Less than a week after A360 attendees flew back to their pandemic home bases across the globe, at least 20 people, including not only those who were present at A360 but also some of their family members, had confirmed cases of covid-19.
Pandemic as business opportunity
When covid-19 first made its appearance in the United States, 59-year-old Diamandis, who has an MD from Harvard Medical School and degrees from MIT, was skeptical.
In mid-March, when six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area issued the nation’s first stay-at-home order, Diamandis tweeted, “We are witnessing the viral spread of fear that is definitively damaging both national economies and global markets” and, later, “The level of panic is doing as much damage.”
But ever the entrepreneur, Diamandis saw business opportunities in the pandemic. On March 26, the XPrize Foundation, which he chairs and which runs challenges using prize money to encourage innovative solutions to big problems, launched the XPrize Pandemic Alliance, with $7.5 million in prize money to fight covid-19.
He teamed up with Mei Mei Fu and Lou Reese, spouses and co-executives of biotech company United Biomedical. The three cofounded Covaxx, a vaccine development company that functions as a United Biomedical subsidiary (and is not to be confused with the global Covax effort to provide lower-income countries with vaccine doses).
Fu and Reese had already made news for providing free antibody testing for all residents of Colorado’s San Miguel County, home of Telluride, a resort town where many coastal millionnaires, including Fu and Reese, own second homes. “There are advantages to having biotech executives as neighbors,” as The Atlantic noted at the time.
In the days that followed, Diamandis praised the Chinese government’s “unprecedented” measures to contain the pandemic, from locking down an entire city to the “rapid national coordination of public action.”
Yet, by going through with the in-person portion of the Abundance 360 Summit, Diamandis ignored government notices and legal mandates implemented in the state of California.
Even A360’s parent company, Singularity University, had canceled its largest in-person gatherings due to the pandemic. “We have been closely monitoring the global pandemic situation and taking all measures to make sure our staff and program are safe. It’s been a difficult decision, but … we have decided to postpone our November SU Executive Program,” wrote Singularity staff in an email dated October 8.
As the fall wore on and positive cases, death rates, and hospitalizations in Southern California grew precipitously, some team members charged with marketing A360 were dismayed that the event was set to continue.
On November 30, James Del, Singularity University’s head of content, conveyed his team’s growing concerns to Diamandis in an email, copying Singularity University CEO Steve Leonard, Singularity investor and board member Erik Anderson, and A360 executive director Will Weisman.
In his email, which was shared with me, Del urged SU to “consider the appearance of hosting an in-person gathering as cases in Los Angeles shatter their own records daily.”
“The current restrictions in LA county ban gatherings nearly completely,” he continued. “Going out and inviting the entire SU community to a city that is under strict lockdown seems like a PR crisis waiting to happen, and I suggest that we strongly consider changing our marketing focus to digital only.”
Just days later, on December 3, California enacted a regional stay-home order, to be triggered when ICU capacity fell below 15%. The order went into effect on December 5 and prohibited private gatherings of any size, other than constitutionally protected religious services and protests; closed nonessential businesses, except for critical infrastructure and retail; and required 100% masking outside the home. It also banned the use of hotels and lodging for nonessential travel.
A360 made adjustments as well. It changed the meeting venue first from the Beverly Hilton to the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, before finally settling on the XPrize Foundation’s office in Culver City. A360 also shifted where its guests would be staying, from a Four Seasons to Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica. It cut the number of in-person attendees, from 127 to 16, as reported by Bloomberg in late December, before increasing numbers again to between 30 and 33 patrons, who each paid a $30,000 annual membership fee, according to conference materials I obtained.
Once speakers, A360 staff, and technical and support personnel were taken into account, however, at least 84 people were present, according to Diamandis’s own count. The event went ahead despite public health orders that made it clear that neither booking a hotel for nonessential travel nor the in-person gathering itself was permitted.
