Cyber sparks in Beersheba

The capital of the Negev aims to become a major player in the global cyber industry

Illustration by Avi Katz (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Illustration by Avi Katz
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
THE LATEST manifestation of the vaunted Israel pioneering spirit hit Beersheba about 15 years ago when Prof. Avishai Braverman, then the president of Ben-Gurion University, had a vision.
“He was standing in the sand, looking at the camels and he said there will be a hitech park here,” Roni Zehavi, the CEO of CyberSpark Industry Initiative, tells The Jerusalem Report.
CyberSpark, the embodiment of Braverman’s vision, is fast becoming the center of excellence in the Negev that may change the landscape of Israel and the global cyber industry.
Its goal is to be the Silicon Valley of cyber – for people to say “Beersheba” when they mention cyber, the way they say “Silicon Valley” when they talk of hi-tech.
A few years ago, CyberSpark was just a sand dune next to Ben-Gurion University.
But once Braverman’s vision gelled and gained momentum, others such as hi-tech entrepreneur Erel Margalit, now a Member of the Knesset, and Dr. Orna Berry, Israel’s first female chief scientist, joined in. Braverman then formed a partnership with the university, the municipality, the construction and development firm KUD Ltd., and Gav Yam Negev to create something out of the sand.
Zehavi’s office is located in one of the two buildings, which have been built so far in the Advanced Technologies Park that houses CyberSpark. The two buildings are just a short walk from Ben-Gurion University, right near the train station. The station was relocated to be close to the industrial zone.
The surrounding area is mostly desert, with some residential areas nearby.
When the project started, Berry, on behalf of EMC Corp., one of the largest cloud-computing companies worldwide, pledged to move its Israel headquarters to Beersheba’s new industrial park and take an entire floor in the first building.
“Hi-tech is about the people, it’s about the knowledge and it’s about the aggregation of the knowledge to create clusters of innovation of competitiveness, and Beersheba is a place where people get fantastic knowledge; the university is creating great students,” Berry says in a video about CyberSpark’s vision.
BERRY IS the vice president for growth and innovation at EMC Centers of Excellence, sites designed to drive innovation in dynamic, challenging and forward-thinking environments. The centers are places for start-ups and other technology companies to conduct R&D in an environment built to support their growth. EMC can then absorb the startups and ensure continual growth of leading technologies.
Zehavi emphasizes Berry’s role in creating CyberSpark, noting that her commitment to bring a huge multinational company to the park before it was operational was a great endorsement that would help ensure the park’s success.
“I believe that we are creating a new geography with a new economy, addressing new populations in the growth of the state of Israel,” Berry says in the video.
Following EMC’s pledge, Jerusalem Venture Partners, a leading Israeli VC firm focused on tech, pledged to open Cyber Labs – an incubator for cyberrelated start-ups at the park – to jumpstart its investments in cyber technology.
Then came interest from BGN Technologies, Deutsche Telecom and Lockheed Martin. Today, dozens of companies are opening offices in the industrial park including IBM, Oracle, WIX, Elbit Systems, AudioCodes and RAD. Dozens more are expected to get involved or open offices in the near future.
When it began, Zehavi was asked to be the CEO of the CyberSpark Initiative. A former IAF pilot, Zehavi is an aviation expert who founded a hi-tech company, which he sold in 2011. Having never worked in cyber, Zehavi may not have seemed the obvious choice to lead the initiative, but the real focus of the project is far broader than just creating a cyber center. It is about changing the Negev, the Israeli landscape and the global community.
“I strongly believe we have a historic window of opportunity to make a difference,” Zehavi says.
Braverman had envisioned a hi-tech park in Beersheba, but it wasn’t until later that the park was designated to be a cyber-focused environment, concentrating on computer-based networks, such as the Internet, and information technology.
The desire to build CyberSpark started with Ben-Gurion University, which has a Cyber Security Research Center. For the past 12 years, Deutsche Telecom has been investing in the research center, which has been developing methods for combating malware and collecting cyber intelligence. The university even started offering undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees and even PhDs in cybersecurity.
In the meantime, cyber attacks have become one of the biggest threats to businesses today, as evidenced by companies such as Target, which had 40 million credit card numbers stolen in 2013, and Sony, which had confidential employee information accessed in 2014 – attacks that caused panic worldwide.
“The cyber attack on Sony was the 9/11 for cyber,” Zehavi says, noting that it caused hysteria among companies that feared they could be the next target of an onslaught that could bring their business to a halt.
Israel is already a world leader when it comes to cyber technologies. In fact, the country was one of the first in the world to create technologies relating to Internet security. In 1997, the government launched “Tehila” – special infrastructure to protect the connection of government offices to the Internet and provide secure hosting for government sites. In 2002, the government passed a resolution determining areas of responsibility for protecting computerized systems and creating the National Information Security Authority to regulate and advise critical infrastructures in information security.
Ten years later, in January 2012, it created the National Cyber Bureau to advise the government on cyber policy and promote the advancement of the field. The bureau also deals with defining what expertise and training is needed in cyber security and has helped establish a Cyber Emergency Response Team (CERT) to respond to attacks.
“If pilots have special schools, why not cyber experts,” Zehavi says.
Since 2013, more than $500 million has been invested in cyber security in Israel and about $2 billion has been spent on mergers and acquisitions involving Israeli cyber technology – that is about 10 percent of the investments in cyber worldwide. Furthermore, there are about 250 cyber companies in Israel generating about $3 billion in annual revenue, which is about five percent of the worldwide cyber market.
