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

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Aerial Rendering of New Cornell University-Technion Applied Sciences Campus on Roosevelt Island. (nycmayorsoffice/flickr)

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.


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Comments [11]


Israeli's are entrepreneurial because they have to be... Increasingly - New Yorkers have to be. I'm not sure the point about the founders of that company serving in the IDF... I thought just about everyone had to serve for a time...?

Oct. 15 2012 04:56 PM
Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel

The Four Freedoms Park, a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, designed by Louis Kahn, one of the truly great architects of the 20th century, will be completed in September. It is the closest neighbor to the Cornell-Technion project,occupying the 5 southernmost acres of Roosevelt Island. It is stunningly beautiful. It is also digitized so that visitors and the universal audience of the Internet will have available the history of the Roosevelt era. We welcome Cornell and Technion and lookforward to working with them to make our sites siignificant factors in the better world all of us hope to create.
William J. vanden Heuvel, Chair of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy

May. 11 2012 08:26 PM
Solomon Davis from Israel

nyc resident: I just love the tired rants of the utterly failed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has had exactly zero success in it shameful history. You know why? Because thoughtful and honest people - even if they have criticism of ISrael -- see through the ugly, absurd and vile obsession with Israel for exactly what it is. And don't want to be part of it. It's so pathetic that you repeat the tired BDS canard of "in Montreal and London there have been campaigns against collaboration" with the Technion. Yes, three people sent out a petition that nobody else signed 9 years ago. Some campaign. What you don't mention are the hundreds of universities, scientists, research institutes, foundations, and governments from all the over the world (including of course England and Canada), who have deep and fruitful collaboration with the Technion and other Israeli universities.

May. 10 2012 05:21 PM
Dan Isenberg

My comment was taken out of context. Technion graduates and professors have had a major impact on entrepreneurship in Israel. The Technion does not have outstanding programs to intentionally foster entrepreneurship, per se, but perhaps they are not needed. Dan

May. 10 2012 05:15 PM
Dorit from Israel

@nyc resident,

Either you're intentionally spreading vicious lies, or you are misinformed. I do hope it's the latter.

I've studied at the Technion, and if anything, there's a built-in preference of Arab students over Jewish ones - although this is not done on purpose.

As of last year Arab students accounted for 50% of the students at the Technion's faculty of Medicine - by far its most sought-after - which is outrageously more than Arab's share of the population (roughly 20%). They make about one third (!) of the student's population at the prestigious Faculty of Biomedical Engineering.

There are no officially available explanations for this. You can say that Arabs are two-to-three times more likely to be smarter than Jews. I can offer you another, more plausible explanation that several of my Arab friends sadly corroborated. It is widely known - while nothing is done about it - and that's en masse cheating in the matriculation exams (which account for roughly 50% of the score used to determine admission) in Arab villages (these tests in Israel are unfortunately held in the same high school the student comes from, and are very loosely supervised). Here and there test takers are disqualified (such as the recent high-profile case where 300 test takers from Kafre Qassem have been disqualified). Nothing is done about it due to a general "paralysis" fed off of a policy of political correctness.

Arab students at the Technion (as in every other Israeli university) are much younger. At 18, they are free to do as they wish. In contrast, Jewish Israelis are required by the state at 18 to join the army (boys for 3 years, and girls for about 2 years) or do community service. ***Here's reality for you*** - at the age of 22, when Jewish Israelis barely start their academic studies, Arab-Israeli students are already being awarded engineering degrees. It has been proposed that they do community service in lieu of army service but - surprise surprise - they consistently oppose that (except for a negligible minority).

Arab Israeli students are eligible for EVERY scholarship except for those few whose donors dedicated them to demobilized soldiers/ those who did community service (Jewish or otherwise!). This way Arab Israeli students have the opportunity to work and raise money for academic studies (3 years, as a matter of fact), while Jewish students can't - but still, they expect - and receive - the same chances of getting a scholarship. This is the sad but true reality for you.

May. 10 2012 11:56 AM

Seriously? Can't Israel be celebrated for something just once - in this case its leading ingenuity in the world of high tech - without politics being dragged into the equation? I hate to break it to you, but the war in Iraq that we so conveniently forget has claimed over 100,000 civilian lives. There have been a total of roughly 9,000 Arabs that have died in the wars with Israel. And still nobody seems to be drawing attention to the ties that elite universities in America have to the military-industrial complex, which engages in wars dealing with a threat a lot more intangible than the ones that Israel has fought. As someone who has lived in Israel, I can say that it is not a one-dimensional country. Regardless of your political views, there is plenty that can be celebrated without looking through your distorted and misinformed lenses.

May. 10 2012 11:54 AM

To the people complaining that Technion has military ties I hate to break it to you but MIT, Columbia, Princeton, these places have all benefited from massive defense spending. That's part of how elite schools become elite.

May. 10 2012 09:27 AM
Shakerman from Safrisco

Why not build the campus in Israel? Intel has several campuses in Israel.

Can't the city think of a better use for this island. After all, with climate warming it will be useless in "lickety-split" time. Possibly a Palestinian Refugee Camp for those displaced by the wars in Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria? Or preparatory to their displacement in Italy, Greece, Netherlands, and Alaska.

Give us a break, Bloomers. Shoot them a few billion, unconditionally, and they'll rename their university and their male firstborns after you.

May. 10 2012 08:47 AM
nyc resident

In response to K.R. Farudia from India

With respect to your message suggesting that Palestinian-Israeli students at The Technion have the same rights as the Jewish students. Palestinians don't have the same rights as Jews in Israel regardless of being a student or not.

I would encourage you to read this:

May. 10 2012 08:24 AM
K.R. Farudia from India

The above response is a lie. I recently spent two years at the Technion as a visiting graduate student, and I met, and befriended, a number of Arab students, of which there are many. They are fully integrated on campus, have the same rights as the Jewish students, and many receive stipends and scholarships that I understand come from Jewish donors. There are many Arab faculty members as well, including one who was in the research group I was part of. The Technion is a wonderful institution, and my native India has much to learn from it.

May. 10 2012 01:37 AM
nyc resident

It's interesting that the lid is starting to lift about what The Technion really is. There are many people in New York who are starting to question this partnership, and to realize that certain facts have been hidden by the city and Cornell.

In Montreal and London there have been campaigns against collaborations which their universities have with The Technion, because they manufacture weapons and surveillance equipment used in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories. Their Palestinian-Israeli students do not have the same access to stipends and support as the rest of the student population.

A new grassroots campaign has now begun in New York, to also stand up against The Technion. For more information our website is:

May. 09 2012 11:14 PM

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