Drones Not Required (Yet): Behind Amazon's Latest STEM Give

Online retailer Amazon seems to be in the news quite a bit nowadays. The coverage ranges from the unflattering (its brutal work culture) to the quaint-yet-scary (its nascent drone delivery service) to the possibly kooky (its new Seattle headquarters that features, among other things, a "tri-sphered biodome filled with upwards of 3,000 species of plants and 40-some massive trees").

Yet you rarely hear about Amazon's corporate philanthropic efforts. However, that is slowly changing.

Recently, the increasingly omnipotent tech behemoth awarded a $10 million gift to help the University of Washington complete a second building on the Seattle campus dedicated to computer science and engineering. The new building would add larger classroom facilities—including an auditorium dedicated to Amazon—and better lab facilities for students.

This gift was announced around the same time that Amazon rolled out $2.5 million in prize money for students working on artificial intelligence. So far, Amazon's giving in the STEM area is nothing like, say, Google's, which is spreading academic research grants far and wide. But its UW gift is another sign that it's definitely stepping things up, along with some other companies we track, like Uber. 

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To hear UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska tell it, the new building is strictly a by-product of ever-growing demand. "Computer science is central to everything going on in the world, and students have figured this out. So the enrollment demand is tremendous, the employment demand is tremendous. We're trying to double our enrollment and we have no place to put the students and faculty."

Viewed through this lens, Amazon's gift is as practical and straightforward as those news clips (a tri-sphered biodome?) are a bit off-kilter and irreverent.

Amazon, of course, has deep and ever-expanding roots in Seattle and computer science is integral to their business and brand. (I'd be perplexed if, for example, they cut a check to fund the school's new athletic center.) Indeed, back in 2015, it launched the Amazon Catalyst grant program at the very same University of Washington, aimed at backing "bold, globally impactful, disruptive projects" that develop solutions for issues such as climate change, computer security, and immigration.

Of course, context is everything, no giving exists in a vacuum, and at IP, we've been following Amazon's giving for a while. 

A few years ago, we looked at Amazon's Smile program, which prompted customers to donate 0.5% of their purchase to charity. In 2014, we also asked: "Is Jeff Bezos Turning a Corner With His Giving?" At that time, he and his wife MacKenzie had just given $20 million to take on lung, ovarian, pancreatic and colon cancers. They also gave $15 million to Princeton to create the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics in 2011.

Of course, Bezos isn't the only rich person walking through Amazon's corporate hallways (and future biodome). Earlier this year we listed other Amazon executives like Jeffrey A. Wilke who may step up their giving in coming years. And of course, we cannot forget Bezos' generous parents, Mike and Jackie, who have presided over the small but steadily growing Bezos Family Foundation.

So when you add it all up, Amazon's gift to University of Washington combines the predictable (computer sciences, Seattle) and the utilitarian (a new building) in a way that neatly fits into a continuum of accelerated giving over the past few years. Both the company, and the people leading it, are likely to keep stepping up their giving. 

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