Big Data Investors Put a Premium on Proprietary Software

Big Data Investors Put a Premium on Proprietary Software

Despite a meager track record for generating outsized returns, investors keep piling money into open source start-ups. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, a minimum of 110 “open source startups” had raised more than $7 billion from venture capitalists as of 2015, up over 100% since 2013.

The hottest open source companies are focused on big data, with companies like DataStax,Cloudera, and MongoDB bagging billion-dollar valuations as they earn ever-increasing revenues. But even hotter, according to new data from mutual fund filings and Dow Jones VentureSource, are proprietary big data software startups.

This is surprising in some ways, as most big data technology is open source. The trick seems to be how companies choose to monetize it.

Valuing open source

The only public benchmark for open source big data companies is Hortonworks, which went public at a billion-dollar valuation only to see its value slide to $638 million as of the time of this writing.

Much of the investor concern over Hortonworks‘ valuation remains a persistent concern that the company’s pure-play open source business model doesn’t work. This is ironic given that Hortonworks has taken far less time to get to $100 million in revenue than some industry bellwethers – like open source peer Red Hat, not to mention Oracle and Salesforce.

Source: Hortonworks

Even so, this concern over open source business models plagues other companies, too, including MongoDB, which has seen its mutual fund investors write down their valuations of the company by 30% in the last two years:

Source: Dow Jones VentureSource

Proprietary software’s free pass

The more a big data company focuses on proprietary differentiation, even for otherwise open source products, however, the more investors have tended to give it a free pass.

Take Cloudera, for example, perhaps the closest analog to Hortonworks. Both companies offer Hadoop distributions, but Cloudera has been much more willing to offer proprietary add-ons to complement its open source platform. In response, investors have bid up its still-private shares by 75% in the last two years:

Source: Dow Jones VentureSource

Step away from open source entirely, however, and valuations have risen even more.

Domo – a big data analytics startup that has been happy to question Hadoop’s right to the big data throne – has seen its valuation go up 90% in the last two years, despite going against the open source grain:

Source: Dow Jones VentureSource

Or take Palantir, whose software is used to uncover patterns in massive quantities of data. Palantir uses and contributes quite a lot of open source software, but makes its money selling proprietary software. Its reward? A 152% increase in valuation since Q3 2012:

Source: Dow Jones VentureSource

Selling more than free

None of which is to suggest that proprietary software is better than open source. With over 15 years working for open source companies, I simply don’t believe that.

But it is an indication that the right way to monetize open source is by selling something other than open source software. Former Wall Street analyst Peter Goldmacher nailed this years ago, arguing that the companies getting rich in the “big data Gold Rush” are the “apps and analytics vendors that abstract the complexity of working with very complicated underlying technologies into a user-friendly front end,” or those “business people that have identified opportunities to use data to create new opportunities or disrupt legacy business models.”

The first group fits the Palantir model. The second includes companies like Facebook or Uber.

Investors aren’t infallible in their estimation of where value lies in the big data ecosystem, as Hortonworks’ Shaun Connolly, vice president of strategy, points out in the article referenced above. But they’re a reasonable indication of where most of the big data money is pooling. And while open source is an essential ingredient of nearly all big data companies, delivering proprietary value on top of that software seems best at paying the bills.

Industrial IoT Could Be Multi-Trillion Dollar Godzilla Market of the Future

Getting a handle on the size of the industrial IoT market is a challenge, mainly because more and more participants arrive on the scene daily – and defining what’s connected and what’s to be connected is a challenge.

Issac Brown, IoT analyst at Boston-based Lux Research, says while “estimating the potential market size of the IIoT is an effort that many have undertaken,” the issue is in defining that market first.

According to research firm MarketsandMarkets – in a January 2016 report on IIoT – they pegged the market’s value as reaching $151 billion by 2020

Lux’s Brown says while they just released a new report on the market – and it doesn’t guess at the ultimate size – he points out that figure is not thinking big enough. Add some zeros.

The challenge in wrapping your head around this market

“One thing is for certain – it’s huge,” he says, adding that the reason that coming up with a final number can be a “silly thing” to try to do is because it is so loosely defined and difficult to model without a lot of guesswork.

“Let’s start with the sensors,” he says as an example. “In a recent report, we tallied all the predictions of global sensors to be deployed, and the predictions vary wildly – as do definitions of what a sensor.”

