“Universities are reinventing themselves as micro-environments for innovation and entrepreneurship,” says ASPER-HUJI Innovate executive director Dr. Amnon Dekel, a computer scientist, cognitive psychologist and serial entrepreneur. “The research being done in today’s universities can change tomorrow’s world – but only if it transitions from academia to practical applications.”
“Now it’s time to take our Start-Up Nation to its next stage,” agrees ASPER-HUJI Innovate deputy director Ayelet Cohen, a Hebrew University alumna who created and runs Asper-HUJI Innovate together with Dekel. “The universities have a wealth of talent, but to keep themselves relevant, they must teach their students to navigate the rapidly changing world into which they’ll graduate – a world which is already undergoing a disruptive shift that is eliminating jobs and endangering livelihoods. We must enable the next generation to thrive in this era. We must give them the mindset and skill set to identify challenges and create solutions. Part of today’s education is the knowledge, tools and guidance they’ll use to transform their research and ideas into practical solutions for local, national and global problems that impact health, the environment, economy, society, agriculture, security, privacy and more.”
Watch this short video about ASPER-HUJI Innovate.
Asper-HUJI Innovate thought long and hard about how to make this happen. “Our starting-point is to inspire students and faculty, to make them understand they can be part of this,” says Dekel. “Tomorrow isn’t only for engineers and computer scientists. The critical thinking, curiosity, initiative, self-learning, problem-solving, flexibility, creativity and openness that can occur in all higher education disciplines enables young graduates to translate these skills into start-ups and social enterprises that can change the world for the better. Additionally, these skills make graduates relevant and valuable members of any company they work for.”
In November 2018, the model, developed with their partners at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and the Azrieli Academic College of Engineering, won first place as the JLM-Impact consortium in the Israel Education Ministry competitive grant contest for creating an entrepreneurship center in higher education. Thus, the Asper-HUJI Innovate Center was born as a strategic project of the Hebrew University. The University administration, supportive from the outset, enabled the Center to hire a professional team to bring the vision to life. “One of the first things we did was ask two highly entrepreneurial researchers, Prof. Shlomo Magdassi and Prof. Oded Shoseyov, to join the Center as Chairs of the steering and academic committees. Their help has been critical,” says Dekel. This was rapidly followed by faculty and students from many departments and labs, with more people reaching out to it than the newborn center could initially accommodate.
“Asper-HUJI Innovate’s model – its programs, courses, hackathons, prizes and events – address the many stages of venture creation,” explains Dekel. “Students learn the skills and connections they’ll need to take an idea to the next level: market research and product ideation, business model planning, product development, marketing, fundraising, team management and storytelling.”
Nurturing entrepreneurship on campus
The Center is built along three parallel strands – Inspire, Learn and Build – as Cohen explains. “Inspire aims to motivate towards a new professional journey. Many students fear the world of entrepreneurship, or don’t believe it’s relevant for them or, even if they do, have no idea how to enter it. So we bring it to them, usually in 24-hour hackathons or Start-Up Sundays (a platform for weekly webinars, workshops and panels). We let them try it out in a safe place, and they see that they can impact the life of their city, their country, or even the world.” This first strand is, in fact, for people such as Cohen herself, who studied Jewish History in the Faculty of Humanities.
The second strand, Learn, is about learning the entrepreneurial way of thinking and the skills that go with it, through frontal, digital and online teaching, videos, questionnaires, discussion forums and sharing-boards. The Center does so via academic courses which grant credits, extra-curricular professional courses, and a professional blog.
Take ‘Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship,’ for example: one of three online academic courses offered by the Center in which students develop and present a business, social or design venture idea, guided by in-house experts and guest lecturers. With participation in the academic courses currently capped at around 900 students a year, all places are snapped up within four hours, with over 450 applicants waitlisted, a clear sign of students’ craving for this type of content.
These numbers are aligned with the sentiment manifested in the students' feedback: “The major thing I took from this course is the overview of this field as a whole. Things I learned before, bits and pieces, were put together and with a great flow to it, that got me on the right path for understanding the bigger picture. Truly happy for that!” or: “The main thing I took from the course is that even ideas that today seem ‘crazy’ and unimaginable can happen with the right tools and the right work.”
