Seattle Week in Review: MSFT Sales Reorg, UW, Phytelligence, & More

Lots to catch up on this holiday-shortened week in Seattle tech. We’re reviewing a Microsoft sales reorganization and staff reduction; a battery-free cellphone from the University of Washington, as well as a spate of new computer science faculty hires at the Allen School; funding for agtech company Phytelligence; bike sharing in Seattle; and more. Read on for details:

—Microsoft is reorganizing its global sales operation around its cloud computing business, and reportedly cutting thousands of jobs. (See coverage from The Seattle Times and CNBC.) The Times’ Matt Day notes that if the layoffs totaled 3,000—a figure roughly in line with CNBC’s reporting—that would bring total job cuts under CEO Satya Nadella to more than 30,000, mostly related to its phone business, including the acquisition of Nokia. The company has also added jobs elsewhere.

In a related development, Microsoft CIO Jim DuBois left the company, as the Puget Sound Business Journal reported. Kurt DelBene will take on DuBois responsibilities with the title of chief digital officer.

—A team at the University of Washington has spent the last few years finding ways to harness tiny bits of ambient energy to power and control wireless devices. Now, the researchers have built a super energy-efficient cellphone to operate on energy harvested from the environment—as little as 3.5 microwatts—without a battery.

The phone saves energy by rejiggering the process of converting analog signals into digital ones, according to a UW news release. Instead of a power-hungry conversion process, vibrations in the phone’s microphone or speaker can be encoded into reflected radio signals from a custom cellular base station to transmit and receive speech. For wide adoption of this battery-free cellphone technology, a similar component would need to be added to cellular network infrastructure or wi-fi routers.

The phone draws the modest amount of power it needs from ambient radio signals—a technology the team has demonstrated previously—or from a solar cell the size of a grain of rice.

The research team, which published its work this month in the Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies, includes Shyam Gollakota and Joshua Smith, professors in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering; research associate Vamsi Talla; and doctoral student Bryce Kellogg.

Here’s a profile from 2014 of the team’s work on a wireless gesture control technology called AllSee.

—In other Allen School news, Kevin Jamieson, an expert in new techniques in training machine learning applications, is joining the faculty as the Guestrin Endowed Professor in Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning. The endowed professorship, established earlier this year, is funded by proceeds of Apple’s acquisition of Turi, the machine learning startup founded by professor Carlos Guestrin.

Jamieson, who earned an undergraduate degree at the UW, has applied his expertise to solving important problems, and also really important problems, like deciding what beer to drink. While a PhD student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he helped develop BeerMapper, which uses machine learning and data visualizations to help people discover new beers based on their tastes for attributes such as color, maltiness, bitterness, and alcohol content.

The UW is on a bit of a hiring spree in computer science, getting faculty in place to fill a new building rising on campus and accommodate surging demand for the major. Other recent faculty hires:

Human-computer interaction experts Jennifer Mankoff from Carnegie Mellon University and Jon Froehlich from University of Maryland, College Park; roboticist Siddhartha Srinivasa, also from CMU; Michael Taylor, a University of California, San Diego computer engineer; and Yin Tat Lee, a theoretical computer scientist.

—Agtech startup Phytelligence, a Washington State University spinout using genetic analysis and sterile growing environments to improve the quality and volume of fruit tree rootstocks and provide other services to farmers, has raised $6.95 million in the first closing of a Series B funding round.

Spokane, WA-based Cowles Company led the investment, with participation from WRF Capital. The company says the funding round could grow to $16 million total, later this summer.

The funding will support expanded production, and “research for developing, owning, and commercializing new rootstock and varieties of apples, cherries, pears, and grapes to further meet the needs of growers and consumers,” according to a news release.

The company, founded in 2012 by WSU associate professor of horticulture genomics and biotechnology Amit Dhingra, is headquartered in the Seattle area, where it has an 8-acre greenhouse, with research and development offices in Pullman, WA, and Portland, OR, where it operates a tissue-culture production facility. The company has 70 employees.

Its earlier financial backers include angel investors from Keiretsu Forum Northwest and Element 8, though the majority of the company’s initial funding round came from individual investors from the Northwest tree fruit industry.

—Last week, we profiled a Vancouver, Canada, company with a new approach to bike sharing, based on an enclosed, three-wheeled electric bike. VeloMetro Mobility is running a pilot project on the University of British Columbia campus, and lists Seattle as one of its first target expansion markets.

But it could find the city’s streets crowded with shareable bikes. The city of Seattle is now accepting permit applications from private companies for a six-month bike sharing pilot program—another attempt at providing the service, after the city-owned Pronto service folded in April.

Two California companies, Spin and LimeBike, have indicated they intend to have rentable bikes on the streets of Seattle later this month.

Bike sharing is a big business. Chinese bike-sharing company Ofo announced a $700 million Series E funding round this week.

Meanwhile in Oregon, the state legislature has passed a $15 excise tax on the sale of bicycles worth $200 or more. Revenue generated by the tax will be earmarked for bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects, according to BikePortland.org.

—Here’s the latest installment in Xconomy’s series on A.I. in healthcare, focusing on two Seattle companies, Clario and CuraCloud, that have teamed up to bring an A.I. powered triage capability to radiologists.

—A Seattle natural language processing startup, KITT.AI, was acquired by Baidu, the Chinese Internet search giant.

—Details on the art of the Amazon-Whole Foods deal: Amazon moved fast and left very little room for negotiation on price—responding to a Whole Foods counter with a “best and final offer” of $42 a share, take it or leave it. Also, leak and the deal is off, and don’t approach other bidders, Amazon reportedly told the grocer. Recode parsed an SEC filing that explains how it went down.

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

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