Seattle Week in Review: Private Funding for Public Universities

The foremost universities of the Northwest, which provide much of the talent and technology on which the region’s innovation economy is built, are increasingly turning to private donations to advance their efforts in the sciences, engineering, and healthcare. It’s a good thing our region has a substantial number of people and corporations wealthy enough to make the kinds contributions it takes to build world-class research enterprises.

In addition to big university funding news, we’re following venture rounds for EnergySavvy and Zipwhip, a major speech recognition achievement at Microsoft, and new American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on screen time for kids. Read on for details on this and more:

—The University of Washington has raised $3 billion of a $5 billion funding campaign, unveiled Friday. The historic target, which the UW aims to hit by 2020, will help the state’s flagship research university on several fronts including: expanded efforts in engineering and computer science education; an ongoing initiative supporting population health; and UW Medicine’s education, patient care, and research missions.

The size of the funding campaign—which has been quietly gathering contributions since 2010—speaks to the changing dynamics for public universities. While UW is the nation’s top public university recipient of federal research funding, state support for its general operating fund has waned and tuition has increased to fill the gap. Tuition now provides 68 percent of general operating funds, up from 34 percent in 2004.

In a news release, the UW says the funding raised in the campaign will go to things like scholarships, faculty recruitment and retention, and construction and maintenance of campus facilities.

—Nike founder Phil Knight’s funding of the University of Oregon’s athletics programs is a big reason why the Ducks were a dominant force in Pac-12 football over the last decade—the current season notwithstanding. Now Knight, an Oregon alumnus, along with his wife, Penny, is contributing $500 million to establish a new science complex at UO’s Eugene campus with an explicit goal of creating innovations that impact society. In an interview with The Oregonian, UO president Michael Schill described it as the largest gift to a public flagship university. The three-building, 210,000-square-foot Penny and Phil Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact is expected to be built over the next decade.

EnergySavvy, the Seattle-based maker of software to help utilities share data and engage with their customers, has raised a $14 million Series D funding round, led by GXP Investments, a fund affiliated with Great Plains Energy, and joined by new investor Inherent Group. Earlier backers Prelude Ventures and EnerTech Capital also participated. The company released the fifth generation of its cloud-based system, which allows utilities to provide customized recommendations to encourage customers to use programs that help manage electricity demand, among other things. EnergySavvy says it has nearly 40 utility and state energy program customers, having added five more so far this year.

Zipwhip, a Seattle-based company that allows businesses to receive text messages from customers, has raised $9 million in a Series B funding led by Seattle-based Voyager Capital. Microsoft Ventures, GCI, and Inteliquent also invested. The company, now with more than 100 employees, uses cloud-based software to enable texting to existing business landline numbers. The software also helps businesses track and respond to incoming texts. Zipwhip says it plans to use some of the new funding to link its software to customer relationship management tools.

—Researchers in Microsoft’s new Artificial Intelligence and Research group announced a system that has achieved “human parity” in speech recognition. Their automated system successfully recognized the vast majority of spoken words in a set of human conversations widely used for testing computer speech recognition systems.

“We’ve reached human parity,” Xuedong Huang, Microsoft’s chief speech scientist, says in a Microsoft blog. “This is an historic achievement.”

The word error rate of 5.9 percent is the best achieved against the DARPA Switchboard corpus, and equals the error rate of human transcriptionists. From the abstract of their submitted research paper: “The key to our system’s performance is the systematic use of convolutional and LSTM neural networks, combined with a novel spatial smoothing method and lattice-free MMI acoustic training.”

—While Twitter was down during the Dyn DNS distributed denial of service attack earlier Friday, I got a lot more done. My first instinct was to tweet about it.

—It’s not your imagination: Seattle’s skyline is bristling with more construction cranes—58 at one point this summer—than anywhere else in the U.S., by a large margin. “Seattle’s crane count has grown 38 percent in the past year, creating a shortage of both cranes and operators,” writes Mike Rosenberg at The Seattle Times. “And while they’re most tightly concentrated in downtown and South Lake Union, the cranes are soaring hundreds of feet above neighborhoods from Sodo to Fremont to the University District.”

—The American Academy of Pediatrics is out with new guidance and a tool for parents grappling with how much screen time to allow their children. Departing from earlier guidance that suggested no screen time prior to age 2, the AAP now says kids as young as 18 months can watch “high-quality programming” with their parents. Pre-kindergarten kids should limit screen time to an hour a day, viewed with parents who should provide context.

“What’s most important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect, and learn,” says Dr. Jenny Radesky in a news release.

Kids age 6 and older should have a consistent media plan that limits the content, time, and place of viewing. The AAP’s Family Media Plan tool should help.

Seattle Children’s Hospital pediatricians Dimitri Christakis and Megan Moreno were lead authors of the new guidelines for younger and older children, respectively.

—Weekend reading:

The Seattle Times Pacific NW magazine takes an in-depth look at diversity in the local tech industry. The story will be familiar to people following the diversity gap in tech in Seattle and beyond, and local efforts to address it, but Tyrone Beason’s frank, intimate interviews with a broad range of women and people of color are well worth the read.

For all its promise, the drive toward an-AI assisted world is missing a crucial component: measurement of systems already in place. That’s the argument forwarded by Kate Crawford of Microsoft Research and Ryan Calo of University of Washington in a commentary in the journal Nature last week. “Auto-nomous systems are already deployed in our most crucial social institutions, from hospitals to courtrooms. Yet there are no agreed methods to assess the sustained effects of such applications on human populations,” they write. Crawford and Calo call for the adoption of a “social-systems approach” to examine issues such as how using crime prediction algorithms fed with historical data may result in “overpolicing of marginalized communities” or how medication adherence tracking apps may change the doctor-patient relationship.

Climate change was a no-show at the presidential debates, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. As the world grapples with a growing number of climate refugees, expect more stories like this one from The New York Times, which suggests Boise, ID, as a great place to hunker down as the seas rise and droughts worsen. Boise made the list of places to move to escape climate change, along with Portland, ME; Detroit; Chicago; Madison, WI; San Francisco; and perhaps most surprisingly, New York City. Seattle wasn’t named explicitly—though the article mentions Northwest coastal cities in general.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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