The Negev blooms into a high-tech haven

02/01/2011 11:32

From IMFA:

Not too long ago, the average Israelis - those living, as the old saying goes, "between Hadera and Gedera" - would have told you that the Negev desert wasn't good for much, other than hiking, checking out the Bedouin, and as a dumping ground for garbage and toxic waste. No more. Today's Negev is dynamic and growing, with its moribund past quickly fading into a mere memory.

Previously, cities like Beersheba, Dimona, and Yeruham in Israel's south were consistently at the bottom of the education and skill charts. They were backwaters where "the cycle of poverty" wasn't abstract theory, and Hebrew was hardly the most common of the panoply of languages and dialects. Many first- and second-generation immigrants were more comfortable in various permutations of Arabic, Russian or most recently, Amharic.

But today Beersheba, the capital of the Negev region, boasts more than 200,000 residents, and cities like Dimona and Yeruham have graduated from "development towns" to "bedroom communities." They boast all the attractions and perks of suburban life - the same as those available in the Tel Aviv area, where, as it happens, many of the new residents of these cities actually lived before they caught wind of the new "Israeli dream."

That new dream is becoming more real every day with industry, high-tech ventures, bio- and nanotechnology and green innovations all present in the Negev, along with the breathing space to allow any Israeli who's interested to get in on the "Negev boom." The 4,700-square-mile (13,000 sq.km.), still largely empty Negev, covers nearly 60 percent of Israel's territory. It's a massive area, home to only eight percent of the population. And although a large percentage of the region's space is dedicated to security needs, there's still plenty of room to roam.

A number of factors contributed to the revolution in the Negev. Rising real estate prices and growing congestion in the center led government policymakers to realize that something had to be done to provide housing and employment opportunities to the millions of newcomers.

Blueprint Negev is underway

One of the important centerpieces in the modernization of the Negev has been implementation of the Jewish National Fund's Blueprint Negev plan, which aims to bring hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the area. The plan includes improvement of the transportation infrastructure and the addition of businesses and employment opportunities, while preserving water resources and protecting the environment.

Among the major infrastructure projects that have convinced residents of the Dan region (that part of the coastal strip where 40% of Israelis live) to move to the Negev, is the expansion of both the Cross-Israel Highway and Israel Railways. The highway, known locally as Route Six, now stretches between the lower Galilee and the northern Negev (soon to be lengthened to reach Beersheba itself), and provides Western-style freeway transportation for Israelis who want to work in the center of the country, while living in the periphery, where they can enjoy a higher standard of living.

The modernized Israel Railway lines, meanwhile, already have spurs in Beersheba and points beyond, enabling residents of the area to reach their jobs in Tel Aviv in an hour or so. In addition, Israeli and foreign high-tech organizations are flocking to the Negev to set up shop in the new technology industrial zones that are sprouting like mushrooms. It won't be long before Tel Aviv area residents find themselves commuting "down south."

Perhaps most influential in the tech development of the Negev has been an institution named for the one Israeli who, way back when, saw the potential in the sparsely-populated outback. Dedicated to Israel's first Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) has been, according to many, the single most important influence in bringing high-tech industries down south. BGU is the fastest growing and most dynamic university in Israel. From 5,000 students just 12 years ago, it has grown to comprise some 18,000 - 1,000 of them PhD students - and employs more than 800 faculty members.

For decades, David Ben-Gurion, who himself spent his last years at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, implored Israelis to follow him south. Now, decades after his death, it appears that they have begun to heed his call - and the university that bears his name has been a prime motivator in bringing Israelis to the region. From solar and other alternative energy technologies to biotech and nanotech, engineering, computer science, and advanced academic research, BGU has initiated and developed dozens of innovative programs that attract high-tech to life in the Negev.

Ben-Gurion University leads the way

Among those programs is one that the university has developed with German communications giant Deutsche Telekom, the company's first outside Germany. Established in 2006, the collaboration focuses predominantly on security solutions for telecommunications networks, and as of last year the company had invested $16 million in the joint lab. BGU researchers working in conjunction with the lab have developed dozens of original ideas and innovations, many of which have been presented at international conferences.

In a recent paper, for example, Dr. Yaniv Altschuler, a researcher working with the lab, along with lab director Dr. Yuval Elovici, predicted a new generation of malware that could steal data from participants in a social network by hijacking information about their age, occupation, personality, etc., and creating a phony composite identity as credible as the real one.

Other projects include developing an Advanced Terrorist Detection System to track down the formation of terrorist cells in Internet social and chat groups. The system examines the content that is accessed and evaluates it; provides a comprehensive security assessment of Google's Android operating system; and also a new, faster way to detect viruses and malware.

They're all great ideas, and Deutsche Telekom certainly feels it's getting its money's worth: On a visit to Israel last November, company CEO Rene Obermann said: "We are interested in expanding our R&D center at Ben-Gurion University. We intend to double our R&D fund in Israel. The results here are very encouraging."

