Newly Opened Innovation Hub Brings Together Duke and Microsoft in Downtown Durham

January 30, 2019

New space brings Microsoft researchers together with inaugural Microsoft Data Science Investigators from Duke

Vahid Tarokh, Britney Whitmire, Guillermo Sapiro, Lawrence Carin, Tallman Trask, Jamie Harper standing together at the opening ceremony

From Left to Right – Vahid Tarokh, Britney Whitmire, Guillermo Sapiro, Lawrence Carin, Tallman Trask, Jamie Harper

Leaders from Duke University gathered together with counterparts from Microsoft from across the country in downtown Durham this month to celebrate the opening of a new collaborative “Innovation Hub” in the Chesterfield building. Initially announced in summer 2018, the 4,000-square-foot space is the physical representation of a new type of collaboration between a university and tech company that Duke and Microsoft are pioneering together.

Duke faculty will accelerate machine-learning research through the use of Microsoft Azure to advance health care research, educational programs and university operations. While researchers campus-wide will have access to these resources, two Duke Engineering faculty members have been named inaugural Microsoft Data Science Investigators and will thoroughly explore what the new collaboration can offer researchers at Duke.

Guillermo Sapiro, the James B. Duke Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of computer science and mathematics, will investigate multiple tools in Azure to help in his research in machine learning, privacy, computer vision and computational photography. Vahid Tarokh, the Rhodes Family Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of computer science and mathematics, will use Azure to design brain-inspired organic networks that can reorganize themselves and to figure out how to get the most out of Internet of Things devices with limited computational power.

While the furnishings in the new space are currently sparse—as is the precise definition of a Microsoft Data Science Investigator—both are expected to mature and expand as Sapiro and Tarokh bring both organizations closer together.A wide-angle view of the new Microsoft Hub

“This collaboration between Microsoft Research and Duke is kind of a blank slate, and it’s on us now to think creatively about how we can best use it,” said Lawrence Carin, Duke’s vice provost for research and professor of electrical and computer engineering, during the grand opening event.

“The engineering field in general has no equivalent to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where collaboration between industry and nonprofit is seamless, although one is much needed and overdue,” said Sapiro. “The Microsoft Data Science Investigator is a modest but important pioneering step in that direction. It is in part our responsibility as inaugural MDSIs to shape this initiative and make it so successful that its expansion becomes natural.”

Besides offering a place for Sapiro’s and Tarokh’s research groups to meet and work, the new space will host experts from Microsoft Research on a regular basis through a monthly seminar series—just one component of the partnership’s educational mission.

Two people with virtual reality headsets on“It’s important to note that a key aspect of this program is creating research experience and educational opportunities for all of our students, from undergraduates to doctoral students, so that they can innovate in machine learning,” said Tarokh.

“One of the challenges facing our country is that if all of the great artificial intelligence and machine learning minds go to work for the Microsofts and Googles of the world, who is going to teach the next generation?” added Carin. “One of the ideas behind this program is that Guillermo and Vahid will be connected to Microsoft, but they’ll also stay at Duke. Microsoft is the only tech company that has done something like this, and I think it’s a model they can be very proud of.”

If the interest from other schools in pursuing similar collaborations is any indication, it’s a model that Microsoft and Duke will soon help spread across the entire country.

“This collaboration with Duke has created the vision and generated excitement across higher education. My hope is that these innovative relationships spread quickly so we all benefit when great minds come together to teach the next generation and conduct research leveraging the cloud,” said Jamie Harper, vice president of education for Microsoft US Education.