The Spring District will bring more residents, workers, and shoppers to the Eastside. The Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) will add students to the neighborhood mix.

Few Eastside areas appear to be as poised to become the next major urban hub quite like Bellevue’s Spring District.

The 36-acre, $2.3 billion Bel-Red Corridor project is the site of proposed office towers, apartment buildings, retail shops, a brew pub, and parks. REI will relocate there from Kent in 2020, and the district will be served by a light rail station by 2023. In the end, more than 2,000 residents and 13,000 employees are expected to populate the neighborhood in 10 years.

You also can add college students to the Spring District’s neighborhood mix, thanks to the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX), a partnership between the University of Washington and Tsinghua University in Beijing that will create a graduate school focused on technology and innovation. GIX is backed by a $40 million investment from Microsoft and will open in a three-story, 86,000-square-foot building in September, when the inaugural class of students will begin a 15-month program on its way toward earning a Master of Science in Technology Innovation degree.

With a little more than a month to go before GIX opens, co-director Vikram Jandhyala shared his thoughts on how the institution will serve students and local employers.

image Courtesy University of Washington

A Grade Above

Good grades and strong references aren’t enough to get into GIX. The first cohort of students underwent an interview process so faculty could glean what enrollees would bring to the table in the form of ideas for new products or startups.

“We are looking for students who have the entrepreneurial mindset and are open to new ideas, learning from failure, taking risks, and being hands-on,” said Jandhyala. “We are looking at, individually, how entrepreneurial are these students? It’s very different from just looking at recommendation letters, essays, and GPAs. It’s about how they present their idea and what energy they bring to the program.”

Science Projects on Steroids

To drum up interest in GIX, the University of Washington and Tsinghua University last year invited students to compete for $190,000 in prize money by creating innovative devices that eventually could be brought to market. One team of students created a device that could scan material and return information about its contents. For example, the calorie content or potential allergens in a plate of food could be determined by using a new scanning device. Another team invented a mobile air-filtration system that allows users to breathe pure air minus the use of a mask. GIX will host the competition again this year. “We expect to see that same kind of energy and ideas come out,” said Jandhyala.

A Farm Team for Microsoft

For its $40 million investment, Microsoft gets a farm team of tech talent right in its own backyard. GIX’s inaugural class consists of 46 students, according to Jandhyala, and that number is expected to grow to 3,000 students over the next 10 years as more degree programs are offered and more partnerships are formed with other universities.

“Certainly, it’s a talent-acquisition play,” said Jandhyala. “They get an early look at some of these students that could be potential hires. It’s a way for Microsoft to distinguish itself from its competition because it is obviously competing for talent. GIX is a way to get people excited about joining Microsoft.”

An Augmented Learning Experience

It’s tempting to think GIX will fill the infinite demand for skilled coders and programmers so coveted by tech companies. GIX graduates will be tech-savvy engineers and computer scientists. But Jandhyala noted they also will be future business leaders who are well-rounded in multiple disciplines, such as ethics, law, social sciences, and business policies. They will be able to keep pace with the exponentially changing speed of innovation, where business models, products, and even entire industries change within months or years. According to Jandhyala, some graduates will enter the job market determined to develop their ideas and launch their own startups, while others will join large organizations and create innovative changes within those companies. Either way, the education offered by GIX is aimed to prepare students for both scenarios.

“It’s really where innovation and entrepreneurship meet,” said Jandhyala. “That’s the kind of student that we are trying to build. A multidimensional doer who is going to build and lead companies.”