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Q & A with Sharon Goldman: Driving the engine of Startup Nation

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Sharon Goldman

Founded in 1955 and located in Ramat Gan, Israel, Bar Ilan University (BIU) is known for melding research excellence and Jewish studies. Sharon Goldman, the university’s vice-president of global resources, works with Bar Ilan’s top researchers, academics and administrators to build global projects in support of the “Jewish Startup Nation.” She was in Canada recently to meet with supporters.

What brings you to Toronto?

I’m here to meet with Harold Heilbut, the CEO of the Canadian Friends of Bar-Ilan University, and his team. My job is to figure out how to make our entire team more effective and productive.

My role as vice-president is essentially to strategize, co-ordinate and collaborate with our community, in Israel and around the world.

Canadian Friends of Bar Ilan is one of our really important friends groups around the world. We know there is an enormous amount of potential in Toronto – and Montreal, as well. I wanted to come here and get to know Heilbut and his team and strategize about how to build Bar Ilan into a presence, a philanthropic addition to many people’s portfolios here in Canada.

Are you looking for people to donate to Bar Ilan or invest in its role in promoting Startup Nation?

I think philanthropy is an investment. I don’t think of philanthropy and investment in radically different ways. If I were to ask you to get involved in supporting what you would call philanthropy – straight up write a cheque to Bar Ilan – the reason you’re doing that is because you’re investing in the kind of work being produced at Bar Ilan.

So you may not get a financial return on your investment, but you’ll get a sense that you are investing in Bar Ilan’s mission.

How will contributions from Canadian supporters be spent?

One of our major projects at Bar Ilan is called STEM 100. It’s about bringing post-docs back to Israel. Many, if not most, doctoral students go out of the country. It’s encouraged, because it’s a small country. People are encouraged to expand their horizons, go learn, go explore, go work with other top-notch scientists around the world.

The problem is that too many of them are not coming back to Israel after their post-doctoral work.

America, in particular, is the land of many opportunities. They’re given a great lab, wonderful people to work with, a good salary and America is a comfortable place to live.

We need to get our best scientists back, in particular to Bar Ilan’s campus. The Canadian friends and the American friends are helping recruit investors to help us woo back our scientists.

The money, per se, is not what will get them. We can’t match salaries. They want a great lab and they want doctoral assistants and candidates to work with them. They want students. They want to be able to do their work, so we are looking for investors through STEM 100 to help us build, and continue to strengthen, the Startup Nation, by bringing those scientists back.

What’s different about Bar Ilan versus other schools in ensuring Israel remains the Startup Nation?

Bar Ilan has a unique role to play in the landscape of academics in Israel. We are the only university that has a core requirement for the students to take classes around Judaism, something that imbues our students with the understanding that Israel is not just a startup nation, not just this incredible space for innovation or intellectual advancement, but at its core, it’s also about being a Jewish state.

Is Bar Ilan a major source of innovation?

It is. There are a number of spaces where Bar Ilan is excelling. If you want to look at hard numbers, Bar Ilan is rated number 1 in artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. We’re very focused on big data and using huge amounts of information. In the medical space, we have one of our researchers who is studying breast cancer. She’s using some of the technology being developed at Bar Ilan to identify the different strains of breast cancer, so that treatment can be targeted.

We’ve created a whole centre for precision medicine.

Is Bar Ilan doing the basic research, but not commercializing it, or is it doing both?

Both. We start with basic research. We also have an arm at Bar Ilan that commercializes and patents some of these things that are being produced.

Until they produce it, we need investment from donors, from partners to help them get to a place and then we are very focused on entrepreneurship and bringing in dollars from other places, whether it’s grants from the government or foundations, or it’s commercialization and partnerships with corporations that are looking to invest in some of the work that is being done.

Can you be more specific about the mechanism by which research ideas become commercial ideas?

There are two different ways. One is called “UnBox.” We brought in someone who was very successful in developing and selling a number of technology companies. We brought him in to work with our young researchers and teach them about entrepreneurship.

What he says about entrepreneurship is that you need to understand the market before you develop the product. He has an entire year-long process, where people can apply to get some funding to go to America mostly, but also to Europe, to talk with companies working in the space and to have BIU in the back of their head as they move forward with any of the developments. They’re starting to make the connections before they even develop the product.

Then we have a specific group on campus called Birad, whose job is to help our researchers get their material patented and to get it commercialized and help build the connections.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity

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