Compassion Seattle initiative qualifies for ballot: Will it change the downtown business outlook?

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Tents line a Downtown Seattle street. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

As downtown Seattle tech businesses implement plans to return to offices that have been vacant for more than a year, a change in how some of these companies experience downtown could be on the horizon.

Supporters announced Wednesday that the Compassion Seattle ballot measure has qualified for the November ballot. It kicks off what is likely to be a fight about how a progressive city deals with a chronic homelessness crisis and tries to keep residents and business leaders happy while improving the lives of the city’s thousands of unhoused.

“Charter Amendment 29 has broad support across Seattle and among Seattle’s business community,” said Downtown Seattle Association President & CEO Jon Scholes. “We anticipate there will be growing interest in supporting this campaign now that we’ve qualified for the November ballot because Seattleites see a homelessness emergency that’s not been solved and is only getting worse.”

If the ballot measure is approved by Seattle voters — internal polling by its backers is purported to show that it still retains strong support among respondents — the amendment essentially bypasses the City Council and, for the first time, adds specific benchmarks and responsibilities to Seattle’s sometimes confusing, competing, and decentralized array of homeless services and programs.

Most controversially, the charter amendment would require the city to keep “parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets clear of encampments” once the mandated housing, drug, and mental health services are in place.

It is this section that detractors say criminalizes homelessness, while supporters counter that it for the first time makes the city engages in the tent clusters in neighborhoods such as downtown Seattle where an estimated 2,000 homeless people currently live.

“(Voters) want an accountable, compassionate plan to get people inside and on the path to stability, and to open our parks and public spaces. This is what Charter Amendment 29 offers,” Scholes added.

The measure also mandates that Seattle offer access to behavioral health programs along with housing. Housing, under the charter amendment, could include “enhanced shelters, tiny houses, hotel-motel rooms, other forms of non-congregate emergency or permanent housing.” For example, under the proposed changes, the city would be legally required to provide an additional 2,000 units of emergency and permanent housing within one year of the amendment’s January 2022 start date.

In a recent GeekWire Civic Conversation about Compassion Seattle, Kieran Snyder, co-founder and CEO at Textio, and 2021 GeekWire Awards winner for CEO of the Year, said that as a business owner who had most of her staff in downtown Seattle prior to the pandemic, the part of the initiative that she finds compelling is the expansion of services that don’t involve law enforcement.

“The notion of investing in housing and support services that are independent of law enforcement, that’s the thing that makes [Compassion Seattle] a promising set of solutions,” she said. Snyder said local businesses should also find a way to help pay for additional housing and services.

But some have said any effort is too little, too late. Seattle startup Ad Lightning, for example, exited its downtown Seattle lease last year and doesn’t plan to return.

“What I’ve observed particularly the last five to 10 years is an attitude in Seattle that I would characterize as anti-business, and kind of anti-job, and that certainly has accelerated in the last few years,” Ad Lightning co-founder Scott Moore said on a recent GeekWire podcast. “And it’s unfortunate.”

Other companies, regardless of the measure’s success, plan on returning to downtown.

In June, Geekwire surveyed a handful of tech company leaders via email about their return-to-office plans in downtown Seattle. Some companies remain committed to downtown Seattle and are excited to return and be part of the revitalization process.

Karen Clark Cole, CEO of UX company Blink, said prior to the pandemic she had 80 employees downtown. That number dropped to four employees at the pandemic’s height. But by September, she estimated the company might have 10% of its employees back in the office.

“We have not considered moving or downsizing our office,” she said. “[Blink] will gradually start requiring people to come in for collaboration sessions, team meetings and to meet with clients.”

Moreover, she said, the company plans to expand its downtown workforce. “We grew during 2021 (only about 4%) and will continue to grow,” she said, adding that Blink will require all of its in-office employees to be vaccinated. “There will be more people assigned to the downtown Seattle office, but most people will be part-time so not everyone will be there at once.”

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Icosavax stock skyrockets 200% on first day of trading for newly public Seattle biotech company

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(Photo via Twitter/@icosavax)

Icosavax is having quite the debut as Washington state’s newest public company. Shares of the Seattle-based biotech firm surged more than 200% on its first day of trading Thursday.

Icosavax raised more than $180 million after pricing shares at $15 before trading began Thursday. Its stock, trading under the ticker ICVX on the NASDAQ, opened at $29/share and reached more than $47 within an hour before dropping back down slightly.

The company, a spin-out from the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design, is developing vaccines to resemble naturally occurring viruses.

