Session 4: Thin Film Batteries, African Cities, Fighting for Democracy, and Prenatal Genetics

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The fourth session began with a taste of Falling Walls Venture, the industry-based event that took place yesterday. 24 fledgling companies competed for the title of “Science Start-Up of the Year”, and JeNaCell emerged as the winner. CTO and co-founder Dana Kralisch presented the company’s breakthrough in burn treatment – a material that promotes healing and minimizes pain when removed from sensitive wounds.

To begin the final set of presentations, Valeria Nicolosi did some weightlifting, demonstrating the substantial heft of the average electric car battery. “In the future we can do better,” she says, “and we must.” The two main ways to store energy include conventional batteries – which have high energy output but slow charging – and supercapacitors – which produce less power but charge quickly. In China, supercapacitor-charged buses are already plying the streets: they barely make it from station to station, but can recharge while passengers get on and off. Nicolosi doesn’t think either option is good enough, so her lab is using graphene and other similar materials to construct durable, high-power, quick-charging materials. And by printing these monolayers on two-dimensional materials, electrical storage becomes modular and flexible. Nicolosi’s new batteries may soon be coming to a bus stop near you.

Edgar Pieterse believes that Africa’s rapid urbanization is creating problems: the millions of new city-dwellers “are not provided for, their governments are failing them.” Pieterse agrees that urbanization, in general, is a positive development – it’s easier to provide infrastructure, economic opportunities are denser, and diverse connections spur innovation. “The problem is that this does not apply in most of Sub-Saharan Africa,” he says. For example, even as economies improve, population growth rates aren’t going down, and despite decreasing unemployment, jobs are precarious. Dreams of futuristic cityscapes are also problematic: in Lagos, Nigeria, public and private funds are sucked up by skyscraper developments meant to emulate western cities. “Governing elites have taken the racist colonial rules, and adopted it for themselves,” Pieterse says, causing societies to “effectively self-segregate.” Fortunately, there are promising ways forward to incorporate local demographic and geographical realities and “incrementally move to modernity.” Highly localized, small-plot food production has been particularly helpful in a number of cities, producing “bio-based solutions to key urban problems.”

Session 4 der Falling Walls Conference. Berlin, 09.11.2017. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/ photothek.net/ Falling Walls

Don’t even try it: Sarah Chayes can’t be bought. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/ photothek.net/ Falling Walls

Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan as a reporter and stayed to “try and make a difference, to do something useful.” She found a thick network of corruption – not just the expected shakedowns, but also a more structural, sophisticated form of corruption, masked by perceived legitimacy. Chayes learned that “money has come to eclipse other values…for assessing our social worth and value.” In order to compete for zeroes in bank accounts, politicians are re-writing rules and selectively enforcing them to their own benefit. What’s more, these corrupt transactions are infused with imperiousness: powerful parties gloat, and victims hold a grudge. They join revolutions, they join insurgencies, they vote for populists. “These patterns are beginning to infect our systems of government in the so-called western, developed world,” Chayes says, pointing out concerning overlaps of the current American administration and major industries. To break this network, the key is not to focus on the figurehead, but to fight for specific reforms and, most critically, bring the passion. “We can’t take our democracies for granted,” Chayes declares, “and that means, get in the fight.”

As a medical student, Dennis Lo was fascinated by the early detection of medical conditions. He found that in pregnant mothers, fetal cells would enter a mother’s bloodstream, allowing doctors to determine a baby’s sex earlier than previously possible. But that was a relatively easy proposition, as blood group typing and sex determination are binary questions: female or male? No or yes? For something like Down Syndrome, a more detailed test was needed to look at sequence variants: Lo and his team managed to extract enough fetal DNA to make it happen. The logical extension of this capability was to sequence the full genome of a fetus. With inspiration from a 3-D showing of Harry Potter, Lo found a way to determine the source of a given gene and attribute recovered genetic material to the baby. It worked – it’s now the most used method to test for any genetic disease in fetuses, preparing parents for their new reality.

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