An Interview With The President Of The University That Turned Israel Into Start-up Nation

July 06, 2015
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by Peter High, published on Forbes


Stanford and MIT receive well deserved recognition as hotbeds of entrepreneurship, but neither of those is as singularly influential in the US as the Israel Insitute of Technology, better known as the Technion. Sincet the university’s founding over one hundred years ago, a quarter of the university’s graduates have started businesses.  Since 2004, graduates of the Technion have won four Nobel Prizes, and a remarkable two-thirds of Israeli companies listed on NASDAQ have been founded by graduates of the Technion. Israel is often referred to as “start-up nation”, and the Technion has contributed more than any other institution to that reputation.

Since 2008, Peretz Lavie has served as President of the Technion. During that time, he has hired faculty who are experts across traditional academic silos, encouraged more professors and students to get involved in starting businesses, and in the process has bolstered the university’s reputation as a hot-house for new businesses.

(This is the 12th article in the “IT Influencers” series.  To read past interviews with executive such as Sal Khan of Khan Academy, Jim Goodnight of SAS, Sebastian Thrun of Udacity, Yves Behar of Fuseproject, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, and Sir James Dyson of Dyson Company, please visit this link. To read future articles in the series, please click the “Follow” link above.)

Peter High: President Lavie, the Technion, for those who may not be as familiar with it, has a really storied place in Israeli entrepreneurial culture.  Many people refer to your nation as startup nation, and many rightly believe that your university is at least partially, if not largely, responsible for that boom in entrepreneurship.  Amazingly, a full quarter of the graduates of the university have started businesses.  How has the university been such a hotbed of entrepreneurship?

Peretz Lavie: Indeed the Technion is the engine behind a startup nation.   I have been asked this question many, many times and I have come to the conclusion that a world class university that plays such a major role in the economy of its environment or its state must have three ingredients: excellent students, excellent faculty members, and this is obvious, but it must have also a third ingredient and it is not so clear when you think about universities.  This is a statement of mission.  A mission statement must be part of the DNA of the university.  I’ll give you some examples from the history of the Technion where the mission statement historically changed the Israeli economy.  First, the Technion was established in the early 20th century as a mission to allow the Jewish people to get education in engineering.  When the decision was made to establish the Technion in 1905, Jews in Europe could not study engineering.  So there was a mission for this engineering school to allow engineering education for the Jewish people.

Then, the school was opened in 1924 after the First World War.  When the state was established, David Ben Gurion, the legendary prime minister of Israel, made a decision that the Technion would be one of the more important institutes for the future of the newly established state.  He picked a site on the top of the Carmen Mountain, and he also made the decision of which faculty to open first: the faculty of aeronautical engineering.  Why?  Because he realized that this was important for the future of the state even as early as 1954.  The same year, the Israeli aircraft industry was established which is now one of the three largest industrial complexes in Israel and every one of the 5,000 engineers was educated at the Technion.

Another example is 1969. The Technion decided to open a micro-electronic institute.  At that time, few people knew how to spell micro-electronic.  The decision was made to provide the country with badly needed semiconductors that were deprived by an embargo that was imposed on Israel by Charles de Gaulle after the Six Day War.  So the university had the mission to serve the country and mankind as part of its DNA.

Students who were educated under such an environment knew that when they graduate from the Technion, they also should serve a mission.  Therefore combining excellent students and excellent faculty with the DNA of the university that it serve higher goals: humanity, the country, etc., I think you have an outcome like changing the economy and changing the environment.

To read the full article, please visit Forbes

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