In the century or so since its founding as Israel’s first university, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has gained a reputation as the driving force behind Israeli innovation.
Four Nobel Laureates and several recipients of the prestigious Israel Prize are among its more than 100,000 graduates and faculty, not to mention the founders of billion-dollar companies, life-saving medical technologies and too many startups. and innovative technologies to count them.
So what’s the school’s secret sauce?
This is the question that Shlomo Maital, longtime Technion professor and senior researcher at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research, recently set out to uncover. For his project, he teamed up with Israeli high-tech pioneer Rafi Nave, a Technion graduate who spent 21 years at Intel Israel leading the development of the company’s math coprocessors, managing its design center of Haifa and working on the second generation Pentium processor.
Together, they spent much of the COVID year conducting interviews via Zoom with more than 100 notable Technion graduates asking them about their life journey, their innovations and how it all came about.
The result is a new book, “Aspiration, Inspiration, Sweat: How Technion Professors and Graduates Fuse Creativity and Technology to Change the World”. It can serve as a useful guide for anyone trying to figure out how to be successful through a combination of original thinking and exceptional hard work and discipline.
“There are shelves full of scholarly books on innovators, innovation and creativity. I’ve written several myself, ”said Maital, who has worked with some 200 companies and over 1,000 managers and entrepreneurs, and is the former academic director of the TIM-Technion Institute of Management. “But there are quite a few who tell the stories of innovators in their own words in response to standard, specific and focused questions. “
At noon ET on Thursday, Maital will host a public webinar with Nave and David Perlmutter, former product manager and executive vice president of Intel, to talk about what they’ve learned and offer practical information for those looking to implement creative ideas.
Maital recently told us about his project and some of his main takeaways. The following interview has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
You refer to the 100 innovators as having “their heads in the clouds, their feet on the ground”. What exactly does this mean and how did these people find the intersection between science and industry?
“Head in the clouds” means to zoom out. Actively seek out crazy ideas, away from the beaten track. Harvest them and cultivate them. “Down to earth” means to zoom. Sort the ideas, analyze them and find the ones that are achievable, likely to be implemented, even if this task is extremely difficult.
Technion provides students with cutting-edge and enabling science and technology – it’s part of “down to earth”. Our students, imbued with Israeli culture, then generate the crazy ideas – “head in the clouds” – and merge the two.
So many of your interviewees talk about the importance of following your passion and finding joy at work despite obstacles. Why is this an important message for today, especially at a time when many young people face economic uncertainties?
Resources fuel startups, but the driving force behind it is passion: the almost obsessive goal of entrepreneurs to create meaning – not money – to create real value and change the world. This is why so many Technion graduates are leaving high paying jobs to start startups, despite the tremendous opportunities and the 24/7 working hours.
The Israeli culture of risk taking, resilience, and a lot of nerve is a recurring theme in your book.
We Israelis are seen as rude, arrogant and impulsive. Perhaps. But Israel resisted and prevailed thanks to its innate ability to creatively and stubbornly improvise. Israel has a narrow “power distance” – the perceived gap between those with authority and those without. Our students tire of being told what to do by those they think are less intelligent than them and go off to brainstorm their own ideas.
Startup entrepreneurship is motivated by national culture, and the cultures of nations differ greatly. I think even when Technion graduates seek to create startups overseas, they still retain the cultural DNA they have acquired as Israelis.
How can a university prepare science and engineering students to lead and manage companies and organizations after graduation?
I have researched this issue. In an online survey, we asked Technion graduates who started startups what they learned at Technion that has been found to be helpful in starting a business. About half mentioned experiential events – hackathons, three-day startups, Biz-Tech competitions. But half said they were unprepared. I want the Technion to offer a compulsory one-semester course on basic business tools: economics, accounting, marketing.
These are skills that students need to be the leaders of tomorrow, and I think the Technion realizes how important these skills are. Now, rather than competing with global industries, the Technion is bringing top companies such as software giant PTC to campus, so students and researchers can benefit from direct access to technology and research. information from some of the world’s most forward-thinking companies.
Some of your interviewees stressed the importance of delving deeply into your own discipline, while others encouraged a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approach. What is better?
The future lies in interdisciplinary thinking. It is one of the 10 key skills of the future that employers mention. For example, Nobel Prize winner Arieh Warshel (a Technion graduate) combined chemistry, biology, computer science, and classical and quantum mechanics.
The Technion moves away from traditional disciplinary silos with joint study programs. One of the Technion’s hotbeds of interdisciplinary innovation is Biomedical Engineering, a faculty that integrates science and engineering for the advancement of medicine.
It is important to always be aware of the ethical and social responsibilities of their work, said many interviewees. Some also recommended studying the humanities while focusing on science and technology.
This is a sensitive point, alas. Studying physics, computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and physics at a world-class level in three or four years is really tough. And we are putting our students’ feet on fire. Historically, this left little time for studying literature, history, philosophy, or even ethics. But that is about to change. The Technion is now working on ways to provide students with the necessary tools so that they can crystallize for themselves a broad perspective of society, ethics, the environment, etc. It would be a unique aspect of the liberal arts and an interface with science and engineering.
On the other hand, the startups of Technion graduates focus on the main dilemmas facing Israel and the world and seek to resolve them. So there is an increased awareness of things like the climate crisis, hunger, poverty and inequalities. And after military service and the usual world tour that follows, our students begin their studies older and more mature and aware of global challenges.