“Deal Flow and Idea Flow: Rethinking the University’s Role”

The full address delivered by TAU President Joseph Klafter on the occasion of his receiving an Honorary Professorship from Tsinghua University on June 7, 2018
27 June 2018

Thank you, Prof. Qiu Yong, President of Tsinghua University, for bestowing this great honor on me. As much as it is meaningful to me personally, I also see it as prestigious recognition of my institution, Tel Aviv University, and of my country, Israel.


Today I would like to share with you some thoughts about the university’s changing role in society, and about how our two universities, TAU and Tsinghua, can jointly rethink and influence this evolving role. But first, you may be asking, why rethink the university to begin with?  Who needs it when we’re doing fine as it is?


The university model and structure we are so familiar with originated in Europe over 200 years ago. This model elevated research that is performed for its own sake, independent of religious, political or economic pressures. It encouraged pure scholarship in fields ranging from physics to the arts, and from law to philosophy. This model might have given rise to the perception of the university as an “ivory tower” detached from day-to-day concerns.


My question, then, is this: In an era of rapidly changing realities, can research and teaching really be conducted independently anymore? Can they be free of outside considerations, for example, environmental challenges or technological disruptions? In a time of intense global competition, is the current mode of university education enough to sustain a nation’s scientific, economic and social growth over time? And if it isn’t, what can we do about it? How can we ensure that the university – an institution we cherish so much – remains viable?


Certainly our main pursuit should remain basic science and expanding pure knowledge; certainly we should continue our regular research and teaching activities; certainly we should integrate practical career skills into the curriculum; but I also believe that universities must become more responsive, flexible and creative. We must reinvent ourselves to better answer societal needs. This is our challenge, as much in Tel Aviv as in Beijing and everywhere else.


I propose two main goals for the modern university, and I will be organizing the rest of my talk around them. The first is facilitating deal flow, and the second, generating idea flow.


In the narrow sense, “deal flow” refers to the rate of potential business opportunities available to investors. But in the wider sense, deal flow describes the entire continuum of innovation, entrepreneurship and technology transfer that today’s universities are expected to foster. In this broader definition, deal flow becomes a key element in the knowledge economy – ensuring a continuous stream of valuable products and services into the marketplace.


Now, Israel is well known as “Startup Nation.” According to this year’s Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum, Israel ranks 3rd out 137 economies for innovation. This is a remarkable achievement for such a small, young country – and a source of fascination around the world. Wherever I travel, audiences demand to know, “how do you do it? What is Israel’s secret?’


Addressing this question fully would involve cultural, historical and political explanations, so I prefer to give you the short answer. To do so, I need to bring in another indicator, one that measures academic-industry collaboration. In the arena of university collaboration with industry, Israel ranks 3rd in the world. Compare this with China at 28th place, and India at 26th. I’ll give you another statistic: Israel ranks 1st in the world for the integration of research talent in businesses.


Why is university-industry collaboration so important? Because, and this brings me back to my “deal flow” theme, it guarantees that the people who are inventing things and the people who are commercializing things are constantly talking with one another. That academia keeps abreast of industry needs, and industry keeps abreast of the latest discoveries.That the campus community and business community can inspire, mentor and benefit from one another.


I will give you a few examples from Tel Aviv University to demonstrate how we are nurturing deal flow. This May we teamed up with Yandex, Russia’s largest Internet search engine – like Baidu here – to launch the “Yandex Initiative for Machine Learning” at our computer science school. Both sides – the University and Yandex – recognize that maintaining a competitive edge in artificial intelligence requires a serious boost in research and teaching. (It’s interesting that a Russian company would come to an Israeli university to advance its technological agenda – but such is the nature of R&D today – you go where the talent is.) More important, Tel Aviv University’s faculty and students will have the ongoing opportunity to meet and confer with Yandex experts, and vice versa. We see this as an excellent model for replication – large technology companies and the University team up to strengthen a high-demand field with immediate applications.