Sensor forecasts for the IoT go well into the trillions of devices. Source: Lux Research

It gets cloudier from there, he says, pointing out the impact on data plans alone.

“We’ve got the industrial edge devices and the gateways. Then we’ve got the data plans, which will be huge since they will be streaming manufacturing sensor data, utilities distribution data, vehicle telematics data, farm data, and all sorts of other industrial information,” he says. “The combo of cellular, satellite, LPWAN, and regular old Internet data plans will likely be in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year globally.”

Then there’s the cloud and the maze of IoT platforms.

“Next, we’ve got cloud storage for the industrial data, which will be a huge market in its own right,” Brown says. “Then we have the mess known as the ‘IoT Platforms’ – hundreds of startups, dozens of major tech incumbents, and every company in between has released an IoT platform of one shape or form.”

On top of that are all the analytics, integrators and aftermarket participants.

“Then we’ve got hundreds of pure-play analytics and operational intelligence platforms,” he says, adding in the “value-added resellers and systems integrators each grabbing their slice of the pie.”

Finally, he says, there are those bringing all this together.

“There will be thousands of industrial providers – both OEMs and services organizations – bundling all of the products and services mentioned above into their own offerings, and reselling them as part of a bundled product or service, adding an additional incremental value and fees.”

Add it all up and it dwarfs MarketsandMarkets number above.

“You get something that will certainly be in the trillions of dollars,” he says. “Needless to say, it’s big enough.”

Lux tries to get its arms around this massive market by breaking it down into “distinct environments” – equipment, environments, goods and people.

And when pressed to peg a size on those pockets, Brown says even that’s tough. “Since you asked for percentages, I will give you my gut feel for the next 5 years – we haven’t modelled this specifically” but he says equipment will be 35% of the market; environments, 30%; goods, 20%; and people, 15%.

Part of the issue is these categories are not entirely discrete. He pointed to a typical a Fedex truck – it includes all four. “You can connect and monitor the engine (as equipment), the cargo environment (as environment), the cargo itself (as goods), and the driver (as people).”

“I would say connecting equipment and environments are the top two,” he says. “There is a huge push to connect legacy equipment and new equipment to the Internet for a slew of operational performance improvements – a lot of the action right now is focused on these applications.

He points out that monitoring industrial and commercial environments for improvements in resource consumption isn’t new. “In fact, it’s one of the most developed pieces of the industrial IoT.”

He adds that connecting goods – either in transport or in storage – is becoming a bigger area of focus with a lot of action on fleet management and warehouse management solutions.

As well, in the consumer and healthcare realms, connecting people to the internet is “certainly a big deal” he says. But he adds that while this is indeed a focus in IIoT, “I would say that it’s probably one of the smaller fractions in the near-term.”

“Early pilots are underway for augmented reality wearables, and worker health and safety wearables are increasing,” he adds.

Investors are stepping up

As for investor cash flows, Brown says he sees IIoT investor flows today favoring “pure-play horizontal ‘IoT platforms’ – like Electric Imp – and ‘IoT analytics’ – like mnubo,” he says. “These companies are winning institutional VC money with broadly-applicable – and in my opinion, less valuable – solutions.

He adds that companies that solve more specific problems associated with industrial “pain points” are winning money from corporate VCs. He points out Sigfox as an example, a firm that “has developed a low-power wide-area network technology which is much better suited for sensors and M2M than traditional cellular networks, hence multiple mobile network operator venture groups have invested.”

But he adds it’s still a potential land rush out there. “There is a ton of action both from institutional VCs and corporate VCs across the space and no hard rules,” he says


Industrial IoT a multi-trillion dollar Godzilla market of the future?

Smart City Projects Rumbling to Life Around the World

A new report from boutique research firm Navigant Research shows the global smart city technology market is expected to more than double in the coming years, from $10.4 billion in 2015 to $27.4 billion by 2023.

The firm tracks a complex matrix of issues, solutions, technologies, operations, and infrastructural requirements related to smart cities, and new projects have been added to the database – showing continued investment in smart grids, networked LED street lights, urban mobility, climate action plans, open data platforms, water management, and government service applications for smart cities.

