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Seattle Week in Review: Snow in April Edition

Xconomy Seattle — 

“And all good things, they say, never last /

“Springtime was always my favorite time of year” – Prince

Sometimes it’s sunny in April. Seattle had three days in a row of record hot temperatures. Then Prince, undisputed innovator, dies. Sometimes It Snows in April.

Other good things that may not last: billion-dollar valuations of venture-backed startups. And that’s going to have consequences, as detailed in a must-read piece from venture capitalist Bill Gurley. It will take time to shake out, and we’re still seeing a relatively steady flow of capital into Seattle-area startups, particularly at the early stage. This week Discuss.io and Human raised rounds. New investors are getting into the game, with a former adviser to Bill Gates launching a $150 million fund. This week, we’re reviewing those developments, a milestone for the Global Innovation Exchange, Varsity Tutors’ new Seattle office, and more.

—You can find a dozen interesting reactions to Bill Gurley’s moment-capturing piece on the coming wave of down rounds (or layoffs and belt-tightening measures, or dirty term sheets) for venture-backed tech companies with billion-dollar plus valuations. But most of those reactions suggest you read the lengthy—but very accessible—piece yourself, as do I.

One line that jumped out at me: “Achieving profitability is the most liberating action a startup can accomplish.” It’s startling that this qualifies as advice, but it does when the conventional wisdom has been growth at all costs—fueled by abundant venture money. When all the world-changing, industry disrupting rhetoric is stripped away, profit is, and has always been, the ultimate goal, right?

Human, a Seattle startup that appears to be working on a new kind of headphone, said it raised a $5 million seed round from angel investors led by Fred Warren, Kurt Beecher Dammeier, and Daniel Darling. (An SEC filing dated April 18 indicates the company raised $1.9 million out of a $3 million offering.) The company is coy about what it’s actually building. It says it has 40 employees and intends to hire more. Co-founders are CEO Benjamin Willis, who previously founded kitchen products maker Yum Tools, where his Human co-founder Joe Dieter directed launch of the brand and developed manufacturing, according to their company bios. Human’s website features a naked woman wearing an earpiece over the tagline “Audio Inspired By The Human Form.” An earlier $700,000 seed round closed in 2015.

Discuss.io raised $1.4 million from lead investor Unilever Ventures for its online market research service. The Seattle-based startup puts research participants in front of businesspeople making and testing new products, and the advertising campaigns to market them. These feedback sessions, conducted via webcam, are designed to be cheaper and faster than the typical in-person market research endeavor. The company previously won a $155,000 investment from Seattle Angel Conference.

—Biomatics Capital Partners is a new Seattle-based fund being raised by Boris Nikolic, a former advisor to Bill Gates on science and technology, and Julie Sunderland, director of program-related Investments at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Nikolic led a $120 million Series B investment in Editas Medicine, a CRISPR-Cas9 startup, last summer. An SEC filing suggests the fund would raise as much as $150 million. The Seattle Times first reported on the fund.

—The Global Innovation Exchange, a new model for international technology education rolled out last year by the University of Washington and Tsinghua University of China, got the green light this week to award a new Master of Science in Technology Innovation degree. The UW Board of Regents approved the new program, which involves several departments and schools, including computer science, electrical engineering, business, and law. The 15-month, 60-credit program, to be based in the new Spring District in Bellevue, is cleared to begin in fall 2017.

—New to Seattle is Varsity Tutors, an online service providing academic tutoring and test preparation. The company, founded in St. Louis in 2007, is opening a design and development office that could eventually employ 50 people. Ian Clarkson, former chief operating officer of Sears Home Services and, prior to that, Amazon, will head the new office.

Glowforge announced this week that pre-order customers of its eponymous laser cutter and engraver will have to wait until December to receive the units they bought during a crowd-funding campaign in fall 2015.