Another new project at Tel Aviv University involves the giant chip manufacturer, Broadcom. The 100 billion dollar company searched for the best place to locate its new R&D center in Israel, and chose Tel Aviv University. They are now building, at their own expense, a massive facility on the Tel Aviv University campus, next to the engineering complex. A full third of it will be allocated as classrooms, labs and offices for TAU’s engineering school. Can you imagine the opportunities for synergy? Broadcom engineers will be able to pursue joint projects with TAU researchers, and students will be able to walk down the hall to train alongside industry specialists in state-of-the-art facilities. We’re excited about the possibilities and also see this as another replicable model for other Israeli universities and beyond.


The two examples I’ve given so far – Yandex and Broadcom – are not business investments in the classic sense. Any intellectual property resulting from it will be owned by the University. On the other hand, Tel Aviv University is open to the profit motive. We see it as a healthy spur to deal flow and are pursuing venture capital investment through our business engagement company, Ramot.


I’d like to offer two examples of recent major investments. They are both path-breaking in Israeli academia. The first is the 20-million-dollar “I3” investment vehicle for the Internet-of-Things. The University and the well-known Israeli VC Fund, Pitango, are partnering with General Electric, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Tata and the Chinese company HNA EcoTech to fund promising startups in the IoT field. The Internet-of-Things market is expected to grow from 170 billion dollars in 2017 to 560 billion dollars by 2022 – an annual growth rate of almost 27 percent.  IoT draws on many fields including big data, machine learning, cyber security, sensing, communications, software engineering, ethics and privacy – all strong areas at Tel Aviv University.


A second investment vehicle that’s very fresh – we unveiled it a couple of months ago – is called TAU Ventures. This venture capital fund is special because it targets Tel Aviv University students and graduates. Along with seed funding and a dedicated work space, the young entrepreneurs also receive access to TAU’s scientific expertise, business support, industrial ties, successful alumni, and international network of collaborating universities and organizations. The investors hail from the US, Canada, Singapore and Japan.


Now, a couple of interesting points: The first I noted earlier, which is the global aspect of the investments. Notably they are coming from America and Asia. Corporations and business people flock to where the action is, and by providing exciting investment opportunities, Tel Aviv University can further widen its network of industry relations around the world. A second point to consider, and here I’ll conclude this section of my talk, is that in the case of TAU Ventures,  where the University is raising millions of dollars for student startups, our stake in any future commercial success is minimal. So you might ask, why go to the trouble? My answer is this: TAU Ventures is part of the larger vision to promote the entrepreneurial spirit of our entire Tel Aviv University community – beyond the campus gates as well. That spirit could apply equally to developing the next life-saving drug, fighting air pollution, bringing agricultural technology to small farmers, or fighting cyber piracy.


Anyone can make deals, but we want to nurture the conditions for future deals that will bring scientific, social and economic dividends for the Israeli people and all peoples. That’s what I mean by “facilitating deal flow” and it is the first key strategy for universities to remain relevant.


The second key strategy requires taking a step back. For deal flow you first have to generate idea flow, and where better to encourage new thinking than at top universities such as TAU and Tsinghua? Here too, though, we need to rethink our methods if we wish to inspire big, life-changing ideas – not just in technology, but across the spectrum of social needs. In the indexes, this ability is measured as “capacity for innovation,” and Israel ranks 3rd in the world for that. We’d like to do better.


One of the first questions we need to ask ourselves, as teaching institutions, is as follows: Are we providing a learning experience that spurs independent thought? The English poet William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” So are we firing up our students’ minds?


Speaking for Tel Aviv University, as well as for universities generally, I believe we need to reinvigorate the classroom to provide an exciting and personalized learning experience. Born into a rich digital world, today’s students are no longer satisfied by attending frontal lectures. Tomorrow’s students will have even less patience. Structuring the curriculum around traditional frontal lectures doesn’t make much sense anymore. Lectures can be videotaped and delivered online to thousands. With a small budget and some imagination, they can be enhanced with visuals and tasks that make them stimulating and fun. Many institutions, including my own, are already implementing this approach.


