Monday, November 11, 2013

The Technion: The Engine of a Young Nation

Richard Baehr

The modern day state of Israel celebrated its 65th birthday this year.  Throughout this period of time, the nation has faced unremitting challenges to its security and existence.  Now  American President Barack Obama seems to be telling Iran, a nation that considers Israel an illegitimate nation that should be destroyed, and has been advancing its  nuclear program with impunity for many years, that if "you like your nuclear weapons program, you get to keep it."   

At the same time, the American Secretary of State John Kerry, unhappy that Israel is not caving to Palestinian demands, is blaming Israel for an impasse in peace talks, and there are threats of a heavy handed  American response  that will push for adoption of the Palestinian position in the negotiations in the months to come. With "friends" like these now in office in America, the country that has been Israel's strongest ally for decades, the ability of Israel to defend itself, and grow and prosper is hardly a settled question for all time. 

But Israel has found answers before, and it continues to do so today, regardless of the hostility the nation has faced from abroad. One of the major reasons is a university, the Technion, which arguably is more tied to the current success and to the future of the country, than any other single university's role for any other country in the world.

I am just back from a short trip to Israel as part of a group of individuals from several states who visited the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, where we met with Technion students, faculty, researchers,  and administrators, as well as executives of various startup companies and more mature companies in the life sciences field, which have adopted Technion-developed technologies for commercial use.  To say that the Technion has been critical to Israel's enormous success in becoming a member of the developed world of nations and a center for entrepreneurship and advanced technology, would not be doing justice to the extent of the connection. 

A recent bestselling book, Startup Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, outlined the enormously outsized  role Israel has played in the development of new technologies and companies.  Technion alumni are associated with many of the 67 Israeli companies listed on the Nasdaq exchange, a number greater than that of any other foreign country.

As a nation that has never been accepted by most of its neighbors and has seen 25,000 of its people lost in wars and to acts of terrorism, national security has always been a very high priority issue in Israel. Unlike the United States, where parents are asked to  pay enormous sums for their 18 year old children to attend universities where in many cases academic demands are few, and free time and left wing propagandizing  are the order of the day,  Israeli  students arrive at their universities at a different stage of life,  after 3 years (or more) of military service,  and the challenges they face have much more  to do with the academic rigor of the university programs than is the case in the United States.  This is particularly true at the Technion, Israel's premier science and technology university, founded a quarter century before the modern state of Israel came into being,  and where today 9,000 undergraduates and nearly 4,000 graduate students are in attendance at any one time.

Technion alumni have been critical to the success of the Israeli Defense Forces,  heavily populating the government-owned Israeli Aerospace industries and private defense manufacturer Rafael. As new challenges to Israel's security have developed over the years, Israel has become increasingly self-reliant in developing its responses, and has become an exporter of advanced defense technologies to other countries, including the United States.  The Arrow and Iron Dome systems  are examples of the new requirements for Israeli defense against  rocket and missile attacks, and Technion alumni have been critical in both enterprises.

But defense technology is only a small part of the Technion's contribution to the nation, and to the world.  In addition to the many startup companies,  pretty much all major international technology companies -- Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Google, IBM, Facebook,  and Amazon among the American giants --  have all developed substantial research and development operations in Israel, most of them locating within a short distance of the Technion's Haifa campus, enabling the companies to offer jobs to graduates, as well as current students, and to learn of (and in many cases, acquire) new companies founded by Technion graduates. Intel, one of the first to recognize the talent pool, now has 7,000 Israeli employees.

Life sciences companies have a longer development process from the laboratory to the IPO stage than many IT companies, but Technion graduates have been working with technologies first discovered in Technion labs on many fronts, advancing the fight against cancer and gastrointestinal disorders, and paralysis,  and introducing the far less invasive operating room of the future. 

The Technion, like Israel  in general, owes a lot to the efforts of former Washington State Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, whose efforts to pressure the Soviet Union to allow its Jewish citizens to emigrate, enabled many to leave for Israel even before the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s  and led to more substantial levels of immigration to Israel in the years following. Many of the new Israelis had strong backgrounds in math, science and engineering, which only added to the resources already in place at the Technion and elsewhere in the country.  While too many bright American students seem to want to be lawyers or hedge fund managers, many of the brightest Israelis continue to be attracted to science and engineering.

The respect for the Technion, its faculty, graduates, and its startup culture, have been endorsed by two very significant international validations in the last two years.  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg selected a Cornell University-Technion joint venture as the winner of a competition for a new applied sciences graduate school to be developed over the next decade on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Both universities announced significant contributions towards the new enterprise which is temporarily being housed at Google's New York offices. 

The victory was a powerful blow to the vigorous effort by anti-Israel groups promoting boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and naturally, a new campaign was quickly formed by Israel haters on the left to stop the joint venture.  The haters have had some limited success keeping some second rate entertainers from visiting Israel and they may get an alternative non-Israeli hummus onto some college menus. But the fact that an Ivy League university sought out the Technion as its partner suggests that the school's achievements in science and technology and its startup culture are highly valued in this country. So too, the mayor of America's largest city wanted to push New York toward a future in high technology, rather than just continue to rely on Wall Street for high paying jobs,  and the Technion, like Stanford, and MIT, has discovered a formula for turning research and science into commercial opportunity.

An even more stunning victory for the Technion and Israel was just announced.  One of Asia's wealthiest businessmen, Li Ka-Shing, announced a gift of $130 million to the Technion as part of a joint venture with Shantou University to establish the Technion Guangdong Institute of Technology.  This is the first time a foreign university has been invited to establish a new Chinese university, and the Chinese province will contribute another $150 million for the campus and infrastructure.

"While academics around the world are attempting to damage Israel's economy with calls for boycotts and divestment, it is the Chinese who see the inherent value in Israeli ingenuity, innovation and education," said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL), an institute working to advance Israel-China relations. "Economic stability is one of China's main goals. They view this collaboration as an investment in their own future."

When the two largest economies in the world vote with their checkbooks to bring the Technion to their nations and to partner with their universities, it is evidence that there is something going on in the hills of Haifa that the world finds very valuable.  That value equation includes a combination of smarts, hard work, and collaboration that produces that elusive synergy that turns innovative laboratory science into new products and technologies for society.

Albert Einstein, the President of the first Technion Society, stressed the importance of the university to the future of Israel:

"Israel can win the battle for survival only by developing expert knowledge in technology."

The contributions of the country's flagship science and technology university, and the role it has played in the country's history,  are evidence of Einstein's insight. The Israel haters will have their small victories from time to time, but the Technion  increasingly  belongs not only to Israel, but to the world.

Page Printed from: at November 10, 2013 - 09:57:48 PM CST

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