Tel Aviv, Tsinghua Universities Unveil Plans for $300 Million Nanotech Center

The research project with China would be the biggest such center at an Israeli university in money terms.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinking glasses with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, May 8, 2013.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinking glasses with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, May 8, 2013. Credit: AP

Tel Aviv University has agreed to team up with Beijing’s Tsinghua University to develop a $300 million nanotechnology research center, the latest move in booming ties between Israel and China, the two universities said Monday.

The center will be the largest in money terms ever set up in Israel. The two universities said they would exchange graduate students and faculty members to work at the center, focusing initially on nanotechnology with medical and optics applications. The focus may later expand to areas such as raw materials, water treatment and the environment.

“It’s an unprecedented agreement in size and scope,” Tel Aviv University President Joseph Klafter said at a news conference in Tel Aviv. “It was built from the bottom up because it started with our scientists meeting and falling in love with each other.”

Funding will be sought from private and government sources, Klafter said, adding that almost a third of the money had already been raised for the project, which is to be formally launched on Tuesday.

Tsinghua President Chen Jining said part of the funding would be used to design prototypes, connect academics to the business world and commercialize the products of research. “We have collaborations with many other universities around the world, but this is the first that is so in-depth and innovative,” he said.

The research center marks another milestone in growing technology ties between the two countries as Jerusalem seeks to leverage Israel’s technology prowess to enhance its role in the giant Chinese economy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who traveled to China last year, has made ties with Beijing a priority.

“We celebrate the success and huge growth of cooperation and connections between Israel and China,” Netanyahu said in a statement after meeting with visiting Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Liu Yandong.

Israeli trade with China is booming but still amounted to just $ 8.4 billion last year, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. But the trade figures understate how important Beijing regards Israel as a source for new technology like agriculture, water desalination and medicine.

Last year Haifa’s Technion technology institute and Shantou University in the southern Guangdong province signed a smaller cooperation agreement valued around $ 150 million.

Outside high-tech, however, Chinese companies have encountered resistance as they seek to acquire stakes in Israeli companies. Knesset lawmakers have raised objections to bids by Chinese firms to buy control of Clal Insurance, Israel’s biggest insurer, and Tnuva, it biggest food maker.

Yoram Evron, a researcher on China-Middle East ties at the University of Haifa, said Beijing was seeking to increase its influence in the region, especially to secure the energy imports needed to fuel its growing economy.

For Israel, agreements like the one announced Monday allow it to boost ties with Beijing without angering its key ally, the United States, as increased military cooperation would do, Evron said.

“It serves both interests; it gives China Israeli technology and brings Israel closer to China without irritating Washington,” he said.

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