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The White Pill: Fourth of July Edition (American Stuff Only)
white pill #12 // an interview with delian asparouhov of varda space industries, gravitational wave milestone, driverless car showdown, generative AI drugs, and more
Reader, it’s the 🇺🇸 Fourth of July 🇺🇸 edition of the White Pill, which means that in this issue, we’re focusing on evocative developments in space, tech, science, engineering, and medicine that wouldn’t have happened without the American companies, researchers, scientists, etc. behind them. And it’s a special White Pill this week for another reason: the lead story is a brief interview with Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda Space Industries, a company that is, literally right now, doing some extremely out-of-this-world stuff — we’ll talk about it below. Enjoy.
I caught Delian Asparouhov an hour and a half before the results of his company’s first drug manufacturing test came in. “It looks like we’re basically good,” he said, scanning some DMs he’d been getting during our video call. “We’ll know for sure in an hour and a half, but we’re already past the riskiest part.” Up until 18 days ago, when the test began, Delian and his colleagues had been working on a fairly unique process they hoped would produce purer and more structurally perfect crystals, which in turn could aid in the design of more uniform, higher quality drug formulations. The ongoing test was a proof-of-concept; if Delian and the company were successful, there’d be that much more opportunity.
Drug manufacturing is incredibly profitable. Potentially it’s the highest margin physical product literally ever, according to an article on Not Boring by Packy McCormick, from which I will draw extensively for the rest of this brief story. It’s so lucrative because, broadly, molecules that are cheap to produce can be sold for comparatively astronomical prices — some in the hundreds of billions of dollars per kilogram range — for the lifetime of the drug’s patent.
But what was unique about the drug manufacturing test that Delian and his company Varda Space Industries, which he co-founded with CEO Will Bruey, were piloting at the time of our call, is that it was happening in a factory orbiting roughly 325 miles above the earth’s surface.
You can actually do way more precise chemistry in orbit, compared to in a terrestrial setting. Basically, you have an extra dimension to play with: gravity. For example, when you bring water to a boil in the kitchen, the liquid that’s hotter becomes lighter and is replaced by colder, heavier liquid that is more firmly under gravity’s pull — a process called convection. It’s inescapable on earth, but there’s no such effect in orbit. It’s like “adding a gravity knob to your instrument — it opens up regions of process design space that would otherwise be inaccessible.”
As a result of factors like these, molecules in orbit can assemble without the interference of gravity, which can lead to more uniform and higher-quality drug formulations. Also, the near absence of dust can significantly reduce the risk of contamination during the manufacturing process, which also can result in the production of purer, higher-quality drugs.
Varda wants to make a business leveraging microgravity’s features for pharmaceutical applications in LEO. In turn, it could become a key player in the future space economy. “In 50 years, you’ll see semiconductor foundries, fiber-optics, pharmaceutical production, and it’ll be happening at the equivalent scale of Taiwan,” said Delian, when I asked him to give me his best guess on what space will look like in 50 years. “You’ll basically have industrial parks in orbit, a few people who work in those industrial parks, some permanently, some who treat it more like an oil rig — three weeks in space, three weeks on Earth — basically shuttling back and forth. I think you’ll see multiple cities the size of Beijing in LEO. And when you have such large infrastructure there, you then also have commercial justifications for things like lunar ice mining, given it’s a lot cheaper to send water from the moon to LEO than it is to send water from Earth to LEO.”
In White Pill: Science Victory, I wrote about the launch and four-minute flight of Starship, SpaceX’s enormous, rapidly reusable rocket system that, once perfected, will represent a total breakthrough in the development of the space economy. At a current launch rate of about once a week, SpaceX has already taken payload costs down from an initial $20,000 to $225,000 per kg in the 1960s, to $5,500 per kg on the Falcon 9. And if Musk can get Starship to launch three times a day on a daily basis (incredibly ambitious, but Elon has a decent track record, to say the least), payload costs may come down to as low as an incredible $50 per kg. In my piece, I marveled about the possibilities here —
Thousands of satellites can be launched into orbit, continuously, enabling a huge number of new satellite-based applications: hyper-localized weather forecasting, earthquake prediction, better-than-GPS location and navigation data, video communication from anywhere on earth, even air traffic control from space. Constructing massive space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope will be easier and cheaper. The outer planets like Neptune and Pluto will become more accessible to our probes. Space tourism will become an industry; space hotels will actually be a thing.
Ultimately, NASA, the ESA, the DoD — whoever — won’t be funding all this commercial activity. The state will cede space to entrepreneurs. The transition to the commercialization of space will be led by people who figure out how to make more money on the stuff they return from orbit than they spent getting it to orbit. Arguably, Elon was the first to make this broad sketch of a business model work. Now perhaps there are a few others in line. And with what’s shaping up to be a promising first mission, Delian and Varda seem to be standing at the front of it.
