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This building will house the Global Innovation Exchange. (NBBJ Rendering)

This fall, the Global Innovation Exchange will welcome its first student cohort, representing the culmination of close to five years of planning, and a first-of-its kind alliance between the University of Washington, Tsinghua University in China, Microsoft, the local real estate community and more.

At a meeting of the Washington chapter of NAIOP Wednesday, GIX officials and members of the team who designed the building where the program will be housed detailed the genesis of the program and its future ambitions. The program will be housed in a three-story, 100,000-square-foot structure in Bellevue’s Spring District project, and the first class will include 40 students from across the globe — U.S., China, India, France, Taiwan, Switzerland, Paraguay, Estonia and Canada.

David Maddox, COO of the Global Innovation Exchange. (University of Washington Photo)

GIX is looking ahead with a 20-year model, with plans to double its class size each year and expects more than 3,000 students to graduate over the next 10 years. GIX will create new degrees and utilize online education to reach that goal, in addition to partnering with other universities around the world.

As the school grows, the plan is to build a second structure in the Spring District, and David Maddox, COO of GIX, said the program has an option to do that.

At Wednesday’s event, Maddox recounted a story from 2013 when the program was first coming into form. Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith was on a plane to Beijing with then UW President Michael Young. They were pursuing avenues to broaden the prospect pool for Seattle-area universities through the infusion of international students and agreements with foreign universities.

At the same time, faculty at the University of Washington, mostly in high tech disciplines like engineering, were looking for new, innovative ways to prepare students for the fast-changing tech world.

Maddox said Young connected these two pursuits, and the idea that eventually became GIX was born. UW, Microsoft and others spent the next year or two trying to get partners on board — landing Tsinghua and also searching for a university partner in England — while proving that the concept could work.

“We had to convince Microsoft we could do this, we had to convince Tsinghua we were for real, we had to convince internal audiences at the University of Washington that this wasn’t some crazy thing that was going to sink the University of Washington,” Maddox said.

The idea was a new one at the time, and UW wanted to move fast. So it looked to a private sector model to build out the facility to house the program. The building is actually owned by the firm that developed it, Wright Runstad & Co. It was then leased to Microsoft, which turned around and subleased the property to UW. This sped up the timeline of the program by cutting out some regulatory steps UW would have to go through if it would have built and owned the facility. Construction on the facility began in 2016, a little more than a year after the program was initially announced.

“It may seem like a long timeline, but for us there would have been a couple years added to this if we had gone through the state building program,” Maddox said. “We knew that we wanted to get on this quick, people are going to do similar things.”

The GIX building will include a maker space. (Bora Architects Rendering)

As the project team was planning and building the GIX campus, there was plenty of academic work to do. The schools needed to put together a curriculum, bring in faculty and figure out what they wanted the building to look like.

The faculty will be teachers from UW and Tsinghua, many of whom have experience in the startup world. The program will also call on local tech leaders to mentor and assist students as they put their projects together.

The first degree track is a 15-month Master of Science in Technology Information program. The classes aim to break the mold for traditional technology education and train students in entrepreneurship, innovation, and user interfaces for connected devices. The idea is to encourage new ideas around real-world challenges by creating a project-based, global-focused learning environment.

The first degree program will be split up into three phases, Maddox said. It starts with introductory classes, and then moves into a practice phase, where students can try out concepts they’ve learned. Then comes the final project phase, where students get together in teams, forming what amount to their own startups, and GIX acts akin to a startup accelerator.

Amy Running of Bora Architects. (Bora Photo / Emily Russell)

“It’s not that everyone is expected to start a startup out of this, but the notion is that they are launching an idea into the world,” Maddox said.

And the building will reflect that. GIX will be light on lecture halls, and instead focus on lab space, collaboration areas and other high tech spaces for students to develop their products. Amy Running of Bora Architects, which did the interior design for the facility, said there wasn’t a template for designing the space because nothing like this has been done before.

The project team, which also includes Wright Runstad, NBBJ, Skanska and more, approached the initial design of the project more like a creative office space that a tech company might inhabit than a traditional school setting.

Running said her team immersed itself deeply in virtual reality and other technology as it was planning the space. The building needed to have more formal spaces where teams could present their projects as well as areas to develop and hone products.

Running, who has worked on numerous school designs, said the way schools are set up is beginning to change. The days of spending eight hours straight in classrooms listening to lectures are fading to a more hands-on curriculum.

“We have seen at every level of project, elementary, middle and high school, they all have maker labs,” Running said. “It’s part of their media center, and the embedded technology that is becoming that access to knowledge, what used to be the books.”

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