Por Gustavo Beron
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Itongadol.- Coming to the University of the Negev, Ben Gurion University, is an experience unlike anything we are used to. Everyone talks about Israeli startups and their scientific breakthroughs, but you rarely get the chance to see the miracle.

In 1963, David Ben Gurion said that Israeli researchers and scientists would settle in Sha’ar HaNegev, investigate how to create energy from the sun, water from the air and food from the dunes.

All this became a reality and we confirmed it when from Iton Gadol we visited the university, its professors, students and interviewed its president, Dr. Daniel Chamovitz. His delicate smile and his strength, inspired by Prime Minister Ben Gurion, lead him to assure that the university will be one of the leaders in the world.

He also claimed it, as something sacred: «There is no concept of the impossible here». With a spirit of bengurionism, of creating a new reality without waiting for others to do so, the university is essentially a true creator of entrepreneurs. And Chamovitz pointed out during our visit that the creation of the State of Israel was undoubtedly the pinnacle of entrepreneurship.

A university, a hospital, a High-Tech Park with 80 international companies and 3,000 engineers, plus the army with its cyber-technology and intelligence units, are all around a great new bridge where all this can be seen from above. And below our feet, a train that recently completed its journey from Tel Aviv to Beer Sheba completes the reality of a country that is thriving from its foundations and can be felt by visiting Ben Gurion University.

Itongadol: What is the secret of Ben Gurion University’s success?

– The secret is in our DNA. I am originally a geneticist and what we have inside is the «Ben Gurionist DNA». David Ben Gurion was not only the first head of government (of Israel), but also the first Zionist entrepreneur and his genes influence everything we do. In the early ’60s, I think in 1963, Ben Gurion said that researchers and scientists would settle in Sháar Hanéguev, research the treasures of the country and discover how to create energy from the sun, water from the air and food from the dunes. In fact, he predicted all the problems and solutions that were mentioned in Glasgow, Scotland, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference sixty years ago… So, the bengurionist spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit, looks into the future and creates a new reality without waiting for others to do it. It is taking responsibility. Now, when Ben Gurion said that there were less than 100,000 people in the Negev. At the same time, he even thought of what I imagine would be a sort of «Oxford of the Negev». Let’s say he could be an entrepreneur, a dreamer or a fool… Those genes allow us to see the forest and imagine solutions that nobody thought of. There is no concept of «impossible» here. We know that from our point of view, here in the Negev, which is another point of view, the perspective is different. This perspective allows us to do great things. This perspective also indicates that by working together we can create even the impossible. Surely Ben Gurion created the impossible, and so did the university itself

Itongadol: What did you inherit from previous presidents and what do you think you will leave as your legacy?

– I received a 50-year-old university. That’s a fair age to look in the mirror and see what I did and what I want to do from now on. Previous presidents managed in 20 years to take a small university, a tertiary institute in the Negev with 5,000 students, and expand it to an international university with 20,000. My challenge is to take the university, now that it has advanced so rapidly, and make it one of the leaders in the world.

Itongadol: And how do you do that?

– First of all, it is linked to excellence. We will encourage the absorption of the world’s leading researchers who want to come and my challenge is to attract them to the Negev and build its future. The relentless striving for excellence in basic and early research, in students and in our influence on the community and the environment, and to say that from the Negev we can create a reality that influences the whole world. For 50 years we learned and are researching how to live in our desert. What we thought was a local problem and challenge is now a global one.

Itongadol: Did necessity turn into an opportunity?

– Today is our moment to penetrate globally because everybody is turning to us to understand why what we create here today is really relevant all over the world: in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Morocco, but also in Germany; for example, today we have a very good cooperation with the (multinational technology) company Bosch in the area of air-conditioning engineering. Nobody would think that air conditioning is a problem in Northern Europe, but the last few summers became unbearable because the houses were not built with that in mind. Now, Bosch and the local company Electra are cooperating to create an adapted air conditioning law in Europe which is a problem we know how to deal with in the country and we have to share it with everybody. This summer (in Israel) we opened a new Food Security Research Institute, which is based on technologies that create water from the air and pour it to make irrigation for vertical farming on walls to really create vegetables in the middle of the desert. And where they most want to work on this is in the UAE (United Arab Emirates), in Dubai.

Itongadol: What other fortress in the world came out of here?

– Like Ben Gurion, our strength is the ability to create entrepreneurs. Ben Gurion University is one of the only 50 universities worldwide whose graduates raise investment funds for their companies. It is the eighth outside the United States. Our graduates create a new reality with their companies. They leave Ben Gurion and create companies that influence the whole world. We have an entrepreneurship programme, but this is not just for business students, not just for engineers, but for all students. For example, I finance a fund that invests in undergraduate entrepreneurship and after three years we have eight companies that have raised funds all over the world, one of which has already left the programme. As I travel the world, I find that many universities, in China, India and the UAE, want to understand how we incorporate that possibility into the curriculum. We don’t have a degree in entrepreneurship, but this is part of all the others. It’s exciting, and the creation of the State of Israel was the epitome of entrepreneurship. Ben Gurion created a country from scratch, and when he started doing the impossible, he was 26 years old… But there is another explanation for all this: if we don’t do it here, nobody in the South, in the Negev, will do it… The importance of this university is totally different from all the others. I did my PhD at the Hebrew University and it’s not so relevant to Jerusalem. I worked 23 years at Tel Aviv University… It’s excellent, but without it, it would also have its economic power. But we are the only source of high technology in the whole city. We have a social responsibility to develop our ecosystem. We want Beer Sheba to be a cosmopolitan metropolis. The university does things it shouldn’t do…

Itongadol: For example?