“A360 is an event I’ve committed to run for 25 years. That’s sort of an important hallmark of an event,” Diamandis told me in an interview, by way of explanation as to why he was so keen for it to take place in person. “We’re in year nine, and it has always been an in-person event.” He added that one day, “eventually A360 will be fully virtualized.”
When a conference isn’t a conference
On February 12, two days after Los Angeles Department of Public Health officials arrived at the doorstep of the XPrize office and had an “interaction” (as Diamandis described it) with Will Weisman and XPrize’s “operations person,” and just before a scheduled interview with me, Diamandis published his blog post, titled “A false sense of security.” In it, he wrote that he was “humbled and pained” by the experience, and detailed the precautions his team had taken to prevent covid-19 from entering and spreading in the “immunity bubble” they had created for the event.
In that same blog post, however, he also claimed that the event was not a conference at all, but a “virtual studio-broadcast production,” with patrons who were there because they had insisted on being there as a live audience.
“It was a pretty outspoken group saying, ‘We really want to come,’” he told me. “And that started a conversation around the lines of, Could this be done? Could we have a small studio audience, and do it safely?”
Diamandis said that the decision to move forward was done in consultation with an audio-visual company that he contracted, the name of which he could not remember during our interview, and two medical providers: Fountain Life, an anti-aging health and wellness company that he cofounded, and Matt Cook, an anesthesiologist and founder of a similar integrative medical company, BioReset.
A studio broadcast production would normally require a film permit. A360 did not apply for a permit from Film.LA, which handles filming requests for Culver City, where XPrize was located, both Diamandis and Film.LA confirmed. Diamandis suggested that because XPrize’s office often hosted web broadcasts, there was no need to apply separately for a film permit.
However, multiple employees recounted to me previous discussions on how A360 leadership might apply for filming or even religious exemptions to get around the ban on gatherings.
And even if the company had submitted an application, Culver City does not currently offer indoor filming permits, while the LA County Public Health Department’s protocol for music, television, and film production requires safety plans for special events to be approved 10 days in advance.
Additionally, the protocol does not allow live audiences of the general public, except for “small, hired audiences (50 people or fewer).” Given that the 30 or so patrons were not hired, but rather were paying upwards of $30,000 for their A360 memberships and event attendance, it is unlikely that they would meet this criterion.
Thank you for testing
On January 28, the day that the first employee tested positive for covid-19, the A360 team sent out a chipper email (subject line: “Please Re-Test / and Thank you!”) to event speakers and patrons, which a recipient shared with me.
“What an amazing few days! We’re hopeful that our extensive Covid PCR testing protocol has kept you and everyone safe,” wrote “Peter & the 360 team,” before sharing that “one of our team members unfortunately has come up positive,” and asking everyone to re-test and let A360 know if anyone “should feel ill, or test positive.”
This request for follow-up does not, however, appear to have been for the purpose of reporting clusters of cases to county public health authorities, as required by several California state laws.
CA Assembly Bill 685, for example, went into effect on January 1, 2021, and requires employers to notify both employees potentially exposed and the local public health agency if more than three people living in different households test positive for covid-19 in a two-week period.
Diamandis admitted that no one from his organization reported the positive cases to the public health department, and suggested that his and his team’s struggles with covid-19 could be to blame. “I’ve been in bed for days, as have half my staff, and we’re trying to figure out, you know, which way’s up and down,” Diamandis told me. “This is the first time we’ve been able to actually take a full accounting of where we are, what went wrong, and tell the story.”
Yet while they did not have time to report the cases to the authorities, A360’s leadership did find time to contain information about the outbreak.
On January 29, Weisman started a new group text among employees called “A360 Covid,” screenshots of which were provided to me. In it, he confirmed the names of two event attendees—an event speaker and a patron—who had tested positive. Then he instructed employees to keep the news quiet.
“Really important that there is no further outreach to a broader set of people,” he wrote. “There will be no further emails to attendees or vendors.”
Diamandis chimed in by text as well: “Let’s keep all Covid related data, ideas, and communications on this single channel, please.”
