GIX 2.0: U.S.-China tech institute revamps program as Shwetak Patel steps up as interim director

Computer scientist and electrical engineer Shwetak Patel. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

The Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) is shaking things up.

The first-of-its-kind educational institute — created by the University of Washington, China’s Tsinghua University, and Microsoft — plans to revamp its curriculum and launch a search for a long-term executive director to lead the institution.

Shwetak Patel, a fixture in the Seattle tech community, will step up as interim director to help the school transition. Patel announced changes at GIX in a blog post Friday.

GIX students earn graduate degrees in programs that range from 15 to 21 months. The 15-month program takes place in Bellevue, Wash., and students have the option to extend their studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

At “GIX 2.0” as Patel describes it, there will be more short-term classes and training programs to help the school become more responsive to the ever-changing needs of technology employers. GIX wants to offer programs better suited to mid-career professionals who want to learn new skills.

“Technology is advancing so fast that we often can’t keep up with the curriculum,” Patel told GeekWire in an interview this week. “But what we can do is create these very efficient micro-degrees, or maybe training opportunities, where you can teach this workforce to be able to jump on these emerging technology problems or societal problems or product problems.”

GIX has been taking stock of what is and isn’t working in its current program, including an independent review by the Boston Consulting Group. Beyond adding new training programs, GIX is considering spinning out as its own entity. GIX will appoint a transition team to explore a path toward that objective. Currently, the school is a partnership between organizations under the University of Washington umbrella.

When GIX launched in 2017, it was the culmination of nearly five years of planning, ultimately bringing together two leading academic institutions and a founding corporate partner in Microsoft, which invested $40 million to get the program off the ground. The goal was to create a novel graduate school designed to train students in entrepreneurship and encourage new ideas around real-world challenges.

The program is housed in Bellevue, Wash., in the “Steve Ballmer Building,” named for the former Microsoft CEO. It features classrooms, an incubator, and makerspace with state-of-the-art equipment.

Inside the Steve Ballmer Building, which houses GIX in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo)

Patel has been with GIX since its inception, teaching courses and guiding the institution. He helped launch GIX with Vikram Jandhyala, a friend and mentor at the University of Washington who passed away one year ago shortly after GIX graduated its first class of students.

A prolific innovator in the Seattle startup community, most recently Patel has been working on a secretive venture for Google called Senosis Health, which turns ordinary smartphones into monitoring devices to detect medical conditions. In 2017 Google acquired Senosis; Patel helped start the company at the UW.

Patel is a past MacArthur Genius grant winner and won the prestigious ACM Prize in Computing last year. His previous inventions led to startups that were acquired by companies such as Belkin and Sears.

Though he will lead GIX through the transition, Patel said he has too much on his plate to fill the executive director role indefinitely. GIX is launching a search for an executive director who can lead the institution full-time.

Whoever ultimately assumes the role will be taking the helm at a unique partnership between institutions in the U.S. and China at a time when the relationship between the two countries is strained. Shortly after leaders in Beijing and Washington D.C. signed a trade agreement concluding a year-long tariff war, the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China cast uncertainty on the relationship.

Patel said GIX is working closely with the University of Washington to monitor the coronavirus outbreak. Some students studying in Tsinghua have opted to return to the U.S. and finish their degrees at GIX’s Bellevue location. A little over half of current GIX students are from the U.S. and China. The rest are from eight other countries around the world.

“GIX initially started off with a partnership between the University of Washington, Tsinghua, and Microsoft to build this really unique educational platform around [training] the next generation innovators where we bring in, not just technology development, but entrepreneurship, and design thinking … taking into account that there’s broader global challenges that you have to deal with,” Patel said. “You have to deal with these broader problems that are just things that you don’t often learn about in a traditional undergraduate degree program.”

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