Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things that we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to computers' effect on reducing productivity, 'how to stick to your new year resolution', and 'custom proteins becoming a possibility'.

Published: Jan 14, 2018 06:58:39 AM IST

Ten interesting things that we read this weekImage: Shutterstock
At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, including investment analysis, psychology, science, technology, philosophy, etc. We have been sharing our favourite reads with clients under our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week’s iteration are related to computers’ effect on reducing productivity, ‘how to stick to your new year resolution’, and ‘custom proteins becoming a possibility’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended January 12, 2018.

1) Computers are making generalists of us all [Source: Financial Times]
Typical productivity growth in advanced economies had hovered steadily around 1% a year for several decades, but it has on an average been negative since 2007. That was the year the iPhone started to ship. Now, the costs of distraction from mobile phones are starting to become apparent. Prof. Gloria Mark from University of California argues that re-orientating yourself after an interruption tends to take between 20 and 25 minutes. She also points out that once we get used to being interrupted by others, we start interrupting ourselves, twitchily checking email or social media in the hope something interesting might turn up.

Yet digital devices slow us down in subtler ways, too. Microsoft Office may be as much a drag on productivity as Candy Crush Saga. To see why, consider Adam Smith’s argument that economic progress was built on a foundation of the division of labour. His most celebrated example was a simple pin factory: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points” and 10 men together made nearly 50,000 pins a day. In another example — the making of a woollen coat — Smith emphasises that the division of labour allows us to use machines, even “that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool”. The shepherd has the perfect tool for a focused task. That tool needs countless other focused specialists: the bricklayer who built the foundry; the collier who mined fuel; the smith who forged the blades. It is a reinforcing spiral: the division of labour lets us build new machines, while machines work best when jobs have been divided into one small task after another.

Computers continue the process of specialisation, parcelling out jobs into repetitive chunks, but fundamentally they are general purpose devices, and by running software such as Microsoft Office they are turning many of us into generalists. In a modern office there are no specialist typists; we all need to be able to pick our way around a keyboard. PowerPoint has made amateur slide designers of everyone. Well-paid executives also file their own expenses, book their own travel and, for that matter, do their own shopping in the supermarket. None of this makes sense.

Why do we behave like this? It is partly a matter of pride: since everyone has the tools to build a website or lay out a book, it feels a little feeble to hand the job over to a professional. And it is partly bad organisational design: sacking the administrative assistants and telling people to do their own expenses can look, superficially, like a cost saving. But it is also that some of these jobs are a pleasant diversion from the key task at hand.

Smith worried that repetitive work would make us “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”. That risk remains. Technology can unbundle tasks, leaving human workers with grimly narrow duties. But for other workers, general-purpose computers push back against Smith’s concern. Design a pretty graph, search the internet for cartoons for a presentation, use a price-comparison site to book some travel, craft an eloquent post on LinkedIn, and office life starts to look interesting — even if there isn’t much time left to do the jobs for which we’re paid. All these distractions in turn affect productivity.

2)  Sniffing your partner’s shirt could combat stress [Source:
A new study from the University of British Columbia in Canada has answered the age-old question, "Why do women sleep in their partners' shirts?" Turns out it may have something to do with alleviating stress. When the author’s partner is away, she has been known to sneakily pilfer a shirt or two from his closet, to wear around the house or as she does the weekly shopping. New research suggests that there may be a hidden reason behind this compulsion, and it's one that she’s not consciously aware of. A study by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, suggests that a male partner's smell may have soothing effects for women, while the smell of strangers triggers the opposite signal in our brains.

"Many people," explains lead study author Marlise Hofer, of the Department of Psychology, "wear their partner's shirt or sleep on their partner's side of the bed when their partner is away, but may not realize why they engage in these behaviours." Hofer and her team worked with 96 heterosexual couples. The men were required to wear a clean T-shirt for a day and asked not to use any deodorant or other scented cosmetics, smoke, or eat foods that might influence their body odor. After the 24 hours, the men's T-shirts were frozen to make sure that their scents were kept intact on the clothes. As part of the experiment, women were later asked to smell, at random, either a shirt that hadn't been previously worn, the shirt that had been worn by their romantic partner, or a shirt that had been worn by a stranger. None of the women knew what shirt they had been assigned to sniff. To raise the women's stress levels, they were also put through a mock job interview and asked to solve a mathematical problem.

