Seattle Week in Review: Good Day Sunshine Edition

Xconomy Seattle — 

You should really be outside, enjoying a beautiful spring (summer?) Friday, so we’ll keep this edition of Xconomy Seattle’s Week in Review brief. We’re running through news of a flexible electronics alliance the University of Washington has joined; Tesla’s staggering Model 3 pre-orders; Jeff Bezos’s outlook on failure; a new unmanned submarine hunter the Navy launched in Portland, OR; Seattle’s nation-leading wage trends in the first quarter; and the winners of the UW’s Environmental Innovation Challenge.

—The University of Washington is a founding member of the NextFlex alliance, a consortium of academic and industry groups working on flexible electronics. J. Devin MacKenzie, a new UW faculty member with appointments in materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, and the UW’s Clean Energy Institute, is leading the way. MacKenzie, also an executive at Imprint Energy, a startup working on flexible batteries, focuses on flexible electronics for use in energy and large-scale industrial applications.

“Flexible electronic systems include things like flexible sensor arrays that could detect faults in engines or electric-car battery compartments as well as on-body devices to monitor health and fitness,” MacKenzie says in a news release. “Really, there’s no part of the body that’s flat and there’s no part of the body where it’s comfortable to have something rigid attached—so ultra-thin and flexible devices are what we could go after.”

A focus of the NextFlex alliance, backed by $75 million in funding from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, is sustainable, scalable production methods for flexible electronics. Participating universities will submit proposals, in partnership with private companies, to advance flexible electronics technologies toward real-world application.

“I really think the UW could be a node for NextFlex here in the Pacific Northwest,” MacKenzie says. “We have real potential to bring in innovative industrial partners—for example Boeing, Amazon, and Microsoft. I think we can establish a critical mass and become a magnet for this new advanced manufacturing industry.”

One key asset could be planned testbeds at the UW Clean Energy Institute, which would help educators, researchers, and industry partners develop and evaluate new clean energy technologies.

—If there were any doubt remaining that electric vehicles would become a huge market, Tesla erased it this week, announcing Thursday that reservations for its forthcoming Model 3 now exceed 325,000. The company says that implies $14 billion in future sales.

Jeff Bezos’s annual letter to Amazon’s shareholders got plenty of coverage this week. One highlight was the fact that Amazon Web Services is hitting $10 billion in annual sales, 10 years after its launch as “a simple storage service.” It’s bigger than was at this point in its development, and growing faster, Bezos notes.

Also notable are Bezos’s words on failure. “I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins,” Bezos writes.

(The same theme came up in our conversation with Seattle scientist-entrepreneurs Darrick Carter of IDRI and Aaron Feaver of EnerG2. Check out what they had to say in our Xconversation, in case you missed it last week.)

Bezos continues, basically summarizing the venture capitalist ethos:

“To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right. Given a 10 percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of 10. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.”

Sea Hunter underway on the Williammette River in Portland, on April 7, 2016. U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams

Sea Hunter underway on the Williammette River in Portland, on April 7, 2016. U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams

—The buzz about unmanned aerial vehicles has been incessant. We’ve heard less about unmanned ships. But this week, a prototype Navy vessel was christened in Portland, OR. The Sea Hunter, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is a fuel-efficient trimaran designed to track diesel electric submarines. It can do so without a crew on board, and represents “the look and shape of things to come,” as Navy Rear Adm. Robert Girrier puts it in this Seattle Times story covering the launch. Janicki Industries, a Sedro-Woolley, WA, engineering and manufacturing company specializing in composite materials, provided molding for Sea Hunter’s hull and deck, the Times’ Hal Bernton reports.

—Did you get a raise in the last year? Many of your fellow Seattleites did, according to new data from PayScale. The Seattle metro area topped the list of cities with the greatest year-over-year wage growth through the first quarter. Wages here were up 3.6 percent. The company says cities with lots of STEM jobs, particularly in data-focused fields such as data science and business intelligence, have experienced the strongest wage growth in recent quarters.

—The winning team in the University of Washington’s Environmental Innovation Challenge business plan competition proposes a plastic for use in agriculture that breaks down and serves as fertilizer after use. The team from UW, AgriC, is using a plastic made from chitin, which is derived from crustacean shells. They won a $15,000 prize.

Second place in the competition and $10,000 went to Ionic Windows, which is working on a membrane technology for large flow batteries.

The third place team, ETA1, is developing a technology to convert waste heat from car engines into electrical energy to improve efficiency.