The Technion's vision: Israel's north a tech-industrial powerhouse

Ziv Belfer, Prof. Uri Sivan credit: Nitzan Zohar for the Technion

An agreement with software giant PTC is the first step in Technion President Prof. Uri Sivan's plan for deep collaboration with industry.

When Prof. Uri Sivan took up his new position as President of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, he told "Globes" how academia was weakening in the face of market forces and industry. He talked about how higher education had lost its monopoly on knowledge, thanks to the Internet, the loss of its monopoly on basic research - where practical considerations are not taken into account - and in particular, warned about the flight of experts from academia to industry, especially to technology giants.

Equipped with inexhaustible amounts of cash, in recent years the technology giants have begun to invade more and more areas that had once been the domain of academic institutions. "These things are very clear when it comes to computer science, artificial intelligence, big data and so on," Prof. Sivan said at the time. "Entire computer science departments have been 'snatched' by industry, thanks to more tempting offers, not only in pay but also in research conditions, computing facilities, access to databases." Prof. Sivan warned in the same interview that, "The situation in which commercial companies dominate basic research is a challenge not only for the universities but for society as a whole. Each of these companies has a budget the size of a country's. They are superpowers, and their interests are not those of the general public but of the bottom line."

Prof. Sivan's solution was not to go against the trend, but rather to go with it, in an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" spirit. "The Technion intends to bring industry deeper inside the campus. I want to include more lecturers from industry in teaching, and guiding students," Sivan said at the time. "The plan is to find several large partners who will work with us, shoulder to shoulder, on campus while also developing simple and fast mechanisms for commercializing technologies. These two processes express the fact that industry and academia are no longer completely separate entities. We are intertwined."

The other week, the Technion took another big step towards this vision, when an agreement was signed between the institution and software giant PTC. As part of the agreement, the company, which develops systems used in physical product development processes, will transfer 100 of its 300 development workers in Israel to the Technion campus.

PTC develops and provides computer-aided design (CAD) modeling, product lifecycle management (PLM) and service lifecycle management (SLM) solutions to industrial manufacturers. Among the companies using PTC are Samsung, Lockheed Martin, Volkswagen. Rafael, for example, uses PTC systems for missile design.

The company was founded in 1985. Its headquarters are located in Boston, Massachusetts. It employs more than 6,000 people in 80 centers in 30 countries. The company's market cap is over $16 billion and its annual revenue is about $1.5 billion.

As part of the collaboration agreement, PTC employees will move to a dedicated building at the Technion, to be expanded in the coming years. Under the agreement, the company will provide a large annual budget for joint research in strategic areas such as Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented Reality (AR), Simulations and Generative Design. The company will also support all Technion faculties and provide software products, scholarships and incentives to students and researchers, initiate hackathons and competitions, and be "actively involved in educational programs." PTC will invest several million shekels in set-up, and then several tens of millions of additional shekels each year.

The process of PTC's partnering with the Technion was led by Ziv Belfer, PTC Division Vice President and Head of Research and Development. PTC's R&D activity employs 1,800 people in 20 branches around the world. The company's Israeli branch was established in 1991 and has 300 employees working from two centers - one at Matam in Haifa and the other in Herzliya Pituah.

"The connection with the industry will only get stronger"

"In the process of developing a digital prototype," Belfer tells "Globes", "the computerized systems perform a simulation to check parameters such as the quality of assembly, product strength or its heat conduction." For these systems to perform these calculations, he explains, "A great deal of high-level math is needed. Therefore, this is one of the areas where we're seeking collaboration with academia."

PTC's model of operation, Belfer explains, would be similar to the cooperative model of Aachen in Germany, where the German car industry collaborates with RWTH Aachen University (the Polytechnicom) - an engineering technology university similar to the Technion. But, according to Belfer, while the Aachen collaboration is more customer-focused, the goal of collaborating with the Technion is to focus more on research, and less on the customers, and make Israel the global research center for PTC, "similar to Intel and IBM."

In mentioning these two companies, Belfer refers to the cooperation that the Technion already has with both, as well as dozens of research collaborations with companies in energy, semiconductors, software, pharmaceuticals, insurance, banking, automotive and medical equipment, including Teva, Elbit Systems, Hyundai, and Aleph Farms. However, according to the Technion, "the cooperation with PTC is the first of its kind at the Technion in its scope."

"The Technion is gaining exposure to technological issues that, outside of companies, are difficult to get exposure to. This is how ideas for new research are born, and unexpected things are discovered," Prof. Sivan explained to "Globes" on the occasion of the agreement with PTC. "Additionally, the company is providing us with all its software, to be used by researchers and students both for training and in research. Every interaction between industry researchers and researchers at the Technion enriches each side and their combined forces benefit both."

In general, he adds, "The very clear line that separated academia from industry in the past is far more blurred today, and ten years from now, it's quite clear that the connection to industry will only have grown stronger. The historical separation between basic research at the university and applied research in industry will no longer be relevant. Not just when it comes to digital. After all, the AI research at companies like Microsoft and Google doesn't fall short of university research. At the same time, much applied research is already being done at the university."

Both parties have very great expectations from the agreement and the collaborations to follow. "What they did in Aachen, and what we're now doing at the Technion, is to set up a factory that will be a platform for start-ups wishing to enter production." Most accelerators, Belfer explains, provide communications, office and conference room services, but physical product development requires producing several prototypes. This presents a more difficult barrier to entry, compared with software start-ups.

"We want to set up a consortium with companies like Rafael and Iscar, which have production capabilities, for a national initiative that will also develop into a regional one. Not just for the Middle East. Europe isn't far away either. It's not easy for startups to enter physical production. That's why we want to create a model that invites young companies to develop prototypes in an advanced factory with 3D printers, cutting machines, chip-making machines, allowing startups to produce prototypes without needing a company in China to do it for them," Belfer explains.

To that end, Belfer says, more investment is needed. He hopes to obtain support at the national level as well. "In Germany, one of the most important things is the strategic action taken by the German government to set up their center because the costs are definitely not just rent".

"Today, we're examining ways in which we can focus on traditional industries, where there's great potential for becoming more efficient through high-tech processes. These include food technology, biotech and alternative energy. We're now formulating a strategy on how to work with and advance them, concentrating on northern Israel. There's tremendous potential for traditional industries to increase their output."

"We have a strategic interest," Prof. Sivan emphasizes. "Our faculties provide personnel to industry, and if industry becomes more sophisticated, it will be able to pay more, attract better students, and better faculty. To be a good academy you need advanced industry, and vice versa. We intend to work hand in hand with them so that we can all improve."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 10, 2021

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2021

Ziv Belfer, Prof. Uri Sivan credit: Nitzan Zohar for the Technion
Ziv Belfer, Prof. Uri Sivan credit: Nitzan Zohar for the Technion
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