The world’s supply of coconut water—along with the myriad foods, oils, cosmetics, fibers and fuels made from coconuts—could be under threat. The United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned on Nov. 1 that global demand for coconut products is outpacing the rate of production in Asia, where about 85% of the world’s coconuts are grown. ... As world-wide consumption of all things coconut has jumped over the last decade, Asian countries have seen their exports of the commodity explode. At one point last year, exports from the Philippines, the world’s second biggest coconut producer, had grown over 400% from the year before. Between 2009 and 2012, exports of coconut oil from Asia have grown about 3% a year, according to the Asian Pacific Coconut Community, an Indonesia-based organization that represents coconut growers. Now, coconut water and milk, used in drinks and health products, make up 30% of global coconut consumption, according to the UN.
Elizabeth Holmes founded her revolutionary blood diagnostics company, Theranos, when she was 19. It’s now worth more than $9 billion, and poised to change health care. ... In the fall of 2003, Elizabeth Holmes, a 19-year-old sophomore at Stanford, plopped herself down in the office of her chemical engineering professor, Channing Robertson, and said, “Let’s start a company.” ... Robertson, who had seen thousands of undergraduates over his 33-year teaching career, had known Holmes just more than a year. “I knew she was different,” Robertson told me in an interview. “The novelty of how she would view a complex technical problem–it was unique in my experience.” ... Holmes had then just spent the summer working in a lab at the Genome Institute in Singapore, a post she had been able to fill thanks to having learned Mandarin in her spare hours as a Houston teenager. Upon returning to Palo Alto, she showed Robertson a patent application she had just written. As a freshman, Holmes had taken Robertson’s seminar on advanced drug-delivery devices–things like patches, pills, and even a contact-lens-like film that secreted glaucoma medication–but now she had invented one the likes of which Robertson had never conceived. It was a wearable patch that, in addition to administering a drug, would monitor variables in the patient’s blood to see if the therapy was having the desired effect, and adjust the dosage accordingly. ... “I remember her saying, ‘And we could put a cellphone chip on it, and it could telemeter out to the doctor or the patient what was going on,’ ” Robertson recounts. “And I kind of kicked myself. I’d consulted in this area for 30 years, but I’d never said, here we make all these gizmos that measure, and all these systems that deliver, but I never brought the two together.” ... Still, he balked at seeing her start a company before finishing her degree. “I said, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ And she said, ‘Because systems like this could completely revolutionize how effective health care is delivered. And this is what I want to do. I don’t want to make an incremental change in some technology in my life. I want to create a whole new technology, and one that is aimed at helping humanity at all levels regardless of geography or ethnicity or age or gender.’ ” ... “Consumerizing this health care experience is a huge element of our mission,” Holmes says at our first meeting in April, “which is access to actionable information at the time it matters.” In our conversations over the next two months, she comes back to that phrase frequently. It is the theme that unifies what had seemed to me, at first, a succession of diverse, disparate aspects of her vision. ... Though she has now raised more than $400 million, she says she has retained control over more than 50% of the stock.
For most of my life, if I’ve thought at all about the bacteria living on my skin, it has been while trying to scrub them away. But recently I spent four weeks rubbing them in. I was Subject 26 in testing a living bacterial skin tonic, developed by AOBiome, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, Mass. The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide. ... While most microbiome studies have focused on the health implications of what’s found deep in the gut, companies like AOBiome are interested in how we can manipulate the hidden universe of organisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) teeming throughout our glands, hair follicles and epidermis. ... AOBiome does not market its product as an alternative to conventional cleansers, but it notes that some regular users may find themselves less reliant on soaps, moisturizers and deodorants after as little as a month. Jamas, a quiet, serial entrepreneur with a doctorate in biotechnology, incorporated N. eutropha into his hygiene routine years ago; today he uses soap just twice a week. The chairman of the company’s board of directors, Jamie Heywood, lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year. The most extreme case is David Whitlock, the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer who invented AO+. He has not showered for the past 12 years. ... I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being “unclean” in either the visual or olfactory sense.
