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Out of the Bubble

“If Beer Sheva was once the backyard of the innovation scene, it’s now coming to the forefront”

“If you come here you create something from nothing… You can say you were part of this tech miracle,” added Professor Dolev at CTech’s event in Israel’s southern cyber capital

James Spiro | 18:58  14.02.2022

“I think the way you can attract big and global companies is by showing them the potential here in the south,” said Yifat Bar-Eli, Business Development Manager at Beer Sheva-based accelerator FinSec Innovation Lab. “As much as companies can change here, achieve impact and major things, eventually, the government has the ability to change the reality.”

Bar-Eli’s remarks were made during a panel discussion hosted by CTech as part of its Out of the Bubble series. This time in Gav-Yam Negev High Tech Park in Beer Sheva, CTech was joined by Bar-Eli; Ayelet Eshel, R&D Director at CyberArk R&D Center, Beer Sheva; Prof. Shlomi Dolev from The Ben Gurion University; and Eran Wass, Senior Software Developer at Oracle Beer Sheva R&D.

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“And the government did so by doing two things,” Bar-Eli continued. “One is to declare Beer Sheva as the cyber capital of Israel, and the second is moving the IDF divisions here to Beer Sheva. Those are things that really changed the reality here in Beer Sheva. If Beer Sheva was once the backyard of the innovation scene, it’s now coming to the forefront. There is a gap, but we can mitigate that by showing the potential, showing that companies like Mastercard saw the potential and came here to do something really, really magnificent. By combining government support and company support, we will create and mitigate this gap.”

What are we doing here today?

“Beer Sheva is the capital of the southern part of Israel, and a very large area that is the Negev area,” explained Ayelet Eshel, R&D Director at CyberArk R&D Center, Beer Sheva, in her opening remarks. “We have a great population here and a great community here. We have the university here which is a very good engine for creating new great capital for the high tech industry. Personally, it is home.”

Professor Shlomi Dolev served as the Chair of the university’s science department in 2000, which has been ranked as one of the 10 best in the world in computer science. “We are very happy with this ranking and we don't check it too much,” he joked. “Regarding the growth of high tech and its development: It's young, it's really about creation, not just about maintaining. Everything is growing and changing and you see it in front of your eyes. This whole park wasn’t here when I came, nothing was here… The costs are not as high as in Tel Aviv, the talent is here, and you can just get all the good things being here.”

Yifat Bar-Eli, the Business Development Manager at FinSec Innovation Lab, came to Beer Sheba from the startup scene in the center of the country. “I worked in Tel Aviv and then I came here to Beer Sheva and I was surprised to meet a vibrant community, a strong community, and various people with talent, people who have an IDF background, or people from the university. I think the community here is very strong and Beer Sheva is definitely becoming more and more in the front of the cyber scene, as well as fintech.”

As well as innovation labs set up by Mastercard and Enel X, and incubators like InNegev, “we have an open-door policy, even from Mayor Ruvik Danilovich. He is very much involved in all we do and I don't see any other city in the country where you have the mayor so involved and so up to date in what we are doing here,” she added.

Eran Wass, Senior Software Developer at Oracle Beer Sheva R&D, grew up in the region and believes it is a great place for talent and innovation. “Oracle spotted this quite a long time ago, as one of the first major global corporations to come into the park here in the first building. That was 11 or 12 years ago and their commitment to the park and area is shown. They're developing major features for global Fortune 500 companies. We really know how to use the talent that we have here in the Negev.”

I’d like to stay on the topic of talent and how Beer Sheva as a hub is growing. How do we attract talent to Beer Sheva to come here but also to stay here and keep it growing?

Eshel: “I would say that there is a community of students that are coming along to Ben Gurion University and some of them would like to stay here because they have a great experience during the studentship period. It’s also about the opportunities. One depends on the other.” She believes that when the region has more places that offer jobs, more people would stay and work. “Of course, you need additional things around education, around health, around children, and so forth. As the community grows and as the southern area of Israel is growing and developing, more and more opportunities for people to stay,” she said.

