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Heard & overheard: GeekWire Summit 2017, Day 1

Executives, scientists, and politicians say the darnedest things.

The casual-yet-focused discussions on stage at the GeekWire Summit led top names across the entire range of the technology spectrum to share educational, inspirational, and — occasionally — candidly offbeat observations.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson with GeekWire’s Todd Bishop. (GeekWire Photos / Dan DeLong)

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, in a fireside chat with GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop, made it clear he was fully aware that Amazon has a pickup location in the parking lot by the Starbucks headquarters building in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood. “It makes it easier to watch them,” he noted.

Johnson also proved that evocative answers go beyond the verbal. Bishop, in asking about future plans, prodded, “I have three words for you. Drone. Delivered. Coffee.” Todd’s eyebrows rose. Pause. Johnson’s eyebrows rose. (And no. Starbucks is not, according to Johnson, working on Drone. Delivered. Coffee.)

Mary “Missy” Cummings, Humans and Autonomy Lab, Duke University.

Mary “Missy” Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University, addressed the experience of having been one of the first female fighter pilots. “I’m amazingly fun to take to a bar, because I have so many good stories,” she said.

Cummings felt she also had the beginnings of an effective leadership training program for women executives based on her military experience. Citing the first time she dropped a five-hundred pound bomb that landed directly on a tank, “Ladies, I have to tell you, it really does a lot for your self confidence.”

Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center President Dr. Gary Gilliland noted the low profile his organization seems to have compared to other tech organizations that get local attention. “I sometimes think the Fred Hutch is one of the best kept secrets in Seattle,” he said. “It may be (up there with) where Amazon HQ2 is going to be.”

Still, it’s clear Gilliland is keeping his eye on the higher-profile giants and thinks their relationship may go beyond simply having extensive Seattle-area headquarters. Not only, Gillilland said, have they clearly learned to do what researchers need to do — manage large data sets — “I think they actually have Alexa and Cortana dating.”

Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta, flanked by GeekWire’s Taylor Soper and John Cook.

Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta said he remained upbeat even in the wake of Amazon (with competing Amazon Fresh) buying a key Instacart shopping and delivery service partner, Whole Foods. Right after the announcement was made, Mehta said, “Essentially every major grocery retailer in the country had an emergency board meeting and right after that board meeting they called us.”

Mehta does have advice for aspiring entrepreneurs to work into their morning rituals, as he reflected on failures he said he wasn’t “passionate enough” to push to success. “If you’re not thinking about it in the shower,” he said, “don’t do it.”

“There are two types of ideas. There are painkillers and there are vitamins,” he said. “Instacart is certainly a painkiller.”

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson credited much of his competitive nature — including the speed of his challenges to current Administration policies — to his upbringing. “I’m one of seven kids. Six boys and one long-suffering sister,” he explained. “We played a lot of sports … I cannot stand losing.”

However, what Ferguson can stand is being frugal. He allowed that up until recently, he drove a 1993 Honda, until it was totaled in an accident. “You know your car is old when the person who totals it is younger than the car itself,” he said.

Allen Institute for Brain Science President Christof Koch.

Others who were notably both seen and heard?

Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, painted a somewhat dystopian-yet-hopeful picture of our AI-infested future. Part of humanity’s defense? “We have to engineer our brains to compete with our own creations,” he suggested, apparently channeling his inner Matt Damon. “We need to engineer the shit out of it.”

A spirited discussion on venture capital and the hype/reality factors surrounding cryptocurrency led to maybe a bit more reality than most VCs would enjoy seeing. “They say you’re never more than two steps away from a Russian mobster in the Bitcoin” world, noted Benchmark Capital General Partner Sarah Tavel.

Amazon’s CEO for Worldwide Consumer Jeff Wilke arrived at the Summit for his fireside chat sporting a sport coat, leading Todd Bishop to observe that’s not been traditional Wilke wear in the consumer-frenzied fourth quarter. “I have a whole rack of them,” he admitted. “A LOT of flannel shirts … We used to send our corporate folks out to our fulfillment centers every holiday season, to pack boxes.”

And Toni Reid, Amazon’s VP of Alexa Experience + Echo Devices, had perhaps one of the least surprising reveals of the Summit — at least, for anyone who follows Jeff Bezos’ science-fiction fan activity. The vision for Alexa, “was very Star Trek driven,” she said.

Amazon’s Toni Reid.
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