In the professional, extracurricular arena, the Center runs ‘The Investors’ Course’ in collaboration with the Fresh Fund venture capital firm. It teaches participants to evaluate ventures as investors, with the current crop of start-ups at the Center serving as the target of their analysis. In a participant’s words: “The Investors’ Course looked like a good opportunity to familiarize myself with a different world. What I gained from it was not only knowledge about the investment world, but also important lessons for life.” And from another student: “Not only did I find it fascinating, but I realized there was no contradiction between the world of business and doing good in life.”
The third strand is Build – helping nascent entrepreneurs convert their ideas or research into ventures that solve real problems. “We accompany students, faculty and alumni as they develop start-ups and social enterprises,” says Cohen. “Our programs are the meeting point between the worlds of academia, business and social innovation, combining the good in all worlds. The Center has supported 77 start-ups and social innovation ventures in the past four years, some of which have raised over $50 million.”
Among the early-stage initiatives that Asper-HUJI Innovate has supported are a protein-rich alternative that competes with tofu (Kinoko), a new solution for bacterial crop disease (Fungit), a novel type of plastic (Maderight), a nonprofit that teaches disadvantaged children computer programming (For Start), and a sustainable solution for natural food compound creation (Pigmentum). “The program gave us a much needed business boost, teaching us many important things that ultimately made our funding round successful,” says Tal Lutzky, one of Pigmentum’s co-founders.
Cultivating the entrepreneurial mindset
Asper-HUJI Innovate has been quick to gain recognition. The country’s education system, the Israel Defense Forces and the Foreign Ministry have all sought its help in developing programs. And an Education Ministry starting grant has been generously extended by the Winnipeg-based Asper Foundation. Many others have followed Asper’s lead, most recently the Yad Hanadiv Foundation, whose April 2022 donation is earmarked for developing entrepreneurship among the university’s Liberal Arts students together with the Faculty of Humanities.
“Whether your background is in Engineering, History, Life Sciences, International Relations, Medicine or Education, I believe you’re born with the ability to identify challenges, invent creative solutions and generate a positive impact,” says Dr. Amnon Dekel, Asper-HUJI Innovate’s executive director. “Building on its rich tradition of innovation and commercialization, the Hebrew University understands that higher education today must bring together research and entrepreneurship and cultivate the entrepreneurial mindset.
When Asper-HUJI Innovate talks about doing good, it means exactly that. “It’s not about developing a bigger and better gambling app,” says Dekel. “It’s about positively impacting our city, our country, our planet. And that can’t be done alone.”
For this reason, JLM-Impact was formed: a Jerusalem-based academic consortium comprising the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and the Azrieli Academic College of Engineering. Launched in January 2019, it is harnessing the power of science, engineering and design to positively impact Jerusalem’s urban experience – its downtown and small businesses, culture and tourism, communities, and issues such as domestic violence, food waste, urban mobility and more. Together with the ongoing nurturing of the students at all three institutes (all the academic and professional courses are open to students from all three institutes and spearheaded by the consortium partners), a genuine and fruitful effort to make a positive change is visible.
“Jerusalem is Israel’s largest, poorest, most diverse and most complex city,” notes Dekel. “Together, as academics, scientists, designers and engineers, we’re relating to its different communities as start-ups, and using what we know about start-ups to help them as grassroots initiatives. We’ve created a community leadership incubator, we’re looking at women in technology, entrepreneurship in the Arab community. There are groups working on the development and funding of social programs, decreasing food waste, and reducing use of private vehicles. We don’t have all the answers. There’s trial and error, co-creation and leadership of projects, assessing what works, making changes, and learning from one another as we go.”
“Today’s universities can contribute to making the world a better place,” summarizes Cohen. “If we’re going to leave any kind of mark behind us, let it be this.”
For more information about ASPER-HUJI Innovate, visit the website or watch this video.