Making the Negev boom

Netta Cohen

Netta Cohen, outgoing CEO of Ben Gurion University tech transfer company BGN, reflects on his 16 years in the job in which technology in Beersheva has flourished.

Something is happening in Beersheva. "Seven or eight years ago, there were only a few hundred people working in technology in all of Beer Sheva. Today, there are 3,000 just in the tech park," says Netta Cohen CEO of Ben Gurion University of the Negev technology transfer company BGN Technologies. Cohen is stepping down after 16 years. "Their average salary is triple the nationwide average, so you could say that it's equivalent to creating 10,000 jobs, and we're just beginning."

What is the connection between a university and a city's development? In the case of Beersheva, the connection in the past decade has been a very direct one. 16 years ago, when Cohen was appointed CEO, he regarded regional development as one of his main tasks. You could not really say that about any other tech transfer company in Israel. Business communities also arose around the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel Institute of Technology (Technion), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and even the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona (try to imagine what Rehovot and Ness Ziona would look like without the science parks around the Weizmann Institute), but the managers of those institutions' tech transfer companies did not make this their official goal. The official aims were putting technologies from the laboratories to practical use, while raising money for the research institutions. Cohen sees his job somewhat differently.

"I knew that I wanted the MIT model"

"When I entered the tech transfer field, I looked at the models of MIT and Harvard, which then had the same volume of royalties, and still do," Cohen says. "Harvard, however, relied mostly on two bestselling products, while MIT had hundreds of different products. I realized fairly quickly that I wanted the MIT model, meaning that my job was to facilitate initiatives, not thwart them.

"My aim was to sign as many and as diverse and flexible cooperation agreements as possible, and not to be stubborn about every comma, which could prevent or delay an agreement. In the end, it's a matter of managerial attention, and if I wanted to generate activity in the dozens to hundreds of patents that I had, I couldn't spend my time finding and formulating the most profitable deal for each of them."

"Globes": Maybe that was because you were not originally a lawyer, in contrast to several managers of other technology transfer companies.

Cohen: "I don't want to talk about somebody else. Tech transfer companies in Israel are very successful. I want to talk about ours."

While Cohen was CEO, BGN Technologies' revenue rose to tens of millions of dollars a year, but this is not the figure by which he measures his success. He prefers to talk about the tech park that emerged during these years, and about its contribution to the entire region.

Success has many parents. In this case, former Ben Gurion University presidents Avishay Braverman and Rivka Carmi, current Ben Gurion University president Prof. Chamovitz, BGN Technologies chairman Gil Weiser, and Cohen were full partners in this development.

In his first year as BGN CEO, Ben Gurion University signed a cooperation agreement with Deutsche Telekom, an agreement that was a prominent example of the company's contribution to the tech park's successful development. "They were looking for innovation outside the company, and founded innovation laboratories in Berlin, but they decided to diversify and look not only outside the company, but also in other cultures," Cohen explains. "They started a small project with us at the university, and within a few months, they understood our message, and said, 'Let's found a research center.' We sat down with them and devised a unique model not necessarily based on a specific technology that we had. Thus Telekom Innovation Labs, managed simultaneously by the university and the company, was created at the university.

"Development in the laboratories doesn't start unless a professor at the university is very interested in it, meaning that academic freedom is maintained, and science and technology are enhanced. At the same time, a project doesn't start unless somebody in the company is very interested in it. Our researchers are exposed to information from the real world, and this gives them what every researcher wants - more publicity.

"Over the years, very high-ranking people from both sides were in management. The center currently employees 80-100 people - Deutsche Telekom's only joint development group outside Germany. They previously operated at Stanford University in an attempt to duplicate our model, but the activity there was closed down."

In which spheres are you cooperating with them?

"In many spheres - all types of computer science: information, hardware, artificial intelligence, various types of the physics of communications, and even the psychology of user interfaces. As time goes by, the spheres are expanding. We didn't ask them to pay for a building; all of their financing goes into research, and the building comes from the university. In the end, you can either bargain with companies or think together with them about what comes next."

