There’s hi-tech, and then there’s high-level hi-tech – and on that level, you
find Israel’s fledgling nanotechnology industry.
But the industry is not
so fledgling that it isn’t eligible to host an international conference, which
is going on this week in Tel Aviv. The conference, NanoIsrael 2010, is sponsored
by INNI (Israel National Nano-technology Initiative), an umbrella group that
keeps track of research, development and commercial efforts in the field by
Israeli companies and university research centers.
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Nanotech, of course,
is the science of manipulating small stuff – very small, like on the atomic and
molecular scale, such as: squeezing molecules through a tiny channel in a cell
to build a $10 DNA test, instead of the current model, which costs $10,000;
reducing pollutants from internal-combustion engines to next to nothing; giving
food the taste and texture of a full measure of sugar and fat, while reducing
calories to super-strict diet levels. Nanotech is all that, and more.
variety of applications and products were on display at the conference, which
included panels led by world-class scientists: Prof. Andre Geim, winner of the
2010 Nobel Prize for physics; several Israeli researchers, including Prof.
Reshef Tenne of the Weizmann Institute, best known for leading the group that
discovered and studied the inorganic fullerene-like nanospheres and nanotubes,
generally termed IF nanoparticles, considered a new class of
According to INNI, there are more than 80 large and small
companies working in Israel’s nanotech sector, along with at least 40 academic
and governmental labs, employing some 300 researchers and
Israel, according to the organization, has the third-largest
concentration of start-up companies in the world, surpassed only by California’s
Silicon Valley and the Boston technology corridor. An INNI survey shows that the
Technion employs 119 nano-researchers, followed by 55 researchers at Tel Aviv
University, 47 at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 43 at the Weizmann
Institute of Science, 39 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and 30 at
Since 2002, the number of nano-researchers in Israel
has doubled, and the fruits of their labor were evident at the conference. Among
the applications Israeli start-ups have developed using nanotech are
water-purification membranes, agents for oral-drug delivery, inkjet
digital-printing systems, diagnostic tools, holographic storage systems – and an
“e-beam on a chip,” something like a laser beam, to be used for semiconductor
At a press conference, Geim praised Israel for its
nano-work. Medical applications using nanotechnology, which many of the
Israeli start-ups are working on, is the right fit for a country like Israel, he
“Israel’s not big enough for an Intel-type of operation,” Geim
said. “I think medical research is a good fit for a country the size of
Israel, and it is an area where the county’s nanoresearch can
Nano-level hi-tech is hi-tech – and then some. The “get rich
quick” model of Internet application startup success just doesn’t apply in the
nano-world; to even get into the game, you need top minds in physics,
electronics and medical applications.
Geim, educated at one of the most
prestigious science schools in the world, the Moscow Institute of Physics and
Technology, doubts that Western students today have the stomach to digest the
scientific education he went through.
“Let’s just say that if I were to
give my students at the University of Manchester, where I now teach, the same
tests I had to go through, it would be a complete disaster,” he
Unfortunately, that Western aversion to challenging education has
hit Israel, too. But unlike the United States and Europe, Israel can’t afford to
lose its pool of up-and-coming scientists.
“Unlike many other countries
in the world – such as Singapore, which invests billions in inviting foreign
scientists to live and work there – Israel is not in a position to recruit
scientists from other countries,” said Prof. Uri Sivan of the Technion, one of
Israel’s leading nanotechnology experts.
Of course, immigration and aliya
play a role, but the bottom line is that Israel is going to have to rely on its
university graduates to lead the coming nanotechnology revolution.
graduate scientists who can operate at the level needed to develop this brave,
new technology, you need students who are enthusiastic about the hard sciences.
But that type of student is not so easy to come by, Sivan said.
than 20 percent of students in Israeli high schools today study science, and the
pool of university students who can excel in areas like physics is already
small,” he said.
“But we have an even bigger problem: In the coming few
years, many of our science and technology professors will be retiring – and
right now we don’t have sufficient personnel to replace them.”
goes way back in the chain, to the elementary and high schools,” Sivan said.
“The cutbacks in education funding have hurt all disciplines, but they have hurt
science the most. Although some money was restored, it is a pittance compared to
what was cut.”
There are fewer teachers in the Technion today, but more
students, he said, adding that on all levels “Israel has one of the worst
student-to- teacher ratios of any country.”
Prof. Arie Zaban of Bar-Ilan
University (one of the co-chairs of the conference, along with former Yissum CEO
Nava Swersky-Sofer and INNI’s Dan Vilenski) is a bit more
“There’s no question we have work to do, but with a little
more government investment, we can set things right,” he said.
Zaban said, Israel has the brain power it needs to hit the heights of the
“We have a lot of competition, especially from the
‘tigers’ of the Far East, such as South Korea and Singapore,” he
But Israel has no choice but it invest to win, Zaban said, because
our hi-tech future is riding on nanosuccess.