The women were asked to perform these smell tests rather than their male partners because, as the researchers explain, women have a stronger sense of smell than men. In fact, women have up to twice as many smell-related neurons in their brains. Hofer and team found that the women who sniffed the T-shirt worn by their partner exhibited lower levels of perceived stress both before the stress tests (stress anticipation) and in their aftermath (stress recovery). Moreover, the women who correctly identified the shirt as having been worn by their partner also had lower cortisol levels. This, the scientists explain, may suggest that conscious association of smell with the image of a romantic partner has further soothing effects. At the same time, the females who had to sniff a stranger's shirt exhibited increased levels of the stress hormone, which led Hofer and team to hypothesize that it may all be down to our in-built mechanism of self-preservation.

"From a young age, humans fear strangers, especially strange males, so it is possible that a strange male scent triggers the 'fight or flight' response that leads to elevated cortisol," says Hofer, adding, "This could happen without us being fully aware of it." Senior study author Frances Chen suggests that these findings may prove useful for loving couples who have to face the stress of temporary separation due to work trips or other factors outside of their control. "With globalization, people are increasingly traveling for work and moving to new cities. Our research suggests that something as simple as taking an article of clothing that was worn by your loved one could help lower stress levels when you're far from home," Chen recommends.

3)  The unmourned death of the sell-side analyst [Financial Times]
The sell-side analyst is looking at an expiration date on his/her career. The culprits? Regulators and robots. Under Europe’s Mifid II rules, which came into effect starting this year, fund managers may not pay for analysts’ research with “soft dollar” trading commissions. Once, analysts would take meetings with managers and send them research. In return, the clients would buy and sell shares through the trading desk at the analysts’ bank. The traders and the analysts would then split the trading commissions. Mifid II treats this as a potential conflict of interest. If a bank pays for trading services, but not on the basis of efficient trade execution, trades risk becoming a currency for exchanging favours, rather than enriching investors. Research will now have to be paid for with hard money. And because the market is global, Mifid is transforming how research is paid for worldwide. The result is a much more unforgiving market. Before, blocks of client money came in, but who exactly earned that money was vague. Banks inferred the value of analysts from surveys of client opinion. This sheltering ambiguity was kind to the analyst community, and it proliferated.

The true value is not produced through reports and ratings by the analysts but when banks sponsor an initial public offering or other capital raising. In such cases, analysts are brought over the “Chinese wall” separating research and investment banking. They perform due diligence, establish a valuation and speak with potential investors. Raising capital is a high-margin business, so banks with strong capital markets businesses will keep analysts on payroll even if they sell little research. And the most highly rated analysts will be able to pull their own weight in client revenue — either from their desk at a bank or by opening a research boutique. This is not good news for second tier establishments which operate as an ‘also ran’ to market leaders. And if the strongest banks subsidise client research, that depresses the price such tier-2 banks can charge.

Then come the robots. Quantitative and passive strategies — where computers place most of the orders — now account for 60% of the US trading volume, twice the level of a decade ago. The passives and the quants have limited use for equity research work. The reports on company fundamentals are, increasingly, a niche product and equity analysts are going to struggle to justify their salaries. After the crisis, regulatory pressure led employers to pay analysts more in fixed salary and less in bonus. That’s helped them in the past few lean years. But to the employer, that’s a bigger fixed cost. If Mifid II makes investment banks leaner, that is ultimately a good thing, for the banks’ investors and for the economy. Banks’ cost-to-income ratios are persistently bloated. A lot of smart, well-paid people were doing not-very-productive work. Of course, Mifid will create costs, too; compliance departments will grow ever bigger. But the net effect could be positive.

4)  To make your new year’s resolution stick, outsmart your teenage brain [Source: LinkedIn]
Wharton professor Adam Grant in this piece says that by next month, your New Year's resolution will be an epic fail. Four out of five people give up by February. This drives you crazy if you're the kind of person who takes pride in following through on commitments. The problem with resolutions is that they're mostly things our adult brains know we should do, but we still have a teenage brain saying we don't want to. The teenager wants to stay in bed and eat a burger. The adult knows you should go to the gym, have the salad, organize your closet, and call your parents. When the two brains duke it out, the teenager ultimately prevails. But there's hope for the adult: outwitting the teenager with three strategies from social science (which you can do because teenagers rarely read psychology or behavioral economics).