In fact, the Deutsche Telekom project is so successful that it is set to be the model for joint ventures; going up just across the street from BGU is the Negev Advanced Technology Park (ATP), being built jointly by BGU, the Beersheba Municipality and US firm Kud International, which is developing the project. Far more than just another collection of office buildings, the ATP will be a "city within a city," hosting world-class corporations, and recreation activities, all adjacent to what will soon be the biggest mall in Israel. Beersheba and the ATP will be transformed into a "destination" when the first tenants start moving in, in 2012, says Bob Peckar, a US attorney working on the project.

The true "Silicon Wadi" of the Middle East

Peckar and Tom Winter, a top official of Kud International, say that this project will be the one that finally pushes the Negev into its place in the sun. "Leading companies from Israel and around the world are planning to open research centers and labs here - we already have commitments from some large companies - and they all want to take advantage of the ATP's proximity to BGU, where so much exciting work is going on. With companies from 'traditional' high-tech areas, like networks and security, joining 'new wave' high-tech, like alternative energy, biotechnology and nano-technology, the ATP will truly be Israel's, if not the entire Middle East's, 'silicon wadi.'"

More than just another high-tech industrial park, the ATP is being designed with full services for day and night use - including transportation infrastructure, shopping, restaurants, a hotel and conference center, and even day care centers. "We see the ATP not just as a place to work, but a place to generate an economy, with residents and visitors working and playing in the area," says Peckar.

The project is being built with much support and backing from the government; tenants will be able to take advantage of a long list of incentives - tax breaks and incentives, salary subsidies for employers, and low-cost development loans. "This will be a very attractive package," Peckar promises.

The new Beersheba "Grand Canyon" Mall, meanwhile, is being built to service workers and new residents who will be attracted to the city by the jobs the ATP will generate, along with the thousands of Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers and their families who are slated to move to the area as the IDF builds "Boot Camp City" there, relocating its largest training base - Tsrifin - along with a host of other smaller bases.

They are to be moved to a site near Ramat Hovav, an industrial zone adjacent to Beersheba that was previously known for its toxic waste. Local and national governments have been working ceaselessly to clean up the area, and construction on the infrastructure, where 13,000 soldiers will serve, has already begun, scheduled to be completed in 2013.

Sun for solar schemes

The mall will be more than a centerpiece of consumer culture. Twice the size of Israel's current largest mall in Tel Aviv, it will also be a showpiece of green technology. Its roof will contain a huge array of photovoltaic cells to collect sunlight to be converted into electricity, which will be used to power the mall. In addition, the mall will recycle the rainwater on its roof in special pools being built on the property, along with the water from air conditioner units.

In a recent interview, Eli Lahav, a Beersheba native and CEO of the Lahav Group, which is building the mall along with the company British Israel, said that "the mall is not just shopping; it's a concept, a center combining recreation and leisure, a communal center, and even a youth cultural center. People will come here to learn from us."

With its sunny climate, the Negev is a perfect location for photovoltaic projects, and numerous solar and other environmentally-conscious projects are located there, many of them affiliated with BGU. For example, Israeli startup ZenithSolar  recently set up a solar farm in the Yavne area using a new system that harvests more than 70% of incoming solar energy (as compared to industry norms of 10 to 40%) - based on work accomplished at Sde Boker by BGU Professor David Faiman.

"Traditional photovoltaic cells do two things: Collect sunlight and generate electricity from it," Faiman explains. "What we've done is simply split those two functions, so that the sunlight is collected and concentrated by a dish-shaped mirror, and a small number of concentrator cells generate electricity from that highly-concentrated sunlight. Photovoltaic material is far too expensive to waste on something that can be accomplished with cheap glass and steel.

"This kind of power plant will cost a little less than $1,000 per kilowatt to build, which is exactly the same as the cost of current fossil fuel plants, except that you wouldn't have to buy any fuel," Faiman adds.

 

Many other companies in Israel are working on solar energy projects, with the most successful so far being BrightSource, which is helping to build the world's largest solar project in California, following a successful pilot project in the Negev.

Sand for tires

While BrightSource's and ZenithSolar's projects could eventually power an entire town, there are other smaller-scale solar projects in the Negev - and not just in the new high-tech jewel of Beersheba. A major goal of government and organizations is to reclaim as much of the desert as possible, or at least make living there survivable and sustainable - and many projects in the region focus on this challenge.

For example, an organization called Bustan is building a community center in the Bedouin village of Qasr al-Sir that will be completely solar-powered, with electricity generated by photovoltaic cells on its roof. Homes will also be equipped with solar electricity panels, since the village isn't wired for electricity.

Bustan, meanwhile, is helping residents to continue to develop their traditional arts of weaving and agricultural work, despite the thrust into modernity. "If we can develop one village in a manner that will allow modernity and traditional village life to coexist, we will have built a model that can be duplicated around the Negev, and around the world," declares Bustan's director Al-Mickawi.

