During her stint as NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver visited Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2011 for a NASA Future Forum. (Credit: Ted Huetter / Museum of Flight) Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver helped lead the charge for commercial space ventures, and now she’s leading a brand-new space campaign to address the climate change challenge. Garver is the CEO of , a philanthropic initiative that will leverage space connections and satellite data get policymakers, educators and the public fired up about climate action. She noted the connection between observing Earth from space and taking action on the environment goes back 50 years or so, to in 1968 and the in 1970. “Investment in space activities have driven scientific and technological advances that have transformed our understanding of Earth’s changing climate,” . “Earthrise Alliance was created to translate this knowledge into meaningful action and to inform critical decision making that supports and sustains humanity on planet Earth.” That action includes pulling together satellite data from companies including as well as Maxar’s subsidiary; working with partners including and ; and funding fellowships and awards to support education and public engagement on climate issues. Garver said she had been thinking seriously about such issues even during her tenure as NASA’s No. 2 official, between 2009 and 2013. (She was also NASA’s associate administrator for policy and plans from 1998 to 2001.) For decades, NASA has played a leading role in gathering data to support the scientific view that Earth’s climate is rapidly changing due to industrial carbon emissions. “I believe in climate change. I’ve seen the data. I’ve been to Antarctica with the head of NSF [the National Science Foundation] during my time at NASA. It just couldn’t be clearer,” Garver told GeekWire. “How could I not be doing everything I could to help address that?” After leaving NASA, Garver became the general manager of the , and in 2016 she helped found the for women in aerospace. But when some of her contacts from the space community approached her about the Earthrise Alliance concept, and asked whether she was interested in taking on the CEO role, Garver jumped at the chance. “That was an aha moment for me,” she said. ‘It was a good transition time for me … and I said yes.” Other members on the leadership team include chief operating officer Cassie Lee, who until recently was the head of space programs for Seattle-based Vulcan Inc. and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation; chief technology officer Dan Hammer, former White House senior policy adviser; quantum physicist Edward Boyda, who will serve as Earthrise Alliance’s chief scientific officer; and Jason Kessler, former project director of Mission Control Earth and program executive at NASA. Earthrise Alliance unites the efforts of Mission Control Earth, which has been a supporter of the ; and , which is an aimed at making satellite imagery available for humanitarian and news reporting purposes. It’s a philanthropic project of the as well as an initiative of . Garver said she’s pleased to see how many organizations came together to forge the alliance. “It’s like there’s nothing but goodness,” she said. She’s also pleased to be involved in a space venture that’s all about Earth. “My interest in space, my policy positions, my drive has been around what we can do from space,” she said. “It’s never been about the rocket. … We really would not know as much about our changing planet, and how to help save ourselves, without having made the advances we made in commercial space.”
Armoire CEO Ambika Singh in front of the company’s new pop-up store. (Armoire Photos) aims to help women access new clothes without having to enter a physical store. But now the Seattle startup is testing a brick-and-mortar strategy to compliment its online fashion rental service. Armoire will open its first pop-up location this week in downtown Seattle, taking over an old Sprint retail store and using it as a place for members to learn about new clothes and styles. Armoire CEO Ambika Singh and Lili Morton, community development, inside the company’s new store. Starting at $149 per month, the 3-year-old company ships designer clothes to customers who can swap out the items at any time or purchase them at a discounted rate. The pop-up store will allow new and existing members to try on clothes, experiment with different styles, and take home anything without pulling out their wallet. It will be open seven days a week and staffed by Armoire employees and stylists. Armoire CEO Ambika Singh told GeekWire that the company aims to improve the dressing room experience, which she said “has historically been a negative experience for women.” “We set ourselves up for failure as soon as we walk into that room,” she said. “With guidance from Armoire staff and stylists, we hope to create a shift where women instead see everything they love about themselves. We’re creating an environment where women choose self-confidence in the dressing room and in life, by armoring them with clothes they feel great in.” The startup also hopes that because the clothing is rental and “temporary,” its service will help women stop agonizing over size and body perception in a relaxed gathering place, which was designed by Fernish, a furniture rental startup that . “Our hope is that members come to think of this space as home — dropping in for a new item or just a chat,” Singh said. Armoire follows a similar playbook to Rent the Runway, the 10-year-old New York City-based company that was recently at nearly $800 million. Rent the Runway also operates physical locations; it its fifth store last year. Starting with digital and expanding to physical is also a recent retail strategy used by Amazon, which built a massive online e-commerce business and now has several brick-and-mortar locations, including Whole Foods stores and Amazon bookstores. Speaking of Amazon, the Seattle-based tech giant is also testing new ways to help people buy clothes. It recently rolled out a try-before-you-buy service . Armoire has raised $4.2 million from investors such as Zulily co-founder Darrell Cavens; Foot Locker exec Vijay Talwar; and a number of female backers who decided to invest after first becoming customers. They include Sheila Gulati of Tola Capital, former Drugstore.com CEO Dawn Lepore, and Angela Taylor of Efeste.
