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Promoting startup culture with the Technion, Israel’s top tech institute

President Meric Gertler with Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion (all photos by Johnny Guatto)

The president of Israel’s leading technology and engineering institute – also one of the country’s leading tech startup incubators – recently joined President Meric Gertler and some of the University of Toronto’s top scholars and entrepreneurs to share strategies for supporting the changing nature of enterprise and knowledge transfer in universities.

“Students and faculty in many different parts of our university are expressing a growing interest in entrepreneurial activity,” Gertler said, as he welcomed the Technion Institute’s President Peretz Lavie to the roundtable.

Gertler noted that Canadians have a lot to learn from the Technion’s approach to entrepreneurship, which builds on Israeli’s predisposition to “coping with risk in their daily lives – a trait which applies to the business world as well.” This bold approach has created an environment that has produced four Nobel laureates, leaders of 70 per cent of Israel’s high tech industry founders and managers, and has led to the Technion being dubbed “Israel’s Hard Drive” by the New York Times.

“Risk-taking in Israel is an everyday behaviour,” said Lavie. “We are living in a challenging environment.”

During a day of roundtable discussions, lectures and presentations, Lavie and the U of T scholars exchanged ideas about creating an innovation environment and supporting entrepreneurship and research. Below are some of the lessons they shared.

Supporting entrepreneurial spirit and making an impact

“It’s not the fact that they saw somebody make a fortune that drives the entrepreneurs I work with – a lot of us really want to make a huge impact in the world,” Professor Cynthia Goh, director of the Impact Centre for startups in the basic sciences, told the roundtable in Governing Council Chamber.

“That’s the message that we bring to the students, that actually motivates them to do something,” she said.

Lavie responded by quoting results of a survey the Technion gave to its grads: “We gave them 50 reasons why they do what they’re doing. Their number one answer was ‘change the world.’ Only number 11 was ‘make money’.”

Celebrating risk for students and researchers

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the successful entrepreneurs are pilots,” said Lavie, describing the dynamic character of many students at the Technion – a quality its teachers encourage and cultivate in classroom environments.

“In the Technion, you don’t finish your first sentence before somebody challenges you.”

One of those teachers that students are free to challenge and engage with is Nobel laureate Professor Dan Shechtman, who has taught a course on entrepreneurship at the Technion for 27 years.

Fostering partnerships with global players

The Technion has played a major role in fostering Israel’s startup culture. It has been so successful, in fact, that it has been invited by both Cornell University and Shantou University in China to create joint institutes with campuses in Manhattan and Guandong respectively.

The Cornell and Shantou partnerships “give us completely different visibility, worldwide, than we had before,” said Lavie. “And I must tell you, the parade of presidents that came to the Technion after this was announced was unbelievable. I think this is much better than diplomacy – sharing education.”

Of course, potential global partners vying for access to Technion come from industry as well the academy. Lavie said research and development institutes of major multinational tech companies – Google, Intel, Apple and others – are all within a 10-minute drive of the campus. Those industry labs are where Technion students apply and hone their skills through work-studies and internships.

Defying history to make way for the future

The Technion was founded in 1912 as a pure engineering school, but has long since adapted its structure to include fundamental research, stimulate creativity and respond to social needs.

Most recently, in the 2000s, the Technion created virtual departments or “hubs” for interdisciplinary research into topics like robotics, energy and autonomous systems. These hubs offer students “nexus degrees” that promote creative, cross-disciplinary thinking.

“The key is to really think about innovation broadly, to think about it beyond something measured by NASDAQ IPOs, to think beyond the next iPod and iPad,” said Professor Joe Wong, the Roz and Ralph Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School’s Innovation Policy Lab.

“Doing so means we also have to think about new kinds of metrics. If we’re going to create a narrative of innovation, we have to be able to describe it and to share the fruits of those innovations with our stakeholders and our students.”