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From Engineering and Business Studies to Archeology and Linguistics, Israels institutions of higher education are introducing courses, tracks, programs and centers to prepare their students for a future world of entrepreneurship and innovation

Wendy Elliman
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"Theres ongoing debate in education about whether technological innovation is innate or can be taught, says Prof. Dan Blumberg, vice president and dean of R&D at Ben Gurion University. I believe its like any other discipline: students who think in the right way can be taught, just as those with aptitude for engineering or art can be taught to be good or even gifted engineers and artists. 

Students at IDC Herzliya's unique Media Innovation Lab (MiLAB)Credit: IDC Spokesperson

Dr. Shai Harel, director of the executive MBA program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalems School of Business Administration, concurs. You can teach the entrepreneurial process — how to build a start-up, avoid common mistakes and so on — but the students who succeed are those with an inner drive that says: Somethings not working? Okay, lets fix it!

The technological revolution has spurred universities to reinvent themselves — to foster environments that give students freedom to think out of the box, and encourage them to overcome difficulties and break through barriers.

Part of teaching innovation takes place in a traditional classroom. Tel Aviv University, for example, teaches academic courses on protecting IP, pharma regulations, managing young start-ups and more. The Hebrew University challenges students with questions such as: What is entrepreneurship? How do you come up with an idea? Develop it? Write a business plan?

At the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon LeZion, entrepreneurship is integrated into every discipline as a credit-earning course. We teach students to work in teams, think creatively, present and validate their ideas, says Prof. Carmella Jacoby-Volk, the Colleges vice president for Innovation & Interdisciplinary Development. Some will go on to build successful start-ups, but all gain a start-up education — a 21st century skillset that prepares them for a complex and changing world.

Wedea — The College of Management Academic Studies' first-of-its-kind accelerator for studentsCredit: Idan Gross

In some places, there are actual degrees in innovation. IDC Herzliya launches Israels first BA in Entrepreneurship this year — a double major with either Computer Science or Business Administration. And the University of Haifa is opening the countrys first B.Sc. in Digital Humanities to combine knowledge of a specialty (Archeology, Linguistics, Language) with a deep understanding of technological tools, from text-mining to optical recognition, explains Tsvi Kuflik, Associate Professor of Information Systems. This will speed research and devise new research areas.

Learning by doing

The classroom, however, is only part of innovation teaching. Learning environments must be active, says Dr. Caren Weinberg, senior lecturer in Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Ruppin Academic Center. To function in the world, students must learn both to adapt to innovation and to drive it — and this they learn best by doing.

Doing, Dr. Weinberg continues, comes in different forms — even as a game. FreshBiz (eight years in development, played in 50 countries since its market debut in 2012) simulates the world of industry. Because its rules continually change, it nurtures innovative thinking, and makes players examine how they act and who they are, says Dr. Weinberg. We use it with undergraduates, and in an intensive four-day course for MBA students — often experienced managers, who say it makes massive, measurable changes to their thinking and practice.

Further north, the Robotics & Big Data Lab at the University of Haifa is also playing a kind of innovation game. Instead of trying to beat the system, weve joined it, says Lab head Dr. Dan Feldman, whose group is first in the world dedicated to solving problems of big data via data summarization, known as core-sets. Weve found a way of using existing algorithms to reduce the vast quantities of data streamed from sensors, images, smartphones and robots in banks, supermarkets, agriculture and security, into small manageable data core-sets.

His team of innovators, which includes students from as far away as China, is also taking the simple approach with robots. Instead of huge, costly drones with multiple sensors and GPS, we use tiny cheap models, he says. We compensate for their single sensors by using sophisticated core-sets to image in real-time. Because theyre small and safe, they can even be used in medical devices. Dr. Feldmans specialized technology, sold to companies such as IBM, Intel and Samsung, is developed in his University of Haifa lab.

At the other end of the scale, Israels educational institutions are opening dedicated centers and schools to teach and promote innovation and entrepreneurship. Academe tends to change slowly, so were speeding it through a first-of-its-kind student accelerator — our Wedea center for solving complex problems, says Prof. Jacoby-Volk from the College of Management Academic Studies. We know interdisciplinary teams are more successful, so we blend our student engineers, computer scientists, designers, technologists and more to develop ideas, and we bring in representatives from top start-ups, international corporations, research institutions and investment funds. Four of our first seven teams have become companies.

Students at the University of HaifaCredit: Nitzan Zohar

First School of Entrepreneurship

IDCs Adelson School of Entrepreneurship is, according to its deputy dean, Dr. Yossi Maaravi, Israels first entire school for innovation. It houses accelerators and networking spaces alongside lecture halls and modular classrooms, he says. Its where Israels first Entrepreneurship BA will be taught, and where we run our long-standing innovation programs. Foremost among them is the Zell Entrepreneurship Program which infused entrepreneurship into academia for the first time. Zell alumni — an annual 24 elite students — currently have 51 registered companies, have raised over half a billion dollars and have made exits worth $300 million. UpStart is similar to Zell, but less intensive and open to a wider group. And IDCs student-run Entrepreneurship Club is one of its largest, patronized by 2,000 of its 7,500 students, who come for practical tools and knowledge in social and womens entrepreneurship, green biz and more. 

