Microsoft Corp. will give $40 million to help fund a graduate-school program with the University of Washington and China’s Tsinghua University, seeking to foster research in new technologies. The Global Innovation Exchange, which will be located in the Seattle area, marks the first time a Chinese research university has located a degree program in the U.S. The center will open in 2016 with the goal of attracting 3,000 students within a decade, according to Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel.
The Exchange will initially offer a degree for engineers who can work on connected devices, called the Internet of Things. That, along with expertise in other areas such as data analysis, are among the skills sought by technology companies in Seattle and elsewhere. Microsoft is also facing numerous challenges in China, including an antitrust investigation and government preference for domestic software. Closer ties with Chinese institutions can sometimes gain a U.S. company more favorable treatment and build business relationships.
“Helping Chinese universities or the Chinese government get global branding definitely provides a very good view to the government, which is good for building up the relationship between Microsoft and the government,” said Kitty Fok, an analyst at market researcher IDC in China. Smith said he suggested a preliminary version of a joint center three years ago when the University of Washington convened a committee to come up with possible future initiatives. The program may expand to include more universities, he said.
“What we are all hoping for ultimately is a major facility that will bring together up to four world-leading universities with 3,000 students,” Smith said in an interview.
Tsinghua, where Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg showed off his Chinese skills in a 2014 question-and answer-session, is a leading university with a corporate arm that owns major technology companies. Unigroup Ltd. has announced $4.7 billion in acquisitions the past two years, particularly in chips. Like most top Chinese schools, it has government connections: the last two presidents, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, are graduates.
Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, provides resources to a journalism program at Tsinghua University established by the school and the International Center for Journalists.
Microsoft and the two schools are announcing the Exchange Thursday at the software maker’s offices in Bellevue, Washington, near the program’s future home.
The first degree will be a master’s in technology innovation related to devices. It will focus on the Internet of Things as well as possible areas such as healthcare technology and smart cities, Ana Mari Cauce, interim president of the University of Washington. The group is also talking to more corporate sponsors, she said.
Much of Microsoft’s money, to be delivered over five years, will go to erecting the first of two buildings. The three institutions got an early and unplanned lesson in the power of working together this week when a network outage in a U.S. government office made it difficult to secure a visa for Tsinghua President Qiu Yong. With Microsoft and the two schools tapping various government officials, they finally got the visit sorted out.
“I’m not sure any one of us would have been able to fix it alone,” said Washington’s Cauce. “But you put our power together and — guess what — you can move the visa system.”