Tech seed fund brings MIT, Israeli R&D closer

Deal between the elite US institution and Ben Gurion University rewards promising research with financing

(L to R:) Prof. Joseph Kost, dean of the faculty of engineering sciences at BGU; Prof. Zvi Hacohen, rector at BGU; Prof. Christine Ortiz, faculty director at MIT-Israel and dean of graduate education at MIT (Photo credit: Dani Machlis/BGU)
(L to R:) Prof. Joseph Kost, dean of the faculty of engineering sciences at BGU; Prof. Zvi Hacohen, rector at BGU; Prof. Christine Ortiz, faculty director at MIT-Israel and dean of graduate education at MIT (Photo credit: Dani Machlis/BGU)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Tuesday signed a deal with Ben-Gurion University to create a seed fund to promote and support early-stage collaborations between MIT researchers and their counterparts at BGU. This is the first seed fund in Israel for MIT, which has been working with Ben-Gurion and other Israeli universities since 2007.

Under the deal, students from both institutions are to work together to develop ideas based on research done at both schools. Ideas will be submitted to a panel for review, and those found worthy of further development will receive seed money from the fund.

The program is administered by MIT’s International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI), which arranges for MIT students to spend time at institutions around the world. MISTI works with all Israeli universities and runs joint research and education programs for MIT students in Israel. The group operates an internship program for MIT students in Israel, who work in companies such as Teva, IBM and Intel, said David Dolev, managing director of MISTI MIT-Israel and assistant director of MISTI worldwide.

“From its inception in 2007, the MISTI MIT-Israel program has striven to effectively recruit, select and place outstanding students in unique internship opportunities in Israel,” said Dolev. “Students do internships in companies, start-ups and research labs at universities. 2013-2014 marked significant strides in the program’s growth and development. This past year the number of students participating grew to 77, the largest cohort the program has sent overseas, for a total of over 300 students since the pilot year of 2005. During these years, 40 MIT students did internships at BGU. These outstanding MIT students hail from all over the United States, as well as dozens of other countries around the world. Participants were drawn from 21 academic departments and a broad range of academic levels ranging from freshmen to PhD candidates.”

The announcement Tuesday coincided with a visit to Israel by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who is leading a large trade mission to increase ties between Israel and his state. According to a report by the New England-Israel Business Council (NEIBC), Massachusetts was Israel’s 12th largest import partner in the United States last year, with Israel importing $212 million in goods and services. In 2012, the organization said, 211 Israeli-founded businesses that set up shop in Massachusetts, most of which are start-ups, accounted for 2.9 percent of the state’s GDP. Some 6,700 people, the vast majority of them Massachusetts residents, worked for these companies, with an additional 17,000 people employed in businesses supporting these companies, such as technical support, janitorial services and banking. Thanks to this “multiplier effect,” the $6.2 billion of business that these Israeli companies did in 2012 had an overall economic impact of nearly $12 billion, the group said.

“We at BGU are excited and looking forward to tightening our collaboration with MIT faculty and students,” said Prof. Joseph Kost, dean of the faculty of engineering sciences, who signed onto the agreement creating the seed program. According to Prof. Christine Ortiz, MISTI MIT-Israel faculty director and MIT’s dean of graduate education, “The agreement we signed today will enable MIT and BGU to move forward in key areas of research important to both institutions.”

MIT participates in other programs in Israel, notably the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel, which runs monthly programs to educate Israeli entrepreneurs, especially in high-tech, on all elements of developing a business, said Ayala Matalon, the forum’s CEO. Past speakers include top figures in Israeli high-tech, such as Yossi Vardi, Shai Agasi and Stef Wertheimer.

The forum had its moment in Israeli political history when Finance Minister Yair Lapid in February 2012 first discussed his political ambitions, emphasizing the need to help the middle class and tech community. It was at that meeting that he famously declared that if he were to head a party that won seats in the Knesset and joined the subsequent coalition, he would prefer to be education minister. “Foreign minister would be acceptable as well,” Lapid said. “But not finance minister.”

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