real threat to millions of people.
The response was instant. Never before have so many corporations, research groups and academics reacted so quickly to develop a vaccine for an outbreak. Some vaccines are on track to finish development in a remarkable and record-breaking 2-year turnaround. Lessons have obviously been learned from the Ebola outbreak and teams are reacting quickly to not miss the critical window for a vaccine.
Many have taken the opportunity of the outbreak to develop innovative vaccine technologies. One such technique involves administering spliced viral DNA. The DNA enters the nuclei of cells and is synthesized into partial viral particles. Antibodies can then be created in response so the body is prepared for a future infection. To improve the vaccine, some manufacturers are using RNA as a more flexible alternative to enter the nucleus.
The development of the Zika vaccines has made it into my top 5, not only because new and innovative techniques are being used. The response by the science industry has given me a lot of hope for the future of science. In the face of the crisis, the industry has shown how teams from across the world can work together to create solutions.
1. Discovery of a key moment in evolutionary history
Few moments in evolutionary history can be argued to be as impactful as the point where life transitioned from single-celled amoeba to complex multicellular organisms. The ability to form a multicellular organism is the point at which life, as we know it, became possible. This year it was revealed that this breakthrough in evolution might have been the result of a single mutation and the consequence of simple dumb luck.
For the formation of multicellular organisms, communication between cells is imperative and a failure to communicate, can lead to cancer, developmental abnormalities and death. Researchers found that, approximately one billion years ago, a single mutation occurred in the gene GK-PID.
This mutation allowed the protein to orient the divisional direction of cells by dictating the position of the mitotic spindle in the cell. However this mutation has an intriguing history when you consider how it functions. The mutation gave GK-PID the ability to link an anchor in the cell membrane to the mitotic spindle. The intriguing point is that, at the time of GK-PID’s mutation, the anchor had not yet evolved!
The reason that this discovery is my number 1 of the year is simple. As a geneticist, I enjoy how this discovery reveals the seldom-admitted secret of biology. Life as we know it, and the key moments of evolution, all came down to plain, old, boring, dumb luck!
So, which of my top 5 got you excited about what science has to offer in 2017? Do you agree with my list? Is there something missing?
Let me know on Twitter @GabyAtNotch
The Men Who Enabled Us to View the World in Colour
Bringing colour to the living room
50 years ago this year, the British Broadcasting Company published its intentions to begin broadcasting in colour. One year later the British people saw the green lawns of Wimbledon in the first colour broadcast. On that day, Britain became the first country in Europe to offer regular colour television starting at just 4 hours a week.
John Logie Baird was the man behind the colour transmission system used by the BBC, but was also an important pioneer in developing the first television set, in collaboration with other inventors. He first created and demonstrated colour transmission in 1928, nearly 30 years before it would make its way into British homes.
He died in 1946 before he could see his invention become a widespread phenomenon only a few years later. Without doubt, John Logie Baird can be credited for not only bringing television into the homes of millions but also a few years later, bringing these images in full colour.
Bringing colour to the lab
Roger Tsien was another pioneer who sought to bring colour to images, but rather than viewing sport and the news in colour, he brought colour to the images of science.
Roger Tsien died in September of this year, but certainly lived to see his discovery change how we look at biology forever. In 1994, he discovered an interesting protein in the North American crystal jelly, 14 years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The protein, GFP, has become an irreplaceable asset to researchers across all disciplines. GFP (green fluorescent protein) was identified in Aequorea victoria, the crystal jelly, as the protein responsible for the ethereal glow at the edges of the jellyfish.
After being isolated by Tsien, he found that GFP was able to fluoresce without any other factors than oxygen. This breakthrough led to Tsien proving that GFP could be tagged to proteins in cells, bacteria and living organisms to visualise individual proteins.
After discovering GFP, Tsien and his team began to improve GFP by creating mutants that increased the fluorescence beyond what was found in nature. They also developed a whole palette of colours so that multiple proteins can be tagged at the same time and all seen.
There are now dozens of colours making up a whole toolbox of GFP-like proteins, for scientists to view the subjects of their research in all the colours of the rainbow. Although only a single protein, GFP has enabled scientists to see almost anything in biology, from a single molecule of calcium in a heart cell to an entire organism.
Without a doubt, I am most thankful to Roger Tsien’s discovery for all of the beautiful images it has allowed scientists to capture in the name of research. The British Society for Cell Biology runs a competition every year to find some of the most stunning images and is certainly worth a browse. This is the 2016 winner identifying the substructures within the head of a fruit fly.