“The expansion of smart city projects is happening not only in terms of the quantity of projects being developed but also in relation to the level and variety of integration being pursued,” says Ryan Citron, research analyst with Navigant Research. “This expansion is expected to increase as governments continue to recognize the tremendous associated benefits of smart cities, including improved economic opportunity, sustainability, and quality of life.”

Citron says they see continued investment in technologies like advanced parking systems represent a growing market for smart cities. As well, an increase in innovations from suppliers in terms of the product and solution offerings – as well as the partnerships they are forming with cities and other stakeholders – is expected to further propel the industry’s growth.

This most recent report covers five key industry sectors as they relate to smart cities: smart energy, smart water, smart transportation, smart buildings, and smart government, looking at across sectors at projects that address multiple aspects of city operations.

They identified 235 projects around the world. Roughly 85% of the projects are focused on issues related to energy, transportation, or government. That’s up from 170 projects in the third quarter of 2013 when the firm first began looking at the smart city space.

LED Street lights are some on the most common smart city projcts. Courtesy: Eneltec LED

Developing world will have strong demand

Smart city development is a huge growth area in the developing world as well as the big economies. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Digital India” plan has them building 100 smart cities across the country. They’ve allocated $1.2 billion for Smart Cities in their 2014-15 national budget.

As you can imagine, the scale of this development plan acknowledges the public resources would largely be insufficient. And so the government is working on new financing routes to boost the program. The government has also been inviting foreign partnerships, signing deals to build the first eight of the 100 cities — three with German partners, three with American partners, and one each with Spain and Singapore.

“Cities in the past were built on riverbanks (and now) they are now built along highways,” Modi said. “But in the future, they will be built based on the availability of optical fiber networks and next-generation infrastructure.”

As the benefits of smart cities become clearer, the number of projects and partnerships supporting the cause is rapidly increasing. In the last few years, city leaders, central government ministries, and technology and service suppliers have announced a range of new smart city initiatives, incentives, and product and service offerings, while more cities are moving from one specific technology interest to a broader range of solutions that have multiple applications.


Smart City projects rumbling to life around the world

“A lot of the data at rest will also move to data in motion as this technology matures.”

Yesterday was the opening day for the Structure Data Conference in San Francisco, and one of the first panelists was Neha Narkhede, the co-founder of Confluent. She and the company are preaching the value of real time data processing, and are deploying it themselves withApache Kafka, a highly scalable messaging system.

We sat down with her after her panel to talk about what real-time data means for IoT.

First, in your mind, for IoT to get past the hype stage, what has to happen from a data perspective to make this mature?

Narkhede: I think the first thing that needs to happen, from a data point of view, is really two steps. First, how do we collect the data from all these different devices, and the second is how do you process it and analyze it. And I think right now we are still on the first step, which is how do you collect the data from all of these devices. And the technology exists, such as Kafka, to collect the data from the devices. However, all the connectors to all these different devices still need to be built out.

The community has to catch up and write all these connectors and we (then) can start getting all this data in. And the second phase for IoT will be “OK, we have all this data, now how do we build all these cool applications on top of it?” and that’s where stream processing comes in. I think it’s a fascinating area and yes, IoT is on the hype curve and it has a lot of different aspects such as security, data processing, and data movement – and we are still on the data collection problem. Let’s get this data in first.

So security is hard enough with static data. Walk us through the additional complexities of continuous streaming data.

Narkhede: You know, I think the problems with streaming data are all the same, whether it’s security or latency. In my experience stream data is very much like batch data, although the technology is a little different in how you process the data. The main concerns are all the same, whether it’s data at rest or data in motion. How do you allow users to set up all the rules correctly, how do you implement it in systems so you can lock down different streams. Those are all very well-studied areas in security. I think it just needs to mature to the point where these things get implemented and operationalized and stabilized.

And we are in the phase in streaming data where we are still stabilizing those new feature that are built in – whereas data at rest has already gone through decades of research, as well as decades of stabilization. So it’s really about maturity and less about any new innovation when it comes to security.

Do you see the problems similar for B2C IoT as well as the B2B scenarios you describe?

Narkhede: I think a lot of the problems are the same, but the applications are very, very different. The ones we see are in industrial IoT because we are an enterprise company. It’s very cool, machines have sensors and you want to collect quality data in real time and that is happening with a lot of these personal devices. And car companies are collecting data from cars to ensure driver safety in real time, which otherwise would have happened in months.