Tuzag CEO Neal Sofian. (Tuzag Photo) is betting that health bots need a better bedside manner. The startup just launched a chat service that’s part concierge, part health assessor and comes with a healthy dose of compassion. Tuzag’s first product, , is an out-of-the-box service that CEO sums up as an “engagement bot.” In a demo of Tuzag’s app for Amazon Alexa, the bot responded to news that a patient was having a bad day by saying, “I wish I could give you a big hug right now.” Other details, like remembering your pet’s name and asking for doggy updates, bring the humanistic angle a step further. Health bots that use artificial intelligence are having a moment. Microsoft recently , and a number of health companies have built bots for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. “We’re doing two things that I think are very different,” Sofian said. “One is we’re building profiles on people so that we have a persistent memory and we’re learning every time we interact with you. The second part is we’re actually tailoring content down to the word just for you.” Tuzag’s MyHealthyDay voice app is also available in other channels, such as a web dashboard, shown above. (Tuzag Screenshot) Tuzag Founder Dave Bulger. (Tuzag Photo) Tuzag’s bots can be programmed to have different personalities, which can change the experience, for example, from a friendly and bubbly conversation to a stern one. With the help of artificial intelligence, Sofian thinks more personalized bots can change patient behavior. But it all starts with engagement. “A good concierge in a hotel gets to know you. What are your needs? What do you want?” Sofian said. “Why wouldn’t we do that for consumers in health care when it’s 20 percent of the economy?” In addition to the off-the-shelf MyHealthyDay product, Tuzag creates custom bots and can provide its product as middleware to other companies. While the startup is focused on voice apps, its services can be deployed through text messages, an online chatbot or other channels. Tuzag is focused on the user experience to help improve engagement. “We want to build the concierge that can do what it takes to get people to connect to the products and services that are meaningful to them,” Sofian said. In the future, Sofian said that MyHealthyDay could integrate with smart devices to give tailored advice, such as synching with a smart pill bottle to track whether a patient is taking their medicine. “It’s pretty startling how bad adherence is,” Sofian said. Sofian runs the company with Tuzag founder , who first started working on the project in 2013. The startup has offices in Seattle and Syracuse, New York, where Bulger is based. Tuzag has partnered with the YMCA as well as Vanderbilt University, which is developing its own bot for newcomers to Nashville, Tenn. The startup has raised around $500,000 in seed funding. Sofian developed the successful smoking cessation program called Free and Clear, later renamed Quit for Life, in the 1980s. The program is now offered by more than 700 employers and health plans across 26 states. He also previously spent 14 years at Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative and was director of member engagement at Premera Blue Cross for seven years.
