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Originally published July 6, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified July 7, 2013 at 11:57 AM

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Green tea firm raises red flags

Shares of tiny Plandai Biotechnology have soared since it started a publicity campaign promising to “transform how many diseases and conditions are treated.” Also: Rents, apartment vacancies vary widely across region; and Jonathan Adler store helps fill University Village.

Seattle Times business staff

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What links a sun-splashed South African tea plantation, a prominent University of Washington physics professor and a Utah penny-stock operator repeatedly sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission?

The common thread is Plandai Biotechnology, a tiny public company that says it is based in Seattle. Although Plandai has almost no revenue, its stock has ballooned tenfold since March, thanks to a publicity campaign declaring it will “transform how many diseases and conditions are treated” with its extracts from green tea leaves and fruits.

“Plandai is taking on the malaria parasite and winning,” says one PR piece. Others claim its preparations hold promise for everything from skin ailments to bad cholesterol to prostate cancer because of a proprietary technique that increases the “bioavailability” of green-tea compounds called catechins.

A London researcher hired by Plandai calls its malaria claims “misleading,” however. He says a good anti-malarial compound “would be a thousandfold more potent” than the Plandai material he tested, adding, “It is unlikely that green-tea extract from any source will have important anti-malarial activity.”

There are other red flags, as well.

The “corporate headquarters” Plandai lists in Seattle is really a rented mailbox in an out-of-the-way business center. Its chairman and CEO, Roger Duffield, used the same address a dozen years ago when resigning as the head of another penny-stock company.

Plandai also has some unusual business arrangements for a public company. According to SEC filings, it spent almost half of a $13 million South African government loan, its primary funding source, to buy unspecified equipment from a separate private firm run by Duffield.

Meanwhile, Plandai plans to sell its products for the so-called “nutraceutical” market exclusively to another firm that also is controlled by Duffield’s family. That stand-alone firm is raising investor money with claims that its deal with Plandai has highly lucrative terms that will yield large profit margins; none of that is disclosed to Plandai’s investors.

Then there’s the guy with the SEC problem. Shane Traveller, the company’s self-described U.S. representative and finance executive, is barred from serving as a public-company officer or director for five years under an August 2008 settlement of SEC charges that he violated anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws. That came with a $50,000 penalty. The state of California also barred him from acting as a CPA for five years.

Last year he was sued again, in a case that led to criminal indictments for two other participants in what the SEC called “illegal unregistered stock distributions.” The agency, which described Traveller as a “penny-stock adviser” based in Utah, seeks a surrender of his profits from the deals, as well as a permanent injunction against participating in any future penny-stock offerings.

The UW professor working with Plandai as chairman of its scientific board is Thomas Matula, a prolific inventor and director of the university’s center for Industrial & Medical Ultrasound. He declined to comment on the company, saying only, “As a scientific adviser, I give them scientific advice when they ask for it. “

Plandai would not make any executive available for a phone interview, but in an email it responded to some questions.

A Plandai PR sheet last month suggested a study by malaria researcher Dr. Sanjeev Krishna at St. George’s, University of London School of Medicine, showed the catechin compounds produced with Plandai’s processing were more effective than ordinary ones at killing malaria parasites in test tubes.

“Not according to our results!” wrote Krishna in an email when asked about that characterization. “Any difference is of no biological significance,” he later added.

Plandai’s response said Krishna sampled “an early batch of product.” Subsequent testing in a South African lab showed the product “killed the malaria parasite with 12x greater efficiency” than in the London testing, it said.

Plandai said it knows about Traveller’s SEC cases but “we do not believe that these matters have any bearing” on his work. It does not have to disclose his legal problems in its filings because he is not an officer or director, Plandai said in its email.

Plandai also defended spending at least $5.6 million to buy equipment from Duffield’s outside company, called CRS Technologies. “There is no vendor apart from CRS that is able to produce the equipment needed for our extraction process,” it said. (CRS could not be located and it is not clear whether it has any other customers.)

Concerning the agreement to sell its nutraceutical products to a separate company created by Duffield, called Phyto Nutricare, Plandai said the Phyto shares owned by Roger Duffield and Callum Baylis Duffield were “placed in trust for the benefit of Plandai .” And although a fundraising document for prospective investors in Phyto laid out specific pricing for Plandai’s material — and projected quick profits for Phyto based on those figures — Plandai’s email said “the transfer pricing ... has not been finalized.”

The company said the Phyto arrangement is “too much in limbo to provide details to the public” or to regulators. Plandai also issued an invitation “to come to South Africa and witness for yourself Plandai’s operations, so you can be assured that they are indeed real and that the information distributed in our press releases and included in our filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission is factually correct.”

— Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com

Rents, vacancies vary across region

Thousands of new apartments haven’t done much to slow rising rent prices in King and Snohomish counties, which rose to $1,190 during the last three months.

That figure is a 3 percent uptick from the previous quarter, and a 5.8 percent jump in the past year, according to Apartment Insights, an industry-analysis firm.

Vacancy rates in the two counties averaged 4.41 percent in the last three months.

But prices and vacancies varied by area.

According to the firm’s second-quarter report for the Seattle area:

• Downtown Bellevue renters paid the most for their units over the past three months, at an average of $1,797 a month, and the neighborhood had some of the area’s lowest vacancy rates, at 3.87 percent. In East Bellevue, apartment rent was a little lower, at $1,315 a month, and vacancies were at 5.48 percent.

Most Bellevue apartments are newer and bigger than, say, downtown Seattle, where renters were paying more per foot, at $2.30, but less overall per unit, $1,707. Vacancy rates downtown were 5.72 percent.

• Capitol Hill’s rent jumped the most of any neighborhood — by 8.2 percent, to $1,395 a month — and vacancy rates dropped to 2.57 percent.

• Average Kent and Federal Way rents increased to $954 and $930, respectively, but were still cheaper than the two-county average. Kent’s vacancy rate was 4.64 percent over the past year, while Federal Way’s was one of the highest, at 5.58 percent.

• Redmond rent price average climbed to $1,481 per unit, and vacancies dipped to 3.74 percent. In Renton, rent averages were closer to the two-county average, at $1,121, with a vacancy rate of 4.55 percent.

• Renters in South Snohomish paid an average of $1,177 a month, and the area’s vacancy rate was 4.30 percent.

Colin Campbell: ccampbell@seattletimes.com

Adler boutique helps fill U Village

At the new Jonathan Adler store in University Village, $98 ceramic “Ganja” jars and needlepoint zodiac pillows mix with a $3,400 mod orange sofa and mini “Sputnik” chandelier for $1,250.

The U-Village store, which replaces World Wrapps near Ben Bridge Jeweler, marks the New York designer’s 25th boutique worldwide and second in the Northwest, after an opening last summer in Portland’s Pearl District.

“I actually think Seattle is an interesting town. There’s lots of great, groovy people and incredible architecture,” Adler said in a recent phone interview from New York, where he was overseeing a photo shoot for his handbag collection. “The beige of the ‘Frasier’ years is a distant memory.”

The two-level, 2,100-square-foot store builds on U-Village’s focus for the past few years on pricey home décor. Minnesota-based furniture chain Room & Board opened its first Northwest store there last year, taking nearly 30,000 square feet previously occupied by Barnes & Noble.

A few years ago, Restoration Hardware closed at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle, and Pottery Barn Kids pulled out of Bellevue Square, but both chains maintained a local presence at U-Village, where they also are joined by Crate & Barrel, The Land of Nod and Williams-Sonoma.

The shopping center’s emphasis on home décor looks like a solid bet, especially given the surge in home values near U-Village, where the median ranges from $927,300 in Laurelhurst to $684,000 in Hawthorne Hills, according to Zillow estimates.

Nationwide, sales of home furnishings rose 2.7 percent in the first quarter compared to a year ago, while women’s clothing posted a 2.4 percent decline, says IBM data scientist Michael Haydock. He predicts the furniture sector will see average sales growth of 2.8 percent over the next three quarters.

“Rather than buying more clothing, people are shifting into durable goods, things they probably let go during the recession,” he said. “Now they’re treating themselves to these more expensive items.”

Adler, a former reality-TV show judge and author of the “Happy Chic” book series, says he had been looking to open a Seattle store for a while but held out for what he calls the “exact right spot.”

Likewise, Adler’s store “just felt like the perfect fit” for U-Village, said General Manager Susie Plummer. “A lot of his prints, colors and clean lines play off the Seattle Scandinavian heritage.”

Plummer noted that U-Village now is 100 percent leased, including a new building under construction with room for a dozen stores and restaurants. Only two tenants have been announced — Beecher’s Handmade Cheese founder Kurt Beecher Dammeier, who’s launching a new concept called “Liam’s,” and dim sum restaurant Din Tai Fung. Other tenants will be announced soon, Plummer said.

The new building also includes a six-story parking garage with 700 stalls, increasing U-Village’s capacity by 40 percent. The parking garage is scheduled to open in late summer, followed by the retail portion in October or early November.

Meanwhile, Adler plans a “little soiree” to celebrate his Seattle debut this Thursday evening, with a portion of proceeds going to the It Gets Better Project. The one local person he’s dying to meet: Project co-founder and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage.

“Pike Place Market and Dan Savage. That’s all I really need,” he said.

— Amy Martinez: amartinez@seattletimes.com

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