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Royal Bank invests $2 million in Negev high-tech hub

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Rivka Carmi, left, president of Ben-Gurion University, speaks with Peggi Cohen Rabinovitch, a Montreal board member of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University. (Sharon Freedman photo)

The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) is investing $2 million in a high-tech industrial park that’s under development in Israel’s Negev Desert.

Canada’s largest bank has entered into a cybersecurity research partnership with Ben-Gurion University (BGU), to develop adversarial artificial intelligence, which includes the use of machine learning in defending against cyber-threats and fraud.

“It speaks volumes when RBC makes such an investment,” said Tony Lofredda, vice-chair of RBC Wealth Management, at a luncheon the bank hosted for the Canadian Friends of Ben-Gurion University in Montreal.

Lofredda visited BGU as a participant in Federation CJA’s Mega Mission to Israel last year.

The guest speaker was Rivka Carmi, who is stepping down as BGU president in December, after 12 years on the job. Under her watch, BGU collaborated with industry and government, both national and municipal, to create the Advanced Technologies Park (ATP).

Located adjacent to the BGU main campus in Beersheba, the ATP is an applied research centre and start-up accelerator that is rapidly growing on a site that only a few years ago was a desert. Today, 2,500 are employed and more than 70 NASDAQ-listed companies, including 40 from abroad, have research and development projects there, including heavyweights like IBM, Dell and Oracle.

READ: CANADIAN BANKS EYE ISRAEL’S CYBERSECURITY KNOW-HOW

“We have only just begun,” Carmi said.

Three of a planned 15 buildings have gone up in the ATP over the past few years and a fourth is under construction.

Rather than take out a bank loan, BGU decided to issue a private bond series to raise 350 million shekels ($124 million).

Within 48 hours after the bonds were floated in August, 1.2 billion shekels were raised, said Carmi, who called it “a huge vote of confidence” in the ATP’s dream of becoming “the Silicon Valley of the Middle East.” Among the investors are traditionally cautious pension and health-care funds.

RBC is working with BGU’s technology transfer company, BGN Technologies, to find ways to better protect against malicious software and other security breaches. Professors Yuval Elovici and Asaf Shabtai, both from BGU’s department of software and information systems engineering, are heading the work.

Carmi, who became the first female president of an Israeli university in 2006, is a pediatrician and geneticist by trade.

It speaks volumes when RBC makes such an investment.
– Tony Lofredda

“Today, it seems obvious, but, at the beginning, some people thought we were crazy,” Carmi said about green-lighting the ambitious project that rose from sand where camels still grazed.

BGU faculty members were initially skeptical about having too cosy a relationship with industry. They were concerned that basic research would be sacrificed to more immediate commercial interests. “But it has proven to be a win-win situation,” said Carmi.

The next phase is the relocation of the Israel Defence Forces’ elite high-tech and intelligence units to the Negev.

In the process, southern Israel is being transformed, she said.

“People who haven’t been here for five years think it’s a different place,” she said. “People who haven’t been here for 30 years don’t recognize it. They think it’s a different country.”

Israeli Deputy Consul Rotem Segev agreed. She recalled that as a child, she saw the Negev as a far away place where her family would go to visit her grandparents.

“Now, it is not just the engine of the south, but the engine of the country, showing the world leadership in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, computer science and medicine.”