A new graduate institute in Bellevue, run by the University of Washington and Tsinghua University in China, is designed to educate the next generation of entrepreneurs.
A grand experiment in educating entrepreneurs, to be run by two universities on opposite sides of the Pacific, launched Thursday when the University of Washington and China’s Tsinghua University opened the doors to a graduate institute in Bellevue.
The Global Innovation Exchange, or GIX, marks the first time a Chinese research university has established a physical presence in the United States.
The building, in the nascent Spring District of Bellevue, was funded through a $40 million donation from Microsoft, and it features one of the largest and most advanced “maker spaces” in the region for prototyping new technologies. Its founders expect the new students to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems in areas like health and climate change.
The building’s opening was celebrated by a who’s-who list of executives from Microsoft, along with Gov. Jay Inslee and former governors Chris Gregoire and Gary Locke, and dozens of education officials from China.
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And they marveled at how quickly the institute came into being. It is opening a little more than two years after it was announced in June 2015 — a reflection of how fast change is happening both in industry and in higher education, UW President Ana Mari Cauce said.
Cauce acknowledged that universities often work at a glacial pace, but in the future, “our institutions have to be more nimble and more agile, and so do our students, and that is exactly what we’re going to be preparing them for.”
The building was designed around the curriculum, said Shwetak Patel, the chief technology officer of GIX. Its “maker space” is a cavernous room filled with industry-caliber laser cutters, 3-D printers and machines that can rapidly create printed circuit boards.
It’s a space that’s designed to allow students to quickly spin out prototypes of new devices, and “make those things no one’s thought of yet,” said Nicholas Ames, who will direct the space.
“This is going to be a big, big deal,” Cauce said.
In about two weeks, 43 students will start taking classes in the master’s program, classes that are hands-on and project-based. Many of the students are from China; about a dozen are from the United States.
GIX is the first building to be completed in Bellevue’s Spring District development, which is very much a work-in progress. To the north of the site on Thursday, bulldozers were busy tearing down a huge Safeway warehouse, and to the south, construction crews were at work on half-built apartment buildings. Eventually, the Eastside’s light- rail line will run through this development on its way to Redmond.
The Chinese students selected for the program were among the school’s top-tier but also had to prove they were adept at problem-solving, said Yang Bin, vice president and provost of Tsinghua. He said the program and its project-based, team-oriented approach is being closely watched in China, where colleges and universities have been more traditional in their teaching methods.
Students will pay $54,000 for the 15-month master’s program, or $77,000 for a 21-month program to complete two degrees — one from the UW, and one from Tsinghua.
Maksim Surguy, one member of the incoming class, walked around the maker space Thursday, admiring the equipment and offering to help unpack it. Surguy, originally from Ukraine, went to college in California and has already done a few startup businesses. He’s interested in being part of a team, and in learning how manufacturing is done in other countries, especially China. “I have lots of ideas,” he said.
In addition to Tsinghua, the UW has added eight other partner universities, including the University of British Columbia, and is also partnering with five companies along with Microsoft for financial and instructional support.
“Literally, we are bringing the world together,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith, who helped come up with the vision for GIX five years ago.
In 10 years, the UW expects to have about 3,000 students, but not all of them will be master’s degree students studying in this building. Some might be doing short refresher courses, or be using distance learning or virtual reality to take classes, Patel said.
Along with Inslee, Gregoire and top executives from Microsoft — including Smith, CEO Satya Nadella and former CEO Steve Ballmer, for whom the building is named — the opening also attracted many Chinese officials, including the consul general from San Francisco and Tsinghua’s president, Qiu Yong.
“China’s in the soup on climate change, just like us,” Inslee said. “Isn’t it going to be cool when a student at GIX invents a solution to climate change?”