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“We didn't mention the army,” added Prof. Dolev. “The army is now building so many bases nearby and the most talented soldiers will be around here. The opportunities are great. I just worked with some of them. They are very smart, and they would make a change for the area no doubt. It will be a big, big change and already companies identify the opportunity and they come here also because of this. It’s a government issue: they declared Beer Sheva as being the cyber capital of Israel, they put the cyber center of Israel here, even their own branches… The Negev is half of the country. The government understands that and wants to make it somehow flourish by using high tech, which is something very good for all. And it proves itself here - you can see it.”

“What we need to do to keep all those talented people in Beer Sheva is maybe a two-answer question,” explained Bar-Eli. “First, you have the government entities that can support it, and create more programs like our innovation program. The initiative came from the Ministry of Finance, the IIA, the INCD, they are very much involved. They really want to stay in order to keep all those talented people here. They create more places to work, more global businesses that are coming here. Also, you have really young families coming here. Even buying an apartment, it’s cheaper in the south than in the center. That's another incentive. The vibe here is relatively different, meaning the departure rate of employees here is relatively low. People really come here to work. They are loyal to the place they are in. They are not jumping from company to company and they're not expecting to get a higher offer and then leave. They really come here to be devoted to the place they are in. That’s also something that attracts employers here.”

“I can tell you a personal story from our company and the earlier days of the area as a high tech hub,” Wass said. “At those times, it would be very rare to see people coming in from Tel Aviv and working here. These days, it’s not a rare scene, especially with all the remote working advantages, to see people coming in from Tel Aviv and working in Oracle here or other companies. And even people in our company that have moved to the center of Israel keep on coming and keep on working here. Despite the advantages of having many high tech corporations in the center, they still come over here. That says a lot and this triangle of government, academy, and industry that we have here and the incentives they give to each other in this triangle is what helps bring talent over here. Improving transportation and improving the academy here, or having more space for the growing demand of students to learn here - that's what the government can help us with.”

We've spoken about government and its role, and the companies' role and the people and spoken about a lot of positives. I'd like to dig a bit deeper and ask about the challenges. Are there any unique challenges about being based in Beer Sheva that maybe other regions in the country don't face? What do those look like uniquely here versus other places?

Eshel admitted that this is an area where we are slowly growing, so the offering, the variety of companies you can go and work for is much lower than what you have in the center of Israel. “Some additional regional factors are also not at the same level as the center of Israel, like hospitals. We have the most crowded hospital in the country. And that’s an issue. For a family, this is one of the considerations you would take. So the government needs to support that more rapidly to support the growing change and the velocity of this change. But I think this is happening over time. This park was not here a few years ago and this is a great change that is taking place.”

For Professor Dolev, effort needs to be made in transportation. “I think there is some place to improve the transportation to Tel Aviv, or to the center. If we had the train instead of every one hour but every 30 minutes, then it would be much more convenient… It will be like traveling from Tel Aviv to some neighboring city. And then you will feel the change much more and people will like to work here because you don’t need to stand in your car with all these traffic jams, you can just take a train and ride here. The train station is very close and was planned like that so that it would be easy to arrive. This is something that should be improved over time.”

“One of the major challenges is that we are talking to entrepreneurs every day now who are trying to be accepted into our program, to our accelerator, to our lab, so we can support them in their first difficult year,” explained Bar-Eli. “The problem is most of the people are reading about unicorns, about major money funding and raising, but a lot of them are not aware of the challenges that entrepreneurs have on a daily basis. We barely have funding in the south of Israel. Most of the VCs, most of the funding, everything sits in Tel Aviv. Because most of the money and well-known companies are in the center, a lot of entrepreneurs have those difficulties on a daily basis and they really need this support.”

Wass: “I think that some of the challenges are that we have a great demand for learning and higher education, and we need more supply for that. We need the government's commitment to the university to grow to actually be realized, and to provide places for all these students that want to stay here in the area with their families and not go on to Tel Aviv after they finish their studies. Providing that will help, and general government expenditure on facilities, on transportation, connecting us with a 30-minute train… These things can greatly counter the challenges and give us what we need here.”

