Widgets Magazine

Tech companies wield influence at Stanford

Public scrutiny over a report confirming that Google Inc. spent $5.4 million on lobbying in Washington D.C. in the first three quarters of 2011 has raised awareness among students and faculty about the influence that Google and other high-tech companies wield at Stanford.

Stanford and Google have had a close relationship since the co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin formed the company as graduate students. Google donates $1 million per year to the Computer Science Department alone, according to CS professor Eric Roberts.

(CAROLINE MARKS/The Stanford Daily)

Google’s predecessor, BackRub, was launched on Stanford servers before it became too large to support. The company’s business plan was also developed at Stanford.

“Stanford faculty members were very active in mentoring the founders,” Roberts said.

Roberts served as a mentor to Marissa Mayer B.S. ’97 M.S. ’99, current Google vice president of location and local services.

“For my role, it was really getting someone like Marissa, who had never imagined doing something like computer science, moving in that direction,” he said.

According to a recent interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt in The Washington Post, Google’s preferred method of influence is “to lobby based on ideas.”

However, according to Roberts, Stanford and Google continue to have close ties, both official and organic.

“Google has continued, through the founders, to have a relationship with Stanford,” he said. “Stanford owns some of the intellectual property. The patents on search and the like generate royalties for Stanford as well, and that’s been helpful.”

“Google has given a large grant. They endowed the Rajeev Motwani Chair in Rajeev’s memory,” he added.

Google’s annual $1 million donation is not directed toward particular projects but is a gift to be used at the department’s discretion.

Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and his wife, Akiko Yamazaki, funded the Science and Engineering Quad’s Y2E2 building dedicated to the environment and energy. According to the project’s manager Maggie Burnett, the duo visited the site during construction but did not contribute to its direct design

ASSU Vice President Stewart Macgregor-Dennis ’13 noted that Google and other companies do not commonly fund specific initiatives or projects through the ASSU. However, its financial branch, Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE), does include the startup accelerator StartX, which has multiple corporate sponsors.

Roberts further noted that several of his colleagues have gone to work for Google recently on an interim or more-permanent basis.

“Sebastian Thrun, who was a senior faculty member in artificial intelligence, gave up his tenured position just last year to go work for Google,” Roberts said. “Sebastian wrote a letter to all his colleagues in the department about why he decided to go. He has been working on autonomous vehicles, and you can do research at a place like Stanford–there’s no place better in the world for that sort of thing–but to change the world you need resources that are beyond what Stanford has. Companies have that.”

“Now [the industry] is actually depleting some of the faculty resources we have,” he said. “But it’s all to the good in terms of ways to do computer science on the grand scale.”

Macgregor-Dennis said he was able to persuade Schmidt to speak at Stanford next quarter based solely on the fact that he was a Stanford student.

“I went to an event that Eric Schmidt was talking at, and basically, I positioned myself so that I could guerrilla-style talk with him,” Macgregor-Dennis said. After a simple request, Schmidt agreed.

“I had no relationship with Google,” Macgregor-Dennis added. “I think that’s a testament to how much respect they have for Stanford that any Stanford student can just go up, and the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation can agree to come speak. I think they respect our talent.”

According to Career Development Center Student Affairs Officer Beverley Principal, Google is among the companies hiring the most Stanford grads each year.

Macgregor-Dennis sees the relationship between Google and Stanford as two sided.

“On their side, we’re essentially the biggest talent hotbed for their employees,” Macgregor-Dennis said. “On the student side…people just have an insane level of respect, almost veneration, for Google and Facebook and other companies that are using the skills that we have as students and are changing the world. It’s so directly applicable.”