Seattle Week in Review: Alexa, Rosetta, Alaska Airlines, Cuba

The deep freeze is forecast to relent this weekend, just in time for playoff football. Go Seahawks!

Today we’re looking back at stories on Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated, cloud-connected personal assistant technology, which had a very good week at CES and, more people are realizing, could represent a new operating system for the growing wave of connected home technologies; also, how subscription-based retail startups try to differentiate themselves from the e-commerce giant; a University of Washington spinout marks a milestone for the Rosetta software; a sunny, net-positive 2016 at the Bullitt Center; and Alaska Airline’s Cuba connection.

—We delved into the idea of Alexa as an operating system for the home, and the importance to Amazon of owning a new OS. The company emerged as a winner of CES this week in Las Vegas.

One of the main benefits of Alexa to Amazon is how easy it makes ordering goods for delivery, bolstering Amazon’s principal commerce business. So easy a kid can do it, as this story out of Texas illustrates: A six-year-old girl asked Alexa for a dollhouse and a large tin of cookies, and the system obliged, as GeekWire reported.

Our story pointed to independent tech analyst Ben Thompson’s post on Alexa as an OS. You may have also caught Backchannel editorial director Jessi Hempel’s piece last month on Alexa’s central role in voice as the new user interface. Hempel makes many of the same points as Thompson does about the central role that the voice interface technology plays in the new consumer tech ecosystem; Amazon’s leading position and well-executed strategy for introducing it; and the convenience of being surrounded by microphones connected to immense computing power.

—Subscription-based retailers are trying to differentiate themselves from Amazon in several ways, such as novel products, bespoke services, and educational experiences. Our Wisconsin editor, Jeff Buchanan, interviewed the CEOs of three startups with Badger State ties on their strategies for standing out against the e-commerce giant.

—A University of Washington startup, PvP Biologics, announced a $35 million deal with Japanese pharmaceuticals giant Takeda. The company, which recently spun out of the UW Institute for Protein Design, is working on a synthetic enzyme that’s slated to enter clinical trials as an oral drug to treat celiac disease.

PvP is based in San Diego, and Xconomy editor Bruce Bigelow had the story. One important local note on PvP and its enzyme candidate, KumaMax (and the reason we’re noting this in our Seattle tech review): it’s the first such structure designed using the UW-developed Rosetta modeling software to advance to clinical trials. The software, built by a team led by UW computational biologist David Baker, and now under further development by an international research consortium through RosettaCommons, allows the design of novel enzymes and proteins for application in medicine, energy, and technology.

The Bullitt Center, a certified Living Building designed to produce all the energy it needs, is doing that and more. Last year, the commercial office building on Capitol Hill actually turned out 28.5 percent more electricity than it needed, feeding the excess back to the grid. Here’s our past coverage of the economics of Living Buildings in Seattle.

—Seattle-based Alaska Airlines began regular daily scheduled flights to Cuba. The flights, from Los Angeles International Airport to Havana, Cuba, were inaugurated this week with a trade and political delegation that included University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, who was born in Cuba. Cauce, whose agenda includes a greater focus on global and population health, welcomed the opening of the U.S.-Cuba relationship. “We have much to share and learn about the Cuban people’s work in health care and education,” she said in a news release.

Last year, we featured the reflections of Matt Bencke, who traveled to Cuba with a group of other Seattle startup and tech friends. On whether it’s poised to be the next startup market, Bencke wrote: “Many Cubans have an entrepreneurial, optimistic spirit that bodes well for the long-term. But for now, Cuba is isolated, antiquated and underdeveloped.”

—Alaska Airlines said this week it will also let passengers chat for free over services including Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.

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