In the following days, employees used the thread to share their test results and symptoms. At first, they self-reported their results through a company contract with a private testing provider. But after one employee expressed frustration that he was testing negative despite what he felt were clear symptoms (and especially since a family member had already tested positive), Diamandis suggested that employees use a “spit test” conducted at Calamigos Ranch, the venue owned by a friend that was, at one point, slated to hold the event.
On at least one occasion after A360 employees switched their testing location to the ranch, an A360 staff member shared the results on the group text message thread. “All tests were negative, except [Employee name], with a strong positive!” she wrote. The employee in question responded, “Oh wow! Ya feeling good,” suggesting that this was the first time that he was informed of his own test results. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
When asked about the incident, Diamandis said that he was not aware of the text message exchange, then said that if it did occur as described, he would be worried. “Of course,” he said, there are “HIPAA approved processes,” referring to the law protecting health data.
Under HIPAA guidelines, “COVID-19 test results are considered confidential medical information under both [California] state and federal law,” which requires separate record keeping viewable “only by members of management with a true need to know,” according to a blog post by law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. Moreover, it says, “If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the employer must not reveal the employee’s identity to others in the workplace.”
Additionally, according to CDC guidelines, “Employees undergoing testing should receive clear information on the manufacturer and name of the test, type of test, purpose of the test, reliability, limitations, who will pay, how to understand the results, who will receive the results, and consequences for declining a test.” Some A360 employees interviewed said that they were not comfortable with the testing performed at the ranch, and how close its owner was to their employer.
A360’s precautions, according to Diamandis’s blog post, included requiring everyone who attended to obtain a negative test 72 hours before attending, and then be tested immediately on arrival and on every subsequent morning of the event. But mask-wearing was not enforced, and there was no request to the participants to self-quarantine for any length of time before the gathering.
It has been known since early in the pandemic that the virus can incubate for several days before becoming detectable. Self-isolation would have been especially important for anyone arriving from further afield—like the participants traveling from overseas. The CDC recommends that travelers take a covid-19 test three to five days after traveling and then quarantine for a further seven days even if the test is negative.
Diamandis apparently believed that testing could be an infallible way to circumvent these evidence-based precautions. Under a section in the blog post titled “Lessons Learned,” he wrote of being “flabbergasted” to discover, a year into the pandemic, how unreliable some tests could be, when he used them on himself after developing symptoms and they still came back negative.
Who’s tracking positive cases?
In the post, Diamandis admitted that 24 people, including himself, had contracted covid-19. The actual numbers he cited, however, added up to only 21 people: 12 members/patrons attending the event, four faculty, and five A360 staff.
When asked to account for this discrepancy, he admitted that there could be two support staff who had tested positive. “Someone is tracking,” he said, though he said he was not sure who.
I asked whether another number, 32 positive cases, that I had calculated based on reporting, was plausible. Diamandis responded that “to include the family members who have had cases,” a total of 32 “seems probably low.”
His blog post also did not acknowledge that public health orders had banned gatherings between December 3 and January 25 in California. Diamandis would not respond when I asked whether he was aware that he was violating state health rules by holding his event. “I knew that there were challenges. But I don’t know that I want to answer that on the record,” he said.
“I am trying my very best to turn the situation to one where I can speak loudly and clearly, and share what I learned in a positive fashion, not get burned in the fire but use it to drive a spotlight on,” he told me. “Listen, I screwed up here.”
I asked how this “screw-up” reflected on his board leadership of a covid-19 vaccine company and an organization giving away $7.5 million in prize money to solve the challenges of covid-19, including encouraging mask-wearing.
“I’ll have to take a minute to think about that,” he said. “Let me send you an email.”
Investing in women pays off
“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity.
“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says.
Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says.
When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”
Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late
All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness.
It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds.
Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development.
“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”
Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.
Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.
“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”
The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking
Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.
But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)
2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)
3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)
4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)
5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)
6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)
7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)
8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review)
9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)
10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)
Quote of the day
“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”