Moreover, using big data analytics, students’ online academic performance can be monitored and evaluated, such that personalized help can be given to individual students in real time. Young people today seek interactive learning – and this is precisely the university’s added value because we can provide many appealing frameworks for this, both digital and real-world.


Research must also keep pace with the evolving classroom. A couple of years ago, TAU introduced the “Minducate” framework to integrate brain studies with education research. Current projects include developing and testing robot facilitators to assist teachers in sparking curiosity and debate; creating virtual reality environments for foreign language instruction – this is already a huge hit in schools throughout Israel; and a third project involves building “escape rooms” for teaching the hardest courses at the university such as chemistry and neurobiology. These are actual, physical places that challenge students to find clues and solve riddles about science. What’s interesting here is that the researchers who are testing this approach are giving the students themselves the opportunity to build escape rooms for other students. They love it. One team built a giant neuron and participants had to find their way through it.


What’s key to understand about the Minducate framework is its interdisciplinary nature – and here I’m coming to my main point about generating idea flow. Rather than staying within the confines of the School of Education, we are opening up the field to include neuroscience, psychology, cognitive studies, linguistics, engineering, computer science, the arts, and more. This is the ultimate flow that universities can release – the flow between and among disciplines. Just as the world’s challenges are complex and interdisciplinary, so too our research and teaching programs need to be interdisciplinary in the deepest and most profound sense.


At Tel Aviv University we gained this realization decades ago. We were the first in Israel to allow students to major in any subject together with any other subject. Physics and film. Biology and law. Economics and philosophy. Anything. This year we introduced an honors program that combines Engineering with Humanities. The guiding idea is that, to get tomorrow’s engineers to think outside the box, we have to take them out of the box of strictly technological thinking. Industry is hungry for more well-rounded engineers and now we will likely expand the program to other faculties such as Social Sciences.


In the last 15 years we systematically established a number of large, cross-disciplinary frameworks in subjects such as food security, cyber, environment, ethics, public policy, nano – of course, together with the XIN Center – and many other fields. More recently we reorganized Tel Aviv University’s 125 schools and departments into 30 interdisciplinary schools. These moves were not a concession to academic trendiness. They were motivated by the genuine belief that if you push smart people from different fields together, induce them to ask questions, encourage them to be fearless, and welcome even seemingly crazy combinations, big ideas emerge.


And they do! Here are some recent examples of interdisciplinary ideas from our researchers: Two engineers took a finding from biotechnology and incorporated it into a new type of battery. Their hybrid biological-electronic battery – now a flourishing startup – will charge your electric vehicle in 5 minutes. In another example – combining medicine, biotechnology, engineering and nano – a team invented a cardiac patch that can be printed with a 3D printer. It could bring an end to the need for heart transplants. A third example involves applying data science to sacred texts. Computer scientists and ancient DNA experts work with scholars in Jewish studies to determine the authorship of biblical writings.  


Recently, Tel Aviv University took interdisciplinary boldness to the next stage. We began a new program for high-risk research using Tel Aviv University and donor funding. Let me explain. Most of you know that, in order for a researcher to win competitive grant funding, he or she must demonstrate proven results in their previous research. But what happens when there are no results yet because the idea is still too fresh? What happens when the researcher has a hunch that findings in one project might open a window to an entirely different project, but lacks the funding to try it out?


Recognizing that innovation involves risk-taking, Tel Aviv University is now holding RFP’s across the campus for interdisciplinary projects that are not yet ripe for external competitive funding. Six projects won funding. One of them combines optics, electronics and nanofabrication to pioneer contact lenses that can enhance human vision beyond its natural ability, as well as correct colorblindness and other visual disorders. Other projects are focusing on subjects such as rapid identification of infection, measurement tools for quantum thermodynamics, and improving vaccinations.