There are other universities that have signed joint research agreements of various types with commercial companies, and universities regularly provide research services to companies, not always through the commercialization companies. An IBM building was constructed at the University of Haifa. How can you refine the uniqueness of your model?

"We work differently with every company. With IBM, we have an excellence center that was originally within the university, but which is scheduled to move to the technology park soon, in contrast to the model with Deutsche Telekom, in which people are employed simultaneously by the company and the university. I know of no similar project. In the project with IBM, the company employs the workers, but they have many cooperative efforts with researchers at the university made possible by physical proximity and the efforts by us and management to organize meetings between scientists."

One of the companies to recognize the potential and move to the tech park as a pioneer and anchor is EMC, now Dell-EMC. "In this case also, we began with one research project that developed, and now they have 250 people," says Cohen.

"One third of the researchers in engineering in Israel are now at Ben Gurion University," Cohen says, explaining that this is a direct result of cooperative efforts with industry. He adds that because of this approach, Ben Gurion University is almost the only university in Israel that has managed to attract researchers in recent decades.

"We were able to attract researchers from leading institutions in the US and bring them back to Israel, because most of the universities have been rather static in the past three decades, while we have tripled in size, and are still growing. The fact that the university is a growing organization has consequences. The average age has dropped, quality has risen, and there are new departments with new department heads. There is a livelier process," Cohen says.

Negev waiting for the IDF's technology soldiers

In addition to large-scale cooperative efforts, Ben Gurion University is also signing agreements to develop specific technologies, like any tech transfer company, but Cohen says that this is being done in a way that sends the technology outside quickly, with less strictness about the direct financial proceeds from it. "We signed 125 deals with companies in 2019, and that means one contract every two working days," he says. "We also founded startups ourselves around our technologies, and we have begun dozens of them," he says.

BGN promotes entrepreneurship not necessarily with a single university researcher. "We founded the first accelerator in the Negev, after there were hundreds in Tel Aviv. We get no direct profit from this. It's part of our macro outlook. We were partners with Lockheed Martin, Dell-EMC, and Jerusalem Venture Partners in founding a cybersecurity organization - the CyberSpark Industry Initiative. We took a pavilion with over 10% of the display space, and used it to present the cyber security companies of Beersheva and the region, whether or not they were commercially involved with us, because we want to create a common ecosystem," Cohen asserts.

Cohen is pinning great hopes on developments expected soon in Beer Sheva, which are likely to encourage continued growth in activity: the founding of Beer Sheva's innovation neighborhood and the transfer of the IDF's computer center to the region. "This is the next long-term process that will happen in Beersheva," he says, adding that after the IDF computer center moves to the region, including Intelligence Unit 8200 and other less famous but no less prestigious units, with thousands of technology soldiers, the total number of professionals in this limited area will reach 50,000.

Three main areas of specialization have been defined for the innovation neighborhood: cybersecurity, precision agriculture (with an emphasis on the desert and solar energy), and digital health. The project has received financing for planning, but is still looking for the main financing for its actual construction.

Cohen is aware that processes of urban change on such a scale can succeed, but can also become bogged down. "This entire process - what does it mean in terms of the effect on the neighborhoods around it? On the city's culture? On migration to it?," he asks rhetorically. In an effort to answer these questions, he established a forum with the managers of the dominant companies in the technology park that meets frequently with the municipality in order to discuss various matters related to the park's vision. "The discussion deals with anything that arises, from the question of how to integrate the Bedouin population of the area in the park by working with an accelerator of Bedouin entrepreneurs that already exists to the quality of the buses in the park. It's no small matter for a technology commercialization company to be a partner in initiating such a forum," Cohen declares.

NIS 1.5 billion from cooperative efforts

The commercialization company's location is interesting and symbolic. Most tech transfer companies are located within universities. BGN Technologies is located in the tech park, although it regards itself as part of the university, and is fully owned by it. "We're physically on the industry side," Cohen says. There is an impressive bridge between the park and the university, which has become one of the landmarks of the area. "Metaphorically, we regard ourselves as a bridge between higher education and industry," he says.

