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Photo by: Michal Marmary
Stars of Israel
By JOSH HASTEN
04/11/2012
Elite program accepts only best, brightest to develope new, creative technologies for army.
 
The name “Talpiot” usually brings to mind a southern Jerusalem neighborhood known for its industrial zone, steak restaurants and nightlife. The word, derived from a verse in the biblical Song of Songs referring to the Temple in Jerusalem, is a combination of the words tel (hill) and piyot (mouths) – or the hill to which all mouths turn in prayer.

However, in the IDF lexicon, Talpiot stands for “peak” or “elite” and refers to the name of a program that allows some of the most intelligent young army recruits from around the country to use their brains in service of the state, and not necessarily their brawn.

According to Brig.-Gen. (res.) Aharon Beth-Halachmi, who founded the exclusive program in 1979 under the auspices of the IAF and the IDF Administration for the Development of Weapons and the Technological Industry, graduates who complete Talpiot’s lengthy nine-year tour of duty are “stars” today, “serving as some of the country’s leading scientists, research and development heads in hi-tech and life sciences. [They] are in the field of defense and are behind some of the most successful start-ups over the past 15 years.”

In 1974, two Hebrew University professors approached Beth-Halachmi – who is now a managing partner at the hi-tech and management company Federmann Enterprises – with the idea of starting a program for highly intelligent recruits to assist in developing new and creative technologies for the army’s use. It wasn’t until five years later that IDF chief of staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan gave the program the green light.

For the past 32 years, the program has accepted an average of 25 to 30 recruits a year, both men and women, after a rigorous series of tests. The candidates must demonstrate not only an extremely high IQ, but strong leadership abilities. Beth-Halachmi adds that they must also be extremely motivated and determined, “and must come with extraordinary references from their previous schools.”

He says that in terms of numbers, only “1.5 percent of the thousands of army applicants who apply are accepted each year,” which shows how elite the unit is. By his description, it is “like no other program in the world.”

DR. GUY Shinar, a Talpiot alumnus who completed the program just over a decade ago, is an independent medical device entrepreneur based in Ramat Gan, with a PhD in physics from the Weizmann Institute of Science and a post-doctorate in systems biology. He also serves on the board of several well-known Israeli medical device companies, which produce some of the latest technologies utilized in the field worldwide.

In 2005, at the young age of 28, he co-founded and ran a medical technology company called Early Sense, which manufactures a device that can monitor a patient’s vital signs without the use of electrodes. The device, in use in several countries, goes under a patient’s mattress to determine heart rate, respiration and other important bodily calculations.

Shinar attributes much of his success in his chosen field to his participation in the Talpiot program. “To be successful in the medical device field, you need to be an expert in a wide variety of areas including clinical science, engineering (medical), intellectual property rights, and physiology. Talpiot graduates... are naturally inclined to be involved in such complex fields.”

He explains that for a Talpiot cadet’s first three years and three months, he or she completes a bachelor of science degree in physics and mathematics at the program’s Hebrew University-based complex in Jerusalem. During part of that time, the soldiers also take part in an 18-month basic training course within several possible units, including the paratroopers, air force, navy and intelligence. Following completion of that phase, the graduate is considered an officer with the rank of lieutenant.

According to Shinar, for the next six years, participants are assigned to top military positions within intelligence units, the air force and several other areas – such as, in Shinar’s case, research and development.

“For example,” he says, “you might be assigned as a project manager of an army weapons development program in charge of managing big budgets and interacting with important clients.”

He adds that “bottom line, at the very young age of 22, you are given a high degree of responsibility doing highly complicated research and development or intelligence work for the military whose level of complexity and personal responsibility are on par with what a 30-year-old would be charged with in the private sector. So for sure the program prepares you to work in the biotechnical or healthcare industry.”

Ofer Goldberg, who is vice president of the Tel Aviv- 100 biotech company Clal Biotechnical Industries and manages one of its new medical technology venture capital funds, Anatomy, completed Talpiot one year after Shinar. Clal focuses on investments in healthcare, specializing in the development of pharmaceuticals.

Like Shinar, Goldberg credits his experiences at Talpiot with his successful career and overall contribution to the betterment of Israeli society.

“What I’m doing now professionally is reviewing state-of-the-art technologies to see if they are scientifically feasible and medically rational,” says Goldberg.

“I used that same type of analytical thinking in Talpiot when I was reviewing technologies to see if they had any type of military relevance. Talpiot focuses on a basic, but at the same time multidisciplinary, approach to understanding science and technology, which is very relevant to what I am doing now.”

He also says that the “Talpiot factor” sometimes becomes part of the dynamic when he decides whether his fund might invest in a company.

“One of the reasons we just invested in a cardiology company is that its CEO was a graduate of Talpiot, and therefore I know he is capable,” he says. “When we invest, we are investing in management, so the fact that I know him and know that he is a Talpiot guy is key.”

Goldberg is also proud that his company has strong Zionist principles, saying that “in addition to the practical reasons of staying local and promising opportunities for business success, we only invest in biotech companies that are based in Israel.”

Shinar adds that he is still in touch with most of the other 30 or so graduates from his year, since they are like a “second family, both socially and professionally.

They are a network of immense strength. They are people who became part of my life at age 18, a malleable time, so deep friendships were formed. I have no doubt they will be part of my life on many levels for years to come.”
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