Tsinghua, UW, Microsoft Partner for Global Innovation Exchange

Seattle is getting a major new asset in the form of the Global Innovation Exchange, a partnership between University of Washington and Tsinghua University, one of China’s top research institutions, backed by $40 million from Microsoft.

The GIX looks like a modern, graduate-level university with deep ties to industry and a focus on real-world problems at its core. It was announced Thursday with great fanfare and lots of details on the UW’s GIX site.

Organizers aim to begin the first degree program, a 15-month master’s in technology innovation, focused on connected devices, in 2016 with 30 to 35 students from the U.S. and China. Future focus areas may include mobile medicine, clean technology, and smart cities. The GIX would have as many as 3,000 students enrolled by 2025.

Innovation advocates have long lamented Seattle’s lack of a second major research university, something that leaves the region a step behind other U.S. technology hubs. They’ve wished for a private institution to compete with and complement publicly funded UW—a Stanford to the University of California, Berkeley—as another source of new ideas and technologies, and a magnet for talent. While the GIX won’t be that exactly, given that it is an effort of the UW, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith compared its potential for the Puget Sound region with Stanford’s impact on Silicon Valley.

“If this succeeds the way everybody hopes, I believe every technology-oriented company in Puget Sound will benefit—and Microsoft will be among them,” Smith told the Puget Sound Business Journal. “And 100 years from now, it may be one of the great crown jewels of this region. That’s what we should all hope to help create.”

The news follows Microsoft’s $10 million contribution announced last week to a new computer science building for the UW.

The GIX will occupy a significant portion of the Spring District, a new 36-acre commercial development in Bellevue, WA, about 10 miles east of the UW’s main Seattle campus. It’s also just a stone’s throw from Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, WA, (or a seven-minute light rail ride, when the Sound Transit East Link Extension is completed in 2023).

It would mark the first “physical presence in the United States for a Chinese research university,” proponents say, bringing together researchers, students, faculty, entrepreneurs, and professionals from both sides of the Pacific.

“GIX will pioneer new forms of teaching and learning by directly connecting world-class students and faculty from the U.S., China, and other global research universities with research-led companies and non-profits who can help identify real world challenges, and provide on-going mentoring and support,” according to the UW’s GIX site. “It will build upon the UW’s deep and long-standing contributions to innovation in the Puget Sound, particularly in computer science and engineering and electrical engineering, and catalyzed through a set of initiatives known as the Innovation Imperative. And it will bring to bear Tsinghua’s strengths as the pace-setter for innovation in China and its role as a base for China’s scientific and technological advances.”

The GIX is planning to add more partnerships with universities, industry, and nonprofits. A promotional video showed a view of the Seattle headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The GIX is clearly a coup for Seattle and the broader region, bringing with it the promise of yet another globally relevant research institution and the ancillary benefits that would bring.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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