And I think medical organizations are collecting patient data in real time which I think is really cool application of IoT. The consumer applications are somewhat cooler, if you will – Nike and a lot of the other health companies and devices that are collecting data and telling you if you are doing a good job exercising or not. I think there is a whole hype curve about how your refrigerator is going to talk to your toaster and I don’t know if that will happen, but that is what the consumer will see.

So I think the bigger impact will be in enterprises and industrial data and IoT and if we succeed there it will be an amazing thing to see.

Nike FuelBand

This morning you mentioned IoT application and you talked about the “shelf life of data.” Talk a little more about that.

Narkhede: When you look at IoT and the data coming from devices, it’s a natural stream, and it’s a new area that people understand has a continuous stream of data that devices are going to manage. So I think that data has a shelf life of value because a lot of the data – and the applications that people want to built on top of it – have to harness that data quickly. So the whole value proposition is around real time, and so we have to ingest all that data and react to it in real time. The current systems are more batch oriented that react to events in a couple of hours. That is not going to cut it at this point. This is stream data, with low latencies, so let’s use these new platforms like Kafka and Spark and figure out how we can actually build out these applications in real time. A lot of the rest of the argument is around data at rest and (it) actually being in motion.

For example, in finance you have stock data, which is a stream. In retail you have sales and shipment data, which is a stream. Except right now, people don’t view it as a stream but it is absolutely a stream. And a lot of the data at rest will also move to data in motion as this technology matures. And that’s kind of the new trend in stream processing.

What do you think is the one application of this that no one has thought of?

Narkhede: I think better, faster machine learning. We have a lot of data, we know a lot about things, how about we assist humans in making better decisions, and making faster, higher quality decisions. My favorite is healthcare. If we had enough data processing and machine learning around what we could prevent instead of what we can fix, I think that would be a big deal. I think in the whole promise of real time data and stream processing, if we get to that point, it will do a lot of things for all of us, as people. And that’s interesting to me.


“A lot of the data at rest will also move to data in motion as this technology matures.”

You have an amazing idea for the next big thing, but how do you launch your startup? Not too long ago, the traditional start-up path involved accelerators, incubators, tons of networking and pitching to VCs that would tell you no 9 times out 10. Today, entrepreneurs have another option to launch their companies: crowdfunding. In fact, the crowdfunding industry is on track to account for more funding than venture capital in 2016.

Because your crowdfunding campaign plays such an influential role in your company’s establishment, you definitely want to choose the right platform for your goals. Here are a few things to consider when choosing the path for your startup.

The building blocks for successful companies

Securing funding for your idea is just one step on the path to retail. In addition to raising money, you’ll want to consider how you’ll launch and support the entire lifecycle of a company, not just a product.

Want to discover the right audiences and validate your idea? Make sure you investigate how your crowdfunding platform handles analytics, as data is crucial for helping you determine where you’re succeeding and where you can improve. Also, be aware of the footprint of your platform as well. Indiegogo’s global platform reaches 223 countries and territories, giving you the chance to tap into markets worldwide.

Equally important is how your platform is set up to continue raising money after your campaign ends. Indiegogo InDemand is a unique feature that gives you the advantage of growing your existing community, collecting pre-sales, providing social proof and receiving exposure on the Indiegogo platform.

But capital serves no purpose if you don’t have the resources available at your disposal to manufacture your product. More and more, crowdfunding platforms are forging relationships with partners that can help accelerate your path to market. Indiegogo collaborates withBrookstone Launch as an end-to-end product development program, offering expert guidance, manufacturing support and retail distribution from Brookstone. We also linked up with Amplifier to make it easy for you to fulfill physical perks.

Excited to see your product in real, live stores? Our partnerships with major retailers likeAmazon, Brookstone and Target provide opportunities for your product to be sold on retail shelves and online.

Wherever your idea is in the lifecycle, make sure your platform of choice can support you every step of the way. It’s no longer enough to launch a product, you need the resources to launch a company.

Personal support to guide you to crowdfunding success

Support may seem an odd thing to bring up, but for most startups, this is their first introduction to the complex world of fundraising, so making sure your platform is there for advice is vital.