The first one is rewarding the teenager for adulating. If you were motivated to build a beach body or eat better, you would've already done it. The key is to turn the “should” into an enjoyable “want”. Adam’s colleagues gave people an iPod with riveting audiobooks of their choice, ranging from Harry Potter to The Da Vinci Code. The catch: the iPod was locked at the gym, so they could only listen if they showed up. Over the next month and a half, they averaged 27% more gym visits.

The second one is making the teenager responsible for others. The great thing about your teenage brain is that it's terrified of letting people down. No one wants to be the babysitter who gets fired twice. When students thought about how math skills could benefit others—not just themselves—they finished 36% more boring math problems. When doctors and nurses were reminded that hand hygiene would protect patients—not just themselves—they washed 10% more often and used 45% more soap and gel.

The third one is showing the teenager future consequences. Your teenage brain is drawn to wants because it's stuck in the present. If your resolution is to save more money this year, you just need a clearer view of the future you. When psychologists took people's pictures and digitally aged them so they could see what they might look like decades later, they nearly tripled their retirement savings. So if you want to keep a resolution, try bundling it with a tempting book and making it for others, not just yourself. And if that fails, just imagine how ignorant, lonely, and decrepit you'll be down the road if you don't follow through on your goals to read, connect, and exercise in 2018.

5)  Latin is an essential language for our digital age [Source: Financial Times]
The author of this piece Benjamin Auslin, a US high school student started taking Latin by accident, thanks to a scheduling error in his first year. But he considers it to be the best mistake he ever made. He says that now he can see that in today’s digital world, the language is more necessary than ever to teach us critical thinking and powerful expression. For centuries, Latin was at the core of western education precisely because it trains you to assess information critically, articulate ideas and convey them eloquently. As an inflected language, reading Latin involves inspecting the ending of each word to determine its syntactic function. Being able to break down and rebuild sentences — that is, being able clearly to comprehend or construct a thought — is a skill that translates well into English. But he says his generation speaks a dialect of English that is native to the internet, and they are losing the ability to understand how our language works. English, mostly thanks to politics and social media, is being degraded tweet by tweet.

We live in a world of hashtags, of broken sentences and fragments of ideas published on social media. It has become so bad that we might ask why even have language? With the advent of the emoji, pictures seem to do the job just as well — and they worked for our earliest ancestors. Politicians used to speak to the masses with rational argumentation using the power of rhetoric, which is now largely abandoned. Part of learning Latin is studying their command of language to find lessons on public duty and the role of citizens in society, lessons that become more important as we seem to be splitting along class, race and party lines and engaging online in the least civil of discourse.

Latin’s greatest use may lie where English fails in an age when thoughts become jumbled into 140 or 280 characters. Ideally, we would learn to think and write like the Roman authors. Julius Caesar was renowned for his clarity in writing, perhaps born out of his experience as a military general. Cicero brought down the Catiline conspiracy against the government through four extensive speeches using stirring rhetoric. Read these masters and you will discover a rich legacy of literature that makes most Twitter feeds look like cave paintings.

It is ironic that the digital age should suffer from its own success. Language is powerful, but it has been subsumed into a revolution of liking and disliking, binary options rather than articulate responses. Most of us will not have time to become fluent in Latin, but even in translation, the language offers benefits. Try picking up Caesar or Tacitus or Martial. You will be surprised how much they speak to today’s concerns and persuade with their logic and eloquence. In a society in which we are increasingly unwilling to listen to each other, the classics may offer the greatest hope of recovering not merely a shared civility, but the ability to use our own language.

6)   Clothes company backs humans over sewing robots [Source: Financial Times]
The march of the robots may be slower than feared: at least on the production lines in emerging markets. According to this FT piece, the world’s biggest maker of clothes is betting on human workers rather than automation as it seeks to win more contracts from clients such as Marks and Spencer, Uniqlo and H&M. Crystal Group, which recently raised $490m in an initial public offering in Hong Kong, said sewing robots could not compete on cost with human labour in developing countries. It is planning to expand its staff by more than 10% annually in Bangladesh and Vietnam in the coming years. “The handling of soft materials is really hard for robots,” said Andrew Lo, chief executive of the company.