If I had to give you only one example of the power of the interdisciplinary approach, it would be the story of brain studies at Tel Aviv University. In 2011 we began another risky experiment. We decided to organize all teaching and research in brain studies across dozens of departments into a single school. It worked better than we could have ever anticipated. The Sagol School of Neuroscience, the first of its kind in the world, grew from 45 students in its initial year of operations to 400 today across the degree levels, from undergraduate to post-doc. Over 120 research groups provide laboratory breeding grounds for cross-disciplinary insights into anything from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s to consumer marketing and interactive cinema. The Minducate program I described earlier is an offshoot of the Neuroscience School, as is a program with industry, called “Brainboost,” which encourages brain-tech startups.  


In my experience, nothing is more effective in setting the imagination free than enabling faculty and students to combine disciplines. Together with feeding entrepreneurship and reinventing learning, universities should keep searching for new ways to inspire the next generation’s creativity and world-changing ideas.


I’ve spoken to you today about deal flow and idea flow, and now I would like to conclude with another type of flow – I’ll call it “east flow.” Early in my presidency, some eight or nine years ago, Tel Aviv University began looking eastward toward Asia, and particularly China. The connections began as they usually do – on a personal level, between researchers. A colleague of mine from the Chemistry Department, Prof. Michael Orbach, who is here today, met with a group of researchers at Tsinghua in the Exact Sciences. They became the “seed group” for what would later become the major collaboration between our two institutions.


Very quickly we recruited Prof. Yael Hanein, head of the TAU Center for Nanoscience and Technology, who is also here with us today, to set up the XIN Center. This project was pursued on both sides with great enthusiasm, and it was a proud day for Tel Aviv University and for the State of Israel when the Chinese Vice Premier, Madame Liu Yandong, arrived to witness the XIN signing ceremony in 2014. Since then, through the XIN framework, over a dozen Summer and Winter Schools, along with innovation events, have been held for students and faculty from both universities. Almost 200 Chinese professors, managers and students have come to Tel Aviv and 100 Israelis here to Tsinghua, with co-publications appearing in such prestigious journals as Nature Nanotechnology and Nature Communications. The inter-institutional partnership has spread to other fields, such as Life Sciences, Management and Law.


Tsinghua and Tel Aviv University are also collaborating in other frameworks, including the China-Israel 7+7 Research University Alliance and the China Israel Innovation Forum launched here in Beijing in 2016 in partnership with Morningside. For this joint activity, as well as for remarkable academic achievement, Tel Aviv University had the privilege and honor of bestowing an honorary doctorate last year on Prof. Qui Yong.


Meanwhile, in related China activity, Tel Aviv University has trained over 3,000 Chinese executives in our innovation and entrepreneurship courses; and increased the number of Chinese students in our various programs from a mere dozen a few years ago to 200 per year today. Of course we want more!


What’s ahead? I envision a future where Tsinghua University will be Tel Aviv University’s main interface with China, and vice versa. If someone in Israel is looking for academic and business opportunities in China, they’ll find them through us, and when Chinese wish to learn about Israel, they’ll do so through you.

Tsinghua has 43 joint degree programs with foreign universities – we’d like to forge with you the 44th. I also envision expanding our joint research into other areas where we have so much to offer one another, such as smart cities, renewable energy, green chemistry, food security and so much more.


To conclude, I would like to make a cultural note. China and Israel are two of the world’s oldest civilizations. Each country boasts a glorious heritage that stretches back thousands of years. At the same time, we are modern societies – shining examples of technological advancement and globalization. This unique duality, the magnificent clash of ancient and modern, of tradition and innovation, of harmony and chutzpah – this duality both shapes our cultures and propels us forward. We have so much in common – we have so much to build together.


A saying attributed to your great philosopher, Confucius, goes like this: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” Thank you again for this opportunity today to reinforce our heartfelt friendship and begin charting our shared path into the future. 



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