Working with what a desert has in abundance, Israel's Dimona Silica Industries (DSI) has discovered that Negev sand (silica) has unique properties - specifically, that it is rich in porcellanite, a waste material in the phosphate mining industry in Israel, which provides a more environmentally-friendly way to manufacture tires.

DSI discovered that instead of having to heat up silica to 1,500 degrees in order to extract liquid silica - used to manufacture tires and many other items - Negev silica need only be heated to about 90 degrees centigrade in order to turn it into liquid form. This is made possible by the unique properties of the porcellanite in the Negev silica. "Our production process is much more environmentally-friendly and cheaper, so we believe the world is going to prefer our Negev silica," says DSI CEO Ronen Peled.

Getting ready for renewable energy

Green technology is moving even further afield, down into the deep Negev, thanks to the latest effort by BGU's Arava Group, in conjunction with the Eilat-Elot municipality, to establish a renewable energy center in the Arava desert in the southern Negev. The group - which includes industrial leaders such as Elbit Systems, Rafael and Ormat, as well as top investment firms - won a government tender to establish the center, which will develop new approaches to renewable energy and demonstrate their commercial effectiveness.

Both the government and the group will invest a total of $30 million (NIS 114 million) over the next five years to develop projects in solar, wind and other alternative energy sources, with an eye to ensuring that they become commercially viable. The center is set to be the biggest tech project ever to hit the area, and according to Chief Scientist Dr. Eli Ophir, a similar project for water technology will be announced in the coming months.

The Negev technology revolution is far more than just renewable energy and environmental projects. There's biotechnology, nanotechnology and "traditional" high-tech as well. For example, Israel is establishing a "world-class innovation center for the Biotechnology and Life Sciences industries in the Negev region," called BioNegev. The center will feature lab facilities and research opportunities for academic and commercial groups, as well as provide management and technical expertise, "turning the Negev into an international center of biotechnology and life sciences," says BioNegev director Dr. Shai Yarkony.

BioNegev's partners include, among others, Beersheba's Soroka Hospital, which, as the main hospital serving the entire Negev region, has emerged as one of the leading hospitals in the country in terms of activity and research. Another partner is BGU's National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN), which has been doing important biotech research since 2001.

The NIBN does high-level research in areas such as human genetic disorders, immune system biotechnology, and nano-medicine. In its latest triumph, an NIBN research team demonstrated the first human disease associated with a defect in the production of the recently discovered 21st amino acid, selenocysteine. The team demonstrated that human mutations which prevent the formation of SEC result in a progressive disease of severe mental retardation and epilepsy beginning at infancy. One out of every 40 Jews of both Moroccan and Iraqi ancestry may be carriers of this mutation.

Tech transfer "graduates" make good

While the aforementioned technology park is slated to attract large multinational and Israeli companies, there will be plenty of opportunities for small start-ups as well - again, thanks to BGU. The university's technology transfer company, BGN Technologies, has helped more than two dozen companies to establish themselves, based on research and development conducted at the university. The companies promoted by BGN are all doing cutting-edge work in advanced technologies, including pharmaceuticals and drug delivery, medical diagnostics and devices, biotechnology, nanotechnology, agrotechnology, water reclamation, information technology, homeland security, and others.

Among the promising ideas being developed by companies that have "graduated" from BGN are NeuroDerm, which has developed the first ever levodopa (L-DOPA) skin patch for Parkinson’s disease; BioNess, which develops electronic stimulation equipment for leg and hand rehabilitation; Protea, which is developing a protein-based universal vaccine for Streptococcus pneumoniae; PixelScan, which is developing an algorithm for improving the effective resolution in digital cameras; and RoTec, which is developing a more effective membrane system to improve the desalination processes of brackish groundwater.

The Negev is exporting its knowhow to other areas of the world that face issues and problems similar to those facing Israel. In a project that has been ongoing for a decade, officials of the Negev Foundation have been training members of the Hopi Indian Nation in Arizona to reclaim brackish water for agricultural use, using techniques developed at the Ramat Negev Desert AgroResearch Center and BGU.

The Research Center has had numerous successes over the past decade with its brackish water reclamation techniques that ensure an increase in the annual yield of grapes, potatoes, pomegranates, and many other crops grown in the Negev. The same techniques have also helped to establish the largest olive orchards in Israel.

And all the preceding is just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to telling the story of the New Negev. Hundreds of projects, start-ups, and scientific and technology experiments in the region are already making an impact on Israel and the world. With the massive resources being pumped into the region, it's a sure bet that the Negev will find itself in the spotlight in the years to come.

A quote inscribed on the monument at Sde Boker honoring David Ben-Gurion, reads: "It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested." It would seem that both the country and the region have passed the test.

 

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