Are real, live people accessible when you need help? What types of personalized tips and insights can they offer to help you maximize your campaign? What kind of knowledge is available on a blog or help center to help educate the community on best practices for every step of the way? It’s the human side of crowdfunding; the personal touch that keeps people coming back for their second, third and fourth campaigns. No matter how far along you are in getting your startup off the ground, you need comfort in knowing you’ll have support.

Flexible or fixed: funding options tailored to your business

Setting a realistic goal for your crowdfunding campaign is key to your project’s success; you need enough funds to execute your idea, and contributors want to know that their money is going to be put to good use. Let’s say you do the math and determine that you need $10,000 to launch your business, but you end up raising around $9,000. On most crowdfunding platforms, falling short of your set goal is defined as a failure. All of the money gets refunded to contributors and you lose that chance to bring your idea to life. Seems a little extreme considering you raised a substantial amount of money, right?

But on Indiegogo, you have the option to choose flexible or fixed funding for your campaign. Fixed means just that – your goal is fixed and you must meet it to receive any funds. This option is good for people who have a strict minimum amount of money required to accomplish their goals. Flexible funding means you get to keep all the funds raised, even if you don’t meet your goal. So if you chose flexible funding for your $10,000 campaign and raised $9,000, you’ll still have a shot at using that money to bring your idea to life. Chances are, you’ll still be able to make a lot of progress towards creating your company with such a large percentage of your original goal. When you’re ready, our field guide can help you get started.


Launching Your Company with Crowdfunding

I was fortunate to meet Pepper at Mobile World Congress a few weeks ago in Barcelona. Pepper is a personable robot created by SoftBank, one of Japan’s biggest telecommunications companies, in collaboration with its subsidiary, the Paris-based humanoid robotics expertsAldebaran.

To be accurate, I met with a couple of Pepper robots. The first was rather unresponsive and ended up going to sleep, with its head down like a child. The second struggled a little with the crowd scenario of a massive conference and had some difficulty focusing its attention on me.

Pepper is a robot designed for human interaction. He can recognize faces, speak, hear, and move around autonomously. He understands basic human emotions, like happiness and sadness. He can identify speech, inflections and tones in our voices and use these to determine whether his human is in a good or a bad mood. He can also learn from his interactions, as his 25 sensors and cameras provide detailed information about the environment and people it interacts with.

But Pepper is not a functional robot for domestic use. Instead,he’s intended to make people happy – to enhance people’s lives, facilitate relationships, have fun with people and connect them to the outside world. Pepper can replicate body language, and amused me with an enthusiastic dance to “The Locomotion.”

2016-02-23 13.08.26.jpg
Pepper dancing

Pepper looks directly at you and follows your movements once you’ve attracted his attention, focusing much more readily than many of the humans you likely encounter in your daily interactions. Pepper enjoyed being touched on the head, saying each time “ooh, it tickles!”

But perhaps Pepper’s most interesting capacities are in his personalisation. Pepper comes equipped with a tablet and corresponding apps can give him the ability to play, learn or chat in multiple languages. There are games, counselling apps, intelligence tests and recipes to name a few.

As Aurore Chiquot, Aldebaran’s communications director, explained:

“The robot evolves with you. Pepper gradually memorizes your personality traits, your preferences, and adapts himself to your tastes and habits.”

Since Pepper’s launch in June 2o15, monthly batches of 1,000 Pepper robots have sold out within a minute every time. Business customers pay $20,000 for a single Pepper, which includes three years of service. Consumers pay half as much, but do not have access to the business functions.  Already, over 7,000 Japanese families have Pepper robots living inside their homes.

I felt like interacting with Pepper was like interacting with a young, wilful child. Questions had to be repeated. It was difficult to hold his attention. Although he could “high five,” his jointed hands could not grasp objects. He tired easily. I’m not sure he would provide any emotional needs I do not already get from my cat.

Business applications for Pepper

Businesses have been keep to adopt Pepper in customer service functions, primarily in Japan. They help people at train stations in France, providing information and direction on trains, recording customer satisfaction and providing informtion on big events in the area causing longer wait times and crowds at the ticket offices. In Spain and France, they work in department stores, highlighting products and providing directions.

More than 2,000 Peppers have been employed in SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan to welcome, inform and amuse their customers. In January, Softbank announced plans to launch a cellphone store staffed primarily by Pepper robots in Tokyo’s Omotesando luxury shopping strip in late March for a week, with humans only on hand to help with the customer identity verification process.

