The Technion Takes Manhattan
Tue, 01/10/2012
Israel Correspondent
A biomedical lab at The Technion. Photos courtesy of The Technion
A biomedical lab at The Technion. Photos courtesy of The Technion

Jerusalem — When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last month that the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology, and Cornell University had won a bid to create a state-of-the-art technological campus on Roosevelt Island, it confirmed what Israelis already know: that the Technion, with its reputation for innovation and Nobel Prize-winning scientists, is as respected abroad as it is in Israel.

Despite the limited funds for higher education in Israel — government funding has fallen about 20 percent during the past decade — the Technion continues to educate top students and to attract industry.

Like Cornell, the Technion brings to the partnership both academic excellence and experience in nurturing profitable cooperation between the university and private industry, especially start-ups.

According to Technion officials, more than 70 percent of the university’s graduates make their livings in the high-tech field, and almost half of the 121 Israeli companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange are headed by the university’s graduates. An estimated 4,000 start-ups have set up shop around the university, making the area a kind of Israeli Silicon Valley.

“The Technion has played a major role in transforming the entire economy of Israel from one based on exporting agricultural products like Jaffa oranges to one that is based on high-tech,” said Prof. Boaz Golany, the Technion’s vice-president for resource development.

One hundred years ago, when the university’s cornerstone was laid, its founders already had high hopes that it would serve as the scientific and technological foundation for a future Jewish homeland. Some of the great Jewish thinkers of the time — Martin Buber, Berthold Feiwel, Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein — embraced the concept and worked toward its establishment.

Major funding for the Technion (then called the Technikum) came from the Wissotzky (tea empire) family and Wall Street banker/philanthropist Jacob Schiff. Although Jerusalemites at the time wanted the university built in their city, Haifa, a burgeoning port city in the north, eventually won.

In 1923, a year before the Technion opened its doors to 17 students, including one woman, Einstein visited the campus and planted a palm tree that survives to this day. He became the chairman of the university’s first “friends” society and raised a great deal of money on its behalf.

“I do what I can to help those in my tribe who are treated so badly elsewhere,” Einstein said, referring to the fact that European Jews were barred from some professions even prior to the Holocaust.

While the university’s creation was spearheaded largely by European Jews who didn’t speak much Hebrew, the young Jewish leadership in Palestine wanted the language of all institutions to be Hebrew. Ultimately, Hebrew won, but not before a great deal of acrimony. 

The Technion welcomed many accomplished European educators and students fleeing the winds of war, and by 1948, when Israel was established, it had 680 students. To meet the needs of a sovereign state, the university established departments of electrical and mechanical engineering that helped develop the country’s infrastructure; a department of aeronautical engineering became the backbone of Israel’s air force and aerospace industry.  

The Technion’s talent for putting academic study to practical use helped transform it into the high-tech giant/magnet that it is today — a model New York’s mayor hopes to duplicate in Manhattan. 

“The whole aim of this, from Mayor Bloomberg’s perspective, is to make New York City a high-tech cluster, to turn it into another Silicon Valley,” said Matthe Kalman, the Jerusalem-based correspondent for both the Chronicle of Higher Ed and MIT Technology Review. “That’s exactly what the Technion has achieved in Haifa.”

Prof. Paul Feigin, the Technion’s senior vice-president, believes the university won the bid because it presented a practical plan to woo the high-tech giants and start-ups, based on its own success.  IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Yahoo and Google have all built R&D centers near the university and employ many students and graduates. 

The fact that Technion students are expected to work part-time in their fields while still in school gives them and the companies they work for a huge edge, Feigin said. 

“We understand why high-tech companies like to set up R&D centers around the Technion, and we showed [the New Yorkers] how it works. The high-tech industry is focused on talent, on people. In their final year of study our students work part-time.  This gives the companies the chance to choose the best students and to employ them once they graduate.

“What you have is a ‘virtuous cycle,’” Feigin said. “You set up an institute that attracts good students. You train them in areas relevant to their studies. Industry wants this talent and is attracted to the campus to have access to this talent pool. Then it feeds back to the students, who want to study at the institute because they know they’ll be employed. That’s the model we have in Haifa.”

“It’s a real symbiosis,” Kalman agreed. 

Adapting the Israeli model to New York will present both opportunities and challenges, university officials said. 

“New York City is probably THE city of the world. Our researchers will be able to work with Cornell researchers and have access to American granting agencies like the National Science Foundation and The National Institutes of Health,” Feigin said.

The challenges will include developing a working relationship that will help the two universities overcome cultural differences. Each operates according to a different set of rules and procedures, some based on national norms, some internal.

In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Kevin Kiley said the partnership will have “broad ramifications” for everyone involved.

For New York City, the campus “has the potential to develop a high-tech industry that many say is underrepresented in the city’s economy.” The campus will give the Technion “a chance to demonstrate its quality on the international scene.”

For Cornell, victory in the bid “will likely help cement Cornell as one of the major players in the high-tech industry, along with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Kiley said.

The Technion’s president, professor Peretz Lavie, said Bloomberg’s press conference, coming just a few days after Technion Professor Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, has already produced a great deal of interest from academics around the world wishing to teach at the new campus. Although groundbreaking isn’t expected to begin until 2015, a part of the program will begin later this year at another location. 

The president hopes the campus will eventually serve as a bridge for Israeli companies seeking a base in the U.S.

“Most Israeli companies, once they mature, want to serve the U.S. market, which is so much larger than Israel’s. We hope the campus will be friendly territory for them, a bridge between Haifa and New York,” Lavie said.

Though still just a plan on paper, the Technion’s win in the bid has already generated pride in the American Jewish community.

“People have told me they’re so happy that an Israeli institute will be helping the economy of New York. American Jews feel pride,” Lavie said.