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Don’t make too much of BDS: Israeli academic

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Daniel Chamovitz addresses a BGNetwork event in Montreal on Sept. 12.

A top Israeli university official said that too much attention is being given to the BDS campaign, at least in the academic sphere.

Daniel Chamovitz – the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba, Israel, and a scientist – told a Montreal audience that BDS has not been a problem for him personally.

“I’m not saying BDS is not bothersome, but in my experience, I know of no major science-based or STEM-based university, company or conference where it has been an issue,” he said at a Sept. 12 program organized by the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University and hosted by the law firm Osler.

“I think even my government talks about it more than it should. We should not give it more importance than it deserves,” said the American-born Chamovitz, who became BGU president in January.

BDS activism tends to be most prevalent among undergraduates, especially those in the social sciences “who are looking for a cause to feel important,” he said.

Israel does best concentrating on telling the world what it can contribute to global problems, he said. “That India, China and Saudi Arabia want to work with us shows we are doing the right thing.”

READ: BDS CAMPAIGN TARGETING TORONTO BUSINESSES BACKFIRES

Before coming to BGU, Chamovitz was dean of life sciences at Tel Aviv University (TAU). A plant geneticist, the Aliquippa, Pa., native earned a PhD at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and did postdoctoral research at Yale University before joining TAU’s faculty in 1996.

His 2012 popular science book, What a Plant Knows, has been translated into 18 languages.

Chamovitz came to Montreal to promote BGU as a hub for high-tech innovation that is open for business. Its campus is the site of a rapidly expanding technology park, created with the municipality of Beersheba, which brings together academia, industry and the military. (The IDF is currently relocating a cybersecurity unit there.)

Five years ago, there were no high-tech jobs in the Beersheba region, he said, even though BGU was graduating a third of Israel’s engineers.

Today, 3,000 professionals work in the park’s facilities, which now cover 60,000 square metres. Seventy per cent are BGU graduates. Within five years, it is projected that 14,000 people will work there in space totalling 250,000 square metres, he said.

Numerous international companies have contracted with the park, including tech giants and financial institutions, which are especially eager for its expertise in cybersecurity, he said. The Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of Montreal are among its clients.

Founded in 1969 in what was the poorest region of Israel, BGU has grown exponentially in the last 20 years, and with it the surrounding region, which has close to 500,000 residents today. Chamovitz said BGU is integral to the region’s economic and social development and the prosperity of the Negev is crucial to Israel’s future.

“If you could somehow cut BGU out of Israel and transplant it in, say, Tucson, Ariz., the whole ecosystem of the south would fall apart,” he said. “The success of the Negev is essential to the future of Israel … and that’s only through BGU.”

With Israel’s population estimated to explode to 21 million this century, Chamovitz said the Negev will be the only place left to live – but it won’t be cheap. The university-owned apartment he lives in has increased in value by 70 per cent in the last two years alone, he said.

Today, BGU is among the leading universities in the world in commercializing innovation, he said, and that is due to its readiness to collaborate with industry, something academia has traditionally been dismissive of.

Fifteen per cent of the research and development done at BGU is industry-funded, he noted. That compares to an average of six per cent at American universities.

BGU has just broken into the top 50 universities in the world, at 49th place, for the amount of venture capital raised by its graduates. Stanford University is No. 1.

In May, Algatech, a company started by a BGU graduate that developed a way of producing nutritional food additives from microalgae, was sold for US$100 million ($132 million) to a Japanese company.

Students don’t have to wait to graduate to launch companies. BGU’s Cactus Capital fund of US$1 million, which is run by trained students, offers seed money of up to $25,000 for tech, or $5,000 for social startups, he said. One promising project is an artificial intelligence-driven “eye” that assists lifeguards in spotting problems in the water.

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