With hometown companies like Amazon and Microsoft, this bustling region on the Puget Sound easily ranks in the top tier of technology hubs in the United States.
But the area lags its peers in one glaring way: It is home to a single major research university, the University of Washington, while nearly every other big technology scene in the country has at least two.
For years, that weakness has stoked local unease about whether the gap between the supply of people with computer-related degrees and the surge in demand for those skills could impede the region's economy. "We've long realized we're at a relative competitive disadvantage when it comes to higher education," said Bradford L. Smith, Microsoft's general counsel.
On Thursday, Seattle's top academic and business leaders unveiled a plan to create a new institute of learning, with the goal of strengthening the educational foundation of the region's high-tech economy. The institute, the Global Innovation Exchange, is a partnership between the University of Washington and one of China's leading research universities, Tsinghua University. It will open in fall 2016 with a master's degree program in technology innovation.
Microsoft will contribute $40 million (roughly Rs. 254 crores) to help the institute get started. Some of the money will go toward creating a base for the institute in a large new urban development project in Bellevue, Washington, about 10 miles from the University of Washington's main campus. Faculty for the school will come from the University of Washington, Tsinghua and, eventually, a couple other international universities the Global Innovation Exchange expects to attract as partners.
It will start with only a few dozen students, but the institute has a goal of more than 3,000 a decade from now. Tsinghua is expected to help recruit Chinese students to the institute, providing an important global aspect, said Ana Mari Cauce, interim president of the University of Washington.
"This will be the first time a Chinese university has a physical spot in the U.S.," Cauce said in an interview before the public announcement of the institute. "That's a big deal."
The institute will not initially grant undergraduate degrees, which will limit its potential to make a dent in the region's deficit of technology talent, at least in the near term. But the participants in the project said it was too early to predict what the institute could eventually become. "Fundamentally, it's about looking ahead a decade and a century," Smith said.
A 2013 report by the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state agency focused on education, said the state needed to produce more than 2,700 additional bachelor's degrees annually in computer science to meet projected employer demand in the region through 2021. The University of Washington currently awards about 300 computer science degrees a year.
Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, an online real estate company based in Seattle, said he had never seen a region so solely dependent on one research institution. "I was shocked when I got here," Kelman said. "Really, it's Microsoft and Amazon and a dozen other companies our size and hundreds of even smaller ones picking over the same group of graduating computer scientists. It's an incredibly small group of people."
Silicon Valley's development is closely linked to the strength of two institutes of higher education, one public and the other private, the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University. The University of Washington, a public university, has one of the top computer science programs in the country. But it turns away a significant number of students applying for computer science because it has not had enough money to increase capacity.
The university is seeking to graduate more computer science students through an effort separate from the Global Innovation Exchange. Last week, it announced that Microsoft was the lead donor, with a $10 million (roughly Rs. 63 crores) gift, for a $110 million (roughly Rs. 700 crores) effort to build a new 130,000-square-foot computer science building, one that will allow the university to double, to 600, the number of degrees it awards annually in the field.
The institute will not concentrate on long-term research at first, focusing instead on "project-based learning," in which students work on intensive, short-term undertakings. The first students will work on projects related to wearable technology and the Internet of things.
"China and the United States are two leading economies with enormous strengths in technological innovation," said Qiu Yong, president of Tsinghua University. "The higher educational collaboration between them facilitates the scientific and technological progress and social development around the world."
The Global Innovation Exchange was inspired partly by Cornell Tech, an effort to create a major new computer science-focused campus on Roosevelt Island in New York. That project, which had its groundbreaking this week, also has an international partner in Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The Cornell project will involve close collaborations with technology companies, partly to make it more responsive to industry trends.
Daniel P. Huttenlocher, the dean of Cornell Tech, said he was excited to see the institute in the Seattle area get off the ground.
"These are leading-edge experiments in how to educate students for a new kind of world," said Huttenlocher, who spoke with the University of Washington educators as they were planning the project.
In a nod to one of the top technical universities in the country, MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the founders of the Global Innovation Exchange have already taken to referring to it by the initials GIX. They even occasionally pronounce the name as "geeks."
"These days geeks rule," Cauce said.
© 2015 New York Times News Service