According to Cohen, BGN's staff is smaller than that of most tech transfer companies. "The team was deliberately left small in order to preserve the family-type atmosphere and teamwork. They are a really good team - every one of them. People now come to us from all over the world to see how this is happening out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, and we spend thousands of our team's working hours hosting delegations with no direct connection to our business, because this also helps Beersheva, the Negev, and Israel in general, and you never know if somebody's wife is also the CEO of an international company, which can be of help in some way."

And your activity is really lifting the entire city?

"The city is making progress, both with and without a connection to us. We're moving forward in education, and we're a part of the technological education jigsaw puzzle. There is a cultural explosion, some of which is supported by the technology companies. The demographic balance is improving. It's always an orchestra - that's what we used to say at Novartis (the drug company at which Cohen once worked). Somebody else takes the lead each time, and the music is best when people work together."

You mention the technology park and the cybersecurity industry a lot, but we have not spoken about the life sciences and Soroka Medical Center, which is next to the university.

"Soroka is one of Israel's biggest hospitals. They have a positive process of doctors coming to do research, and they are partners in the innovation neighborhood. We're waiting for construction of another hospital, which is supposed to be based initially on biotech and research initiatives (this hospital will probably be ready for activity only in another decade). In the medical field, we founded the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN).

"Our revenue may be only in the tens of millions of dollars, but our group has brought over NIS 1.5 billion to research from cooperative efforts with companies and exits. 17% of the university's money comes from industry, compared with 5.9% for all US universities."

"One day, this whole business of begging for the health basket budget each year will come to an end"

Cohen, 53, was born on a kibbutz and grew up in Arad. "I grew up in the desert; it's the landscape of my childhood. I think that brown is the best landscape color," he says. In his studies, Cohen was a partner in the founding of Kibbutz Harish as part of a Hashomer Hatzair group and served as the kibbutz's financial manager. The kibbutz survived for a decade, then became the city of Harish. He then worked in a variety of jobs, mostly in marketing, in companies whose activity was on the border between drugs and consumer health products, such as Vitamed Pharmaceutical Industries, Gerber Baby Food, and Novartis, where he worked in the consumer products department.

He was vice president for several years at Pharma Israel, which represents the interests of international drug companies in Israel. "That's how I learned about what's happening in the drug industry at the macro level. When I was with them, we proposed a bill that still surfaces occasionally - an automatic 2% yearly increase in the health basket budget. Quite a few MKs signed the proposal at the time, but it didn't pass. It will pass one day, and there will be an end to this whole business of begging for the health basket each year," Cohen predicts.

Cohen says that the offer of the CEO job at BGN came as a surprise to him. "They told me, 'Give it a try.' I went to listen without any real intention of accepting the job, but within a few weeks, I realized that it was exciting work, not because of any particular technology, but because of the infinite number and diversity of technologies: robots, energy, medicine, and software, and also because of what could be done with each technology: a startup, a big company, or something in the middle, or transferring the technology through a chain of companies, each of which takes it a step further."

So why are you stepping down?

"Even if you're doing the most interesting thing in the world, you need a change after 15 years."

Next BGN Technologies CEO: Josh Peleg from seeds company Syngenta

Ben Gurion University of the Negev and BGN Technologies announced that Josh Peleg will succeed Netta Cohen as CEO. Peleg's most recent job was as CEO of Zeraim Gedera, a subsidiary of seed company Syngenta, and head of Syngenta's commercial unit in Israel. Peleg has worked at various managerial positions in the company since 2009. Before that, he was foreign trade manager at the Ministry of Economy and Industry, and served as Israel's economic attache in Mexico for four years, after working as a lawyer in the Wine, Misheiker & Ernstoff law firm.

Peleg has a BA in philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley, a BA in law from Hebrew University, and he studied marketing and sales at the INSEAD School of Business in France.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on February 27, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Twitter Facebook Linkedin RSS Newsletters גלובס Israel Business Conference 2018