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Microsoft Puts Down Roots in Cambridge

LONDON--Cambridge University and the software giant Microsoft hastily convened a news conference today to confirm mounting rumors that they had struck a deal to site Microsoft's first foreign research center at the university. Over the next 5 years, Microsoft will spend $80 million on the new center, which will employ about 40 leading researchers and accommodate other short-term academic staff and graduate students.

"It's a big step to go beyond the United States, but our view was that there were greater opportunities for us if we did that," says Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's chief technology officer. Following the success of its first research center in Redmond, Washington, founded 6 years ago, Microsoft decided last year to triple its research effort. "We really wanted to broaden our perspective, and Europe was a high priority," says Myhrvold. Microsoft considered several other European sites, but "we chose Cambridge because of its track record on computing research, the existence of many local technology companies, and personal relationships between Microsoft and university staff," Myhrvold says. Myhrvold was a postdoc of Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking before moving to industry.

Alec Broers, the university's vice chancellor, who helped broker the deal, welcomed Microsoft's decision. He said it would also boost the research efforts of the university's computing department. Former department chief Roger Needham will head the new center, and other staff will be recruited from across Europe and beyond. Needham said the goal of the center is to develop the next generation of computing technologies that will enable machines to interact with their users in a more intelligent way. "We have no detailed research agenda on how to achieve this and just want to recruit the very best people," says Needham.

Microsoft also unveiled plans to invest $16 million in venture capital for high-tech industries in Cambridge. "Interactions with industry have been an enormous help for academics, and the whole process has been positive," says Needham. "We hope this initiative will help Cambridge become a multimedia communications research center to rival the best in the world," adds Broers.