At Ben-Gurion University, academia makes a space for entrepreneurship

New center being built at the heart of the Negev campus will run courses, hackathons and initiatives to connect budding inventors to the startup ecosystem

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative image of students in the campus at of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, on May 8 2013. (Dudu Greenspan/ Flash90)
Illustrative image of students in the campus at of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, on May 8 2013. (Dudu Greenspan/ Flash90)

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has set up a new entrepreneurship program called Yazamut 360 that aims to encourage students, faculty members and researchers to develop and hone their entrepreneurship skills.

“We are creating a hype about entrepreneurship,” said Dana Gavish Fridman, VP entrepreneurship at BGN Technologies Ltd., who is in charge of the program. BGN Technologies commercializes technologies developed within the university.

“It is not only about startups but about bringing entrepreneurship education to a variety of populations and study fields,” she said. “Today to succeed in the job market — whatever field you choose — you need to build your entrepreneurship skills.”

The new hub, which will be located at the center of the campus, will become a workspace for the university’s 19,000 students, researchers and 150,000 graduates, she said. The center will run courses, hackathons and initiatives that will connect the developers to the nation’s startup ecosystem, while also fostering the cross-fertilization of ideas by boosting cooperation between members of different faculties, like management, engineering and medicine.

Students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Dani Machlis)

The new program has also set up a $1 million fund, called Cactus Capital BGU, that will be run by students and will invest in technologies developed by students, Gavish Fridman said. Students will be able to pitch their technologies to the fund and get investments ranging from $5,000 for ideas to $20,000 for more developed startups. The fund will both help student entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground, she said, and provide those students who are running the fund with valuable experience as they mull a variety of investments.

“We need to change the way we educate our students,” Gavish Fridman said. “Employers today wish to see a lot of experience, not just academic achievements. We need to connect our students to the commercial world, and make sure they get that exposure.”

Dana Gavish Fridman, VP entrepreneurship at BGN Technologies Ltd., the tech transfer unit of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Courtesy)

Higher education institutions are going through what some see as disruption, whereby because of the high costs of university studies, people are starting to prefer online alternatives, colleges and programming courses and so-called boot camps to gain the abilities to enter the lucrative tech sector.

In Israel, which boasts the greatest number of startups per capita in the world, entrepreneurship courses have been sprouting at universities and colleges throughout the country to meet a grassroots demand. These programs aim to arm students with much-needed theory along with a toolbox of mentorships, networking and tips on how best to approach investors for funding.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem wants to make entrepreneurship part of the staple diet of all of its students — including historians, engineers and philosophers. The Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya is aiming to become a hub for all of the private college’s entrepreneurial activities, both academic and extracurricular.

Students at IDC speed-date with startups (Courtesy: Adi Cohen Zedek)

The career world is changing very quickly, BGU’s Gavish Fridman said. People need to reinvent themselves all the time, to meet the changing needs. “When you graduate you need to make sure you have the skills to improve yourself, to think in an agile way. We must be able to give our students those skills.”

In addition, the initiative will also encourage international collaborations, including student exchange programs, for example with Canada’s McGill University, and acceleration programs that help researchers and students take their developments forward.

These fledgling entrepreneurs also need to be given the right tools they need to take their developments out into the industry, she said.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a research university with some 20,000 students, 4,000 faculty members and 150,000 graduates.

The university is a partner in the initiative to set up an advanced technology park on the outskirts of the campus. The park is a public-private partnership which seeks the flourishing of the collaboration between the academia and leading tech companies operating in Israel. The Israeli army is also in the process of transferring its intelligence and tech units to Beersheba, creating an even more fertile ground for collaboration.

The IDF’s tech campus, spread over a built area of 150,000 square meters, will be erected at the tech park of Gav-Yam, in the proximity of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beer Sheva. (IDF spokesperson unit)

“Multinationals and big Israeli companies are seeing the value of setting up premises next to talent and future talent coming out of our university,” Gavish Fridman said. “The university is also getting ready to work with the IDF’s communications and intelligence units that are moving to Beersheba. Thousands of soldiers and officers will be coming to Beersheba with their families over the next decade.”

The city, which is now enjoying a comeback thanks to the planned IDF move and the tech ecosystem that it is fostering, was once perceived as a failed development town of immigrants living in drug-infested neighborhoods.

“With its presence and its work, the university is a catalyst for social change locally,” she said. “Everyone at the university keeps that vision in mind. We see our role as becoming an anchor for the development of Israel’s Negev region.”

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