Tweet me your thoughts and favourite images to @GabyAtNotch.
Phantom Limbs and Virtual RealityRead More
After watching the inspirational Paralympic games this September, it got me thinking about amputees and the challenges they face. As a neuroscientist, my immediate thoughts went to a condition called Phantom Limb Syndrome, a very peculiar sensation that occurs in around 90% of amputees. It made me wonder how on earth does this happen! It didn’t seem logical, so I looked into the background and causes of the syndrome and that led me to some very interesting treatments for patients – spanning a period of over 450 years!
What is a Phantom Limb?
Firstly, let’s get a little bit of background on the term Phantom Limb Syndrome. It is the sensation or feeling that a limb is still part of a person after that particular limb has been amputated. The feeling can be characterised into both painful and non-painful sensations. Non-painful sensations include the feelings of touch, temperature, pressure and often itching, whilst the painful sensations usually come in the form of burning and shooting pains. This phantom limb pain does not originate from the site of amputation; it is a completely separate experience. But for me it begs the question, how can you ‘feel’ anything in a limb that doesn’t physically exist?
Why does it occur?
This question has had scientists baffled since 1552 when the syndrome was first described, but to this day the exact causes still remain unclear. A little more recently, research using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans has led current thinking to believe the feelings originate in the brain and spinal cord. It was found that the portions of the brain that had once been neurologically connected to the nerves in the amputated limb showed activity in the scans when the patient was experiencing their phantom pain. The patient was experiencing the genuine sensation of pain in a limb that shouldn’t be able to feel anything, a slightly confusing concept right? The explanation for this baffling condition is by no means set in stone, but it is mostly thought to occur due to a lack of sensory input from the missing limb. In everyday life when you produce movement via your limbs, the brain is constantly receiving sensory feedback from that moving limb. In a phantom limb patient, after the limb is amputated, comprehensive sensory input from the limb ceases to be sent; the brain becomes confused and so triggers the body’s most rudimentary response of pain. A different example is the noise heard by people suffering from tinnitus – individuals hear a high-pitched noise that doesn’t actually exist as no-one else can hear it – and current theory is that this is also caused by an anomaly in the brain and spinal cord.
Phantom limb pain is extremely prolific in amputees but varies in duration and seriousness between patients. Phantom pain is a type of nerve pain and can be extremely severe and debilitating. It is extremely common for phantom pain to severely affect patients quality-of-life with many people being driven to near madness from the constant pain. The condition is usually treated via drugs such as painkillers, sedative-hypnotics and anticonvulsants but sadly without much success, often leaving patients still having to cope with their chronic pain. An effective form of treatment is therefore very much in need. But what would happen if we could trick the brain into thinking the limb still existed? This concept was first used by neuroscientist Ramachandran in the 1990s whereby he placed a mirror between a patient’s limbs and asked the patient to move their healthy limb and phantom limb whilst looking at the mirror. This could effectively trick the brain into thinking that the phantom limb was moving, removing some of the discordance in brain signals and relieving the patient of pain.
Cutting edge treatments
Now usually, when thinking of the term ‘Virtual Reality’ (VR) I would immediately think of state-of-the-art video games, where users are completely immersed to the point where they think they are in the game. A recent study has allowed this technology to be used to help sufferers of phantom limb pain. Through VR, users are able to see an image of their moving (phantom) limb in their minds. The technology allows the virtual image to move in accordance with the intact parts of the limb creating a life-like and extremely believable sensation of an intact limb. This then tricks the brain, stops the confusion and therefore reduces the patients’ pain. It’s a more modern take on Ramachandran’s mirror therapy concept and has proven to be even more effective. It’s exciting to see how technology can improve people’s lives, what are your predictions for the future?
Tweet me your thoughts to @MegAtNotch
Removing Barriers to Technology InnovationRead More
Science, technology and healthcare have advanced dramatically over the past few decades, but there is still great scope for new innovation as technologies continue to develop. True innovation requires stepping into the unknown, and this is often limited by perceived hurdles – including tangible barriers, such as lack of resources, and emotional barriers such as fear. What can be done to help drive innovation forwards? Aside from the obvious factors, such as time, money and fresh ideas, I’d like to consider some of the influences that societal and workplace cultures can have on promoting or preventing progression. I’ve classed them into three broad areas of relevance for the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries.