Merit CEO and co-founder Adil Wali. (Photo via Merit) You’ve probably read or heard about cryptocurrency in the news. Maybe your techie friend owns some Bitcoin. But you likely don’t own any digital currencies or let alone know how to obtain them in the first place. is on a mission to change that. Led by , a veteran entrepreneur who previously co-founded ModCloth (acquired by Walmart last year), the Seattle startup today unveiled its invite-only cryptocurrency called MRT. Wali helped come up with the idea for Merit after he and his co-founder wondered why so few people — even those within the tech industry — actually own cryptocurrency. They concluded that it was a problem around usability and accessibility. “If you want to create the world’s most-used cryptocurrency, what do you do? You have to make it simpler, you have to make it safer, and you have to make it a community,” Wali told GeekWire. Simplicity, safety, and community are the pillars of Merit — the third of which is perhaps most important, Wali said. Part of what makes Merit different from other cryptocurrencies, and what helps build community, is the invite-only requirement to obtain and own MRT. Wali explained that the anonymity associated with many existing cryptocurrencies enables hacking and theft too easily. He said Merit enables an “active stewardship model” and can track, across its blockchain, who is bringing in who to the community. Merit also changes the fundamentals of mining, or the process by which cryptocurrency is made via powerful computers. The company has created what Wali calls “proof of growth mining.” Since the service is invite-only, Merit can better assess and control who is rewarded with MRT. “What that enables is folks can actually mine merit without a computer,” Wali said. Another differentiator is how Merit allows its currency to be exchanged between owners. Rather than exchanging long 34-character public key strings, Merit built its own protocol. “We created an escrow on the blockchain that can hold money for you to claim it,” he said. MRT can be created and sent via SMS, Twitter, or various other communication tools. Merit also features decentralized vaults, password-protected transactions, and cancelable transactions. It is launching today without an ICO, as Wali said the company wants the community to determine price. Wali, who sold his most recent startup Fox Commerce to a blockchain commerce company, said his 10-person team is focused on making Merit accessible to just about anyone, regardless of technical knowledge. That feeds into the company’s vision of getting more people owning and using cryptocurrency. “Any currency is only as useful as the number of people who use it. If you can’t transact with it, what’s the point?” he said. “If we have dramatically less than a percent of the world’s population using crypto, it’s a really big problem when you think about the viability of the space at large.” Merit is bootstrapped, with the founders investing an initial $1 million in the company. The business model is split between Merit Labs and a non-profit called the Merit Foundation. A percentage of all MRT distributed goes into a genesis block, which is allocated across the foundation. “The idea of Merit is that with a decentralized launch and a longer-term approach, we are incentivized to make Merit valuable everyday,” Wali said. “With both the non-profit and for-profit, we’ll sell a little bit of Merit over time to continue operations in the organization. As the value of the currency goes up, then we’re able to do that more.” Cryptocurrency remains a hot — yet still relatively misunderstood — area of the startup world. According to PitchBook, 179 venture capital investors in the U.S. in at least one crypto startup deal in the past two years. noted this week that top VC firms Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures “are increasingly investing in public blockchains and cryptoassets broadly.” this week reported that the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange is working on an online trading platform for Bitcoin. That followed news of Goldman Sachs’ plan to open a Bitcoin trading unit. Some are still skeptical. Speaking on CBS this week, Bill Gates called Bitcoin and ICOs “one of the crazier speculative things.” “As an asset class, you’re not producing anything and so you shouldn’t expect it to go up. It’s kind of a pure ‘greater fool theory’ type investment,” Gates said. “I agree I would short it if there was an easy way to do it.” Gates previously weighed in on the subject during a in which he called cryptocurrencies “super risky.” Merit is one of several cryptocurrency/blockchain-related companies and organizations sprouting up in the Seattle area. There are startups like and a blockchain consulting group called ; and an investment group called that with blockchain company RChain Cooperative to invest a cryptocurrency equivalent of more than $190 million in blockchain apps and startups. “There is just phenomenally great talent here,” said Wali, who re-located to Seattle in 2016. “We have the ability to be one of the epicenters of cryptocurrency.”