Microsoft starts Latin American research institute

Federation is designed to capitalize on governments' recent interest in developing a knowledge-based economy.
Written by Candace Lombardi, Contributor
Microsoft is establishing a mostly virtual institute in Latin America that will allow academic researchers to pool information on breakthroughs and find funding for projects in a variety of disciplines.

On Wednesday, Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, is scheduled to launch the Latin American Collaborative Research Federation. He will do so at Microsoft Research's Latin American Academic Summit in Vina del Mar, Chile.

The mainly virtual institute will have physical headquarters at the University of Chile and the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. Microsoft hopes to help academic researchers capitalize on Latin American governments' recent interest in stimulating innovation and investing in education, said Sailesh Chutani, the director of Microsoft Research's external research and programs groups.

"About a year and a half ago we noticed a significant change," said Chutani, whose group has been working with Latin American academic institutions for about three and a half years.

Due in part to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat, an account of recent technological changes and their consequences, policy makers in Latin America realized "that they need to educate more people and treat human resources as an asset, and that one way to do that is making sure they get educated and become a player to create a knowledge-based economy to compete with India and China," Chutani said.

While there will be satellites at leading universities--following a hub-and-spoke system for gathering and distributing information--the institute will mainly be organized online where Latin Americans can share and compare research, or connect with local entities looking to fund projects. The research is expected focus on science, health care, education and technology, with an emphasis on projects designed to solve problems in Latin American communities.

Microsoft will offer $930,000 in seed funding in the hope that each university hub will then attract the interest of national funding agencies. The research federation also is expecting a contribution from the Inter-American Development Bank, an institution aimed at furthering economic and social-development projects in Latin America. IDB representatives will sit on the federation's steering committee, alongside Microsoft Research and several academic institutions, according to Chutani.

Latin America has a lot of talent and interesting research underway, Chutani said, but individually its countries don't have the critical mass of academic and research activity needed to break onto the world stage as knowledge leaders.

"They have compelling ideas and research involving the education and health care of rural people. That does not just apply to the obvious needs in Latin America but could benefit the world," he said. "Our hope is that this will help them organize to do that."

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