Collaboration vs Competition
Many industries are moving away from closed, secretive cultures towards more open approaches that allow collaboration and sharing of information between organisations, including private companies. The common aim is to accelerate progress, such as finding new therapies more quickly through sharing academic and industrial scientific research data (eg, Cancer Research Technology’s various programmes). In software, there have been attempts to pool technical expertise across groups of developers and across industries for rapid creation of new software tools and platforms, notably the well-established Linux community and, more recently, the Open Compute Project.
This movement towards greater collaboration could be seen as very risky. It is driven by urgent consumer or end-user needs – conflicting with the usual corporate drivers of increased profit and gain of market share. Furthermore, collaboration between academics and/or companies requires sharing of data that not only gives away perceived knowledge advantages to potential competitors, but ultimately risks losing ownership of intellectual property. Why, then, does it occur? Is it the result of a philanthropic urge, or could there be advantages for participating organisations in addition to producing end-user benefits?
It seems there are potential advantages and these are emerging due to recent economic shifts. The life sciences industry, and particularly pharmaceuticals, remains permanently changed by recent recessions that have resulted in significant layoffs within numerous R&D departments, and many ongoing mergers and acquisitions. There’s less funding available for fundamental academic research and more emphasis on grants with tangible outputs. The industry as a whole is facing greater requirements for accountability, with justification of budgets through demonstrating return on investment.
As a result, many organisations lack the internal resources and expertise they need for scientific discoveries or innovative product development, which are essential to remain successful in the life sciences. Some companies can outsource or insource certain R&D projects and niche expertise, but this still requires budget, project management and building trust with third parties. The alternative is to form true collaborations that rely on different capabilities from each party to achieve the desired goals. There is no client-supplier relationship in such arrangements, and the investment can often be jointly managed, typically requiring time and internal resources as opposed to significant cash budgets. Importantly, the risks can be shared by all contributing parties.
To be successful, this model requires truly equal commitment to the project from all parties and total agreement on the desired outcomes. The priority has to be the success of the project, and this necessitates a change in employee mentality and business cultures.
Whether or not this can be sustained in the long-term remains questionable. Firstly, products arising from inter-organisational collaborations may be innovative but their profits would be diluted across different contributing parties or, in some cases, non-existent: collaborative efforts in the software industry usually aim for open-source software. Secondly, it would have the effect of reducing competition, which would not only be damaging to the economy and reduce consumer choice, but ultimately would take away the need for companies to innovate. Allowing more collaboration between organisations can be beneficial for innovation, but only when it enables true synergy.
Progression vs Privacy
The arrival of smart phones, along with improvements in wireless technologies and mobile data collection, has led to significant changes in the way we make purchases, consume entertainment, and read and engage with media. In turn this has led to large-scale developments in rapid data collection and analysis that have allowed major innovations to emerge, such as fitness bands and other wearable technologies.
These changes also offer great advantages for healthcare, opening new possibilities for automatic submission and monitoring of live outpatient data via smart phone apps. One example is monitoring blood glucose levels in people with diabetes, where digital collection and submission of patient data provides a more accurate, reliable and traceable approach than current self-monitoring methods. Similarly, these technologies hold the key to improved collection and submission of data for clinical trials, which could greatly enhance the quality of trials data as well as reducing the economic and labour burden of current data collection methods.
In countries such as Sweden, where healthcare records and drug dispensation are fully digitalised and linked with every citizen’s personal ID number, these emerging developments are becoming a real possibility. A compulsory ID card system has numerous advantages because the personal ID number can be used for storing almost all personal data. This allows reliable keeping of electronic medical records, as well as instant and hassle-free systems for numerous daily activities, from collecting loyalty points when shopping to receiving parcels, borrowing library books or hiring a car.
However, these ID numbers also hold the key to vital information such as the individual’s address, mobile phone number and even their income and tax returns. In some populations there remains a general aversion to sharing of personal data, despite the widespread embracement of smart phone technologies, and self-submission of data and content to all kinds of apps and platforms. Polling in the UK has established that the majority of Brits are strongly against compulsory ID cards, which are perceived as representing an invasion of privacy. The UK is also relatively over-populated and vital changes – such as an electronic medical records system – that would be necessary to underpin revolutionary digital healthcare innovations remain exceptionally difficult to implement. Furthermore, the country’s over-burdened mobile phone network still can’t guarantee even 3G networks nationwide, which removes the practicality of many new data-collecting technology developments. By contrast, less populated countries, such as Sweden and Finland, that are leading digitalisation of healthcare are also implementing 5G.