Its virus-like particle technology was invented at the Institute for Protein Design by Neil King, a scientific co-founder of Icosavax along with IPD head David Baker. Founder and CEO Adam Simpson formerly led another IPD spinout, PvP Biologics, which sold to the pharmaceutical company Takeda.

Since its founding in 2017, Icosavax had raised more than $150 million from private investors, including a recent $100 million Series B round.

Icosavax initiated a phase 1 and 2 clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate this June, with support from a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The company’s two COVID-19 vaccine candidates are built from spherical nanoparticles studded with 60 copies of a major viral component, a bit of the spike protein.

Icosavax is also developing shots, geared for older adults, against two viruses that cause pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and human metapneumovirus (hMPV). There are currently no approved vaccines against these viruses.

“David and the Institute for Protein Design are some of the finest scientists in the U.S. and the world, so I think very highly of the technology and highly of the ability of this technology to create novel and improved vaccines,” said Larry Corey, director emeritus of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines and the visible role of science in addressing the pandemic has given biotech an edge in the mind of the public and investors. Biotech IPOs reached an all-time high last year, according to Biopharma Dive, and the pace is continuing into 2021. By the end of June this year, 49 biotechs had gone public, collectively raising $8.8 billion.

“The amount of investment that is pouring into biotechnology and the life sciences is incredible,” said Leslie Alexandre, CEO of Life Sciences Washington. “The belief in the power of these technologies to prevent as well as treat some of the most serious conditions on the planet, it’s like people have woken up to that, and investors have really woken up and seen the opportunity.”

Icosavax is one of several Seattle-area companies and research institutions helping study COVID-19 vaccines and related research. It’s also the latest Washington state biotech startup to test the public markets this year. Others include Sana Biotechnology, which raised $587 million in its February IPO; Impel NeuroPharma, which raised $80 million through its IPO in April; proteomics company Nautilus Biotechnology, which went public via a SPAC last month; and Absci, which is developing a drug discovery platform and went public just last week.

GeekWire reporter Charlotte Schubert contributed to this report. 

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Amazon Prime Day, AWS and jobs in the spotlight for Andy Jassy’s first earnings report as CEO

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Amazon CEO Andy Jassy. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon’s earnings report Thursday will be its first with CEO Andy Jassy at the helm.

While it may be tempting to view the numbers as setting the tone for a new era, it’s worth keeping in mind that these results were booked as of June 30, several days before Jassy officially took over from founder Jeff Bezos in early June.

Actually, if you buy an old Bezos refrain, the outcome was determined years ago.

One exception is Prime Day, the annual two-day sales event, which was held in June this year. While the company typically doesn’t disclose detailed Prime Day financial results, its overall numbers will provide new clues about how things went. Industry analysts believe Prime Day sales grew at a slower rate.

What to watch in the numbers: Wall Street expects Amazon to report overall net sales of $115 billion, on average, a 29% increase year-over-year. That’s toward the high end of Amazon’s previous guidance of net sales between $110 and $116 billion.

Analysts expect earnings per share of $12.22, up from $10.30 per share a year ago.

Amazon said previously to expect operating profit between $4.5 billion and $8 billion, vs. $5.8 billion a year ago. This assumed $1.5 billion in COVID-19 costs.

Sales mix: This has become one of the most interesting charts to watch, showing which parts of Amazon’s business are growing, and where it generates most of its revenue. While online stores remain the company’s bread-and-butter, the growth in third-party seller fees and the “Other” category, which includes advertising, are notable trends.

Amazon Web Services: While the overall results won’t necessarily reflect Jassy’s effectiveness as the new CEO, he will be able to take credit or blame for the company’s cloud division, as the former CEO of Amazon Web Services.

Investors typically keep a close eye on the AWS revenue growth rate, which is running into the law of large numbers, dropping as low as 28% for a few quarters last year, after multiple years above 40% growth.

Even at a lower percentage growth, this division is a financial powerhouse for the company. In the first quarter, AWS revenue was $13.5 billion, up 32%, and operating profits were a record $4.2 billion, or 47% of the company’s overall operating profits of $8.9 billion.

Earlier this week, Google Cloud reported revenue of $4.6 billion for the June quarter, up 54% from a smaller base. Microsoft said revenue from its Azure cloud platform grew 51%, contributing to the Redmond company’s blockbuster earnings, although Microsoft doesn’t disclose specific Azure revenue figures.

Jobs growth: At the end of the first quarter, Amazon’s total number of full- and part-time employees fell to 1.271 million people, down 27,000 positions from the end of 2020. The company’s job growth typically slows at the end of the peak holiday shopping season, so it wasn’t a huge anomaly in that way.

However, in part due to Amazon’s current scale, it was the largest quarter-over-quarter employment decline in its history in raw numbers, which will make the employment numbers today worth watching even more than normal.