He said innovations such as the Sewbot, designed by Softwear Automation of the US, were “interesting” and would cause disruption. But he did not foresee early-stage sewing robots competing with human labour in low-cost countries in the near future. Most of the growth will come in Bangladesh and Vietnam, where Crystal and other clothing manufacturers have been moving to escape fast-rising wages in China, the world’s biggest producer of clothing with more than 30% market share. Crystal’s factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam already account for about two-thirds of sales, and Mr. Lo forecast that the proportion of production outside China would continue to grow as it expands in other lower-cost countries. He said labour costs in southern China’s manufacturing heartlands were already above $700 per month — more than double the monthly average wages of $300-$350 in Vietnam and $150-$200 in Bangladesh.

Palaniswamy Rajan, chief executive of Softwear Automation, said his company’s Sewbots, which were developed with funding from retailer Walmart’s foundation and the US Government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, could not compete on cost alone with workers in places such as Bangladesh. But he added that changes in the industry would make his robots competitive as fast-fashion retailers look to shorten production times and move manufacturing nearer to customers. Softwear Automation is planning to roll out its first automated T-shirt production lines in the US in the next 12-18 months before moving on to more complicated items such as jeans and shirts. Mr. Rajan said his robots had the dexterity and visualisation skills to handle soft materials but that it would take his engineers time to program them to complete the 10-20 different steps needed to make a simple T-shirt, before later taking on the challenge of a shirt, which requires 70-80 steps. But while he hoped his start-up would help launch a robotic sewing revolution, he accepted that automation would at most account for a quarter of global production in the next 20 years.

7)  Editor’s letter: Simon Sinek on fulfilling potential [Source:]
In this article, Simon Sinek, renowned author and motivational speaker, shares his thoughts on the subject of fulfilling potential, offering a solution that will enable all of us to grow. Imagine Stacy is obsessed with becoming her own best self. She eats right. She exercises on a regular basis. Almost all the things she reads are about self-improvement. Stacy is on a mission to fulfill her potential, potential she knows she has. But there’s a problem. Stacy spends too many days frustrated or unhappy. She often feels like for all the work she’s doing, she is making only small gains. Stacy is Simon’s close friend so she often talks to him about how she feels. After many talks, Simon started to have a hunch as to what was wrong. The work to fulfill our potential has become an almost exclusively selfish pursuit. A pursuit that, by its very nature, puts us out of balance.

There is a paradox to being human. We are, at all times, both individuals and members of groups. On an almost daily basis we are faced with decisions that place those two realities in opposition. There are those who say, we must take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. They often cite the example of the instruction aboard an aircraft - place your oxygen mask on first before helping others - to make their point. The problem is, that’s on an airplane in an emergency. That’s hardly a good metaphor for everyday life. More important, if all we do is prioritise our own needs over others, we would have no friends and no one would ever trust us. Then there are those who say we must take care of others in order to take care of ourselves. The problem here is it comes at a steep cost. If we devote ourselves almost exclusively to seeing that those around us are taken care of before we take care of ourselves, we quickly find ourselves miserable and feeling unappreciated. The truth is we don’t get to choose which comes first. This is why it’s a paradox. There is no right answer. Every day we must struggle with the decisions that are both selfish and selfless.

The very question - how do I work to MY full potential - puts ourselves at the centre of the equation usually ignoring that we live in a social world. Too many people will spend lots of time and money attending seminars and the like that are billed to help you work to YOUR full potential. Too many of us will go from one seminar to the next, maybe with some positive feelings and new things to do that may last for a few weeks but, like a diet, too many of us simply slide back to our old habits until we try a new diet or sign up for another seminar. Of course there is value in working to build our skills. Of course we must learn new things and practice the things we know so we can obtain mastery in something. Of course there is good in introspection and self-evaluation. However, there is a gaping hole that must be filled - the people around us.

Simon met Stacy one afternoon for a cup of tea and had an idea. She studied human potential so much, Simon asked her if she would coach him. The sessions were fantastic. Simon talked about things, she listened attentively, took notes, gave fantastic feedback. Between sessions she would read about things or bring new ideas to the table that she thought would help Simon. Something magical happened from these sessions - Stacy started to feel better. Stacy started doing better. Stacy started working to a fuller potential. It is only when the pursuit to work to our full potential includes working to help others in our lives work to their potential do we actually find what we’re looking for. This is very much the case for anyone in any sort of leadership position. We do not become great leaders, we do not fulfill our potential when we work to see ourselves grow or rise. It is when we devote ourselves to seeing those around us rise that we actually grow.