Digitalisation of healthcare has great potential to change the lives of patients and healthcare providers, but in some countries the decaying infrastructure combined with societal privacy concerns are impeding implementation of such innovative, life-changing technologies.
Democracy vs Decisiveness
Successful innovation across the life science and pharmaceutical sectors also depends on agility. This is essential for allowing businesses or researchers to respond to new developments, to rethink their strategies and to reshape their ideas accordingly.
Although few business decisions are made by a single person, the way in which decisions are made and information is handled varies from one organisation to the next. This is strongly related to the organisation’s degree of democracy and culture of equality. In the corporate world, it has been traditional to empower small groups with appropriate decision-making responsibilities. These groups may report directly to the senior management and the outcomes of their decisions are fed downwards through the organisation in a single-minded and relatively autocratic manner. This approach is effective and decisive, setting clear boundaries within the work environment. However, it is not particularly open or flexible for accommodating differences of opinion and, in larger organisations with long chains of command and reporting, this can become a very slow-moving and cumbersome process. Furthermore, a rigid and procedural-based mentality is not conducive to developing a creative and innovative working environment.
In some organisations, there is greater emphasis on involving wider groups in decisions. This ensures that many individual voices are heard across different areas of an organisation, and large teams can be used to discuss and finalise the outcomes. This creates a more open, democratic and transparent culture, that’s often assumed to be more conducive to creativity. In reality, too many decision makers can result in extremely prolonged decision-making that requires significant time and resources. In some cases this time and resource may be better spent simply taking the action, rather than discussing what actions to take. An agile workplace culture is vitally important for innovation and creativity, regardless of how many decision-makers are needed to purchase a new light bulb.
What other influences affect innovation and how can we remove these barriers? Contact me @kateatnoch
CES 2016Read More
For those of you who don’t know, CES stands for Consumer Electronics Show. It is one of the biggest electronics and technology trade shows in the world and is hosted in Las Vegas every January. It now attracts in excess of 170,000 people a year and well over 3,500 companies exhibit the latest their company has to offer. I have picked out just a few of the products from this year’s CES that I felt were worth talking about for one reason or another.
Samsung smart fridge
This is probably one of the coolest (sorry) things I have seen from this year’s event and it is packed with so many features you never knew you really needed from your fridge. The Samsung smart fridge (also known as The Family Hub Fridge) has a 21.5” touchscreen on the front of it, allowing you to do anything from ordering your groceries or looking up recipes to watching your favourite TV shows or jamming to your best cooking playlists. You can even link the fridge to other TVs in your house so when you are watching your favourite show you won’t miss a minute if you want to walk into another room. Personally, however, my favourite feature has to be the cameras inside the fridge that take a photo every time you open the fridge (no one is stealing my leftover cold pizza anymore and getting away with it). Not only can these cameras be used to catch unsuspecting fridge raiders red-handed but they can also be used remotely to check what is in the fridge (useful for forgetful people like me who always leave their shopping lists on the kitchen table). When it is eventually released it will likely have a fairly hefty price tag, so you will have to decide whether it is worth paying the dough for combining the features of your tablet/smartphone with your fridge. For someone like me who is simultaneously always on his phone and eating I certainly won’t freeze when it comes to forking over the cash for my next-gen fridge.
Olfactory alarm clock
An alarm clock that wakes you up with an intense smell? The concept was thought up by a company called Sensorwake, winning a Google France Science Fair competition, and it is certainly a very interesting idea. There is a variety of aromas that you can choose to wake up to that includes (but isn’t limited to) croissants, chocolate, espressos, bacon and peppermint. This certainly would make a nice change to the conventional buzzer or bleeping sound I wake up to, however I’m not sure it will be as effective (at least for me). Though it would be nice to wake up to the smell of bacon in the morning I will probably be overcome with disappointment that I have got up to find that I have no bacon and have to settle for some soggy cereal before heading off to work that morning. If this would help you get up, though, I can’t imagine waking up to the smell of hot croissants is all that bad in the morning.
Segway Advanced Personal Robot
The Segway Advanced Personal Robot (we’ll go with robot butler for short) is a collaboration between three companies, Segway, Intel, and Xiaomi. The robot butler can talk, answer the door, carry things and play movies amongst many other things. The arms of the robot can also be interchanged, enabling it to carry out a wider range of functions. If you’re feeling particularly lazy (and lets face it, you probably are if you are using the robot butler), you can retract it’s head and use it as a personal transport device. Not quite an all-singing all-dancing human butler that will cook all your meals and do all your chores, but it sure would be helpful to have around the house.
