If you ask Prof. Oded Shmueli, Computer Science Professor and Executive Vice President for Research at the Technion, why the State of Israel should encourage research, he points to Siri - the application that Apple released with its new iPhone model. The user speaks to Siri and it responds by talking back to him and presenting him with information. "The technologies used by Siri are rooted in research that began 40 years ago", says Shmueli. Over most of this period this research was conducted in universities and in research institutes, and commercial companies began using it only recently.
The dialogue which Siri conducts with textual answers and questions can be linked to early research, such as that involving the ELIZA software developed by MIT's Joseph Weizenbaum in the 1960s. The understanding of text spoken in English relies on many research projects financed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), in which Carnegie Mellon and Stanford Universities, as well as other leading research institutes in the United States took part.
Shmueli's conclusion is simple: "If we want Israel to produce large companies and brilliant, successful products, we must encourage basic research, even if many years are needed before it matures into commercial success. The United States does this, and the results of its investment have changed the world: it is enough to mention the internet, which was financed by ARPA (DARPA's former name).
What is the investment required to achieve such results? Shmueli provides data: "The University of Michigan has about one billion dollars a year to finance research, and the Technion has just a tenth of this amount, of which two thirds come from external financing sources and the rest comes from internal sources, such as donations".
Shmueli's work involves, among others, managing financed research - liaison and coordination vis-à-vis parties who finance and order research, signing research contracts and other engagements, transfer of technologies - and he is responsible for intellectual property and business development, research prizes awarded by the Technion, and new immigrant scientists. He also serves as Director of the Technion Research & Development Foundation Ltd. Since its establishment in 1952, the Foundation has been a unique window to the transfer of knowledge, scientific capabilities and advance technologies outside the Technion, and serves as a bridge between academic research and knowledge and the business community and the industry.
European countries also invest substantial amounts in financing basic research. Since we have already mentioned the internet, we will also mention that the significant leap in its popularity followed the linking of the internet concept to another idea – hypertext. Hypertext is rooted in academic research. Its integration with the internet, which has led to the creation of WWW (World Wide Web), was led by Tim Berners-Lee of the CERN research center in Switzerland, and was designed to make it easier for physicists to share their research results with their colleagues worldwide. This is just one example of many, which demonstrates the powerful impact of investment in basic scientific research on nearly every aspect of life, impact that is many times felt in entirely unexpected ways.
Shmueli emphasizes that the comparison of investment in basic research in Israel with that in the United States or Europe does in fact show how big the gap is, but it still does not show the entire picture. "Half the world's population hasn't actually participated in the game until now, but they are starting to realize that if they want to lead they must participate seriously. Although 3,000 startups in Israel is an impressive number considering the size of the country, but China has 50 thousand of these companies. To maintain Israel's lead and so that the mass of foreign researchers and companies will not outshine us, we must continue to maintain the basis for this lead through massive financing of research. Whoever fails to do that will be forced to research less, discover less and increasingly lag behind".
Depth of Capabilities
"The high-tech industry should also look to the future, even 20 years ahead, find where its competitive advantage lies and enhance it", says Shmueli. The industry needs the academy and the academy should and can be its partner. The academy has a depth of capabilities, and the industry has efficiency and speed. In Germany, in addition to the highly generous public budgeting of basic science and applied science, the industry too allocates huge amounts to the financing of academic research. This is for them a long term commitment, while in Israel the perception seems to be that industry pays taxes, and the government should therefore finance the strong academy that the industry needs. Other places have already understood that long-term research might be a matter for the government, but medium-term research is a matter for the industry".
Why is Israel different from Europe and the United States in government and industry financing of research, and what should be done to change the situation? We ask. "Perhaps Israel does not have sufficient tendency for long term thinking, but this is risky, because when other countries will learn to create start-up companies like the Israelis do, Israel will already have to have moved on, and this can be achieved through cooperation between academy and industry", answers Shmueli. "The first thing we must do is recognize that there are capabilities that only the academy can provide, and that cannot be found elsewhere. To this we should add the human factor: the academy has a concentration of young, motivated people who can contribute to research, and if we invest enough in the academic system surrounding them, our graduates will be as good as the surroundings they grew up in".