What’s next for Pepper?

There’s already a great developer program for those wanting to personalise their own Pepper. But this will be further expanded as IBM recently announced plans to develop a version of Watson for Pepper robots. The Watson-powered Pepper robot under development would be equipped with core functionalities as well as a Watson software development kit that allows developers and clients to tailor the interaction experience. IBM will give clients access to Watson APIs and various pre-packaged applications designed to address a variety of personal and professional needs.

A fuller expansion of Pepper retail in Europe is planned for 2016, as well as a future American introduction – starting with businesses – according to Aldebaran, although they remained tight-lipped about exactly when.



Bacteria found to eat PET plastics could help do the recycling

NATURE has beaten us to it again. A bacterium that breaks down and consumes one of the world’s most problematic pollutants has turned up, living off plastic debris.

Kohei Oda of the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan and his team found Ideonella sakaiensis by analysing microbes on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) samples from the environment. They hope this will lead to new ways to dispose of plastic, using either the bacteria themselves or the two enzymes they produce for the job (Science,

“Large quantities of PET have accumulated in environments across the globe,” says Oda. His team is now trying to engineer a bacterial strain that is even better at gobbling it.

This article appeared in print under the headline “New microbe has a taste for plastics”


Wildlife heaven or nuclear hell: Chernobyl’s future up for grabs

Chernobyl bison

Ihar Byshniou/Anzenberger/Eyevine

A WHITE-TAILED eagle soars in the clear winter air. It is hunting for fish in one of the most radioactive bodies of open water on the planet: the 12-kilometre-long cooling pond, whose waters doused the burning Chernobyl nuclear power station after it exploded 30 years ago.

“Some hope to turn the area into a nature reserve, others into Ukraine’s radioactive waste dump“

The pond is radioactive – as are the fish. But wildlife is booming in the exclusion zone that stretches for some 30 kilometres from the corroding plant. Grey wolves, lynx, wild boar, rabbits and moose roam the zone, says Denis Vishnevsky, an ecologist at the EcoCentre, which monitors the Ukrainian exclusion zone.

Yet plans to turn the zone into a nature reserve are under threat from the nuclear industry, which wants to dispose of high-level radioactive waste here. The battle may soon be settled as decisions are made ahead of the 30th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, on 26 April.

On one hand, things are improving. The radioactivity levels are falling. This year marks the half-life of the two most dangerous isotopes released that are still present: caesium-137 and strontium-90. That means just half the amount of these isotopes remains in the region, the rest having decayed. Each emits beta and gamma radiation as it decays, which can penetrate human skin.

Most of the exclusion zone now has radioactivity levels for caesium-137 that are below 500 kilobecquerels per square metre, says Jim Smith of Portsmouth University, UK, who studies the environmental impacts of the disaster. He says this is a safe level of exposure, provided people don’t eat mushrooms and berries, which concentrate radioactivity.

Pripyat, the ghost town next to the plant, is still unsafe; but the town of Chernobyl, 10 kilometres away, could be repopulated safely, he says.

Not everyone agrees, as the exclusion zone still contains a large proportion of long-lived isotopes locked up in ecosystems.

Much of the fallout has been contained within the zone’s soils, pine forests and wetlands, which have been left alone to allow the isotopes to slowly decay, says Vishnevsky. But if something releases this radioactivity, it could endanger any settled population.

Forest fires are one worry. The risks are rising as unharvested wood builds up. Also, the most radioactive forests contain fewer leaf-litter-eating microbes and insects, meaning that litter is piling up, ready to burn. Last April, an estimated 131 square kilometres of forest burned in the zone. Afterwards, scientists and firefighters demanded a network of smoke monitors across the zone but no funding is available.

Then there are the floods that can wash the contamination from local wetlands into the nearby Pripyat river, which provides some of the drinking water for the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Big dykes have been dug to prevent this.

Another emerging risk is the spread of radioactive sediment by wind: as the cooling pond next to the power station is drained, the sludge at the bottom is exposed (see “Radioactive pond hung out to dry“).

Sergey Kireev, director of the EcoCentre and a proponent of the nuclear waste repository idea, raises another concern. The plutonium isotopes have half-lives of thousands of years. And americium-241, a decay product of plutonium, has one of 432 years. Both emit alpha radiation, which can be stopped by the skin, but causes damage if ingested.

