Startups get closer to helping us live longer, stay healthier

Story highlights

  • Kendall Square in Cambridge is said to be "the most innovative square mile" in the US
  • WHOOP's activity tracker helps elite athletes perform at ultimate levels
  • Moderna's technology would allow your cells to make proteins needed to heal your body
  • Indigo tests microbiomes in plants to feed the Earth's population, conserve water

(CNN)It may not be Silicon Valley but it's where many tech companies of the East want to be.

Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is home to 800 companies, from startups to MIT. Even Google and Microsoft have satellite offices there.
Once a salt marsh and the former home of a NASA research center, Kendall Square today is known as "the most innovative square mile" in America, based on the concentration of innovative businesses in the area. Collectively, they have raised $14 billion.
    As Kendall Square continues to be the place where entrepreneurs and inventors are making their mark in the world, here are three game changers of the "Miracle Mile" that are using technology to help us live longer, stay healthier and work out better.

    WHOOP

    Chances are you are one of the 50-plus million people who own a popular activity tracker such as a Fitbit or Jawbone. The devices have created a workout frenzy encouraging regular people to participate in physical activity, and it can become competitive. But, what about a device for those who compete for a living? Athletes.
    Until now, there was nothing on the market to track an athlete's training. Then WHOOP, the first scientifically-grounded device specifically designed to help elite athletes perform at an ultimate level, debuted in the fall of 2015.
    Worn on the wrist, WHOOP monitors an athlete's heart rate, ambient temperature, accelerometry and other vitals 100 times a second. Those factors determine an athlete's strain, sleep and recovery.
    Founder and CEO Will Ahmed believes that athletes may overlook those factors because there's a thin line between over training and training optimally. He says WHOOP's goal is to empower athletes and help them understand their bodies.
    A digital dashboard allows coaches, trainers and athletes to monitor an athlete's training level. When training is complete, a color-coded recovery score is given, which determines if an athlete should continue or let their body rest.
    "When we started WHOOP we uncovered that there are a lot of biomarkers that predict how you're going to perform," says Ahmed. "Feelings in general aren't a very good predictor of your body's performance."
    NBA champion LeBron James, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and about 20 other professional and Olympic athletes have trained using WHOOP. College athletic programs train with the device as well.
    "We started using WHOOP in the middle of September and this is the healthiest we've been as a team," says Roy Coates, Northeastern swim team head coach. "It plays a huge factor in our success as a team."
    A recent study of 120 college athletes showed that when athletes used WHOOP, they gained an average of 41 more minutes of sleep and reduced their alcohol consumption by 76%.
    "You have to budget your time wisely because coaches can see everything you're doing," says Carly Schnabel, Northeastern women's swim team member.
    If you're not a professional or collegiate athlete and you want to get your hands on a WHOOP, there's good news. WHOOP announced last July that their WHOOP Strap 2.0 would be available to the general public at the end of this year.

    Moderna

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    Will there ever be a cure for cancer or HIV? That's the question most of the world has been asking.
    One biotech company, Moderna, believes they are one step closer to finding a remedy. In fact, Moderna says the cure may be right in front of our eyes.
    "Your body is going to be the factory for your medicine," says Moderna's CEO Stephane Bancel.
    When someone becomes ill, Bancel says, it is usually due to the lack of a protein, which is then treated with a synthetic protein-based drug. However, those drugs are not always effective in curing the disease.
    Founded in 2011, Moderna says its technology will not only replace the missing protein but will swap it with a more natural protein.
    "Now we can have therapeutic proteins functioning inside cells," Tal Zaks, chief medical officer says. "And that's a huge difference."
    So, how will an emerging biotech startup be able to do what doctors have been unable to do for centuries? How will they change the makeup of proteins?
    By using Messenger RNA or mRNA.
    Messenger RNA is the molecules found in cells that carries the code for a particular protein and acts as a template for the formation of that protein.
    Moderna's technology will change the property of the mRNA molecules, then the mRNA will be injected into the body, theoretically allowing your cells to make any protein it needs to heal itself from a specific disease.
    "We are very focused on infectious disease," Bancel added. "Then we are trying to see if we could make personalized cancer vaccines."
    Last June, Moderna announced a partnership with Merck to develop an mRNA-based personalized cancer vaccine with clinical studies anticipated to begin next year. Last July the company signed a deal with Vertex to create therapies for cystic fibrosis.
    With over $1.5 billion raised for research and development, including $20 million from the Gates Foundation to fight HIV, Moderna is establishing itself as a leader in clinical studies. An unprecedented two clinical studies are currently underway including a study with AstraZeneca on the experimental drug AZD8601, which treats vascular disease.
    With their ambitious work underway and the research continuing, the end results could potentially mean the end of devastating illnesses.
    "The next couple of years for us will be really transformational," Zaks says.

    Indigo

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    Ten billion. That's Earth's estimated population in 2050. That means 10 billion people will be consuming the Earth's food and water supply at the same time.
    In order to provide enough food and water for the population, agriculture productivity and water conservation needs to increase by 70%.
    Are we prepared?
    Tech startup Indigo says no, we are not. They however may have discovered an innovative way to meet the world's food and water needs.
    After studying human microbiomes found in or on the body that promote digestion and reproduction, scientists at Indigo studied microbiomes found in plants.
    The results showed that when added to a seed coding, microbes naturally found in plants have a positive effect on a plant's water stress tolerance as well as its resistance to certain insects and fungi.
    "It's almost like we've discovered a whole new organ inside of plants," says co-founder Geoffrey Ian von Maltzahn. "Now we have the tools to figure out what it's doing."
    After their discovery, more than a dozen plants were tested in various climate conditions during all seasons. When natural microbes were added, the results showed a 10% yield increase.
    How significant is that? With 75% of the Earth's food coming from just a dozen plants and five animals, that number is a game changer.
    "A 10% increase is a whole decade leap forward in terms of productivity," says CEO David Perry.
    The agricultural industry has taken notice of Indigo's groundbreaking advancements. Last July, the company announced that it received a record-breaking $100 million Series C investment.
    The investment will not only support Indigo's current and future research, but supports the newly launched Indigo Cotton, the company's first commercial product, which aims to increase water efficiency.
    Growing beyond its Kendall Square roots, Indigo is now housed in a 65,000-square-foot facility just a few miles north of its original hub. The company says it is preparing for growth -- expecting to double the size of its team as it strives to feed the world.