Washington Faces Outward with Opening of Global Innovation Exchange

A five-year effort launched by a top Microsoft executive to unite some of the Pacific Rim’s top educational institutions and businesses came to fruition Thursday with the grand opening of the Global Innovation Exchange in Bellevue, WA.

The graduate education program aims to train a new generation of international innovators and entrepreneurs through project-based learning as opposed to the traditional “sage on a stage pontificating to a group of students.”

That’s how University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce put it during an event that drew political and business leaders from around the world. The ceremony marked the opening of the building that houses the GIX program in this tech-heavy city just across Lake Washington from Seattle. The 100,000-square-foot building—which is just 3 miles from Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA—was named for former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft President Brad Smith, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, and Tsinghua University President Qiu Yong open the door to the Steve Ballmer Building, home of the Global Innovation Exchange. Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

The UW and Tsinghua University—one of China’s top universities—created the program, with an initial $40 million and a vision from Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT). The effort began as a “glimmer” in the mind of Microsoft President Brad Smith some five years ago, Cauce says. Serious discussions began only three years ago, she notes, contrasting the development timeline to the “glacial pace” that is more typical of large university projects.

“Our institutions have to be nimble and agile, and so do our students,” Cauce says.

In two weeks, an initial class of 43 students will begin 15- and 21-month degree programs—a masters of science in technology innovation from the UW, and a dual degree conferred by the UW and Tsinghua—at a cost of $54,000 and $77,000, respectively. The class includes students from the U.S., China, Canada, Estonia, France, India, Pakistan, Paraguay, Russia, and Switzerland.

About 30 percent of the tuition cost for the class as a whole will be defrayed by payments from an industry consortium. Companies including Arm, Baidu, Boeing HorizonX, and T-Mobile each committed between $50,000 and $150,000 for the initial year of the program. In return, they will be able to present the incoming GIX students and faculty with problems they need help solving, which will inform the project-based curriculum of the GIX. Students can also bring their own ideas.

Companies that contribute $100,000 gain non-exclusive access to intellectual property generated by a students’ work. Those that pay $150,000 can opt for exclusive access to the IP, says Vikram Jandhyala, the UW’s vice provost for innovation strategy and co-executive director of the GIX. The UW itself will not retain any interest in IP developed through the GIX.

Jandhyala says Microsoft’s contribution funded construction of the state-of-the-art Steve Ballmer Building, which anchors the Spring District, a mixed-use development along the planned route of a light rail extension to be completed in 2023.

The Steve Ballmer Building, home of the Global Innovation Exchange, surrounded by the Spring District, still under construction. Photo courtesy of GIX

Microsoft’s support, as well as a previously undisclosed $10 million contribution from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and student tuition will fund ongoing operations, Jandhyala says. Also, China’s Hainan Airlines joined the GIX as a “valued partner,” making a multi-million-dollar contribution to support travel, fellowship, and student projects.

The GIX will seek continued corporate support to make the program more accessible to those who cannot afford the steep tuition. It aims to raise a $100 million endowment over the next decade to fund fellowships and faculty positions, Jandhyala says.

With its origins in the mind of a top technology executive and a structure designed to problem-solve for corporations, the GIX represents a deep, if not unprecedented, integration between industry and a public research university—though it should be said that federal funding provided to researchers at UW’s main campus will not flow across the lake to GIX.

This kind of collaboration is a reality of the modern university, Cauce says in an interview with Xconomy.

“There are so many preconceptions we have about universities that are long gone and one of them is that kind of ivory tower where you look inward,” says Cauce, a psychology professor who has spent more than 30 years at the UW, rising in 2015 to be its first woman president. “Whether they’re public or private, the universities that will thrive in the future look outward, and they look for partners. And some of those partners are going to be civic. Government is unquestionably our biggest partner, but it will include nonprofits, as well as [for]-profits and industry. When you think about, for example, Microsoft and the university, we have joint stakes in making the state of Washington great, and also in having the state of Washington look outward.”

The GIX also marks an unprecedented collaboration with China. Tsinghua’s physical presence in Bellevue is a first in the U.S. for a Chinese research university, says China Consul General Luo Linquan. He says the effort is being watched closely by the Chinese government, and fits with the country’s goals of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Tsinghua Suite at the Global Innovation Exchange, the first physical presence for a Chinese research university in the U.S. Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

An additional eight elite educational institutions have signed-on to the GIX as part of its academic network, promoting the program to their students and sending faculty to Bellevue to teach short courses. They are: Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Indian Institute of Science, Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology, National Taiwan University, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, and the University of British Columbia.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, pointing to the role of person connections in fostering innovation, calls the GIX “the most connecting institution in the world today.” He places it in the context of a “Washingtonian” values system, drawing a contrast with the protectionist, nationalist rhetoric of the Trump administration.

“The world today is divided into people who think the answer to our problems are isolation and fear of the future,” Inslee says. In the most trade-dependent state in the country, the answers to the world’s great challenges are “openness and confidence in our ability to work together to solve problems.”

Cauce counters critics who see China as an adversary and say the kind of partnership with China that underpins the GIX is a wrong move or even dangerous.

“I cannot imagine a future that you would want for your children or grandchildren that does not include the U.S. and China collaborating and cooperating,” she says. “That’s one of the things that universities can do. We can be ambassadors.”

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