For the second time in a week, an Israeli university has announced a major new project with a Chinese institution of higher learning.
On Tuesday, the University of Haifa said it would establish a joint laboratory building on the campus of East China Normal University (ECNU), the largest university in Shanghai. The lab will specialize in research in ecology, big data, biomedicine, and neurobiology. The building will be funded entirely by the Chinese government, the University of Haifa said.
The deal was similar to one announced last week by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which said it was establishing a joint center for entrepreneurship and innovation with Jilin University (JLU), the biggest university in China. The new joint center “will promote academic cooperation in research and teaching and will serve as a platform to encourage connections between Chinese and Israeli businesspeople,” said BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi. “This agreement is another stage in the internationalization of BGU and exemplifies the University’s commitment to academic excellence, international ties, and economic growth.”
Neither can take credit for being the first Israeli institution to open an R&D center in China. In December, the Technion laid the cornerstone for its new research center in the southern Chinese city of Shantou. The Guangdong Technion Israel Institute of Technology (GTIIT) will be located on a 330,000 square meter campus and is to be paid for by the richest man in China, Li Ka Shing, who donated $130 million for the project. And in 2014, Tel Aviv University said that it would establish the XIN Research Center with Beijing’s Tsinghua University, to research early stage and mature technologies in biotech, solar energy, water, and environmental technologies.
Over the past five years or so, business relations between Israel and China have blossomed. “The Chinese – investors and governments alike – are realizing that a tech economy, like the one Israel has, is their best growth option, and in the coming years, this is going to be good news for both Israelis and Chinese,” according to Andrew Zhang, a consultant who has engineered numerous deals between some of China’s biggest banks and tech firms and Israeli start-ups.
Chinese leaders realize that “the era of rapid growth based on industrial production and government infrastructure spending has come to an end, and right now there is nothing to replace it. The only viable replacement for these growth vehicles is high-tech, and that is one reason China is very interested in Israel,” said Zhang. He added that officials there have figured out that it’s more efficient to bring Israeli R&D to China than to schlep out to Israel – hence the spate of university-level research centers announced in recent months.
That is one reason for ECNU’s interest in working with his school, said University of Haifa president Amos Shapira. “The establishment of the joint building is a massive step forward in academic cooperation, and evidence of the great importance ECNU attaches to cooperation with the University of Haifa. We are joining a very exclusive list of leading world universities, such as Cornell and NYU, that have reached this level of cooperation with ECNU,” he said.
The formal signing ceremony took place Monday, and was attended by University of Haifa rector David Faraggi and vice president and dean of research Michal Yerushalmy. Shapira was in Sao Paolo at the time of the ceremony, where he signed a further cooperation agreement with the Brazilian university ESPM, but sent his greetings. Guests from the Chinese side include ECNU president Chen Qun, the head of the School of Life Sciences, Liu Mingyao, and the head of the Brain Functional Genomics, among others.
Qun said that he sees the cooperation with the University of Haifa as one of ECNU’s most important international cooperation projects: “We always say that we Chinese are the hardest-working people in the world. Here at the University of Haifa, I have been happy to find people who work as hard as we do.”