Technion in Haifa turns out 75% of Israel’s engineers and 70% of its start-up founders. The 100-year-old university is a source of both newfound entrepreneurial energy and the intellectual hardware for the country’s national security arsenal.
HAIFA - The campus of Technion sits atop one of the hills overlooking Haifa Bay. Below lies Israel’s Silicon Valley, where Matam High Tech Park brings together Israeli start-ups and top American firms like Microsoft, Intel, Google, Yahoo and IBM. From this vantage point, one can see the source of Technion’s power, not to mention job destinations for its students.
Facts speak for themselves: 75% of Israeli engineers come out of Technion’s faculties, research centers and labs, as do 70% of start-up founders. Technion also spawned two winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, world-reknown discoveries such as rasgiline, a drug that treats Parkinson’s disease, new eco-friendly electricity production and water desalinization technology, recognized know-how in microsatellites building, and more.
Technion alumni are the lifeblood of Israel’s society and economy, especially in fields like defense and Information Technology, but also in medicine, nanotechnology, civil and electrical engineering, management and architecture. And the list goes on: its 12,849 students can choose amongst 18 different faculties.
Medical Professor Peretz Lavie, Dean of Technion, says that “there is no other example abroad of a university with such a contribution to its country’s economy.” Professor Benjamin Soffer, a specialist in technology transfers, explains the secret to Technion’s success: “twenty years ago, generals were the heroes of Israeli society. Today, the heroes are entrepreneurs.”
Case in point: people at Technion are quick to point out that the reason 52% of Israel’s exports are concentrated in high-tech is that Israel has the highest concentration of high-tech start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. There is another, more political reason: beyond R&D, Israel’s isolation from its neighbors makes trade challenging, forcing it to seek partnerships far beyond its borders, in particular in the US.
Technion’s story began in Basel, Switzerland, in 1901, during the fifth Zionist Congress. The decision to create a Jewish university deep inside the Ottoman Empire was not a natural one, but its first stone was laid in April 1912, almost a century ago.
On more than one level, Technion served as a resource for the Israeli army, which for decades hired specialists from here. This relationship continues to play a major part in the success of Israel’s first Science and Technology University, which is also the country’s largest applied research center.
The army, more specifically, the obligatory national military service, aids in another way: Israeli students start university at a later age, which is a strength for Technion. “After a three-year service (two for girls) and a year spent traveling, students are at least 23 when they enroll,” explains Physics Professor Eric Akkerman. “They are more mature and are more motivated than their European and American counterparts: they have no time to waste, they are here to work and to succeed.”
But the student-soldier path also has its challenges. Some 1,500 students were drafted in 2006, during the second Lebanon War. It’s also not unusual for people to go on reserve duties mid-studies. “Returning to civilian life can be difficult because of psychological and emotional challenges,” says Sarak Katzir who runs Technion’s team of psychologists.
The campus does well compared with Stanford or MIT, which Technion students consider their main reference points. One clear difference with its American counterparts is that Technion’s121 hectare closed-campus area is under strict surveillance. Tuition, however, is much lower than in the US ($16,000 compared to $40,000).
Salaries are fixed by the government, making “brain drain” possibly the most acute challenge for Technion. Once their thesis is completed, many students pursue post-doctorate programs in the US, where a growing number wind up staying, since salaries are two or three times higher.
More than 70% of Technion’s operating budget is covered by public funds, but the University relies on its large alumni network to find additional resources. Jewish communities around the world provide donations via “Technion Societies,” to support labs, but also to purchase equipment, support student grants or construct new buildings. Professor Lavie puts it this way: “the Jewish diaspora sees Technion as a cornerstone of Israel’s independence and security.”