The MIT of Israel: A Look at Cornell's Partner on the Roosevelt Island Tech Campus

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Cornell University won a bid to build a $2 billion graduate school in New York City earlier this year – but it didn’t do it alone.

The Ivy League school partnered with an Israeli-based public research university — the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, sometimes called the MIT of Israel — to create the CornellNYC Tech campus and help fulfill the vision of fueling a start-up boom in the city.

The Technion is known for its expertise in educating engineers and for its strong ties to the growing Silicon Wadi — Israel’s version of Silicon Valley (“Wadi” is Arabic for “valley”).

Both were tapped separately by the city in December 2010 to submit proposals for an applied science campus in New York City. As an Israeli state university, the Technion couldn’t invest any money in an American campus, and quickly determined they would need a high-level American partner, according to the Technion’s president, Peretz Lavie.

They began meeting with Cornell, and found their vision similarly aligned.

Cornell saw in the Technion a university with a history of turning research into companies, according to CornellNYC Tech Campus’s founding dean and provost Dan Huttenlocher.  

“It was a natural fit and will give the tech campus a unique global component in a tech industry that is increasingly global,” he said in a statement.

In the U.S., there are few household names among Israel’s start-ups. But Israeli engineers staff local offices of multinational tech companies like Yahoo and Apple as well as startups, with an emphasis on information technology.

“There’s more Israeli technology companies listed on the NASDAQ than European technology companies,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in response to a question about the Technion at a recent press conference. “The more engineering schools there are here, the more other engineering schools want to be here, the more companies that are here, the more people want to come here.”  

Bloomberg has aspirations for New York City to replace Silicon Valley as the place to start new digital technology companies. The new campus, he said, will spin off some 600 such companies in the next 30 years.

Cornell is paying for the initial development of the campus, but its central school will be the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute, directed by Craig Gotsman, a computer science professor from the Technion.

The partnership is the culmination of a months-long courtship, but the Technion’s relationship with New York City is much older.

The Technion’s New York History

The history of the Technion can be traced back to money from New York City.

The Technion was founded in 1912 with a donation from New York financier and philanthropist Jacob Schiff. It is thanks to Schiff that the school is not named for a person but for its purpose:  the Technion was originally Technikum, which is German for technical university.

(Photo: Panorama of the campus of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. Courtesy of Technion)

One hundred years later, the relationship between the Technion and New York continues.

The school’s operating budget comes from the Israeli government, but two-thirds of all private fundraising come from the U.S. – and the biggest donor region is the New York metro area, according to Melvyn Bloom of the American Technion Society, an affiliated fundraising organization.

The results can be seen on the Israeli campus: The computer science building is named after New Jersey payroll processing mogul Henry Taub. The Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute is named after a New Jersey philanthropist who made his money from Russ Toys, famous for its teddy bears.

Local donors are excited about the Technion’s arrival in New York, and see it as an opportunity to replicate the innovation they see in Israel.

“It is like transferring something from one petri dish to another,” said Angelica Berrie, Russell Berrie’s widow and the head of his eponymous foundation.

Israel as an Idea Incubator

But the role of the Technion in innovation may be inflated, some say. It is a part of Israel’s start-up ecosystem, but not necessarily the primary driver.

“It may be that the people who chose the Technion above other institutions in New York thought that because the Technion was in Israel and Israel is extremely entrepreneurial, Technion caused entrepreneurship,” said Dan Isenberg, writer and founder of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project. “It’s an optical illusion.”

The recipe for a successful high-tech cluster is different in each instance, according to Isenberg. In Israel, he points to the military—the mandatory Israeli Defense Forces — as a very important source both of technical education and of technology itself.

Henry Etzkowitz senior researcher at Stanford’s H-STAR Institute, coined the term “entrepreneurial university” to describe the role a university can take to foster start-ups in a way that leverages local advantages.

He suggested that for New York City, the ingredients are already present in industries like finance and the arts.

“This is what is the strength of New York,” Etzkowitz said. “It has all of these resources but many of them isolated from each other.”

One of the first things the new campus should do, according to Etzkowitz, is bring them together.