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After five years of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, the spark still flickering with “academic nirvana”

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It wasn’t exactly romantic, but Microsoft brass was in the mood Tuesday to talk about how the spark still flickers between the software giant and the Cambridge innovation scene on the five-year anniversary of opening the Microsoft Research New England lab.

Microsoft marked the occasion with a daylong symposium (so much for a candlelight dinner), which gave me a chance to catch up with Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Microsoft Research New England, and Peter Lee, who heads the Microsoft Research division and its network of 13 labs.

“It’s really hot here,” Lee said. “The access to talent, the easy interactions with top research universities. There’s a really strong entrepreneurial culture here, and I think all of that creates a hip research environment. MSR is first and foremost about access to really smart people, and it has become obvious that the bet placed here has really paid off.”

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The Cambridge lab was the company’s first on the East Coast and remains unique among the baker’s dozen in its heavy reliance on visiting researchers, many from nearby universities, who collaborate with Microsoft on projects lasting anywhere from a week to a year. Visitors actually outnumber lab staff, 2 to 1.

“That’s why we opened here — it’s this kind of academic nirvana,” Chayes said.

The most exciting research projects hold the potential of commercial profit and social impact at the same time, Chayes said. She cited one example of work at the lab examining how the same research that has produced increasingly accurate voice recognition software might apply to brain disorders.

“To some extent, the advances are being driven by these huge commercial applications,” Chayes said, “these unbelievable payoffs — talking to your phone, being able to classify all your images, being able to have a camera go down the street and interpret stuff for you, which will happen soon. But the implication is going to be better understanding of the brain for Alzheimer’s, for autism. And so the payoffs for basic science are huge, too.”

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