When Facebook Inc. began rebranding itself as Meta Platforms Inc. last month in a bid to build a market for immersive online worlds, the company had some Toronto entrepreneurs to thank for a smooth transition.
Siblings Sam Molyneux, a medical biophysicist, and Amy Molyneux, an engineer and entrepreneur, launched a startup called Meta Inc. just over a decade ago from a bedroom in their parents’ house in the city’s Lawrence Park neighbourhood. The company’s software used artificial-intelligence techniques to help scientists sift through the world’s ever-growing trove of research papers and stay on top of the latest findings from their peers.
Meta became one of Canada’s early AI startup successes at a moment when Canadian AI talent was beginning to earn global renown. And alongside Meta’s acclaim came suitors, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a philanthropic organization owned by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
CZI Science was founded with an initial $3-billion pledge from the couple, for science research. One of the organization’s goals was to improve medical research to the point of ending all disease. In 2017, the Molyneux siblings and their chief operating officer, Elizabeth Caley, agreed to sell Meta to CZI.
Later, when Mr. Zuckerberg began thinking about the word “meta” in new terms, the acquisition would prove useful to him. He came to embrace the idea of a “metaverse” – a more immersive version of the internet where people would be able to interact and communicate no matter how far apart they were, including through virtual and augmented reality.
As Mr. Zuckerberg was thinking about the metaverse, his company was facing a branding problem. A former Facebook employee named Frances Haugen began leaking documents to The Wall Street Journal this year that reportedly show the company was aware, yet complacent, about the harms its services caused to some users. Soon she was sharing them with dozens of news outlets, and long-standing government and regulatory scrutiny of Facebook intensified.
In the face of this scrutiny, and in the interest of diving into the metaverse, Facebook turned to Mr. Zuckerberg’s philanthropic efforts and found a solution.
As it happened, CZI had been quietly winding down Meta since this past summer as it retooled its science division. The philanthropic organization was sitting on website URLs, including meta.com and meta.org, and social-media handles such as @meta on Twitter, that would come in handy for the Facebook rebrand.
“Now that a transition plan for Meta.org is in place, we no longer have a need for the Meta brand assets,” CZI spokesperson Jeff MacGregor said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. The organization agreed to transfer those assets to Facebook – making the Molyneux siblings and Ms. Caley inadvertent accelerators of Facebook’s rebranding.
Facebook declined to comment on the asset transfer. Its leaders have called for more regulation of social media since Ms. Haugen’s revelations were made public, and have said its tools for users to control what they see on its platform are industry-leading.
The original Meta team members declined to comment on how they feel about Meta’s fate, but Mr. Molyneux acknowledged the appeal of the name.
“If you’re a company with the vision to build a metaverse, it’s the perfect name,” he said in an interview.
By the time of the asset transfer, he and Ms. Caley were already gone. They left CZI in 2019 to begin building another company, called Poppy Health Inc., that helps organizations find viruses and other pathogens in indoor air. It was unintentionally astute timing: Once the COVID-19 pandemic began surging the next year, the need for air-quality monitoring began to soar.
Poppy seeks to answer a different version of the question asked by Meta, Ms. Caley said: “What data is missing in the world?” Meta made scientific research easier to find. Poppy, she said, seeks to tell people what’s floating in the air around them.
Over the past year, Poppy has refined pathogen-detecting devices that silently and continuously collect samples from nearby air. The samples are collected on removable keys that can be sent for regular testing at Poppy’s lab near Toronto Pearson International Airport. Mr. Molyneux said the technology can test for the presence of more than 1,000 organisms.
Poppy plans to set up more testing centres elsewhere, to reduce turnaround time, but immediacy is not part of its pitch. Instead, Mr. Molyneux and Ms. Caley hope to make people feel more comfortable in indoor spaces.
When Poppy first installs its systems in a room or facility, the company sprays a proprietary chemical that can be detected by its devices. By measuring how quickly that chemical disappears, Poppy can assess how quickly pathogens might disappear, allowing the company to recommend changes to a space, such as tweaks to ventilation.
Once the initial tests are complete, clients can have Poppy run regular tests on samples from across their spaces. In the best case, this means a business can point to a track record of being COVID-free; in the worst case, it can detect potential exposures.
Performing arts businesses across Toronto, including the Canadian Opera Company and TO Live, have begun to embrace Poppy’s technology. As it greets the return of live events, TO Live has installed 40 of the company’s boxes across three venues, including Meridian Hall on Front Street East.
Matt Farrell, TO Live’s vice-president of operations, called Poppy “the auditor” of all the performing arts promoter’s COVID-19 prevention strategies. Without a system to monitor for the coronavirus, “you never know if anything is working until there is an outbreak.” But with Poppy’s routine pathogen monitoring, he said, TO Live can demonstrate that its investments in keeping its spaces safe are working.
Once again, the entrepreneurs are hoping people buy into their data-driven vision. If they do, Ms. Caley said, Poppy devices could “be as ubiquitous as a smoke alarm.”
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