Microsoft outlines plans for innovation center on St. Elizabeths campus

Microsoft officials say they plan to open one of their first training centers in the United States on the city-owned east campus of the former St. Elizabeths hospital, in one of the poorest areas of Southeast D.C. 

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has made redeveloping the east campus of St. Elizabeths one of his top economic development priorities and has repeatedly said he would like to see Microsoft play a role in it.


Microsoft Vice President Sanket Akerkar at the entrepreneurial institute Venture Hive in downtown Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Officials for the software giant said last week that they were committed to doing that by way of opening one of its Microsoft Innovation Centers, facilities in emerging economic areas where the company provides software training for students and entrepreneurs.

To date, Microsoft has nearly 100 innovation centers worldwide, with concentrations in Eastern Europe, India and Brazil. There are none in the United States, though one is opening shortly in downtown Miami at a tech incubator and accelerator called Venture Hive. A second center may open in Houston.

Donna Woodall, citizenship director for Microsoft, said the innovation center in D.C. would be an extension of the company’s efforts to support computer literacy for D.C. students and job applicants through a “digital alliance” begun with the D.C. public schools and a city employment agency two years ago.

“The idea is to help address three key areas for a city, that is improving educational outcomes, entrepreneurship and employment. And the reason why we choose those three things across the country is those are really the three pillars that are going to help the economy,” Woodall said. 

An innovation center also provides the company a chance to introduce its products to a new market of users, said Dan Kasun, a senior director in the company’s public sector business.

“It helps because we assume that people will then use our products but it helps the economy as well because it allows new start-ups to grow and cultivate over time,” Kasun said.

Microsoft plans to present its plans for D.C. to prospective real estate developers and academic partners Tuesday in an open house on the St. Elizabeths campus.

Gray’s economic development team is in the midst of choosing a real estate developer to overhaul the campus. The administration is also searching for  a college or university to anchor what the outgoing mayor fancies as a new hub of jobs, residences and shopping across the street from where the federal government plans to consolidate the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The campus is along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, between the Anacostia and Congress Heights neighborhoods.

Catherine Buell, who manages the project for the city, said she envisioned Microsoft occupying about 10,000 square feet in one of the southernmost historic brick buildings originally built to house mental patients. She said the Microsoft center provided a “gateway to areas that are in need of tech investment and entrepreneurial investment.”

Microsoft has signed a letter of intent to open the center but company officials said they will work out final terms with the city and its real estate and academic partners with the intent to open in 2016.

What a center will not provide for D.C. is a new source of jobs, as the outfit will be staffed on a rotating basis by existing employees from around the region. With offices in downtown D.C., Reston and Chevy Chase, Microsoft has about 1,200 employees in the area.

But Kasun said that with the right partnerships, the innovation center could be a magnet for new start-ups, even in areas with below-average levels of educational attainment, literacy and employment.

“As people are getting more and more up on technology, we see a surge in the number of new companies,” he said.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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