Seattle Week in Review: March for Science, MSFT Acquisition, CoMotion

This week, we’re looking forward to Saturday’s March for Science and back at Microsoft’s acquisition of Charles Simonyi’s Intentional Software; former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s new effort to inject facts into debate about government; potential changes to the high-skilled visa program and a new startup aimed at helping immigrants; a strong showing for the University of Washington in a tech transfer ranking; and more. Read on:

—The March for Science is Saturday—Earth Day—and Seattle is expected to see thousands of scientists in the streets in what might be one of this weekend’s largest marches outside of Washington, D.C. Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation declaring March for Science Day. Fifteen of the 500-plus marches planned around the world are set to take place in Washington state.

Scientists are engaging in a robust debate over the march, which organizers and many participants maintain is a non-political activity in support of science, rather than a protest of Republicans or the Trump administration. Cliff Mass, a prominent atmospheric science professor at University of Washington, writes Friday morning that the March for Science risks “harming science more than helping.”

Controversy. (Yeah, we’re all missing Prince today.)

—Microsoft announced the acquisition of Intentional Software, a 15-year-old company founded by Charles Simonyi, who was instrumental to Microsoft’s early successes. Simonyi joined the company in 1981 and led development of products including Excel and Word. Bellevue, WA-based Intentional Software will be folded into Microsoft’s Office Product Group, with its employees joining Microsoft. Simonyi writes that Intentional has been working “on the development of a platform that is exceptional in its ability to represent, view, and interact with knowledge bases in general and heterogeneous distributed documents in particular.” He adds that Intentional has worked closely with Microsoft for the last two years in search of “synergies” between those efforts and Microsoft’s plans, leading to the acquisition.

Simonyi’s post on the acquisition is worth the read for its wide-angle view on computing innovation over the last four decades. With many predictions of the PC revolution fulfilled, “one might be tempted to conclude that further improvements will be gradual at best, and that the time for innovation might be over,” he writes. “In fact, this is a very exciting time rivalling previous sea changes in the industry.”

—Catching up with another former senior Microsoft executive, Steve Ballmer rolled out USAFacts.org this week. The former Microsoft CEO aims to clearly present government data on a range of topics “to spur serious, reasoned, and informed debate on the purpose and functions of government.” The data are organized around the missions of government as outlined in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Ballmer was inspired to create the site after debating with his wife, Connie Ballmer, who was urging him to get more involved in philanthropic work. “He thought it made sense to first find out what government does with the money it raises. Where does the money come from and where is it spent? Whom does it serve? And most importantly, what are the outcomes?” USAFacts is the result.

The effort comes as another repository of federal government data has gone dark. As the Sunlight Foundation noted back in February, the Website open.whitehouse.gov, which, under the Obama administration, was a searchable store of government data (powered by Seattle-based Socrata), now redirects to a “disclosures” page on the White House website. That page has links for financial disclosures, ethics pledge waivers, and staff salaries, but only one of them brings up an actual form.

—In other federal government news, we took a look at the potential impacts of the Trump administration’s executive order aimed at reforming the high-skilled visa program, known as H-1B, that is used by many tech companies.

In a related development, a new Seattle startup, Boundless, aims to use to technology to help immigrants navigate the daunting process of coming to America. The spinout from startup creation shop Pioneer Square Labs announced it raised a $3.5 million funding round after coming out of stealth mode recently, as GeekWire reports.

And make sure you check out this New York Times photo spread and story on the real people working under H-1B visas.

—The University of Washington’s innovation transfer arm, CoMotion, ranked seventh in a new report from the Milken Institute. The ranking—which looked at patents issued, licenses issued, licensing income, and startups formed during the period from 2012 to 2015—put University of Utah on top, followed by Columbia University, University of Florida, Brigham Young University, University of Pennsylvania, UW, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, and Carnegie Mellon University. (A caveat: The ranking is based on the Association of University Technology Managers survey data, which is self-reported by universities and not audited. Still, it’s really the only comprehensive source of data on university tech transfer activities.)

The UW ranked highest among the 25 universities in the study for licenses issued during the study period. For additional background, check out our in-depth look at the UW’s efforts to drive startup creation from 2014. The strategy since then has shifted considerably. Startups are still important, but under vice president for innovation strategy Vikram Jandhyala, the UW has adopted a much broader definition of technology transfer that focuses on entrepreneurial thinking across disciplines.

The full Milken study (52-page PDF) has lots of good information beyond the rankings, including a look at the economic impact of university tech transfer, and policy recommendations. The first of these—“Maintain basic scientific research funding”—might appear on a poster or two at this weekend’s March for Science.

—Speaking of government funding and university startups: BluHaptics, a UW spinout, was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research program grant from NASA worth up to $125,000 to support its work on telerobotics for space operations. We recently profiled BluHaptics, which makes software to ease control of remote robotic arms in undersea applications and last month announced a $1.36 million Series A funding round.

Techstars Seattle marked a milestone this week: With nine companies completing the tech accelerator’s eight Seattle class, Techstars has now helped more than 100 startup companies in Seattle alone since 2010.

—Meanwhile, Validated, a Techstars company from last year’s class that lets businesses pay for their customers’ transportation, expanded to Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, and for California cities: Palo Alto, San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Monica. The app was previously available in Seattle and Portland, OR.

—While it may be sunny today, it’s supposed to rain again this weekend—something that should be familiar by now, given that Seattle received some 44 inches of rain since the water year began in October. Here’s some recommended reads:

As with the New York Times photo essay on H-1B visa holders noted above, it’s important to get to the human stories behind the tech and biotech news we cover day in and day out. Xconomy’s Ben Fidler shares one family’s battle to get access to the first drug approved for treatment of their 3-year-old son’s spinal muscular atrophy.

Xconomy managing editor Greg Huang walks through 15 areas of our editorial focus this year, in slideshow form.

GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser toured the greenhouse where Amazon’s horticulturalists are growing plants to fill The Spheres—three giant glass balls that are the centerpiece of the corporate giant’s ever-expanding headquarters campus in the heart of Seattle.

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

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