Smith says the risks from these isotopes are low, but Kireev thinks their presence means it would be unsafe for people to return to the area for thousands of years.

Despite such concerns, some people are already back. Around 6000 work in the exclusion zone up to four days a week. Some are erecting a new confinement that will be installed sometime next year on top of the rusting “sarcophagus” that houses the wrecked Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Others, like Kireev, are support staff managing the zone.

Also scattered across the exclusion zone are a hundred or so ageing returnees, who came back to their houses because they didn’t like life as evacuees. They have no truck with radiation fears.

Hale and hearty 78-year-old Eugene Fedorovych tells me he and his wife told security staff who tried to stop them illegally catching radioactive fish in Pripyat river to “go away”.

Even tourists are allowed to visit Pripyat, the former model Soviet town that now has 20-metre trees bursting through the concrete in the town square.

But officially the zone is still not being repopulated. So why not turn it into a wildlife reserve? To the north, Belarus has turned its part of the zone into the Polesye State Radioecological Reserve.

The idea of doing the same in Ukraine was posed in 2014 by the environment ministry. Ecologists on Kireev’s staff would love to create one, and the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility has proposed a cross-border reserve. In February, media reports suggested the plan could become official policy in time for the 30th anniversary of the disaster.

But Kireev dismisses the idea. Wildlife is no more welcome than people in the vision for the zone’s future he subscribes to. The reason, ultimately, has more to do with politics than radiology.

More than half of Ukraine’s electricity is produced by nuclear power plants. The spent fuel needs a home following a recent decision to stop sending it to Russia for treatment. An interim store for spent fuel is already being built in the exclusion zone. The next step is building a permanent geological repository.

“Because the zone is unpopulated, it makes it very attractive,” Kireev says, and shows me a map of potential sites.

It would also be cheap. Without people to relocate and compensate, it could be built for $2 billion, he says, against as much as $70 billion outside the zone.

There appears to be a battle going on inside the Kiev government over the future of this poisoned landscape. And local experts think a decision may be only days away. Whatever emerges, it’s likely to determine the fortunes of locals, wildlife and the nuclear sector here for the next 30 years.

Radioactive pond hung out to dry

Chernobyl pond

Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

Gennady Laptev, head of the radiometric laboratory of the Ukrainian Hydrometeorology Institute, took me to see the cooling pond built for the Chernobyl power station. In 1986 it received huge amounts of radioactive material from atmospheric fallout and deliberate dumping as workers sought to douse the inferno. Most of the contamination ended up in the pond’s sediment, shielded by the water above. But that is set to end.

In 2014, to save money, the government stopped pumping water from the Pripyat river into the pond, which sits some 7 metres above the river’s level. “Within four years, 90 per cent of the pond will be gone,” says Laptev. The sediment, containing more than 300 terabecquerels of radioactivity, will be exposed to the air. Without measures to map radioactivity hotspots and prevent its spread, much of it could end up dispersed by winds.

“Time is passing and the pond is disappearing forever,” says Laptev.


‘Shaken baby’ expert witness found guilty of misleading courts

Waney Squier

A BRITISH doctor who has been an expert defence witness for parents accused of killing their children has been found guilty of charges including giving misleading evidence in court.

The Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service said that Waney Squier, a pathologist at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, UK, had failed to work within the limits of her competence, failed to be objective, and failed to heed the views of other experts. The MPTS examined her conduct during six child abuse cases and one appeal.

Squier is one of several researchers who have challenged a long-standing belief that a trio of head injury symptoms provide unequivocal evidence of abusive behaviour. Squier has argued that the symptoms can have innocent causes, such as choking.

“The impact of her research in blunting the false prosecution of innocent caregivers is beyond value or measurement to those impacted,” said Steven Gabaeff of the American Board of Emergency Medicine in his submission to the tribunal.

In 2010, another pathologist challenging the triad, Marta Cohen at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, was examined by the UK General Medical Council but cleared of wrongdoing. The GMC will make a final decision by 24 March on whether Squier should lose her licence to practice.

“I suspect there will be no one in England willing to dispute allegations of shaken baby syndrome now the finding against [Squier] is unfavourable,” says Edward Willey, a forensic pathologist in Florida.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Doctor misled courts”