Technion-Cornell partnership seen as strategic, validating

When Israel’s Technion Institute was founded in 1912, it was a New Yorker, philanthropist Jacob Schiff, who provided the money to complete the first building.

A century later, the Haifa university was chosen, in partnership with Cornell University, to build a groundbreaking and ambitious applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island, a narrow island in New York City’s East River. “Now is the chance for the Technion to give back to New York,” Paul Feigin, the university’s senior executive vice president, said in a phone interview from Israel. “This represents a closing of the circle.”

The news, announced in October by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is being celebrated as a victory not just for the Technion and Cornell but as a recognition of Israel’s leadership in high-tech, bioengineering and medical research.

“This is of strategic importance in terms of positioning Israel not only in America, but all over the world, as a bastion of creativity and innovation,” N.Y.-based Israeli Consul General Ido Aharoni said.

Architectural rendering of Cornell-Technion’s planned tech campus on Roosevelt Island

“When Americans think of Israel, overwhelmingly the first thing that comes to mind is the association with conflict, the fact that Israel is in dispute with its neighbors,” Aharoni said, noting that a 2003 survey found that less than 40 percent of Americans thought Israel was on “the cutting edge of technology.”

Today, “well over 60 percent” of Americans surveyed recognize Israel’s tech leadership, he said, adding that he hopes the Technion’s role in the new campus and degree program “will fortify Israel’s image as a country that is about the promotion of goodness, about the advancement of knowledge for all humanity.”

The tech campus, expected to complete its first phase of development by 2017, is part of New York City’s Applied Sciences NYC initiative, which seeks to increase New York’s capacity for applied sciences and create tens of thousands of jobs.

It is also widely regarded as an effort by Bloomberg, whose term ends this year, to secure a lasting legacy.

New York City is providing the 11-acre site on Roosevelt Island, until now a mostly residential area, and $100 million in capital. In addition, Cornell alum Charles Feeney made a $350 million gift — the largest donation in Cornell’s history and one of the largest in the history of American higher education — to support the project.

In a news release announcing the selection of Cornell-Technion to build and lead the campus, the mayor’s office cited the “large scale and vision of their proposal, the long and impressive track-record of both institutions in generating applied science breakthroughs and spinning out new businesses, the financing capacity of the consortium, the focus of the consortium on the collaboration between academia and the private sector, and the overall capacity of the partnership to execute the project.”

The campus eventually will cover more than 2 million square feet on Roosevelt Island, with 2,000 graduate students and 250 faculty members. Cornell and the Technion will collaborate in teaching, educating and advising students.

The tech campus, according to the mayor’s office, “is expected to become a world-leading institution, conferring graduate degrees and conducting research in the applied sciences with a commitment to innovation, commercialization, and the creation and retention of businesses and jobs in New York City.”

It will offer Technion-Cornell dual master of applied sciences degrees, as well as hosting entrepreneurs in residence, organizing business competitions, providing legal support for startups, reaching out to existing companies to form research partnerships and sponsor research, and establishing a pre-seed financing program to support promising research.

In addition to helping determine the curriculum, faculty and academic focus of the new campus, the Technion, “because of our experience in entrepreneurship, will be very responsible for setting up facilities that help convert ideas into products,” Feigin said.

Calling the project a “boon for Technion,” Feigin said it “raises the profile of the Technion in the United States” and affords “our researchers the opportunity to work jointly with Cornell researchers.”

The relationships established will also make it easier for Israeli entrepreneurs to gain access to U.S. markets, he said.