Life-size robo-dinosaur and ostrich backpack hint at how first birds got off the ground

Everyone knows birds descended from dinosaurs, but exactly how that happened is the subject of much study and debate. To help clear things up, these researchers went all out and just straight up built a robotic dinosaur to test their theory: that these proto-birds flapped their “wings” well before they ever flew.

Now, this isn’t some hyper-controversial position or anything. It’s pretty reasonable when you think about it: natural selection tends to emphasize existing features rather than invent them from scratch. If these critters had, say, moved from being quadrupedal to being bipedal and had some extra limbs up front, it would make sense that over a few million years those limbs would evolve into something useful.

But when did it start, and how? To investigate, Jing-Shan Zhao of Tsinghua University in Beijing looked into an animal called Caudipteryx, a ground-dwelling animal with “feathered forelimbs that could be considered “proto-wings.”

Based on the well-preserved fossil record of this bird-dino crossover, the researchers estimated a number of physiological metrics, such as the creature’s top speed and the rhythm with which it would run. From this they could estimate forces on other parts of the body — just as someone studying a human jogger would be able to say that such and such a joint is under this or that amount of stress.

What they found was that, in theory, these “natural frequencies” and biophysics of the Caudipteryx’s body would cause its little baby wings to flap up and down in a way suggestive of actual flight. Of course they wouldn’t provide any lift, but this natural rhythm and movement may have been the seed which grew over generations into something greater.

To give this theory a bit of practical punch, the researchers then constructed a pair of unusual mechanical items: a pair of replica Caudipteryx wings for a juvenile ostrich to wear, and a robotic dinosaur that imitated the original’s gait. A bit fanciful, sure — but why shouldn’t science get a little crazy now and then?

In the case of the ostrich backpack, they literally just built a replica of the dino-wings and attached it to the bird, then had the bird run. Sensors on board the device verified what the researchers observed: that the wings flapped naturally as a result of the body’s motion and vibrations from the feet impacting the ground.

The robot is a life-size reconstruction based on a complete fossil of the animal, made of 3D-printed parts, to which the ostrich’s fantasy wings could also be affixed. The researchers’ theoretical model predicted that the flapping would be most pronounced as the speed of the bird approached 2.31 meters per second — and that’s just what they observed in the stationary model imitating gaits corresponding to various running speeds.

You can see another gif over at the Nature blog. As the researchers summarize:

These analyses suggest that the impetus of the evolution of powered flight in the theropod lineage that lead to Aves may have been an entirely natural phenomenon produced by bipedal motion in the presence of feathered forelimbs.

Just how legit is this? Well, I’m not a paleontologist. And an ostrich isn’t a Caudipteryx. And the robot isn’t exactly convincing to look at. We’ll let the scholarly community pass judgment on this paper and its evidence (don’t worry, it’s been peer-reviewed), but I think it’s fantastic that the researchers took this route to test their theory. A few years ago this kind of thing would have been far more difficult to do, and although it seems a little silly when you watch it (especially in gif form), there’s a lot to be said for this kind of real-life tinkering when so much of science is occurring in computer simulations.

The paper was published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

A quiet London-based payments startup just raised among the biggest Series A rounds ever in Europe

You probably haven’t heard of Checkout, a digital payments processing company that was founded in 2012 in London. Apparently, however, investors have been keeping tabs on the low-flying company and like what they see. Today, Checkout announced that it has raised $230 million in Series A funding at a valuation just shy of $2 billion co-led by Insight Partners and DST Global, with participation from GIC, the Singaporean sovereign-wealth fund, Blossom Capital, Endeavor Catalyst and other, unnamed strategic investors.

It’s the first institutional round for the company; it’s also one of the biggest Series A rounds ever for a European company.

What’s so special about Checkout that investors felt compelled to write such big checks? In a sea filled with fintech startups, it’s hard to know at first glance what differentiates it — or whether investors merely spy a huge opportunity, particularly given the company’s recent revenue numbers.

Checkout helps businesses — including Samsung, Adidas, Deliveroo and Virgin, among others — to accept a range of payment types across their online stores around the world. According to the WSJ, the fees from these services are adding up, too. It says Checkout’s European business generated $46.8 million in gross revenue and $6.7 million in profit in 2017, information it dug up through Companies House, the United Kingdom’s registrar of companies.

