Alibaba announces multibillion dollar research project with Israeli R&D center

Tel Aviv hub will be one of seven facilities worldwide

Alibaba founder Jack Ma announces the launch of a global research program, called DAMO, October 11, 2017. (YouTube screenshot)
Alibaba founder Jack Ma announces the launch of a global research program, called DAMO, October 11, 2017. (YouTube screenshot)

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is launching a global research project with ambitious goals – and an Israeli research hub.

The Alibaba Group announced on Wednesday the creation of a global “Academy” dedicated to innovation and technological collaboration. The program – which Alibaba says will see $15 billion in R&D investment over the next three years – includes the creation of seven research laboratories worldwide, including one in Tel Aviv. The Academy will be called DAMO, standing for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook. Alibaba is touting the project as a major step toward closing the world’s technology gap.

“The Alibaba DAMO Academy will be at the forefront of developing next-generation technology that will spur the growth of Alibaba and our partners,” said Alibaba CTO Jeff Zhang in a press release. Zhang will be overseeing the Academy, the release said.

“We aim to discover breakthrough technologies that will enable greater efficiency, network security and ecosystem synergy for end-users and businesses everywhere,” Zhang said.

The DAMO Academy research laboratories will be the center of the early development of the project, the company said in the official release. These will include two Chinese centers, in Beijing and Hangzhou, as well as laboratories in Moscow, Singapore and Tel Aviv, and two US laboratories in San Mateo, California, and Bellevue, Washington. The company said that the laboratories will “focus on both foundational and disruptive technology research including data intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), fintech, quantum computing and human-machine interaction,” with particular attention to machine learning, network security, visual computing and Natural Language Processing.

The project intends to recruit 100 researchers from around the world to work in its hubs.

Founded in 1999 and currently composed of 18 subsidiaries, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd amassed an annual revenue of $22.99 billion in 2016. Its services are focused on ecommerce — B2B, B2C and C2C — and mobile payment. As of September, it registered 446 million shoppers, 529 million monthly mobile users and a million cloud customers. Major subsidiaries include, Aliyun (Alibaba Cloud), Ali Venture Capital and the South China Morning Post.

The company made its first foray into the Israeli startup market in 2015 when it invested in Visualead, a Tel Aviv-based startup specializing in developing “designer” Quick Response codes. Later that year it partnered with Israeli venture capital firm JVP (Jerusalem Venture Partners) to invest in multiple Israeli tech startups. It has also invested in Israeli startups such as Twiggle, Infinity Augmented Reality, Lumus and ThetaRay.

Chinese investment in Israel hit an all-time high in 2016, clocking in at $16.5 billion – largely focused in the web, cybersecurity and medical fields – according to data from the Thomson Reuters foundation. The same data shows a marked trend of Chinese investment shifting from the US to Israel. In 2016 alone Chinese investors canceled $26.3 billion in previously announced deals from the US, largely due to tough screening from the United States’ Committee on Foreign Investment, which screens trade for national security risks, and more recently US President Donald Trump’s aggressive protectionist stance on trade with the People’s Republic of China.

At bilateral meetings this March in Beijing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted Israel as a “perfect junior partner” to China’s economy, and officials agreed to accelerate the establishment of a Free Trade Zone between the two countries.

Alibaba said that the DAMO Academy project will look to engage in partnerships with major figures in technological innovation and top educational institutions to “explore technology breakthroughs aimed at improving the lives of technology end-users and boosting the efficiency and security of enterprises globally.” The press release announced that the Academy project will be collaborating with the University of California, Berkeley-supported RISE Lab on research related to secured real-time computing. The project’s advisory board will include major figures in US and Chinese academia, including Wen Gao, professor and dean of the Faculty of Information and Engineering Sciences at Peking University, Avi Wigderson, professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and George Church of Harvard and MIT.

“Over the past 18 years, we have developed a robust technology infrastructure that supports the rapid growth of our business. With our global expansion, we have grown and refined our technology manifold,” said Zhang.

“We are now looking for talented and driven researchers to join us in the quest for new disruptive technologies that would advance our everyday lives, benefit small businesses and narrow the technology gap to make our world a more inclusive place.”

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