Seattle Week in Review: Tech Money in Politics, Metamaterials & More

If there’s any doubt about the enduring impact that home-grown tech company billionaires can have on a region, refer back to this week. Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Ballmer made moves big and small to encourage and influence the course of affairs in the state.

Read on for details on their latest philanthropic and political contributions, as well as local news on metamaterials and agtech.

—Gates and Allen, co-founders of Microsoft, and Ballmer, who was Microsoft employee No. 30 and its CEO for 15 years, are among the most generous donors to the University of Washington, which is engaged in a historic fundraising campaign.

This week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $210 million to support population health programs at the UW. One of the largest single gifts to the UW, the funding will go to a new building to house interdisciplinary efforts that range from disease prevention to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

The UW unveiled a 25-year Population Health Initiative last spring. It will help the UW build on already ample work in this area. Indeed, the region has become a major global hub of organizations working on population health, thanks to the Gates Foundation and other major international philanthropies and research organizations based here.

And Gates, Allen (through Vulcan), and Ballmer, along with his wife, Connie, were revealed to be the largest donors to a new political action committee, Citizens for Working Courts, seeking to change the makeup of the Washington state Supreme Court.

Austin Jenkins, Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network, reports: “The PAC raised $550,000 in just six days this month with the biggest check—$300,000—coming from Vulcan. Gates put in $200,000 and the Ballmers $25,000. All three were also major donors to a 2012 charter school initiative that the Supreme Court later found unconstitutional.”

—A new application of the metamaterials technology powering Seattle-area companies Kymeta and Echodyne is on the horizon. Researchers from University of Washington, Duke University, and an arm of Intellectual Ventures published a paper describing a metamaterials-based wireless charging system. They contemplate using a TV-sized panel loaded with metamaterials—tiny, engineered structures that can be activated with software—to steer an energy beam toward nearby devices, continuously charging them.

David Smith, lead author of the paper, available at the arXiv pre-print repository, heads the Duke University laboratory where Nathan Kundtz was a graduate student. Kundtz now leads Kymeta, which is applying metamaterials technology to satellite antennae.

“Imagine you have an electromagnetic wave front moving through a flat surface made of thousands of tiny electrical cells,” Smith says in a Duke news release. “If you can tune each cell to manipulate the wave in a specific way, you can dictate exactly what the field looks like when it comes out on the other side.”

Another co-author on the paper is the University of Washington’s Matt Reynolds, who was previously at Duke and has co-founded three startups that have been acquired, including Zensi and SNUPI.

—Like many of its peers, MIT is becoming a venture capital investor, contributing $25 million to a fund that could grow to $150 million, and opening a space for startups at the edge of campus. Here’s coverage from Xconomy’s Jeff Engel in Boston.

—Beta Hatch is one of the more interesting startup companies I’ve had the opportunity to write about recently. Founder and CEO Virginia Emery has assembled a small team to grow mealworms—for animal feed and fertilizer production—at very large scale. And yes, insect protein as human food—not just the inputs to producing human food—is part of the long-term plan. Full story here.

(You can hear more from Emery at Xconomy Intersect, our next Seattle event, coming up Dec. 8. She is part of a fantastic lineup of people talking on a wide range of innovation topics, from agriculture to healthcare IT to post-election tech policy. Our discount rate on tickets ends soon.)

—Meanwhile, investment in agriculture technology is increasing significantly, according to a survey by Boston Consulting Group and AgFunder covered in Xconomy this week. VC investment in the sector reached $3 billion in 2015, but corporate investors are much larger—bringing the total to more than $20 billion, the survey of agribusinesses and VC firms found.

“Agtech companies currently pour two-thirds of their investments into their own in-house R&D efforts, with the rest directed to external deals, such as partnerships or licensing,” writes Xconomy’s Frank Vinluan in North Carolina. “Agribusiness executives surveyed say they would prefer to shift that balance to roughly half of their investments occurring through partnerships and mergers and acquisitions, an increase from about 20 percent now. To do that, big ag companies will need to source more of their innovations from outside of their own labs.”

—In honor of Halloween, see the picture at the top of this post—what happens when you carve your pumpkin too early and record rainfall ensues—and, following, what happens when rocket scientists carve pumpkins. Two of my favorites from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

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