Tech helps develop ‘development town’ Beersheba

A major science and technology event at Ben-Gurion University highlights just how far the Negev has come in recent years

Google Israel CEO Meir Brand (L) and Yossi Vardi at Ben Gurion University's Innovation 2013 'un-conference' (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Google Israel CEO Meir Brand (L) and Yossi Vardi at Ben Gurion University's Innovation 2013 'un-conference' (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The Beersheba that once was — a failed development town of immigrants living in drug-infested neighborhoods — is a thing of the past, thanks to some major government investment, a rush of high-tech companies setting up projects in the area, and the IDF, which is moving its training and technology facilities to the city.

The Negev city’s incredible renewal is due in large part to the science revolution going on in Ben-Gurion University, according to university president Rivka Carmi. “People are beginning to understand that this is the place where Israeli high-tech is going to take the next big leap forward. It’s a process, but pretty soon you will see that Beersheba is going to be Israel’s technology center.”

Ben-Gurion University is serious about bringing that technology revolution to the Negev. Last week it held the country’s biggest-ever high-tech event, an “un-conference” (because of its informality) called Innovation 2013. Held last Thursday, the event showcased no fewer than 550 technology projects — working models, papers, devices, development and business plans, and more — at an event that was a combination science fair, learning event, TED-style idea session, and overall high-tech “revival meeting.”

Over 1,000 engineering, business, and management students presented projects as diverse as a scuba-diving robot controlled by its landlubbing masters, a drone that gives specific information to infantry troops on what lies down the road in real time, a lip-reading system for tracheostomy patients, a system for computers to analyze faces and a robot that solves puzzles.

The event also featured dozens of speakers, a who’s who of the Israeli high-tech scene, including Google Israel CEO Meir Brand, Orna Berry, head of EMC Israel, John Medved of OurCrowd, representatives from IBM, Microsoft, AT&T and other multinationals — and, of course, Yossi Vardi, Israel’s original tech entrepreneur, who kicked off the “Start-Up Nation’s” string of tech successes when he and his partners sold ICQ to AOL in 1998.

Besides the speakers and projects, there were several side events, including the official establishment of a new incubator by Elbit Systems. Incubit, as the incubator is called, will enroll at least 20 companies over the next eight years working in the field of cyber-defense, homeland security, and other areas that Elbit specializes in. The Elbit announcement follows another incubator announcement by Jerusalem Venture Partners several weeks ago that it, too, was opening an incubator in Beersheba, to focus on cyber-security start-ups. And, to top it off, Deutsche Telekom, which already has an R&D facility in Beersheba, is opening a new Internet technology incubator. The incubator’s offices will be based in Tel Aviv, but given the close working relationship between DT and Ben-Gurion, it’s expected that the German telecom giant will be especially amenable to working with start-ups in the Negev.

The change has been slow but steady, Carmi told The Times of Israel. “We are just now unveiling the new Beersheba high-tech park, which has been under development for the past 15 years. Now that we have gotten it off the ground, the big companies are coming to check out what Beersheba, and Ben-Gurion University, have to offer, and are going away very impressed.” Once, Carmi said, people settled in the Negev for ideological reasons (or because it was a cheap place to live), but now, “the Negev is a place to do business. People are beginning to understand this place.”

The park, being built together by Ben-Gurion University, the Beersheba Municipality, and US company KUD, is set to include over 20 buildings with a total area of about 200,000 square meters, including offices, laboratories and commercial areas. The first building of about 17,500 square meters is nearly done, and is set to receive its first tenants after the summer.

The university can’t take all the credit for the Negev’s tech revolution, though. The IDF is building a large technology campus, as part of the transfer of select IDF units to the Negev. The technology campus will become home to specialized IDF technology, cyber-defense, and military intelligence units, which will be transferred from Tel Aviv. In addition, the IDF is building an intelligence complex just outside Beersheba, in addition to a major training base for new recruits. Meanwhile, Beersheba already leads the country in turning out engineers, with about 1,400 graduating annually, thanks to Ben-Gurion University and the Shamoon College of Engineering, also located in the city.

That Beersheba will be the country’s next major tech center is a given, Carmi said. “The business center will remain in Tel Aviv, but like in the US, there are many ‘centers’ for different industries outside New York. In Israel, I think it’s inevitable that Beersheba will become the new technology center for the country, considering how many companies will be opening R&D facilities here, and how many engineers we turn out each year. I see us becoming the center for cyber-defense technologies, big data, and other areas.”

The proof is in the 550 projects on display at Innovation 2013. The event took place in a single day, so there was no way an individual could take in the entire show. But that’s fine, said Carmi. “We know people have different interests and ideas, and we want to show that all of them are available here. Ben-Gurion University, and the Negev, is the place to go for anything technology-related. It’s all right here.”

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