Ballmer Pumps Life into Boston Tech Ecosystem with Harvard Grant

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, only months after becoming an NBA owner, is further flexing his philanthropic muscles. On Thursday, he said he will bankroll a 50 percent increase in computer science faculty at Harvard University.

Ballmer, who graduated from Harvard in 1977, is announcing the initiative today at Harvard’s Innovation Lab (iLab), a three-year old working space designed to foster entrepreneurship at Harvard. At current levels, the donation translates into 12 new faculty positions.

Harvard’s most famous computer science students are Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, who left to start Facebook and Microsoft, respectively. But Harvard’s computer science accomplishments and spin-offs pale in comparison to other high-profile universities with longer track records in engineering, such as MIT and Stanford.

By providing the funds to attract top computer science faculty, Ballmer wants to give his alma mater the means to become world-class. “CS at Harvard today is small, but excellent,” Ballmer said in a statement before the event. “It already punches above its weight. With depth in systems, data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, it is focused on high-impact specialties that are literally changing the world.”

Since 2007, the number of students at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has tripled, according to Harvard president Drew Faust. The school is planning to expand with a new facility at Harvard’s Allston campus in Boston.

By bulking up computer science, Ballmer is solidifying his legacy at Harvard—he donated $10 million in 1996—and showing he intends to use his influence in a field he helped pioneer.

But the gift—he hasn’t disclosed the amount—will also be a great shot in the arm for the Boston-area innovation community. Although hard to quantify, expanding computer science at Harvard could lead to more technologies and businesses emerging from the school and the region.

In addition, Harvard’s iLab has recently expanded with Launch Lab, a co-working space for Harvard alumni startups in Allston. And Harvard-based Experiment Fund (Xfund) has been raising its second fund, worth at least $73 million, to back startups led by Harvard students and others.

Separately, Ballmer and his wife Connie Ballmer announced on Wednesday a $50 million gift to the University of Oregon, Connie’s alma mater. The gift is not specifically tied to computer science.

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