The pursuit to fulfill "my" potential must be replaced with the pursuit to "our" potential. As a family. As a team. As an organisation. As a community. The only true way for any of us to grow, to truly fulfill our full potential, is when we work to help others do the same. So yes, let’s keep reading all the books and attending all the seminars, except let’s bring someone, let’s do it with someone. Let’s read the books and attend the seminars not to help ourselves, but to help them. That’s potential fulfilled.

8)  Scientists are designing artisanal proteins for your body [Source: NY Times]
Our bodies make roughly 20,000 different kinds of proteins, from the collagen in our skin to the hemoglobin in our blood. Some take the shape of molecular sheets. Others are sculpted into fibers, boxes, tunnels, even scissors. A protein’s particular shape enables it to do a particular job, whether ferrying oxygen through the body or helping to digest food. Scientists have studied proteins for nearly two centuries, and over that time they’ve worked out how cells create them from simple building blocks. They have long dreamed of assembling those elements into new proteins not found in nature. But they’ve been stumped by one great mystery: how the building blocks in a protein take their final shape. David Baker, 55, the director of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, has been investigating that enigma for a quarter-century.

In a series of papers published this year, Dr. Baker and his colleagues unveiled the results of this work. They have produced thousands of different kinds of proteins, which assume the shape the scientists had predicted. Often those proteins are profoundly different from any found in nature. This expertise has led to a profound scientific advance: cellular proteins designed by man, not by nature. “We can now build proteins from scratch from first principles to do what we want,” said Dr. Baker. Scientists soon will be able to construct precise molecular tools for a vast range of tasks, he predicts. Already, his team has built proteins for purposes ranging from fighting flu viruses to breaking down gluten in food to detecting trace amounts of opioid drugs. Every protein in nature is encoded by a gene. With that stretch of DNA as its guide, a cell assembles a corresponding protein from building blocks known as amino acids.

When Dr. Baker attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, no one knew how to look at a chain of amino acids and predict the shape into which it would fold. Protein scientists referred to the enigma simply as “the folding problem.” Today scientists are still looking for ways to harness proteins. Some researchers are studying proteins in abalone shells in hopes of creating stronger body armor, for instance. Others are investigating spider silk for making parachute cords. Researchers also are experimenting with modest changes to natural proteins to see if tweaks let them do new things. To Dr. Baker and many other protein scientists, however, this sort tinkering has been deeply unsatisfying. The proteins found in nature represent only a minuscule fraction of the “protein universe” — all the proteins that could possibly be made with varying combinations of amino acids. “When people want a new protein, they look around in nature for things that already exist,” Dr. Baker said. “There’s no design involved.”

In the late 1990s, the team at the University of Washington turned to software for individual studies of complex proteins. The lab decided to create a common language for all this code, so that researchers could access the collective knowledge about proteins. In 1998, they launched a platform called Rosetta, which scientists use to build virtual chains of amino acids and then compute the most likely form they will fold into. A community of protein scientists, known as the Rosetta Commons, grew around the platform. For the past twenty years, they’ve been improving the software on a daily basis and using it to better understand the shape of proteins — and how those shapes enable them to work. Over the years, Rosetta grew more powerful and more sophisticated. The researchers went beyond proteins that already exist to proteins with unnatural sequences. To see what these unnatural proteins looked like in real life, the scientists synthesized genes for them and plugged them into yeast cells, which then manufactured the lab’s creations.

These advances gave Dr. Baker’s team the confidence to take on an even bigger challenge: They began to design proteins from scratch for particular jobs. The researchers would start with a task they wanted a protein to do, and then figure out the string of amino acids that would fold the right way to get the job done. Dr. Baker wants to design proteins that trigger a response only after they lock onto several kinds of proteins on the surface of cancer cells at once. He suspects these molecules will be better able to recognize cancer cells while leaving healthy ones alone. Essentially, he said, “we’re designing molecules that can do simple logic calculations.” Indeed, he hopes eventually to make molecular machines. It should be possible to build other such complex molecular machines as scientists learn more about how big proteins take shape, Dr. Baker said.

9)  The dark matter sleuth: Can she solve the greatest mystery  [ ]
Tracy Slatyer picked up “A Brief History of Time”, Stephen Hawking’s seminal book on the origins of the universe, after reading a review that called it fascinating yet dense and cited a survey reporting that most people couldn’t get past page 30 or so. Slatyer finished the book in two weeks. She was 12 years old. Today Slatyer is a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bringing the same drive and thoroughness to her research on dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to make up approximately 80% of the matter in the universe. Slatyer hunts for signals of dark matter, meticulously searching often messy telescope data for the signature glow the particles that compose dark matter emit when they annihilate — that is, collide with each other and decay. Her work could bring physicists closer to detecting dark matter signals by better enabling them to tease these signals apart from similar ones produced by stars and other objects in the cosmos.

