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Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, left, with his successor Satya Nadella at the GIX grand opening this morning. (GeekWire Photos / Taylor Soper)

As part of its $40 million in support of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX), a new U.S.-China joint tech institute, it was up to Microsoft to pick a name for the new GIX building in Bellevue, Wash.

It was an easy decision: The Steve Ballmer Building.

The former Microsoft CEO was honored on Thursday as GIX held a grand opening event in Bellevue to mark the launch of the first-of-its-kind graduate school and announce the name of a new 3-story, 100,000 square-foot building nestled in Bellevue’s new Spring District development.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella greets his predecessor Steve Ballmer.

It was a cool scene inside the GIX building, which will welcome its first 44-student cohort later this month, as the past and present of Microsoft leadership came out in support of the new institute.

Microsoft President Brad Smith and Ballmer’s successor, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, both spoke on stage and explained why Microsoft decided to name the building after the man who helped lead Microsoft from 2000 to 2014 as its CEO.

“It was not a difficult decision,” Smith said. “In the 42-year history of Microsoft, no one has done more than one person to take Microsoft to the world to build our subsidiaries and to connect us with people and customers around the world.”

Microsoft President Brad Smith.

Nadella began his remarks with a funny story recalling the first time he met Ballmer in 1992 as a brand new Microsoft employee.

“Steve stopped by my desk and gave me one of the infamous high fives that only he can do,” Nadella said. “He expressed his immense enthusiasm for me joining Microsoft. I was an entry level guy at that time at Microsoft and here was the CEO walking by my office and sort of giving me this high five. In some sense, I was a changed person after that.”

Over the next 25 years, Nadella said it was a privilege to learn from Ballmer and “witness that contagious ability to create energy in everything he does, the passion with which he approaches all of his work.”

“Steve has always been a great advocate for business collaboration across international boundaries,” Nadella added. “No one has done what Steve has done to take technology from one place and have its impact create opportunity everywhere.”

Added Nadella: “He advanced the Microsoft global footprint and forged groundbreaking new partnerships around the world. He also had a vision for how two partners can achieve more together than they ever could on their own. That partnership model was core to Microsoft’s success and core to the approach that Steve has inculcated in everything that we do.”

It was clearly an emotional moment for Ballmer, who spoke briefly on stage with his classic high-energy that had the crowd instantly chuckling and cheering. He admitted that when he first heard about the idea for GIX, he thought it was “impossible” and had no idea who would make it work.

“I actually gave Brad a hard time even before I left [Microsoft] about this thing,” Ballmer noted. “This exists despite anything I had to do with it, and I salute everybody for that because it’s a brilliant thing.”

While Ballmer was CEO, Microsoft was the first company to open a basic research facility in China. It’s partly why the company has been a partner of Tsinghua University (a GIX founding academic partner) for two decades; Microsoft has a research hub just down the street from Tsinghua’s campus in Beijing that GeekWire toured in 2015.

Speaking about the opening of GIX, Ballmer said he was “beyond impressed by what’s here and what’s going on.” He specifically thanked Smith, Nadella, and Microsoft CFO Amy Hood, who was also in attendance.

Connie Ballmer (center) and Steve Ballmer (right) speak with Microsoft CFO Amy Hood after a GIX event announcing the “Steve Ballmer Building.”

“This is quite an honor for me,” Ballmer said at the end of his remarks, his voice trailing off and eyes tearing up a bit.

There were plenty of heavy-hitters in the room for the GIX opening, from university presidents to Washington’s political leaders past and present.

Steve Ballmer chats with former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.
From left to right: Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington; Microsoft President Brad Smith; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; and University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce.

GIX was first announced in 2015 by two founding academic partners: the University of Washington and Beijing-based Tsinghua University, known as the “MIT of China,” that is the first Chinese research institution to establish a U.S. location. The program also received $40 million in support from Microsoft.

The new GIX building in Bellevue, Wash. Photo via UW.

GIX on Thursday also announced eight members of its new Academic Network: École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Indian Institute of Science, Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology, National Taiwan University, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and the University of British Columbia.

These institutions will promote GIX to their own students and faculty while offering up potential projects for GIX students themselves.

Microsoft President Brad Smith, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, and Tsinghua President Qiu Yong help open the doors to the new GIX building in Bellevue.

GIX also announced new members of its Industry Consortium: ARM, Baidu, Boeing HorizonX, and T-Mobile. GIX noted that Hainan Airlines is a “Valued Partner,” while calling out the support of InnoAngel, Taiyou, Hinacom, Bright Oceans, Elco, ZheJiang Zhong Kun, Minsheng Pharma, Fujian New East Lake, Tusstar, and Tuspark. The companies will have a chance to submit project proposals to GIX students.

“With these new members, GIX is at the forefront of collaborative innovation, not only internationally, but also between universities and industry,” UW president Ana Mari Cauce said in a statement. “Our students will have world-class faculty, professionals, and industry leaders to help ignite their passion for discovery and solving pressing global challenges.”

We’ll have more from the GIX launch event later on GeekWire.

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