The Technion is collaborating in research with leading companies in Israel and worldwide. One of the most recent collaborations was announced in October 2011 by Microsoft, whose research division has just established, together with the Technion Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, a joint academic research center which specializes in electronic commerce research.
Growth of Brilliant Solutions
In Israel, the pharmaceutical industry stands out in its collaboration with the academy. It relies on the academic institutions for new ideas, medical drugs and treatments. Perhaps it is not by chance that it is this industry that has sprouted one of Israel's biggest and most important international companies – Teva. This phenomenon is not limited to pharmaceutical companies. "Google grew from the work of two doctoral students in Stanford University's InfoLab", Shmueli reminds.
Israel too has many examples of brilliant and commercially successful solutions sprouting from academic research. One example is Mobileye, a company that has developed software based on the computer vision research of Prof. Amnon Shashua of the Hebrew University, which is designed to protect drivers from threats and errors. Another example is Mazor Robotics, a company that, based on research by Prof. Moshe Shoham of the Technion, has developed a system that greatly improves accuracy in spine surgery. Out of over 1,500 surgeries done to date using the system, none resulted in permanent neurological damage.
"Naturally the industry and the academy have differing goals, but maybe this precisely is the reason why each can use the collaboration to advance its own goals: we are "in the business" of publishing articles, out of an ideology. We do not operate like a commercial company and do not keep secrets, but we certainly allow and encourage the creation of commercial companies through the transfer of knowledge from our research. The knowledge is given to the company in the form of a license, while the academic institute retains ownership of the knowledge, since the commercial company could change its focus, or even disappear".
The lost decade
Shmueli, who was born in 1952 and who served as Dean of the Computer Science Department in 2006-2008, is himself an example of the academy-industry integration. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Brandeis University and his master's degree and doctorate from Harvard University in the United States, he arrived at the Technion in 1982. He remained in the Technion ever since, with "short breaks" during which he consulted for and worked in companies such as HP and IBM and participated in the founding of two start-up companies. "Some people are interested both in the theoretical aspect of science and in the applied aspect and its impact on the world", he says. "Many eventually find their way to industry, but some, like me, stay in the academy and spend once in a while some time in the industry. If I were to remain only on one side, I'm not sure this would satisfy me personally".
Shmueli's research has led to many publications, many rewards and memberships in professional committees, as well as to about a dozen patents registered to his name in the IT field, mainly database-related. "Patents are a very important venue for influencing the world of technology. If you want your invention to proceed to development you should protect it by patent, otherwise commercial parties will hesitate to adopt it, for fear that they will be unable to create a competitive advantage. It is also important to pass students the message that patents are part of the applied research work, but that discretion should be exercised, as patent registration is expensive".
According to Shmueli, the first priority of the Technion is to create the proper infrastructure and conditions for attracting excellent researchers. "We want to add about 30 companies and faculty every year, without compromising on quality", he says. "The Technion recognizes that competition for excellent researchers is severe, and that many Israeli researchers are abroad. Some of them would be glad to return to Israel. Their considerations include the quality of the scientific environment and the research infrastructure – which we are now in the process of significantly improving; personal research equipment – an area we are already competitive in; salary – where it is difficult for us to compete; and the location – here we do have an advantage, since most Israeli researchers love living in Israel. We are trying to create infrastructures and to secure financing from every suitable source. For example, we are proud of about 20 Technion researchers who have won ERC grants, five of them from the Computer Science Department. We are making great efforts to encourage the submission of research applications to the ERC and to other competitive foundations, such as the NIH", says Shmueli.
Some of the research financing comes from government sources, such as the Israel Science Foundation, whose budgets increased in the wake of Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg's initiatives but are not enough even now, especially in view of the period which Prof. Trajtenberg calls "the lost decade", in which budget cuts led to a decline in the number of university faculty members – about a 100 faculty members in the Technion alone. To maintain the excellence of Israeli research and industry, we must fix the situation", says Shmueli. “We must not block the growth of the next Noble Laureates and the seeds from which the innovative industries of the next decades will sprout".
The interview is courtesy of the Computer Science Department's Homepage Magazine