The problem stretches well beyond one tainted probiotic. Dietary supplements—vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, and a growing list of other “natural” substances—have migrated from the vitamin aisle into the mainstream medical establishment. Hospitals are not only including supplements in their formularies (their lists of approved medication), they’re also opening their own specialty supplement shops on-site and online. Some doctors are doing the same. According to a Gallup survey of 200 physicians, 94 percent now recommend vitamins or minerals to some of their patients; 45 percent have recommended herbal supplements as well. And 7 percent are not only recommending supplements but actually selling them in their offices. ... Consumers are buying those products in droves. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, supplement sales have increased by 81 percent in the past decade. The uptick is easy to understand: Supplements are easier to get than prescription drugs, and they carry the aura of being more natural and thus safer. Their labels often promise to address health issues for which there are few easy solutions. ... It’s tough to say what portion of those products pose a risk to consumers. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that from 2008 through 2011, the FDA received 6,307 reports of health problems from dietary supplements, including 92 deaths, hundreds of life-threatening conditions, and more than 1,000 serious injuries or illnesses. The GAO suggests that due to underreporting, the real number of incidents may be far greater.
In a searing investigation into the once lauded biotech start-up Theranos, Nick Bilton discovers that its precocious founder defied medical experts—even her own chief scientist—about the veracity of its now discredited blood-testing technology. She built a corporation based on secrecy in the hope that she could still pull it off. Then, it all fell apart. ... At Theranos, Holmes preferred that the temperature be maintained in the mid-60s, which facilitated her preferred daily uniform of a black turtleneck with a puffy black vest—a homogeneity that she had borrowed from her idol, the late Steve Jobs. ... Holmes had learned a lot from Jobs. Like Apple, Theranos was secretive, even internally. Just as Jobs had famously insisted at 1 Infinite Loop, 10 minutes away, that departments were generally siloed, Holmes largely forbade her employees from communicating with one another about what they were working on—a culture that resulted in a rare form of executive omniscience. At Theranos, Holmes was founder, C.E.O., and chairwoman. There wasn’t a decision—from the number of American flags framed in the company’s hallway (they are ubiquitous) to the compensation of each new hire—that didn’t cross her desk. ... And like Jobs, crucially, Holmes also paid indefatigable attention to her company’s story, its “narrative.” ... In a technology sector populated by innumerable food-delivery apps, her quixotic ambition was applauded. ... she is often surrounded by her security detail, which sometimes numbers as many as four men, who (for safety reasons) refer to the young C.E.O. as “Eagle 1”—and headed to the airport. (She has been known to fly alone on a $6.5 million Gulfstream G150.) ... it is impossible to get a precise result from the tip of a finger for most of the tests that Theranos would claim to conduct accurately. When a finger is pricked, the probe breaks up cells, allowing debris, among other things, to escape into the interstitial fluid. While it is feasible to test for pathogens this way, a pinprick is too unreliable for obtaining more nuanced readings. Furthermore, there isn’t that much reliable data that you can reap from such a small amount of blood.
At home, before he gave the present to his wife, Muruganantham took out one of the pads and tore it open. As a kid, he had always been driven by an extraordinary curiosity to find out how things worked; he would compulsively dismantle any new thing he could lay his hands on — toys, bicycles, radios. Muruganantham expected to see something interesting inside the pad, especially because of how furtively the shopkeeper had handed him the pack, but the innards seemed to be nothing but compressed cotton. He wondered why 10 grams of cotton — costing barely a 10th of a rupee — was being sold for a price that was beyond the reach of 90 percent of Indian women. ... economic constraints have driven India’s government and industries to create cheaper versions of many Western products and technologies. India’s pharmaceutical companies have for many years been a major supplier of cheap generic drugs domestically as well as in other developing countries. In 2014, when the Indian Space Research Organization’s Mangalyaan spacecraft entered into orbit around Mars, a few days after a NASA probe did the same, the most-talked-about difference between the two missions was that Mangalyaan had cost about a 10th of what NASA had spent.