And now, some excellent news
Prelude to Mars. In advance of the second test of it’s fully stacked launch vehicle, Starship’s Ship 25 fired all six of it’s Raptor engines for five seconds on Monday. Having made over 1,000 changes to the vehicle since it’s groundbreaking first test flight in late April, the test appears to have gone very well; it will pair up with 33 Raptor engines strapped to Super Heavy, Starship’s 226-foot booster, in as soon as six weeks for the second test of the entire vehicle. Excellent news. (@elonmusk) (space.com)
Deep space dry run: 378 days in NASA’s simulated Mars habitat. A biomedical researcher, microbiologist, structural engineer, and physician have started their year-long mission in NASA’s 3D-printed, 1,700-square-foot simulated Mars habitat. Per the mission’s lead investigator: “The simulation will allow us to collect cognitive and physical performance data to give us more insight into the potential impacts of long-duration missions to Mars on crew health and performance." (CBS) (YouTube)
NASA can now recover 98 percent of water from astronaut pee. Its Environmental Control and Life Support System, designed to conserve as much water taken into space as possible, can now recycle up to 98 percent of it from urine and moisture released by sweating and breathing. The Urine Processor Assembly uses vacuum distillation to separate pee into water and urine brine, the latter of which can then be further processed to extract still more water. No one said it was going to be a luxury cruise!!! (NASA)
Lunar mining by 2032. On Wednesday, NASA announced plans to start developing stores of oxygen and water on the moon within the next decade. It will do so in part by extracting oxygen from moondust, from which it also intends to mine iron and rare metals. (Reuters)
Virgin Galactic completes first commercial spaceflight. Its VMS Eve carrier jet launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico on Thursday and carried the VMS Unity spaceplane to an altitude of 44,500 feet, at which point it blasted off, reaching a peak altitude 279,000 feet (or 53 miles), experiencing a few gravity-free moments, and then descending back down for a safe landing on Spaceport’s 12,000 foot runway. (CBS) (Video)
Gravitational wave background detected using radio astronomy in astronomy milestone. For the first time, astronomers have detected evidence that “our Earth and the universe around us are awash in a background of spacetime undulations called gravitational waves. The waves oscillate very slowly over years and even decades and are thought to originate primarily from pairs of supermassive black holes leisurely spiraling together before they merge.” @AstroKatie’s analogy: “The Earth is a ship on a cosmic sea. Every once in a while, we’re hit by a wave, and we know something went by. But now, for the first time, we can start to see the choppiness of the entire ocean, and we’re learning what else lives in our sea.” Another from JPL: “Detecting the gravitational wave background is analogous to hearing the hum of a large group of people talking at a party, without distinguishing any particular voice.” 15 years in the making, there’s a lot of hype around this discovery. @hankgreen’s thread on LIGO, pulsars, and Pulsar Timing Arrays and this Redditor explaining the significance in r/space helped me understand the news better, in addition to the sources linked above.
Mars rover Perseverance captured a rock with a hole in it last Friday (might be a meteorite), can you believe it (below)? (@SETIInstitute)
NASA’s moon base plans include an AI assistant “to detect, and possibly fix, glitches and inefficiencies as they occur” (The Guardian)
RIP Firouz Naderi, legendary NASA engineer who oversaw Mars rover missions.(WaPo)
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. For last week’s deals, check out last week’s White Pill.
Personal AI — Inflection AI, a company that’s developed an AI personal assistant “designed to be a kind and supportive companion offering text and voice conversations, friendly advice, and concise information” and “is building the largest AI cluster in the world” raises $1.3b (holy sh*t) in a deal led by Microsoft, Bill Gates, and others.
AI video — Runway raises a $191 million Series C in a deal led by Felicis; they previously raised $100m at the beginning of May in a deal led by Alphabet.
AI content — Typeface raises a $165m Series B in a deal led by Salesforce Ventures with Lightspeed and others participating; the company uses generative AI to make content creation a lot faster.
Other notable deals
AR spinal surgery — Augmedics, “an augmented reality-based navigation platform [that will] improve the process and outcomes of spinal surgeries… using AR to give surgeons ‘x-ray vision’” raises a $82.5m Series D in a deal led by CPMG. (TechCrunch)
In-space computing — Ramon.Space, which builds computing systems designed for use in space, raises $26m in venture funding from Ingrasys Technology and others.
In-space propulsion — Agile Space Industries, a company that designs in-space propulsion systems, raises a nearly $14m Seed 2 and Seed 3 combo in a deal led by Caruso Ventures.
