The Secret Of Israel’s High-Tech Success

Technion in Haifa turns out 75% of Israel’s engineers and 70% of its start-up founders. The 100-year-old university is a source of both newfound entrepreneurial energy and the intellectual hardware for the country’s national security arsenal.

Technion Campus, Israel (tyomitch)
Technion Campus, Israel (tyomitch)
Laurent Zecchini

HAIFA - The campus of Technion sits atop one of the hills overlooking Haifa Bay. Below lies Israel's Silicon Valley, where Matam High Tech Park brings together Israeli start-ups and top American firms like Microsoft, Intel, Google, Yahoo and IBM. From this vantage point, one can see the source of Technion's power, not to mention job destinations for its students.

Facts speak for themselves: 75% of Israeli engineers come out of Technion's faculties, research centers and labs, as do 70% of start-up founders. Technion also spawned two winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, world-reknown discoveries such as rasgiline, a drug that treats Parkinson's disease, new eco-friendly electricity production and water desalinization technology, recognized know-how in microsatellites building, and more.

Technion alumni are the lifeblood of Israel's society and economy, especially in fields like defense and Information Technology, but also in medicine, nanotechnology, civil and electrical engineering, management and architecture. And the list goes on: its 12,849 students can choose amongst 18 different faculties.

Medical Professor Peretz Lavie, Dean of Technion, says that "there is no other example abroad of a university with such a contribution to its country's economy." Professor Benjamin Soffer, a specialist in technology transfers, explains the secret to Technion's success: "twenty years ago, generals were the heroes of Israeli society. Today, the heroes are entrepreneurs."

Case in point: people at Technion are quick to point out that the reason 52% of Israel's exports are concentrated in high-tech is that Israel has the highest concentration of high-tech start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. There is another, more political reason: beyond R&D, Israel's isolation from its neighbors makes trade challenging, forcing it to seek partnerships far beyond its borders, in particular in the US.

Technion's story began in Basel, Switzerland, in 1901, during the fifth Zionist Congress. The decision to create a Jewish university deep inside the Ottoman Empire was not a natural one, but its first stone was laid in April 1912, almost a century ago.

Military resource

On more than one level, Technion served as a resource for the Israeli army, which for decades hired specialists from here. This relationship continues to play a major part in the success of Israel's first Science and Technology University, which is also the country's largest applied research center.

The army, more specifically, the obligatory national military service, aids in another way: Israeli students start university at a later age, which is a strength for Technion. "After a three-year service (two for girls) and a year spent traveling, students are at least 23 when they enroll," explains Physics Professor Eric Akkerman. "They are more mature and are more motivated than their European and American counterparts: they have no time to waste, they are here to work and to succeed."

But the student-soldier path also has its challenges. Some 1,500 students were drafted in 2006, during the second Lebanon War. It's also not unusual for people to go on reserve duties mid-studies. "Returning to civilian life can be difficult because of psychological and emotional challenges," says Sarak Katzir who runs Technion's team of psychologists.

The campus does well compared with Stanford or MIT, which Technion students consider their main reference points. One clear difference with its American counterparts is that Technion's121 hectare closed-campus area is under strict surveillance. Tuition, however, is much lower than in the US ($16,000 compared to $40,000).

Salaries are fixed by the government, making "brain drain" possibly the most acute challenge for Technion. Once their thesis is completed, many students pursue post-doctorate programs in the US, where a growing number wind up staying, since salaries are two or three times higher.

More than 70% of Technion's operating budget is covered by public funds, but the University relies on its large alumni network to find additional resources. Jewish communities around the world provide donations via "Technion Societies," to support labs, but also to purchase equipment, support student grants or construct new buildings. Professor Lavie puts it this way: "the Jewish diaspora sees Technion as a cornerstone of Israel's independence and security."

Read the original article in French

Photo - tyomitch

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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