A new tech institution created by the University of Washington, Microsoft and China’s Tsinghua University should have a profound and lasting effect on the Puget Sound region.

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The new tech institution announced Thursday by the University of Washington, Microsoft and China’s Tsinghua University is a tremendous development for the region and its future as a global hub of entrepreneurial activity.

Called the Global Innovation Exchange — or GIX — it’s a research and education facility that will eventually host more than 3,000 students from China, the United States and other countries.

Starting in 2016, GIX will provide master’s degrees in technology innovation. The program, taught by UW and Tsinghua faculty with help from local tech companies, will emphasize product design and development, and entrepreneurship. Additional degrees and more partner universities of similar stature will be added later.

Seattle Times illustration
Seattle Times illustration

Tsinghua is not a household name here, but it is in China, where it’s considered to be on par with Harvard University. It’s the alma mater of key leaders, including China’s current and former presidents, and it is a premier engineering school.

If GIX lives up to its promise and becomes a world-class technology institution, it would have a profound and lasting effect on the Puget Sound region and Washington state, and on America’s complex, evolving relationship with China.

In creating GIX, Tsinghua will become the first Chinese university to have a physical presence in the United States. Such collaborations will benefit relations between the world’s leading superpowers.

That this is happening in the Seattle area is a testament to the UW’s stature, and especially to the statesmanship of Microsoft and its general counsel, Brad Smith.

Over decades, Microsoft has built a close relationship with Tsinghua. It located its Beijing research center near the school and provided adjunct faculty, such as Harry Shum, who is the current head of Microsoft’s global research group.

Although he’s a Princeton University graduate, Smith has become an important advocate for the UW and Washington’s importance as the gateway to the Asia-Pacific region. He worked on the GIX project initially with former UW President Michael Young and saw it through with interim president Ana Mari Cauce.

Following up on the $10 million donation Microsoft made to UW’s new computer-science building last week, the company is providing $40 million to get GIX started. That includes space that Microsoft is leasing on behalf of GIX in The Spring District, a new mixed-use development in Bellevue that’s slated to be connected by light rail to the UW’s Seattle campus.

Starting a major institution will be challenging. It comes amid the UW’s efforts to increase its capacity to produce engineering graduates and provide more technical skills to students across multiple disciplines.

Questions will be raised about a state school that’s at capacity and perpetually strapped devoting energy to build a program with a large contingent of students from China. Even so, the UW should continue to nourish GIX because the potential long-term benefits are so great.

GIX will make the region even more of a magnet for academics in technology fields and for companies that are drawn to clusters of tech talent, research and development.

The institute will also enlarge the pipeline of entrepreneurial graduates and generate spinoff companies. Whether or not those companies end up here, the region will benefit from its role in their incubation.

This is a long-term play. It should help the Seattle area maintain its global reputation as a font of innovation for generations beyond the heyday of today’s tech giants.

This is a long-term play. It should help the Seattle area maintain its global reputation as a font of innovation for generations beyond the heyday of today’s tech giants.”

Smith and Cauce note that GIX is additive. It will generate revenue from pricier graduate programs and create new seats for students and faculty that wouldn’t exist otherwise. At the same time, the UW must ensure that the project doesn’t overstretch current faculty and administrators.

The UW should also remain open to the possibility that GIX could eventually be spun off into a standalone entity, similar to the way the UW releases promising research to form new companies. Ultimately, the region could benefit from an additional research university versus an ever-larger UW, similar to the way Boston and Silicon Valley have multiple schools at this level.

GIX is the first sapling in a new orchard. It will take years to mature and a lot of work at the start. But the bounty to come will more than justify the effort.