Smoky Mountain High
Today's Itinerary: We land in Asheville; an amazing surgery at the Cleveland Clinic; a look at AI innovations; and a possible answer to the special hell of waiting in line
August 14, 2019
Asheville: Mecca in the Mountains
Asheville, NC, is consistently ranked as one of the best places to (pick one) live, visit, travel to, or do business in, not only in the US but in the world, according to recent annual polls and surveys in a variety of top magazines and travel guides. It’s also buzzing with innovation and entrepreneurship.
We met with Clark Duncan, senior vice president of economic development for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, and Josh Dorfman, an environmental entrepreneur, who has built his career at the intersection of sustainability, technology, and media, to talk about the innovation going on in the city.
“Asheville has a strong creative and entrepreneurial spirit,” Duncan said. “Companies both large and small are leading the way in terms of innovation, and our scientific and technical services industry has experienced a 29% increase over the last 10 years.”
Driving that expansion are companies such as GE Aviation, a top force behind innovation, where a revolutionary aircraft engine material is manufactured. Avadim Health, a rapidly growing life sciences company headquartered here, is listed on the Inc. 5000 and is continuously developing an advanced portfolio of health and wellness products.
Through Venture Asheville, a chamber initiative supporting high-growth entrepreneurs, Asheville became home to Brightfield Transportation Solutions, which focuses on solar vehicle charging stations, and Elite HRV, which uses smartphone technology to make heart rate variability data easily accessible to individuals and organizations.
Known variously as “The Land of the Sky” and “San Francisco of the East,” Asheville recently added a new nickname: “Climate City” because of The Collider, a nonprofit organization launched in 2016 whose mission is “to help the world prepare, adapt and become resilient in the face of intensifying climate change.” Josh Dorfman is chief executive officer of The Collider.
Dorfman said, “Asheville [is] home to many of the world's leading climate scientists in government, academia, and the private sector. That combination creates potent opportunities to build local entrepreneurial ventures that help communities and companies around the world adapt to the increasing stresses caused by climate change."
Asheville is an outdoor-lover’s paradise and a haven for arts, music, and culture; a tourist destination and homey small town; a microbrewery capital and a burgeoning recovery community; a foodie’s dream and a health-conscious, eco-minded hotspot.
Nestled between the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville draws millions of tourists, fueling a bustling economy that serves a diverse population and continues to draw an influx of transplants.
Biltmore Estate. Photographer Blake Lewis [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)]
Asheville’s Biltmore Estate, the palatial former home of George Washington Vanderbilt II, is now a major tourist destination that covers more than 8,000 acres and is one of the largest private employers in the area. The Biltmore boasts its own resort, winery, and village and plays host to outdoor summer concerts.
Live music plays an outsize role in Asheville too, with iconic venues such as The Orange Peel and The Grey Eagle, and the city’s US Cellular Center hosting major touring acts and new artists in rock, jazz, bluegrass, country, and everything in between. Downtown is alive with street performers and boasts brewpubs on seemingly every corner. Asheville is also home to Moog, the synthesizer that revolutionized electronic music.
The city has an easy-going, jeans-and-sandals vibe and the serene mountain setting belies a pulsing business, tech, and innovation culture. For entrepreneurs, Asheville is home to a vibrant co-working community and a thriving startup economy, with active support of business, civic, and government leaders.
Asheville’s eclectic, seemingly contradictory elements coexist peacefully amid its laid-back, live-and-let-live culture. The demographic mix — artists and musicians, scientists and business leaders, innovators, and politicians — combines to create a synergistic atmosphere.
Asheville by the numbers
City population: 86,236
County population: 250,539
Median household income: $43,681
Gender dispersion: 48.1% M, 51.9% F
Average age: 37.9
Average home cost: $278,551
Average apartment cost: $830
Higher Education in Asheville
University of North Carolina Asheville
Western Carolina University
Mars Hill College
Warren Wilson College
Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
FLYOVER HEALTH INNOVATION
Cleveland Clinic performs first in utero surgery to repair spina bifida
A team of more than a dozen specialists, including pediatric neurosurgeons, a fetal cardiologist, and pediatric anesthesiologists, performed surgery on a nearly 23-week-old fetus with the birth defect spina bifida in February at the Cleveland Clinic. Spina bifida happens when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly.
And earlier this month, the baby girl was born at nearly 37 weeks. Both mother and daughter are doing well. Here’s video of the surgery. Dr. Darrell Cass is director of fetal surgery in the Cleveland Clinic’s Fetal Center and has performed more than 160 fetal surgeries since 2002.
Alexa, what is conversational AI?
Four-year-old startup Clinc, based in Ann Arbor, MI, has jumped into the AI voice-assisted market in a big way. Clinc uses natural language processing (NLP) engines, machine learning, and deep neural networks to “make sense of human speech.” And thanks to its spectacular growth, the company recently secured $52 million in series B financing, helmed by Insight Partners, along with DFJ Growth, Drive Capital, and Hyde Park Venture Partners.
CEO Jason Mars, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, said the new capital will allow the company to expand its workforce and open a new office in Ann Arbor.
Clinc is designed to figure out semantics, context, intent, and meaning by analyzing speech patterns, among other factors. It can parse unstructured speech as well, so it can “self-improve” and respond to questions it hasn’t heard before.
Pittsburgh addresses waiting-in-line torture
David Shankbone [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] (image has been cropped)
Feel like you’re wasting half your life standing in grocery checkout lines? You could be right. According to one New York Times study, Americans spend about 37 billion hours a year waiting in various lines. So it’s not surprising that brick-and-mortar grocery store chains are in a heated battle to win your business via time-saving services.
One example is Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle has introduced several ways to make the shopping experience as efficient as possible, like Curbside Express and home delivery.
One step further
Now, Giant Eagle is pushing the envelope a bit more, with the help of tech company Grabango.
The concept is this: As you begin putting items in your cart, Grabango will track them using computer vision and keep a running tally. When you’re done shopping, you can pay by smartphone or waltz over to a cashier and then be on your way.
A Few More fun (and weird) facts about Asheville
We talked above about Asheville’s entrepreneurial spirit. That ain’t all that’s going on in Asheville. It wears the label “quirky” like a badge:
- Asheville has a drum circle every Friday night at 6 pm. It involves a group of hippies, tourists, and locals sitting in a giant circle banging on drums. “It is weird. It is fun. It is so undeniably Asheville.”
- As we mentioned, Asheville is home to the Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned house in the US. It measures 11 square miles and includes a winery, a farm, flower gardens, a cattle ranch, and dozens of hiking trails. The Biltmore house itself features 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces.
Image by micahsimpson760 from Pixabay (image has been cropped)
You can't un-see that!
- If you visit Asheville, you may catch a glimpse of the bicycling nun. This nun happens to be a bearded man wearing a nun’s habit riding around on a 20-ft. bicycle playing folk music.
Sorry, no pictures for this last one!
- This piece of trivia may result in a bunch of adolescent boys booking plane tickets: A few years ago, some Asheville women decided that it was socially acceptable for men to walk around topless but women couldn’t. Topless women protests started. Today, it’s not uncommon to see a topless woman walking through the Asheville streets with her head held high. And it’s legal.
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