People

To make a difference, 5G has to be everywhere. One company is designing it to be invisible.

Gorilla Glass maker Corning is designing thoughtful devices for the future of communication.

Lee Webb sitting at a desk, drawing on a tablet

Corning designer Lee Webb works at home on new products, with a 3D printer nearby for rapid prototyping.

Photo: Courtesy of Corning

Have you ever considered what goes into designing a cell phone tower?

Other than those that are supposed to be trees — and totally don't fool anyone — cell tower manufacturers have tended to not try to blend them into their surroundings. Traditionally, cell sites have either been pushed to the outskirts of towns on tall towers or put on top of buildings, hopefully out of eyesight of anyone likely to complain of them being an eyesore. But with 5G on the horizon for many towns, that may well have to change.

Unlike previous generations of wireless connectivity technology, to realize the full promise of 5G, towns are going to need towers all over. They'll have to be smaller and closer together than previous generations, but that ubiquity will lead to increased download speeds and far smaller latencies than any prior generation could provide. That in turn could revolutionize the way we communicate and move things around the world. And with 5G infrastructure spend expected to nearly double this year alone, the company now best known for making the glass on smartphone screens thinks it may have a solution.

Corning is working on a new line of 5G products called Evolv that are meant to be easy to use — and easy on the eyes. As cells move closer and closer to the consumer and away from giant towers, the company argues that designing something as considered as a consumer's cell phone is going to be increasingly important.

Corning sees 5G products as the latest in a long evolution of its glass and ceramics products. It started out, nearly 170 years ago, constructing the glass covers for lights at railroad switches, moved into making Pyrex glassware (a division it sold in the '90s), catalytic converters and fiber optic cables in the '70s, and then into radio dishes and other communications devices. "We've been glass and ceramics as key core materials for a long time, but exactly what we make can really change," Dave Loeber, Corning's program lead for 5G, told Protocol. "We now actually make our own radios for indoor networks."

"All of the gear that we've got these days is pushing closer and closer to the customer," Loeber said of Corning's networking gear, which was part of the impetus for more actively considering how these products looked.

"We have to think much more about [whether that] should change the way that we design things," Loeber said. "Instead of a highly trained technician up on a tower someplace that they're only going to once a year, now it's going to be maybe a customer trying to plug in something themselves, or something that they look at all the time."

That led Loeber, along with Corning's brand experience team, to consider how to design industrial products that regular people, rather than engineers, might have to see or interact with all the time. Lee Webb, who helps manage the brand and product experience for optical products at Corning, wanted to create a sense that the company's products were "timeless and highly functional." Previously, Webb said, many products at Corning didn't have a consistent theme or design, but given that few people were ever going to see them, that probably wasn't as important as it now is.

Corning's new Evolv 5G multiport device is meant to be better-looking while remaining easy to use.Photo: Courtesy of Corning

Webb and his team took a range of approaches to designing their first 5G products, making prototypes out of wood and foam and using 3D printers to rapidly iterate on designs. The end result was a product they're calling the Evolv, a 5G multiport device that's meant to be able to be installed in a range of outdoor spaces, like telephone poles or the sides of buildings, without being particularly intrusive or confusing. "One of the things I really like about the Evolv set we're launching is that we've built in some usability and functionality," Webb said. "You can easily understand which port is aligned to what button without having to bend your neck down and around and look at the bottom."

The team considered how people will interact with the product, including how easy it is to fix something on it if you're an engineer wearing gloves, and several ways to mount the device, so it can easily blend in wherever it is. 5G devices could end up being as ubiquitous as street lamps or Wi-Fi routers inside, to ensure a blanket of coverage wherever you are, and you don't want them to be obtrusive, as many early Wi-Fi and small cell routers often are. Corning didn't want to give off the robot insect vibe that many networking products consumers can see. "Looking like a venomous spider would probably be a negative," Loeber said.

Corning said that increasingly, it's looking to build products that do more than the bare minimum, both in terms of client briefs and their product design. "The key here is interpreting user insights — historically we've tended to take whatever the customer said, and we do just that," Webb said. "But what we're trying to do more now is take what they said, understand why they said it, what's driving those factors, interpret that into insights that we can execute."

Increasingly, the clients Corning is working for are also starting to think about their infrastructure products' aesthetics in the same way they would consumer-facing devices. "It's OK for telco gear to be ugly: those days have passed," Dayne Wilcox, Corning's head of brand experience for optical communications, said. "It's kind of this tidal wave shift of perception of expectation, and that's not only the end customers, but also the big carriers."

"We know from external studies that people are actually more likely to overlook any small advantages a competitor might have if your product looks and feels fully refined and considered," Webb added.

5G, especially in the U.S., is still in its infancy. Most carriers have so far just started to roll out their networks, which in many cases have involved 4G/5G hybrids and adding new antennas to existing towers. Even with the pandemic keeping many people inside, the drive to increase coverage has continued. AT&T, for example, launched its higher-speed millimeter wave offering in March, and these are the types of networks that are going to need devices placed more ubiquitously to guarantee connection. And if Corning has its way, they're going to blend into the background a lot more than those fake cell tower trees.
Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Workplace

How to make remote work work

Hofy made an early bet that COVID-19 would have a long-term impact on workplaces. The company recently raised $15.2 million for its remote workforce equipment management solution.

Hofy recently raised $15.2 million for its remote workforce equipment management service.

Photo: Jannis Brandt/Unsplash

It's your new employee's first day of remote work, but their laptop hasn't shown up yet. Not a good look.

This very 2021 persistent problem is part of why Hofy, a remote workplace management tool, recently raised $15.2 million to help companies deploy laptops, chairs, desks and other physical equipment to their remote employees. The idea for Hofy, which is launching out of stealth today, emerged in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — before lockdowns went into effect in the U.S. and the U.K. Hofy's co-founders, Sami Bouremoum and Michael Ginzo, had a feeling that COVID-19 would have a long-term effect on society.

Keep Reading Show less
Megan Rose Dickey

Megan Rose Dickey is a senior reporter at Protocol covering labor and diversity in tech. Prior to joining Protocol, she was a senior reporter at TechCrunch and a reporter at Business Insider.

Protocol | Policy

Tech giants want to hire Afghan refugees. The system’s in the way.

Amazon, Facebook and Uber have all committed to hiring and training Afghan evacuees. But executing on that promise is another story.

"They're authorized to work, but their authorization has an expiration date."

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Late last month, Amazon, Facebook and Uber joined dozens of other companies in publicly committing to hire and train some of the 95,000 Afghan refugees who are expected to be resettled in the United States over the next year, about half of whom are already here.

But nearly two months since U.S. evacuations from Kabul ended and one month since the companies' public commitments, efforts to follow through with those promised jobs remain stalled. That, experts say, is partly to do with the fact that the vast majority of Afghan arrivals are still being held at military bases, partly to do with their legal classification and partly to do with a refugee resettlement system that was systematically dismantled by the Trump administration.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Fintech

How European fintech startup N26 is preparing for U.S. regulations

"There's a lot more scrutiny being placed on fintech. We are definitely mindful of it."

In an interview with Protocol, Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, discussed the company's approach to regulations in the U.S.

Photo: N26

N26's monster $900 million funding round announced Monday underlined the German startup's momentum in the digital banking market.

Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, said the funding will be used for expansion and also to improve "our core offering to make this the most reliable bank that our customers can trust," she told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Latest Stories