Checkout also plays into two huge trends that seem to be lifting all boats — the ongoing boom in online shopping, and the growing number of businesses using online payments. Little wonder that investors poured into payments startups last year more than four times what they invested in them in 2017 ($22 billion, according to Dow Jones VentureSource data cited by the WSJ).

Little wonder, too, that payments startups that have gone public are faring well, including the global payments company Adyen, which IPO’d on the Euronext in June of last year and has mostly seen its shares move in one direction since. Indeed, the company, valued at $2.3 billion by investors in 2015, is now valued at nearly $21 billion.

Though Checkout’s Series A is stunning for its size, according to Dealroom data, it isn’t the largest for a European company. Among other giant rounds, the U.K.-based biotech company Immunocore closed on $320 million in Series A funding in 2015. In 2017, another U.K. fintech, OakNorth, a digital bank that focuses on loans for small and medium enterprises, raised $200 million in Series A funding. (It has gone on to raise roughly $850 million altogether.)

More recently, TradePlus24, a two-year-old, Zurich, Switzerland-based fintech company that insures against default the accounts receivables of small and mid-size businesses, also raised a healthy amount: $120 million in Series A funding. Its backers include Credit Suisse and the insurance broker Kessler.

Microbiome testing service uBiome puts its co-founders on administrative leave after FBI raid

The microbiome testing service uBiome has placed its founders and co-chief executives, Jessica Richman and Zac Apte, on administrative leave following an FBI raid on the company’s offices last week.

The company’s board of directors have named John Rakow, currently the company’s general counsel, as its interim chairman and chief executive, the company said in a statement.

Directors of the company are also conducting an independent investigation into the company’s billing practices, which is being overseen by a special committee of the board.

It was only last week that the FBI went to the company’s headquarters to search for documents related to an ongoing investigation. What’s at issue is the way that the company was billing insurers for the microbiome tests it was performing on customers.

“As interim CEO of uBiome, I want all of our stakeholders to know that we intend to cooperate fully with government authorities and private payors to satisfactorily resolve the questions that have been raised, and we will take any corrective actions that are needed to ensure we can become a stronger company better able to serve patients and healthcare providers,” Rakow said in a statement.

”My confidence is based on the significant clinical evidence and medical literature that demonstrates the utility and value of uBiome’s products as important tools for patients, health care providers and our commercial partners.” added Mr. Rakow.

It’s been a rough few weeks for consumer companies working on developing microbiome testing services and treatments based on those diagnosis. In addition to the FBI raid, the Seattle-based company, Arivale, was forced to shut down its “consumer program” after raising more than $50 million from investors, including Maveron, Polaris Partners and ARCH Venture Partners.

UBiome is backed by investors including Andreessen Horowitz, OS Fund, 8VC, Y Combinator, DNA Capital, Crunchfund, StartX, Kapor Capital, Starlight Ventures and 500 Startups.

Microsoft brings Plug and Play to IoT

Microsoft today announced that it wants to bring the ease of use of Plug and Play, which today allows you to plug virtually any peripheral into a Windows PC without having to worry about drivers, to IoT devices. Typically, getting an IoT device connected and up and running takes some work, even with modern deployment tools. The promise of IoT Plug and Play is that it will greatly simplify this process and do away with the hardware and software configuration steps that are still needed today.

As Azure corporate vice president Julia White writes in today’s announcement, “one of the biggest challenges in building IoT solutions is to connect millions of IoT devices to the cloud due to heterogeneous nature of devices today – such as different form factors, processing capabilities, operational system, memory and capabilities.” This, Microsoft argues, is holding back IoT adoption.

IoT Plug and Play, on the other hand, offers developers an open modeling language that will allow them to connect these devices to the cloud without having to write any code.

Microsoft can’t do this alone, though, since it needs the support of the hardware and software manufacturers in its IoT ecosystem, too. The company has already signed up a number of partners, including Askey, Brainium, Compal, Kyocera, STMicroelectronics, Thundercomm and VIA Technologies . The company says that dozens of devices are already Plug and Play-ready and potential users can find them in the Azure IoT Device Catalog.