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Duke teams with Microsoft to open a medical research hub

Microsoft and Duke University are joining forces in a new research collaboration that includes the opening of a Microsoft "innovation hub" in the Chesterfield building in Durham.
Microsoft and Duke University are joining forces in a new research collaboration that includes the opening of a Microsoft "innovation hub" in the Chesterfield building in Durham. Bloomberg News

Duke University and Microsoft have formed a new collaboration that among other things will see the software giant set up a new research hub in downtown Durham's Chesterfield building.

The hub will operate as "shared space between Duke and Microsoft," the space under Microsoft's control with Duke personnel embedded there so people from both sides can work together to "apply machine learning and data science to applications in health," said Larry Carin, Duke's vice provost for research.

The project will also expand the university's use of Microsoft's Azure cloud-computing service, as Duke and Microsoft researchers join forces to crunch radiological data, use mobile apps to help diagnose autism earlier and use "natural-language" processing to spot patterns in doctors' patient-care notes.

Initially, Duke and Microsoft have signed a three-year agreement, "but we would expect [the collaboration] to be something that would go on for some time and probably grow," Carin said.

He added that "it's kind of a natural thing for Duke to partner with Microsoft" given longstanding ties between the two that include those with the family of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. His wife, Melinda Gates, is a Duke alumna and former Duke trustee.

The university has also used the Azure platform for years and sees it as the key to the project and an advantage Microsoft has over other tech-industry players like IBM and Red Hat, he said.

"We're well-positioned to do this," Carin said.

Announcing the collaboration on Monday, Duke officials said the Chesterfield hub should be ready in the fall.

The former cigarette factory already hosts labs for Duke University and several private-industry companies. The Duke contingent there includes people from the the university's medical school, the Pratt School of Engineering and the Duke Clinical Research Institute.

Microsoft Research, a branch of the software company that's working on artificial intelligence, speech recognition and other technologies, will operate the new hub. It already has labs in tech centers like Boston near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Montreal near McGill University.

In making the deal, Microsoft "recognized not only the value that can come from research collaborations with Duke, but also the rise of Durham into a tech hub," Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg
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