The New Spirit of Jerusalem hi-tech

There are dozens of large – and perhaps hundreds of small – established tech companies and startups in the city.

By DAVID SHAMAH
July 11, 2011 23:10
4 minute read.
MOTI HAZAN, chairman of the Jerusalem Development

Jerusalem Startup 311. (photo credit: Daniel Alster)

 
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Don’t look now, but there’s a dark horse in the race to become the hitech center of the Startup Nation.

Jerusalem is perhaps the last place you’d think of as a center of technology, but as it happens, there are dozens of large – and perhaps hundreds of small – established tech companies and startups in the city.

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Take, for example, biotechnology. There are currently 100 life-sciences companies in Jerusalem employing more than 32,000 people – almost 12 percent of the city’s workforce.

They are largely focused on development of therapeutics in the fields of oncology, immune-related diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular problems, infectious diseases and orthopedics. Jerusalem companies are also leaders in several of the most lucrative and promising life-sciences fields, such as brain research and regenerative medicine, particularly stem-cell research.

Those are surprising statistics for many of us, but the administration of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is doing its best to change the perception of the city among the Israeli public to include “hi-tech powerhouse” among the other images that our minds conjure up when we think of Jerusalem. In recent years, the city – via the Jerusalem Development Authority – has developed a program to provide grants and tax incentives to qualified life-science companies that locate their offices or development centers in the city. The program, called BioJerusalem, provides grants of between NIS 600,000 and NIS 2.4 million to companies, depending on their size, market value and potential.

But as attractive as those incentives are, companies won’t flock to the city unless there is a qualified base of workers to take on the jobs that they provide. Fortunately, the city has been hard at work developing programs that will ensure that students who study in Jerusalem’s higher education institutions remain in the city past graduation to work, and hopefully to live.

That effort is being undertaken by the nonprofit New Spirit (Ruach Hadasha) organization (www.new-spirit.org.il), which for the past seven years has been working to help students in Jerusalem find jobs and build connections in a variety of areas, including media, art, international relations and diplomacy, urban planning, tourism – and now, hi-tech.

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The organization’s internship project, in cooperation with the JDA and the “Academic City” group, and with a budget this year of more than NIS 4 million, works to place students in a variety of companies and organizations, giving them an opportunity to use what they’re learning and helping them build a relationship with influential people in their fields.

The new program, directed by New Spirit’s Sivan Vardi, kicked off its activity several weeks ago at a big bash at Intel’s Har Hotzvim center. The event was attended by Barkat and top hi-tech officials from Intel and other Jerusalem-located companies.

“We are sure the project is going to be a success,” Vardi says. “Our experience shows that the internship program is one of the best ways to keep students in Jerusalem. We have a lot of experience working with private and public companies and organizations, and we realized there was a good potential for success in a hi-tech internship program.”

The internship program in the hi-tech component has 500 students from higher education institutions located in Jerusalem, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem College of Technology, Hadassah College, the Jerusalem College of Engineering and others (Vardi hopes to enroll 50 students in the program’s first stages). Many of the students are on scholarship or are from lower socioeconomic groups, and they generally work six hours a week.

“While that model worked fine for most disciplines, we believe we will have to change that formula for hi-tech companies, where longer hours for projects the students will be working on will be needed,” Vardi says.

Because of those extra hours, Vardi is hopeful she will be able to secure stipends for students in the hi-tech internship program.

Preference will be given to students enrolled in engineering or computer courses, but Vardi would like to enroll students from other disciplines as well, in line with the hope that opportunities and jobs in hi-tech will outstrip the number of candidates in the coming years.

The whole point of New Spirit’s program is to ensure that students remain in Jerusalem, living in the city and working at one of the city’s many startups. A study conducted last March shows that the program works, at least in the other areas that the internship program places students.

“The study showed that 64 percent of graduates who went through the internship program currently live and work in Jerusalem,” Vardi says. That’s a very impressive figure, considering that many people who work in Jerusalem have chosen to live in suburbs such as Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion, she says.

“We realize Jerusalem is complicated and that there are many factors impacting on the decision to live here,” says Vardi, adding that New Spirit also lobbies for affordable housing and better cultural opportunities.

The study shows that “it’s clear that students are mainly worried about jobs,” Vardi says, “and that’s a problem we hope to help them to solve.”

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