Power

Apple wants AirPods that won't stick out

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things. Most never amount to anything, but others end up defining the future. We round up this week's most interesting.

AirPods

A new patent awarded to Apple suggests it's still toying with ways to reduce the profile of wireless earbuds.

Photo: Chukrut Budrul/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

This week's patents from Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have something for everyone: a little automation, a folding phone, Wi-Fi-sniffing drones, surgery videos, and a some drone whipping — yes, drone whipping. The future has everything. It's a brave new world.

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Alphabet

YouTube for surgeries

I really wasn't sure if I wanted to click on Verily's new patent titled "Method for comparing videos of surgical techniques," but thankfully it wasn't particularly graphic. According to the patent, "surgeons often watch videos on YouTube to compare their techniques to those of colleagues" to help them see how others carry out procedures and keep them fresh on ones they don't do too often. The patent suggests a system for comparing surgery videos that could standardize things like the frame rate and dimensions of the video to make comparisons easier. Neat! And something I personally will never watch.

How to actually pick up your Waymo ride

This problem won't be an issue for a while, but I guess there's no harm in solving it now. Today, if you've ever called an Uber in a major U.S. city, you've likely had the problem that a black Toyota Camry rolled up, and you thought it was your Uber, but instead it was the Lyft that the guy behind you called, or maybe actually the lady behind him. Every car looks the same, and many times riders end up calling the driver to figure out where they are. That's tougher to do when the car is a robot.

The patent outlines a few ways to figure out how to get people into their autonomous taxis, including cross-referencing location data from the rider's phone and the car, and even potentially using the car's sensors to figure out which people are looking at the car, to determine if they're the ones trying to get in.

Amazon

Crack that whip!

Missed this one when it came out a few weeks ago, but when I saw this GeekWire piece on it, I had to include it, if just for the art alone:

Can you imagine a world where giant aircraft carriers are whipping drones into the sky to deliver Amazon packages in an energy-efficient way? I can't. But, coincidentally, famed author Neal Stevenson can — he has a ton of vehicles like these in his novel "Seveneves" — and he just happened to spend a lot of time at the (Jeff Bezos-owned) space company Blue Origin back in its early days.

Still trying to replace warehouse workers

One of the few remaining tasks in Amazon's warehouses that it's not been able to at least partially automate is picking stuff up and putting it somewhere else. Robots are very good at categorizing stuff, but not so great at identifying and picking it up, which is why even with 100,000 robots on staff, it still employs tens of thousands of people to pick up items people have ordered and place them in boxes. Amazon has been working on solving this with robots for years. This new patent outlines a way of teaching bots how to pick up awkwardly shaped items, like a teddy bear, which it can then repeat for all the teddies that come its way.

Bringing the warehouse to you

Amazon has gotten stunningly good at delivering items in a few days, yet it still sees room for improvement in its logistics pipeline. This patent describes a system for storing sorted items or packages that can be loaded right onto a truck, plane or train, cutting down the manual labor currently required to load them up. The "mobile modules," as the patent calls them, look rather like large shelving units you might see at the Container Store. They can be loaded by a conveyor belt, and then rolled into the back of a truck. This would mean workers wouldn't have to strain nearly as much to load up shipments. Seems a lot simpler than some of the other ideas people out there have.

Apple

A foldable phone

Foldable phones are all the rage right now, even if they're not very good yet. Apple tends not to jump into the deep end on new products until it's sure it has a solid offering, so it's not too surprising that it's starting to explore foldable devices now. Apple's patent goes into a lot of detail about the mechanics of a foldable display for what seems to be a larger, iPad-shaped device that can fold over itself into something that looks like a billfold wallet. Hopefully your actual wallet is full, because whenever it releases a product like this, it definitely won't be cheap.

iRings

Apple's hitting all the tech product trends this week! It also received a patent for a connected ring device. Amazon has already released a rather zany smart-ring device, and it seems Apple wants to jump in on the craze. The ring in question could be used to control a VR environment, and provide haptic feedback to the wearer. I can't wait to suit up for VR games in the future like I'm showing off how many Super Bowl rings I've won.

Slimmer AirPods?

Apple revamped its AirPods with the launch of a Pro model in the fall, which featured a shorter stalk and soft tips to help cancel noise. A new patent awarded to Apple suggests it's still toying with ways to reduce the profile of wireless earbuds. The patent describes a set of earbuds that sit flush in the wearer's ears, rather than protruding outward, as all AirPods models to date do. It could just be that Apple is patenting ideas related to earbuds that it's not pursuing, or it could well be trying to finally make some headphones that actually fit in everyone's ears.

Facebook

Signal-sniffing robots

Facebook won a patent this week for a mobile system that can traverse a room and figure out how strong various wireless signals are throughout the room. In some versions of the system it's envisioning, that system lives on a robot that's able to autonomously move around a room. That could be "a robot that can walk, roll or fly through the space while sampling signals," the patent suggests. Definitely doesn't sound annoying to have a drone buzzing around inside all day trying to figure out if there's a Wi-Fi dead zone in the corner of the office.

Microsoft

Taking notes on a sleeping device

Sometimes you just need to jot down a number. You search around for a pen and paper and none can be found, so you open your phone to take a note, and you've completely forgotten the number. Samsung's Note line of phones solved this problem a few years back, allowing owners to take a note with the phone's stylus while the display was off; in reality you're just writing in white on a black screen and saving a lot of processing power. Microsoft has been awarded a patent for something similar, but considering it hasn't made phones in years, it's possible it's looking into a solution like this for Windows PCs and tablets.

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.

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