Remote-control robots — Contoro, a company developing a human-robot interface which will allow control over remote robots that look like the robot exoskeletons in Avatar raises a $6m seed in a deal led by SV Investment.
All-in on the metaverse — AvatarLife, a company that develops a metaverse gaming platform, raises a $1.5m seed from InfoEdge Ventures.
Science, Energy, Engineering, Computing
Driverless car showdown. EV media company The Kilowatts went on a mission to figure out which driverless car is the most efficient at urban navigation. It took three AVs — Tesla, Waymo, and Cruise — and had them all drive from McKinley Park in San Francisco to a spot near the Golden Gate bridge. Their computers all chose different routes; the Tesla finished in 20 minutes, followed by Waymo in 25 and Cruise in 29. (Clean Technica)
Turning old maps into virtual neighborhoods. Ohio State University geographers have developed a method for turning outdated physical maps into 3D digital models. “Imagine strapping on a virtual reality headset and “walking” through a long-gone neighborhood in your city — seeing the streets and buildings as they appeared decades ago.” (OSU) (PLOS One)
Smart farming system improves crop yields, decreases water pollution. Agricultural fertilizers can pollute waterways with nitrate runoff, causing explosive algal blooms that leave aquatic dead zones in their wake. But engineers at the University of Texas have made a technological advance that promises to deliver high yields without polluting waterways. It’s a smart farming system that uses copper-based hydrogel to detect nitrogen levels in soil; when levels get too high, the gel converts nitrates into ammonia for reuse as fertilizer. With this tool, the team achieved higher rice and wheat yields with only a fraction of the nitrate runoff. (Eurekalert) (PNAS)
Argonne researchers show fluoride can help extend EV battery life. Engineers have long been exploring lithium-ion battery alternatives with longer ranges, but these are plagued by poor durability: after a hundred or so recharges, the battery’s performance declines rapidly. But a team at Argonne just showed that equipping lithium metal batteries with a fluoride solvent dramatically increases durability, maintaining performance through hundreds of recharge cycles. (Techxplore) (Nature Communications)
California-based Rondo Energy announces 90 GWh heat battery factory, which at over twice the size of Tesla’s Gigafactory, will be the world’s largest battery factory (PV Magazine)
Drug fully designed by generative AI enters phase II clinical trials. Since 2019, Insilico Medicine has been using generative AI to design molecules for treating idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease. These efforts have culminated in a drug called INS018_055, which last week became the first drug with both an AI-discovered target and an AI-generated structure to enter phase II human clinical trials. From inception to clinical testing, Insilico’s AI-powered process took only one-third as long and one-tenth the cost of conventional drug creation pipelines. (Singularity Hub) (Eurekalert)
Safer bone marrow transplants. Bone marrow transplants can be a literal life-saver for severe leukemia or lymphoma patients, but can also lead to serious complications like graft versus host disease (GVHD), which occurs when the transplanted immune cells register the host’s tissue as foreign and begin to attack it. Key to this process is the Notch signaling pathway. Now, an innovative antibody treatment, developed by Penn and Harvard researchers, obstructs this pathway, inhibiting GVHD, while preserving the cancer-fighting function of the graft cells. According to one of the researchers, the strategy “might allow us to extend the use of bone marrow transplants to higher risk patients who are not currently eligible for a traditional transplant.” (Eurekalert) (Science Translational Medicine)
Novel drug combo for pancreatic cancer effective in mice, moving to human trials. MRTX1133 is used to treat pancreatic cancer, but its efficacy is often hindered when cancer cells grow resistant. Recently, researchers at UC San Diego showed that combining MRTX1133 with FDA-approved afatinib both results in stronger anti-cancer potency than using either drug alone, and helps prevent the development of resistance. (Eurekalert) (Cancer Research)
Nanoparticle delivery system effective against melanoma, colon cancer in mice. Encouraging findings out of Johns Hopkins: a “degradable, polymer-based nanoparticle carrying an mRNA-based vaccine” doubled the average lifespan of mice with melanoma, and doubled the number of mice with colorectal cancer that survived long-term. (Eurekalert) (PNAS)
One shot epilepsy treatment effective in small trial. A larger clinical trial is underway after a new stem cell-based epilepsy treatment dramatically reduced the frequency of seizures in two people with epilepsy. One patient was experiencing 32 seizures per month, the other 14 — the rate for both was cut by over 90 percent, and the former went five straight months without a seizure in the year following treatment. (Freethink) (Neurona Therapeutics)
“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.” — Nicola Tesla, 1926
On July 4th, 2023, touch grass.
-Brandon Gorrell and Nick Russo