Check back for full coverage of Amazon earnings Thursday afternoon on GeekWire.

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Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Scott give $40M to boost groups working on gender equality

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MacKenzie Scott, left, and Melinda French Gates. (Photos via Bystander Revolution and Gates Foundation)

Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Scott are sharing some of their immense wealth with organizations that want to empower other women, announcing Thursday that they are awarding $40 million as part of the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge.

Launched last June, the philanthropic initiative received more than 550 proposals and is aimed at improving gender equality by providing grants to organizations with ideas to expand women’s power and influence in the U.S. by 2030.

PREVIOUSLY: How Melinda French Gates has ‘transformational potential’ to boost equality in VC, tech and beyond

French Gates’ investment company Pivotal Ventures is hosting the Challenge, with support from Scott and husband Dan Jewett as well as Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

“The overwhelming response to the Challenge proves there’s no shortage of transformational ideas about how to accelerate progress for women and girls,” French Gates said in a news release. “The next step is to make sure those game-changing ideas get the support they need to become fully realized and improve people’s lives.”

The four awardees are: Building Women’s Equality through Strengthening the Care Infrastructure ($10 million); Ada Developers Academy’s Changing the Face of Tech ($10 million); Girl Inc.’s Project Accelerate: Increasing Young Women’s Power and Influence ($10 million); and The Future is Indigenous Womxn ($10 million).

Seattle-based Ada Developers Academy said the funding will allow the organization to expand across the country, adding locations in five new regions. The tuition-free software development boot camp for women and underrepresented sexual, gender and racial minorities was founded in 2013 and has a mission to diversify the tech industry.

An additional $8 million in supplemental funding was split between two other finalists working on building women’s economic and political power: FreeFrom’s A Call to Action: Holding Society Accountable for Intimate Partner Violence; and IGNITE’s Training Next Gen Women to Flex Their Political Power.

Scott, ranked No. 17 on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has a net worth of $64.1 billion. The former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos most recently gave away $2.74 billion to 286 organizations focused on promoting equity, alleviating poverty and promoting education and the arts. Her total philanthropic outlay totals more than $8 billion.

“The awardees are strong teams working on the front lines and from within communities to help women build power in their lives and careers,” Scott said in a stement. “And best of all, they’re not alone. This challenge received so many bold ideas to activate new levers, remove old barriers, and push forward for gender equality. It’s exciting to see all the ways people are making a difference.”

French Gates has a net worth of $3.3 billion according to Forbes. Gender equity and women’s issues have been a focus of her work and giving at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and at Pivotal Ventures.

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Real estate riches: Paul Allen’s Hawaii estate sells for $43M; Oprah home gets $14M on Orcas Island

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Paul Allen at the University of Washington in 2017. (GeekWire File Photo / Todd Bishop)

High-priced real estate with Northwest connections has changed hands for top dollar according to reports out of Hawaii and Orcas Island, Wash.

Properties belonging to the late billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the current media mogul billionaire Oprah Winfrey have new owners, with the sales fetching $57 million between the two of them.

Here are the details:

  • $43M for Allen’s Hawaii estate: Pacific Business News reported Wednesday that Allen’s sprawling, 22-acre property in Kailua-Kona, on the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii, sold for a whopping $43 million this week. The amount is reportedly the second-highest price ever recorded for a residential home in the state of Hawaii, PBN said, and the highest ever for a home on Hawaii Island. The report, citing Hawaii County Tax records, says that the Allen estate’s largest parcel is 10.3 acres. That includes a main house of 9,080 square feet of living space, five bedrooms and 5.5 baths and a pool. There is also a second 2,968-square-foot home with six bedrooms and 5.5 baths and a third building of 480 square feet. Allen originally paid $11 million for the property in 1997. The new buyer was not named. Allen died in 2018 and left behind a vast array of holdings, including real estate, professional sports teams, a private art collection, museums and more. A 2012 video on YouTube shows his megayacht Octopus offshore from the Kona property.
  • $14M for Oprah’s Orcas retreat: A 43-acre property owned by TV talk mogul Oprah Winfrey on Orcas Island in Washington state’s San Juan Islands sold for $14 million, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal. Winfrey paid $8.3 million for the property, called Madroneagle, in 2018 without visiting it, the Journal said. Located on Catspaw Lane, PSBJ said the “gated island sanctuary” includes a 10,251-square-foot main mansion, remodeled by Winfrey. There are several other houses, a half-mile of waterfront and beach, a greenhouse, a huge shop and a mother-in-law apartment. The property was not formally listed and the buyer was named as Lophodytes LLC.
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