Ehang 184 (Quad-copter Passenger Drone)
Now you didn’t think we could get through a blog on the biggest tech show in the world without mentioning something about drones did you? The Ehang 184 is designed by Chinese company Ehang and is basically a scaled up quad-copter drone with a small cockpit for one passenger in the middle. The drone is controlled via a tablet-based app and is completely autonomous, meaning the only commands the passenger has to give is “take-off” and “land” once a destination has been chosen. The drone is still in testing and only has a short battery life at the moment; so don’t expect to be making any cross-country trips in your own drone. Supposedly when it does come to market it will cost anywhere between £140,000 to £200,000. So although it might be more comfortable and enjoyable than sitting on a packed bus with a bunch of sweaty strangers for your morning commute, you’ll certainly pay the price for it and I can’t imagine most conventional parking spaces are well suited for your fancy new method of transit.
L’Oreal UV sensor patch
With around 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers being caused by UV radiation, ensuring we protect our skin is becoming more important than ever. With that in mind, this is probably one of the best ideas to come out of the show in my opinion. L’Oreal has designed a stretchable skin patch that monitors the amount of UV radiation your skin is being exposed to. As the patch is stretchable (unlike anything else on the market) it can be attached directly to the skin on any body part you want to monitor. The patch factors in the baseline tone of the skin and then changes colour depending on the amount of UV exposure. On the associated app (on Android or iOS phones), the user then takes a picture of the patch, which then advises you whether or not you’ve had too much exposure. I personally think this is a fantastic idea, with the only downside I can initially think of being that you will have a tan mark where you had the patch. But hey, that’s a small price to pay for the safety of your skin, besides the patch is heart shaped too so it won’t look that strange.
So there we are, just a few of the really interesting new products to come out of CES 2016. Although most of the products on show are largely for personal indulgence, there are inventions like the L’Oreal UV sensor patch that have been designed to deal with slightly more important or concerning problems in our lives. Even though there may be only one of these products for every umpteen new drones and TVs, it is well worth it if that invention can tackle an important issue (like the occurrence rates of certain diseases). This does not mean that the hundreds of other projects at CES aren’t useful, as most are designed to make our lives easier or more enjoyable in some way shape or form. Besides, how else are we going to reach the levels of laziness achieved by humankind in Wall-E?
What was your favourite product to come out of CES 2016? Tweet me@JordanAtNotch!
Lucy’s Week at CPhIWWRead More
Last week, Lucy was lucky enough to attend the 26th annual CPhI Worldwide event in Madrid. CPhI is one of the largest pharma gatherings in the world, bringing together 30,000 industry experts and introducing pharma products and solutions across all specialties in the sector. We asked Lucy a few questions about her time in Madrid to gain insight into the event and her experiences.
1. In three words, how would you describe your experience at CPhI Worldwide?
Exciting, busy, successful
2. What was your favourite part of CPhI Worldwide?
Visiting all the fantastic booths, and seeing concepts come to life (from paper to print) including booths, adverts, sponsorship items etc.
Also visiting the Bernabeu Stadium with a client was fantastic.
3. What was the most challenging part of CPhI Worldwide?
The size of the event meant that there was a lot of walking! Good job I had comfy shoes!
4. What most surprised you about the event?
There wasn’t free wifi!
5. How useful do you think the event is for the life sciences industry in terms of networking and generating new business?
Extremely useful, all the key players are there from the industry and it is a great opportunity for networking.
6. How many kilometers did you walk during your time at CPhI Worldwide?
I was averaging 13km per day.
7. While you were there you were lucky enough to visit the Bernabéu Stadium as part of a client event. What was it like touring around one of the most iconic football grounds in the world?
It was a once in a lifetime experience and I feel very happy to have been invited. It was phenomenal.
8. Would you encourage all in the industry to attend this event next year?
Yes, but I would also say that UBM have too much power, so they should be challenged on their prices for key events and extras like wifi.
9. On a similar note, do you plan to attend in Barcelona 2016?
10. Most importantly, what was the best giveaway you received at the event?
Johnson Matthey Fine Chemicals portable phone charger.
Were you at CPhIWW this year? Let us know about your experiences there by tweeting us @NotchCom!