Academia-Industry Alliance: Israel Must Prioritize Strong, Lasting Partnerships

In the Israeli high-tech sector, we are facing a new tide of challenges and opportunities. Driven by strong market forces, this new tide might fracture our legacy of success if we don’t adjust. Here’s why.

Anyone familiar with the story of our Startup Nation knows the important role the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has played in propelling the country’s technology revolution forward. Thanks to graduates of elite IDF intelligence units such as 8200, 9900, and 504, who transferred their skills to the private sector, Israel has made a name for itself as a top global player in cybersecurity, AI, fintech, etc. The country witnessed impressive exits and many dozens of unicorns.

But this engine of Israeli prestige and prosperity might no longer be enough to serve as a source of growth as the markets change.

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The global tech ecosystem is heading in brand-new directions – seeking and harvesting opportunities in more science-based sectors such as agri-tech, climate tech, food tech, and life sciences. On the one hand, there is the undeniable dependence of the Israeli high-tech sector on elite IDF graduates, and on the other, there is the outright reality that the IDF does not train its graduates for the aforementioned fields. IDF does not possess the necessary experience in these fields, nor does it need to.

What must Israel do, then, to meet the needs of a changing tech ecosystem?

The answer lies in academia-industry collaborations. While Israel is a small country with a small number of universities and institutes, it has a strong tradition of research and development, leading many other countries in patents and non-patent academic research literature.

To stay ahead of the curve, Israel must develop and prioritize a model of strong and persistent academia-industry partnerships. Not only does this model prepare future generations for a changing market, but it also fosters collaborations between university researchers and entrepreneurs today. It takes academic knowledge of technology beyond university borders, applies it in the real world, and commercializes it for the benefit of the wider business world and entire societies.

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But as strong and creative as the Israeli Academic world is, there is an even bigger opportunity for the Israeli technology sector when we add collaboration with the US to the equation. While Israel has 9 Research Universities and 31 Academic colleges the US has close to 300 high-level research institutes and over 4000 Universities. While Israel’s top University is currently number 222 in the QS ranking of top Universities the US has 5 institutions in the top 10 and 59 in the top 200 in the same ranking. The US also leads the world in the level of cooperation of Academia with industry as measured, for instance, by Average research income from industry per academic staff:

University industry collaboration – The consultancy report. November 2020.

As Israeli high-tech companies become more and more ‘science-based’ they have a lot to gain from any form possible of collaboration with US-based research institutes, preferably in combination with the Israeli Universities.

This is one of the main missions of The Israel-United States Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD). By empowering consortiums of universities, laboratories, and companies from the US and Israel, and connecting them with each other as well as potential strategic partners, we promote collaborations in various technological sectors for joint product development. BIRD also provides grants for projects carried out by corporations with universities or research institutes that are focused on commercialization of innovations developed jointly.

One of our centers, The US-Israel Energy Center (full name: The US-Israel Center of Excellence in Energy, Engineering and Water Technology), supports four consortiums: The Fossil Energy Consortium, The Energy Storage Consortium, The Energy Cyber Consortium, and The Energy-Water Nexus. Each of these consortiums is co-led by two PIs – one from the US and one from an Israeli University and includes corporations and research institutes from both countries. While these consortiums focus on energy, they are an excellent example of the types of collaborations Israel must foster within its borders and beyond.

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We must do much more to connect academia both in Israel and abroad with our high-tech sector. We must walk the extra mile to create symbioses between academicians, researchers, and entrepreneurs across borders. The IDF has acted as a demoware of our potential; now it is time we adapt and change to pass on our legacy of success to the next generation of Israelis.

About the Author
Jaron Lotan is the Executive Director of the BIRD (Binational Industrial Research and Development) Foundation. In the past 39 years served in key executive roles with leading Israeli-based technology companies.
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