– We founded a high-tech industrial sector of the university, in cooperation with the Municipality of Beer Sheba, next to our campus. Tel Aviv University or the Technion didn’t need to do it because they did it without them… Then Ben Gurion University invested millions of dollars in the construction of the High-Tech Park. Where there was zero, today there are 80 international companies and 3,000 engineers, 70% of whom are our graduates. We did not found it because we want to be rich, but to invest in research and also to create jobs for my graduates, something the government and the private sector did not do.

Itongadol: There is also a special cooperation with the Army…

– First of all there is a national issue, which is a shift to the South. That does not depend on the university, but the government decided to pull down all the military bases. But the army wants its own selected cyber and intelligence units. They understand that soldiers with computer science degrees are the best, so it was decided to build a base here for their computer units. In this way we also contribute to the country and it would be to our advantage that when they leave, they come back to do a second or third degree. We don’t want this because it demands a certain number of students and a lot of work, but we have no alternative: we have to do it….

Itongadol: To what do you attribute the fact that after Israel’s 70th anniversary the world started talking more about its contributions and high technology than about the conflict with the Arab world?

– I’m a biologist and not a historian, but I think what happened was that there were several processes… It was very comfortable for the Western world to think of the world as black and white, good and bad, and in the last ten years we understand more and more how complicated it is: what is terrorism, what is war, what are migrants, what is the protection of society, what is nationalism and what is not, what is the influence of one country on another… That is why, since 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the problems in Europe and the migrants in Syria, also the Arab world understood: «Wait a minute, the situation is complicated…». I have a problem with the Palestinians… It did not disappear, but it is no different from others in the world. They wanted to say that ours was «the» problem, but I think the world understood that it is complicated around here… Of course we have to solve our problems, but what is happening in the United States is also complicated, what happened in the last decade in South America, the migrants from Syria in Turkey and the problems between Turkey and Europe, and Iran… If the world is complicated and things are no longer black and white, then it is easier to recognize Israel as another country with problems, to see what it is doing in the midst of all the mess and to start seeing each other as human beings… I mean, ten years ago, at Ben Gurion University in the Negev there were about 70 Bedouin students. Around us, in the Negev, there are 300,000 Bedouins. The most difficult population in terms of socialization in Israel. Today there are more than 800 Bedouin students… how this changes their society! Professor Jihad al-Sana, former head of the Computer Science Department, is Bedouin. In our park there is a start-up company whose programmers are all Bedouin and they are already looking for their way out… What people are interested in is their lives… If you look at what Ben Gurion wanted and the geographical location of the university in the city compared to others: Tel Aviv University is in Ramat Aviv; Hebrew University is in Beit Hakerem; Technion is in Neveh Shaanan… We are in the Betha and Gamma neighbourhoods, the poorest in Beer Sheba, and we are here to influence and change. Another different thing is that we are the only «destination university» in the country and we have a community of students who left the Centre and the North to come and make their lives in Beer Sheba: the parties, the clubs and also the social industry, which is part of our DNA and is something they like very much because they didn’t want to study in pairs anymore. For example: we train one third of the engineers in the country, but they are the most sought after in the market because they are very sociable and know how to work in a group. Today’s industry is not about individuals, but about the strength of the whole…

Itongadol: What things do you think the world will be talking about in ten years’ time without knowing that they came from here?

– Here we have the National Cyber Technology Centre and the largest School of Sustainability and Climate Change in the country and one of the largest in the world, but the distinctive thing is that we created the National Autism Research Centre. We received a grant of about 15 million dollars for that. The reason why it is here and not somewhere else is because of the strength of the coffee… This is the only geographical place in the country where there is a university and the Soroka hospital. We have Psychology, Social Work, Psychiatry, Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy within the distance of a café. The innovation comes from taking people from different disciplines, they come together over a coffee and start talking… And then, the result is money, it’s the trigger… That’s what enables this… And regarding autism, there is a cooperation between Psychiatry, Psychology, Genetics and Data Science in order to make a new diagnosis and also create new solutions.

Itongadol: It’s amazing how much importance they give to autism….

– I don’t have the specific data, but I think about 10% of children are on the autistic spectrum. It’s a worldwide problem … Our centre cooperates with another one in Toronto (Canada), and here they build branches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. What we know today is that the earlier we distinguish the child, the greater the chance of having an intervention that will enable him to function.

Itongadol: Do you think there will be changes in education as a result of the pandemic?

– If any university goes back to exactly the way it was before it will be a sign of failure… It depends on each one and our students prefer to be here, but this last year and a half forced us to create technology and a new educational experience. It’s not just videoconferencing, but combining ways for people to interact… I mean, I’m teaching a joint course with the University of Beijing. Now, technology allows us to teach inter-university courses that invite students to interact. We couldn’t do that before COVID…

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