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BGU, Concordia discuss joint cyber research plan

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Concordia University, Montreal WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
Concordia University, Montreal WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

Concordia University has taken the first tentative steps toward collaborating with an Israeli university in the growing field of computer security.

Amir Asif, dean of the faculty of engineering and computer science, hosted at Concordia on April 7 Roni Zehavi, CEO of CyberSpark, which is part of an ambitious project underway at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) that brings academia, industry – both local and foreign – and the military together for advanced research and development in cyber technology.

Zehavi described Israel as having quickly become a world leader in the protection of information systems, an industry that is overtaking defence-related industries in its economy. “Israel has identified cyber security as the ‘fourth frontier,’ after land, air and sea,” he said.

From left, Mourad Debbabi, Amir Asif, Roni Zehavi and Ziv Nevo Kulman JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO
From left, Mourad Debbabi, Amir Asif, Roni Zehavi and Ziv Nevo Kulman JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

Its population is just 0.1 per cent of the world total, yet Israel has attracted 10 per cent of global investment in cyber security, said Zehavi, an aeronautical engineer who has spent the past 10 years as a high-tech entrepreneur. Israel has captured five per cent of the global market, with exports totalling at least $3 billion (US) last year, he said.

There are now close to 300 Israeli companies dedicated to cyber security, many started by those formerly in defence, and more than 25 multinational firms, such as Cisco and IBM, are doing R&D in Israel, he said.

CyberSpark is a private company, but not for profit and officially a non-governmental organization, Zehavi explained. “Every penny we make is re-invested,” he said.
Despite its remote location, BGU is becoming a model tech “ecosystem.” All of CyberSpark’s private, military and academic components will be within walking distance of each other. Three years ago, the government started relocating the Israel Defence Forces’ technology units to BGU’s Be’er Sheva campus. Within 10 years, 20,000 to 30,000 people will be working there, he said.

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In addition, student enrolment at BGU, Israel’s youngest university founded in1969, continues to soar. Be’er Sheva, once a small desert town, is now an innovation capital, said Zehavi, a member of BGU’s strategic steering committee.

Neither the national government nor the municipality has a stake in CyberSpark, but government provides generous incentives to attract investors. “Government is an enabler, but it does not interfere,” he said.

BGU now has a larger engineering department than the Technion, from which Zehavi graduated 36 years ago, and one-third of the engineers in Israel today are BGU alumni, he noted. Teaching goes both ways: industry people are in BGU classrooms and BGU offers seminars to executives who are not tech heads.

Zehavi invited Concordia to come on board, and the fit is a good one, he thinks.
As Asif explained, Concordia is a leader in engineering research, attracting about $20 million in grants from industry and government last year, and also has a rapidly increasing student enrolment, about half at the graduate level.

Preventing, detecting and mitigating cyber attacks is a key interest for one of its departments, the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering. Its director, associate dean Mourad Debbabi, joined Asif in hosting Zehavi at the meeting, where other faculty and researchers joined in.

Zehavi said BGU is eager to collaborate with and learn from those abroad, and Asif said his department’s goal is to produce “global citizens working effectively in diverse environments” for the good of society.

Zehavi and Asif agreed to consider joint research projects or student exchanges. “I believe we should start with a small, well-defined specific project,” Asif said. In addition to cyber security, he sees a common interest in aerospace, for example.

Zehavi feels Montreal is a natural partner and notes the city’s strength in digital technologies, as well as Mayor Denis Coderre’s multi-million-dollar plan to turn it into a “smart city” by next year.

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Israeli Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman is organizing a Montreal mission to Israel in November, and BGU is on the itinerary. He hopes Concordia will be represented.

The consulate sponsored Zehavi’s visit, during which he also met with representatives of the Quebec Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation and the National Research Council of Canada.