You mentioned Beer Sheva is the Cyber Capital and we've mentioned the help of the government and the army. How can we attract these big companies, both Israeli and international, to set up shop in Beer Sheva - what can we do to entice those folks?

Wass continued by explaining how the area can use the army personnel and the technically-inclined young students to attract large corporations. “Large corporations see other large corporations here in the park investing and committing and putting their R&D Centers here. Oracle started off, you saw Dell here, you see Microsoft coming here. You see a lot of multinational large corporations investing here in the Negev and utilizing the available personnel that exists here and that does not necessarily want to move on to Tel Aviv to live there. So you see this growing demand in the whole country for people like that. And many of them exist here, so you don’t have to fight - they already exist here and you could utilize this and have a great performance in your company.”

“I think the way you can attract big and global companies is by showing them the potential here in the south,” agreed Bar-Eli. “As much as companies can change here… eventually, the government has the ability to change the reality. And they did so by doing two things: One is to declare Beer Sheva as the cyber capital of Israel, and the second is moving the IDF divisions here to Beer Sheva.”

“Being here is the best deal,” said Prof. Dolev. “Another thing is the character of the people that work in high tech. They like to create something from nothing. And if you come here you create something from nothing. All this you see was not here a few years ago. You can say you were part of this tech miracle, and this is very important for people working in this sector. They want to create something from nothing.”

Ayelet Eshel provided an example of that from her own company, CyberArk. “When CyberArk looked at the Beer Sheva opportunity they looked at the great ecosystem we have here. The collaboration across different companies and the collaboration with the university and the IDF. There is something about helping each other here that is very different from what you would find elsewhere. I think this is a special characteristic of this specific area. I think it’s a very good opportunity for companies to come here and to enjoy that.”

We can see it’s been growing over the last 5-10 years, but maybe it’s not growing as quickly or rapidly as anticipated. What do you think can speed up that process and where do you see Beer Sheva being 5-10 years from now when we are way into the development? Maybe the cyber capital of the world?

Eshel continued: “I think the right things are being done, maybe not at the right pace, but they do happen. I think we talked about it before. It’s mainly about investing in the university, investing in the population here, the facilities, investing in transportation. This is the thing we already discussed and I think we need to enlarge this park or have additional parks like this because we are missing places for companies at the moment. This is a wonderful journey and it’s fun to be part of it.”

Professor Dolev argues that Beer Sheva should change the infrastructure around the education system. “For schools, for small kids, and making a real change that is blessed for Beer Sheva will take time before all the environment just gets to the level that is very good as we wish it should be… If you just pull the very high-earning and active companies, all the people that also serve these people eventually also get good out of it. So it’s very good for the area that we get a very good high-tech sector here and I think everyone understands it.”

“I think in order to accelerate the current pace, what you need to do is a couple of things,” said Bar-Eli. “First, you need to allocate more budget from the country and the governmental entities to create more programs to accelerate the pace.” Bar-Eli highlighted a program at Mastercard called Girls for Tech, a program that introduces elementary school girls from age 8 to development, writing code, and understanding what high-tech is about. “When you teach them at a young age, early stage, later on, you can really see the blossoming here… As soon as you will have more programs, more accelerators, more budgeting, and other support, you will see a lot of companies coming here, a lot of talent staying here, and overall the business prosperity.”

“Currently, we’ve got thousands of high-tech employees here, and if I look ahead, not too many years ahead, I could see tens of thousands working in the industry here,” predicted Wass in closing remarks at the panel. “We already have Nvidia, Oracle, Mastercard, all the rest here. You will start seeing Apple, Facebook, and all the rest coming in, maybe Amazon. Everyone will set up a hub here. They will come, eventually, and I hope that the government will have the foresight to invest in the infrastructure in this stage now and not at the end when suddenly everyone is already here and there are problems. This foresight can enhance transportation, enhance facilities, enhance education, enhance the university itself, the demand, and supply. Those things will help materialize this future.”
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