In his latter years, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion devoted his life to the development of the Negev Desert.
“It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested,” Ben-Gurion declared in 1955.
And seven decades later, that challenge has been met by a consortium of leading companies and institutions, as they create a new innovation hub in the Negev city of Be’er Sheva, which is aimed at boosting both the area and all aspects of the Israeli tech sector.
The center is the work of Synergy7, a company jointly created by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and its technology transfer company BGN Technologies; Be’er Sheva central hospital Soroka and Mor Research Applications, both operated by Clalit healthcare service; heavyweight defense firm Elbit Systems and its technological incubator Incubit; US tech giant Dell; and the Merage Foundation, an initiative to support Israeli society through innovation.
In March 2023, the newly formed Synergy7 was the winning bid to develop the center at the behest of the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA), the branch of the government dedicated to advancing the vaunted national high-tech sector.
The task, Synergy7 CEO Harel Ram tells NoCamels, was to create a program that would promote Be’er Sheva in terms of technology and innovation. The “7” in Synergy7 is a nod to the city in which it was built, as the name Be’er Sheva translates as “the Well of the Seven.”
It is not the first state-funded project to develop tech centers in more peripheral parts of Israel, Ram points out. Four years ago, a similar project was launched in the northern city of Haifa.
The IIA committed to funding the Be’er Sheva project for four years, through an annual subsidy of 25 million shekels. Synergy7 added another 5 million shekels per annum, and created a business model that includes other revenue streams: business collaborations; applications from other grants such as the EU’s Horizon Europe program; and joint R&D projects.
“We have all kinds of business models in order to sustain Synergy7, even after the government has finished its role,” Ram says.
Offering expert guidance on legal issues, business development and R&D, the hub is designed to cater to two kinds of companies: startups who need help funding such services and established companies and corporations who can afford to pay for them.
“We are giving to those who need and we’re taking money from those who can,” Ram says. “At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is to [create] an impact with full pockets, which is the best position in the world.”
Every shekel of the government grant is accounted for, he insists.
“Of course we are regulated,” he says. “We need to report on every expense and everything that we do, because it’s taxpayer money.”
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Sixty percent of the funding was dedicated to constructing the infrastructure for the project. This includes three new labs, which Ram calls “knowledge centers,” each with a different purpose.
The first, which launched late last month, is a robotics lab that is led by Elbit. This fully equipped lab includes 3D printers, a testing area for experiments in a controlled environment, a space for writing code and a control room.
But beyond the state-of-the-art equipment and space itself, Ram says, the lab is also the location of the Elbit offices, which brings with it engineers and other skilled professionals whose input will be invaluable to the innovation hub’s partners.
The lab should have opened in October, Ram says, but the launch was delayed by the massive attack by Hamas terrorists who stormed into Israel from nearby Gaza. The horrific attack killed 1,200 people and catapulted the Negev into the world’s consciousness for the worst of reasons rather than for the planned celebration.
The second lab is what Ram calls the “Soroka studio.” It is a biobank – a specialist pathology laboratory for biological material, such as tissue or blood, to be used in research. The lab is run by the hospital, and is intended as a center for medtech and biotech companies.
The final knowledge center is “cyber gym,” Ram says, which will focus on cybersecurity and will be led by Dell Technologies.
“We have physical machines and virtual machines,” says Ram of the third lab. “You can run any simulation that you want, and on top of the simulation, you can run all kinds of attack scenarios that you cannot run on the production network.
“So if you want to learn about malware, or a zero day attack or a ransomware attack, you can simulate them in this environment.”
Among the companies looking to enjoy the benefits of the new hub are American technology multinational Nvidia, which Ram calls “our partner from day one,” and a major Israeli defense organization that is “very interested both in the cyber lab and robotics lab.”
In fact, the Israel Defense Forces has also seen the value of expansion in the Negev, and is in the process of relocating its tech departments to a nearby campus of its own.
Ram says that the efforts to transform his beloved Negev into an integral part of the Startup Nation would have delighted Ben-Gurion (although he does liken it to asking the Wright brothers for their opinion on the Boeing 747).
“I think he would have been amazed by what we have achieved so far, but disappointed that we haven’t done much more.”