Seattle Week in Review: Amazon, Whole Foods, Salmon Spill, Beef Beef

The dog days of summer are here, but there’s plenty of tech news to catch up on. Here’s a look at what’s happening with Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and its amazing impact on real estate in Seattle and elsewhere; a farmed salmon spill in Puget Sound; a careful look at Crowd Cow and the business of “sustainable” beef; Bill Gates’s investment in Memphis Meats; and much more.

—Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods cleared regulatory and shareholder hurdles this week and will close Monday, the companies said.

In a news release, Amazon’s second-highest-ranking Jeff—that would be Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer—says: “We’re determined to make healthy and organic food affordable for everyone. Everybody should be able to eat Whole Foods Market quality—we will lower prices without compromising Whole Foods Market’s long-held commitment to the highest standards.”

So, we can’t call it Whole Paycheck anymore?

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) pledged to lower prices on everything from organic bananas and apples to “animal-welfare-rated 85% lean ground beef” to “responsibly-farmed salmon” (more local news on both of those below). Other products from Whole Foods—including its private label 365 Everyday Value brand—will be sold over Amazon’s various retail channels. And Amazon Prime will become the customer rewards program for Whole Foods.

Then there’s the real estate aspect of the $13.4 billion acquisition. Amazon gets 460 Whole Foods stores, which will serve as new direct-to-consumer distribution points across the U.S. The companies said Amazon Lockers—to which customers can have their Amazon orders shipped, and from which they can send back returns—will be placed in certain stores, but no one expects that to be the only way Amazon uses these new assets.

The more eye-popping Amazon real estate news this week comes from The Seattle Times, which commissioned an analysis of the commercial real estate markets of the top 20 U.S. cities and found that, thanks to Amazon’s unprecedented growth in the last decade, Seattle is a company town like no other in the country.

“Amazon now occupies a mind-boggling 19 percent of all prime office space in the city, the most for any employer in a major U.S. city,” write Mike Rosenberg and Ángel González. Read the whole thing.

Finally, could there be a more fitting metaphor for the massive changes e-commerce has wrought on the retail industry than this news from Ohio? Michelle Jarboe writes for The Plain Dealer: “Amazon will bring more than 2,000 jobs to the tiny Cuyahoga County village of North Randall, where a massive fulfillment center is slated to rise from the demolition dust of Randall Park Mall.”

—Two top Amazon rivals, meanwhile, are teaming up. Google and Walmart inked a deal to begin selling “hundreds of thousands of items for voice shopping via Google Assistant,” says Marc Lore, president and CEO of Walmart U.S. eCommerce, in a blog post. Customers will need to link their Google and Walmart accounts to take advantage of some of the features.

Lore indicated that Walmart intends to roll out additional “voice shopping” features next year.

—Getting back to beef, read this Grist story by Darby Minow Smith on Crowd Cow and the difficulties of defining terms like “ethical,” “local,” and “sustainable” when it comes to steaks and burgers—particularly as the company scales up to serve beefeaters across the country. It’s a nuanced look at how the Seattle startup has succeeded in connecting ranchers directly with consumers in a way that few previous efforts have, but has courted controversy with its offerings of Wagyu beef from Japan.

—And speaking of “responsibly-farmed salmon,” the Puget Sound is awash with untold thousands of farm-raised Atlantic salmon after a Cooke Aquaculture operation failed on Monday—the company at first blamed the eclipse—releasing the mangly-jawed fish into the sensitive habitat of native Northwest salmon species. State environmental regulators view the fish spill as pollution and encouraged people to catch as many Atlantic salmon as possible.

—While we’re on the topic of protein, Bill Gates was among the high-profile venture capital and strategic investors in an $18 million Series A round for Memphis Meats, which makes meat by harvesting animal cells and growing them in a lab into specific cuts. As Xconomy’s Frank Vinluan reports, the San Francisco company is trying to scale up and reduce the cost of this animal-free meat-making, which earlier reports pegged at $18,000 a pound for ground beef.

Some people think the Pacific Northwest has the right combination of assets to build an animal-free protein industry, but so far there’s nothing going on here that approaches the Bay Area’s level of activity.

—Seattle’s law allowing drivers for Uber and Lyft to unionize survived a legal challenge. Nat Levy at GeekWire has the details.

—Meanwhile, Uber continues its search for a CEO. Xconomy’s Bernadette Tansey talks to recruiters about what an incoming CEO might be able to demand before accepting the job.

—Researchers at Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFTannounced another major performance improvement in their speech recognition technology. The company’s software can recognize speech with a word error rate of just 5.1 percent on the benchmark Switchboard task.

Skytap, a Seattle cloud computing services company that began around the same time that Amazon planted the seeds of its now-massive cloud computing business, raised a $45 million Series E funding round. Skytap, a potential IPO candidate, helps businesses adapt their legacy IT systems to the cloud—an area the company says cloud computing giants like Amazon and Microsoft overlook.

—Matt Bencke has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The former CEO of Seattle startup Mighty AI, Bencke wrote about his diagnosis in this heartfelt and wrenching Wired essay. I’ve interviewed Bencke a few times, and he attended an Xconomy private dinner a couple of years ago. He’s a genuinely nice and open person, and a well-respected contributor to the Seattle tech community. His generosity in sharing this experience is overwhelming.

Read it and then go home early from work and hug the ones you love.

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

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