IDC also takes its students into the real world. Its academic CO-OP Startup Experience (launched four years ago with one student and now fielding 200) places them as interns in companies for a semester to gain hands-on experience in marketing, research, analytics, finance, design or technology. And IDCs Leumi Innovation Project teaches organizational innovation in collaboration with the bank of the same name.

Academic innovation centers

In place of a School of Entrepreneurship, Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities both have large, dedicated and thriving centers, which gather under- and postgraduate innovation initiatives under a single roof. At Hebrew Universitys Asper Entrepreneurship Center, HUstart helps students, alumni and faculty create start-ups, with structure and roadmaps, mentors, innovation labs, accelerators and even a pre-accelerator for would-be entrepreneurs without ideas or a team.

Also at Hebrew University, Startup Science assembles interdisciplinary groups — Business and Natural Sciences undergraduates and, from next year, Business and Agriculture students — and takes them systematically through start-up creation: identifying need, designing and developing the prototype, strategy, marketing and financial appraisal. Startup Science innovations range from an app that measures sugar-concentration in wine barrels to a shirt that protects against SIDS.

Biodesign, a similar program at graduate level, claims to be Israels first academic medical innovation accelerator. Groups comprising MBA, Engineering and Medical or Dental students are tasked with developing cost-effective products for unmet medical needs. Making better dentures faster, battling obesity and easing insertion of IVs are among those which have passed proof-of-concept.

Hebrew Universitys newest innovation teaching is Start Up 360, an executive MBA about investing in start-ups. Stock market and real estate investment is widely taught, but theres no program that teaches start-up investment using real money — even though such investors are often deeply involved, says Dr. Harel, who developed the MBA. Our students work with venture capital companies. A VC will have, say, $2 million to invest in the Internet of Things. The students find start-ups, investigate them, select and report. In the courses first year, VCs invested $10 million in companies our students recommended, and kept the students with them for due diligence.

Tel Aviv Universitys answer to HUstart is StarTAU, a non-profit that reaches 3,000 to 4,000 students a year, helping them with patent licensing, and developing ventures principally in internet, bio-tech and mobile apps. StarTAU creates a mindset, says Prof. David Mendlovic, himself the founder of seven start-ups. It helps creative thinkers build on original ideas, offers the practical knowledge required to be better innovators and forms a solid platform to link aspiring entrepreneurs to industry. Its enabled us to establish a continuous faculty of programs relevant to those who are or want to be entrepreneurs. Many of our students create their own start-ups. Others are snatched up by major companies like Google, Elbit and Microsoft.

A new home for StarTAU is currently under construction. The 1,000 square meters of the Nadal Home for Technological Innovation & Entrepreneurship will be where young startups consult, brainstorm and discuss, work on prototypes and access business development advice and services. It will also be where they apply for University funding. TAU Ventures, which has raised $1 million, provides bridging loans of up to $150,000. And i3 Equity Partner, a $20 million Internet of Things (IoT) investment fund formed late last year by Tel Aviv University and five international tech giants, will invest up to $1 million annually in each of three to five high-potential seed and pre-seed start-ups. 

Complete ecosystem

Ben Gurion University has no need to build itself an entrepreneurial center. Three years ago, the Advanced Technologies Park, which it part-owns, opened across the street from its Beersheba campus.

Innovate2Educate hackathon at Ben Gurion UniversityCredit: Dani Machlis

We have an ecosystem comprising the University, the Park and the Soroka Medical Center next door, says Prof. Blumberg. Designed to advance research and technology growth in Israel, the Park is already home to more than 1,500 engineers and researchers, as well as over 70 companies, from start-ups to multinationals — among them, EMC, Deutsche Telekom, AG, Lockheed Martin, Oracle and IBM. It also provides opportunities for the Universitys students.

Last year, we unveiled 11 new start-ups in the Park, primarily in communications and information, through our technology accelerator Inno-Negev, says Prof. Blumberg. With Inno-Negev, we create platforms for students to develop ideas, and provide them with the tools to advance their ventures.

The challenge of preparing a workforce so different from previous generations is being met by Israels higher education establishment much as by the innovators themselves: trying different approaches to see which best help students adapt, improvise, identify problems, solve them and deal with change.

The dizzying speed of technological and intellectual innovation means we must continually assess what we teach and how we teach it, concludes Dr. Weinberg of the Ruppin Academic Center. From active learning environments to teaching context rather than content, our task is to ensure our students excel in this new reality.