Beersheva’s Big Tech Break


Beersheva, Israel — Ehud Barak was still prime minister when the foundation stone for Beersheva’s high-tech office park here was laid just across the street from Ben-Gurion University.

Some 14 years later, tenants of the first office building of the “Advanced Technology Park” include a startup incubator, a university cyber-laboratory overseen by Deutsche Telekom and multinational computer company EMC Corp. The second of 16 planned buildings is under construction, and the giant frame of a bridge is being readied to give pedestrians easy access to the adjacent train station.

Thanks to a boom in cyber threats and the planned relocation of the IDF southward, the technology park, the university and Beersheva itself are playing starring roles in the speeches by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the next hub of cyber security research on par with Tel Aviv.

“Beersheva will be the new cyber capital of Israel,” Netanyahu declared on Monday.

That’s a grandiose promise for a region still known to most Israelis as the rural periphery — a legacy of the unfulfilled original vision of founding Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to settle the Negev desert.

On the hour-long train ride from Tel Aviv, one passenger described Beersheva as the “city of shopping malls.” On a railway platform flanked by construction cranes that rise above the university campus on one side and the technology park on the other, the first sensation is a wisp of desert sand that gets in the eye. The suspension bridge that connects the terminal to the university is empty at 9:30 in the morning (the university is on semester break). Looking out at the gigantic land tract that is still to be developed, it still takes a leap of the imagination to envision this as a tech center.

The game changer, however, is the scheduled move in about five years of the Israeli army’s vaunted technological units to a future tech campus alongside the technology park. The move is expected to bring thousands of the army’s computer whizzes from metropolitan Tel Aviv to the south. Multinational companies seem to be following suit: earlier this month, IBM said it plans to open an office in the technology park.

“We’re beyond the point of no return. This is happening,” said professor Dan Blumberg, BGU’s vice dean for research, who added that the university expects it will need more researchers and more students to meet the demand. “The military is moving, that’s going to make a huge difference. Industry is coming here … Everything is coming together, and I think that we have the critical mass to bring more companies here.”

Beersheva is expected to be the home of all of the army’s leading tech units, from the Air Force’s computer units, to military intelligence’s “8-200,” to the cyber defense units under Computing Corps. The government’s cyber emergency response center is also slated to move down here, allowing some army programmers to move from Ottoman-era building to modern digs.

An officer in the computer unit said building is expected to begin in two years — a campus estimated at $2 billion that will include training facilities, dorms and an athletic center. The officer said that even though the army will move out of central Israel, the proximity to Ben-Gurion University and the high-tech park make Beersheva an attractive location that will allow collaboration with academics and the private sector.

“We are going to build infrastructure that will allow our engineers to work in a suitable environment, similar to what is accepted in high-tech parks,” said Lt. Col. Dror Meirech, the army officer responsible for the move. “It’s a good tiding for our tech staff.”

As cyber warfare has gotten increasing attention worldwide as a threat to critical infrastructure and big businesses, Israel’s government has sought to position the country at the leading edge of civilian research and development. The prime minister is touting cyber security as Israeli know-how that can help secure the world over.

At least one Israeli venture capital fund, Jerusalem Venture Partners is targeting cyber security as a major area for investment: it is devoting a major portion of a new $120 million fund backed by Cisco to cyber, and is locating its cyber incubator in Beersheva. Yoav Tzruya, a partner in the JVP cyber labs, told The Jewish Week that the venture fund wants to be situated to benefit from the know-how of veteran soldiers with experience in cyber-ware and cyber security.

“There is nowhere else in the world where you have a full ecosystem for cyber security in such close location, where you have a defense organization, top-notch academics, multinationals, startup culture and financing,” he said. “If you look at the Silicon Valley, Washington, or Boston areas, they are always lacking one of those components. We’ve identified this area as an opportunity, and this is why we are in Beersheva,” Tzruya said.

For decades, communities in southern Israel were used as locations where the government settled immigrants from non-Western countries with meager financial means. In Beersheva, too, the university was built alongside the apartment block neighborhoods housing Israel’s most impoverished. In recent years, however, university students have begun a process of gentrification.

The idea of establishing a technology center in Israel’s economically neglected south was viewed as a pipe dream by many when former BGU President Avishay Braverman first floated the idea back in the 1990s. Inspired by his alma mater Stanford University and Silicon Valley, Braverman began lobbying the government for a train station and office park next to the university campus. He also knocked on the doors of the army. Much of the money for the train station was paid for independently by the university, with donors from the U.S.

“People laughed at us,” Braverman said. “Some people [in the army] said, ‘How will you persuade people in Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan to move?’ But others said, ‘We have to do this. This is an idea whose time has come.’”

Indeed, Ben-Gurion University’s profile in the cyber security got a major boost in recent weeks, when its student researchers working in the labs that are run jointly with Deutsch Telekom said they found a security vulnerability in a new operating system for Samsung phones, and then a second in the Android operating system — a discovery that attracted considerable media attention as well as denials by Samsung and Google.

Dudu Mimran, the university’s chief technology officer, said the laboratory focuses on the security infrastructure of cellular networks and mobile devices, and helps evaluate security products for companies. He said that in the relatively new area of mobile communications, vulnerability is common.

“We have the best guys: they come either from the army, special organizations, or guys that are hackers by nature — people that can think like a hacker but are with the good guys,” he said. Looking out to the industrial park and the university across the train line, he said, “We are the pioneers in that respect. Everything is still being built around us.”

Outside the laboratory near the construction site of the second building, Benny Ben Simon oversees the installation of fountains for the industrial zones public area. Ben Simon moved to the city as a child when it was made up of immigrant tent neighborhoods, and endured years of neglect. But now it seems to him the city is turning the corner.

“It’s turning into a city, which is taken into consideration,” he said. “They’ve talked for about this park for many years, but finally we’re seeing this pearl in the middle of the desert. The truth is, it was hard to believe, but we’ve realized the vision of Ben-Gurion.”