In the Israeli cyber market, Ben-Gurion University seems to be the focal point, with its research center developing some of the latest technologies in the field.
“In cyber, you don’t need oil, you don’t need gas,” Zehavi says. “You just need talent and we have that.”
BEN-GURION HAS about 20,000 students, many of whom are in the computer science or information security fields.
Yet, although their education at the university is top notch, the opportunities for graduates in the south had been less than exceptional. Which is why so many leave to work at companies located in the center of the country near Tel Aviv.
The park is meant to change the Negev by capitalizing on the massive talent coming from the university and providing the graduates with a place to work that not only keeps them in the south, but also attracts other businesses to the region.
CyberSpark, one of Israel’s many industrial parks, is open to all companies (not just cyber) that want to work in a center of excellence with the many resources available that can help a business thrive. Companies here, however, will have the added benefits of tax breaks for each employee involved in cyber-related functions, in addition to other government incentives for which they may qualify for operating in the region.
Today, there are about 1,000 people working in the Advanced Technologies Park, not all in cyber fields. Many of the employees, however, are commuters who travel by train for more than an hour each way to work at the park.
While only 100 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv, from a psychological standpoint, Beersheba is a world away, so many consider it a less than ideal place to live.
But the plan is for this to change. Already, two more buildings are being constructed in the park and by 2021 or 2022, about 10,000 people are expected to work in the park, 60 percent of whom are expected to live in the Negev rather than making the daily commute from the center.
Achieving this goal means creating a community for workers, and providing the culture and living arrangements that would make it attractive enough for people to leave Tel Aviv for what is still considered a remote area of the country.
For that, the city is also investing in making Beersheba a “smart city” and creating infrastructure that will make it better able to support the growing tech community. The city is also investing in doubling the size of the university to accommodate more students.
Furthermore, the military is moving all of its elite intelligence and IT-related units to the surrounding areas as part of a 10-year $22 billion relocation plan that will create huge infrastructure in the area.
“The plan is to evacuate valuable land in the center and strengthen and develop the Negev,” Yonat Marton, head of the civil infrastructure unit in charge of the defense relocation to southern Israel, tells The Report. “We already see the ecosystem there and everyone will benefit from working together.”
Two major bases will be built in the south, one near CyberSpark, which will house the IDF’s elite IT units, and the other near Omer Industrial Park, located just a few kilometers east of CyberSpark, which will serve as the IDF’s intelligence hub. The IDF plans to move 5,000 and 12,000 soldiers to the new IT and intelligence bases, respectively, in the next 10 years.
Another 10,000 soldiers will also be relocated to the Negev at a nearby training base, according to Marton.
The move includes units such as 8200, the intelligence unit whose alumni have founded some of the leading cyber technology companies in Israel, such as Check Point Software Technologies, NICE Systems and CyberArk.
“THERE IS already a lot of collaboration with the park and with the university,” Marton says, stressing the importance of creating an ecosystem in which all the different parts work together and create something greater than they could have alone.
“The most important thing is for our personnel to know that there are international companies in the Negev and it is important for those companies to know that is where our intelligence units are,” she adds.
With all the surrounding talent, the next important step is to bring global companies to the area and show them the potential and importance of CyberSpark.
For that, there are already several initiatives in place, such as the Affiliates Program, which allows any interested party to become a member of a group that will keep them informed of any events in the cyber arena, allow them to participate in round table meetings with the parties behind CyberSpark, and provide one-onone coaching on making business decisions regarding cyber investments.
The initiative provides assistance for the many global companies that want to invest in cyber and get involved in CyberSpark, but don’t know how, Zehavi says.
Aside from the Affiliates Program, CyberSpark has several programs designed to bring people to the park, such as an academy for executives.
While many companies have a person in charge of information security, many other executives don’t understand anything about cyber. With cyber becoming more than just an IT issue, it is important for CEOs, CFOs and COOs to understand cyber in order to make better business decisions.
CyberSpark hosts three-to-five day seminars for executives to teach them the importance of cyber technology and its impact on their business. The program focuses on proactive approaches, incident response and overall awareness, while providing simulations and coaching for the executives. Each seminar is specifically tailored for a specific function, such as the one hosted in November for finance executives.
The “Landing Pad” program is aimed at companies that do not have any R&D or investments in Israel, but want to get involved. The three-month program allows a foreign company to work with a team of experts in Israel, who can identify and initiate partnerships, help them navigate Israeli bureaucracy and recruit local talent. Companies that open in CyberSpark will get the added benefit of information sharing by residents of the park.
Another area the park is exploring is autonomous vehicles. As electric and computerized cars become more of a reality, so does the potential for hacking into and stealing them. When driving a computerized car, any hacker can break into the system and take control of the car the same way the hacker would a regular computer. This opens many safety concerns that need to be solved by cyber security.
Because of its desert location, Cyber- Spark is able to designate 100 acres for the testing of autonomous cars and of security solutions to protect them from potential threats. CyberSpark is looking to certify these solutions to provide safer driving for the next generation of cars.
“We want every American company, we want every international company, we want every major Israeli company, which today has a major problem with cyber security or a challenge, to come to this center of excellence,” Margalit says in a video about the park’s vision. “We don’t want it to be the best place in Israel. We want it to be the leading place in the world.”
“We’re like a new star in the universe that radiates knowledge and attracts other companies,” Zehavi says.