For decades, physicists have relied on the standard model, a theory describing the fundamental particles of matter. But the theory has “a glaring hole,” says Ryan Foley, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz: It doesn’t account for dark matter. “Imagine if we had that additional knowledge, how different the laws of nature might be.” To be sure, efforts to detect dark matter have failed thus far, and “there’s no guarantee” they’ll succeed, says James Buckley, a physicist at Washington University in St. Louis. “They require very hard experimental work.” But if physicists do detect dark matter through their collisions in space, Slatyer “is likely to play an important role,” predicts Glenn Starkman, a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University.

Dark matter sleuths like Slatyer rely on various methods. They may use accelerators to hurtle charged particles at each other, hoping their collisions generate dark matter particles, or try to catch dark matter particles bumping into other particles in underground detectors. But typically only the physicists running these massive, multi-year experiments can access the raw data they yield. Instead, Slatyer mines the wealth of publicly available data collected by space telescopes. She hones in on gamma rays, the most energetic form of light, which could be produced by dark matter annihilation. Since the central regions of galaxies likely contain a high density of dark matter and throw off tons of gamma rays, they’re a promising place to look. The problem is, they house a dense thicket of black holes, stars and other objects that also emit gamma rays. Slatyer works to parse these out so physicists don’t mistake them for dark matter.

Slatyer and her team discovered a glut of gamma rays in the center of Milky Way, far in excess of what physicists would predict from a black hole or other known sources of gamma rays. In 2016, Slatyer’s team and their collaborators theorized that the rays were being emitted by dark matter annihilation. On closer examination, however, Slatyer and her colleagues found that a statistical model showing multiple objects emitting gamma rays better explained the excess than dark matter annihilation. The excess seemed to come from pulsars, or collapsed cores of stars, which spin as they spew gamma rays, appearing as pulses of light. Still, Slatyer says, “this is an ongoing controversy,” and physicists can’t completely rule out dark matter. Her team is now exploring other statistical techniques to verify whether dark matter or pulsars are responsible. Will Slatyer be disappointed if the gamma-ray excess is proven to come from pulsars, not dark matter? Absolutely not, since physicists need to know what their gamma-ray emissions look like to avoid getting duped. Plus, a new population of pulsars could shed light on the early history of our galaxy. “It’s like Christmas,” Slatyer says. “Even if it’s not what you wrote down on your wish list, you get an awesome present anyway”.

10)  New 3D printer will combine all your medications in one personalized pills []
We increasingly live in an age of personalized health care, where treatment can be tailored to suit individuals on a person-by-person basis. A new 3D printer aims to add another piece to this puzzle, by giving pharmacies the ability to quickly and easily produce custom doses of drugs for patients, based on their specific needs. That means that instead of patients on lots of medication having to remember to take three of one pill, two of another and so on, they could instead receive their required doses in vastly simplified form. The toaster-sized AutoCompounder 3D printer responsible for this was created by a Rhode Island start-up called Vitae Industries. It promises to print pharmaceutical pills and gummies in a third of the time that it takes for a pharmacist to fill a capsule by hand. The AutoCompounder will even be able to print complex “poly-pills,” which combine multiple medications into a single pill.

“The AutoCompounder platform helps pharmacies more efficiently produce custom-dose oral medications,” Vitae Industries CEO Jeanine Sinanan-Singh told Digital Trends. “Standard commercially available doses of many prescription drugs on the market are not right for many people. Enabling pharmacies to easily provide doses tailored to each individual’s needs may help transform medicine and improve the health of significant populations by treating the individual, not the mythical statistical average.” It’s a great, albeit ambitious idea and if pulled off, it could be a massive advance for many patients. The printer reportedly takes just 10 minutes to create its customized pills, and requires nothing more the pharmacist operating it to enter the drug and required dose, and then wait for the pills to be fabricated. The machine will also clean itself between printings, so there’s no risk of cross-contamination.

At present, the $5,000 machine has not been debuted but it’s certainly got investors interested, since they’ve so far pumped $2 million in venture funding into the start-up. According to Sinanan-Singh, a limited pilot program release will start in the first quarter of 2018 with select pharmacies.

(This story appears in the 19 January, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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