How Israel is rewriting the future of cybersecurity and creating the next Silicon Valley

If you're looking for the rise the next Silicon Valley, the place to watch is the Negev region in Israel. Its new cybersecurity juggernaut is breaking new ground in public-private partnership.

Cybersecurity in Israel involves a lot more than repelling hackers on the Internet.

While the Israeli Defense Forces are known for their effectiveness and resourcefulness, as you approach the Palmahim Airbase south of Tel Aviv you might be surprised to discover that this is a world-class military facility.

Exiting the highway to a road that is only occasionally paved, there's an abandoned cinderblock facility surrounded by a wire fence with tires and metal objects strewn across the open grassy area. It looks more like something you'd expect in a post-industrial town in Pennsylvania or Ohio than on the base of one of the most high tech fighting forces in the world.

As we drive past the building and head toward our rendezvous, our two IDF handlers turn around and smile and remind us of the rules. The person we're going to meet can only be referred to as "Major S," for safety and security reasons. While our handlers are both young ladies with an air of sweetness and optimism about them, on this point they speak with an unequivocal authority and finality—despite the smiles.

Both are wearing green military fatigues and in the spare moments between their duties as communications reps they are happy to unfold the berets strapped to the shoulders of their uniforms and explain how the colors represent the division of the IDF that they serve. Slender, petite, and energetic, in the U.S. they would likely be preparing for a soccer game or a senior prom. In Israel, the two conscripts are leading a small group of journalists to meet a military officer who runs an operation that protects millions of citizens.

When Major S enters, he looks barely older than the two conscripts. His green uniform is a one-piece flight suit. The sleeves are pushed up his forearms and the zipper on the front is open down to mid-chest, showing a gray t-shirt underneath. His shy smile makes him look even younger. But when his face straightens, it unmasks a care-worn look in his eyes that reflects all the Israelis in constant danger that he must help protect.

 Major S stands in front of a UAV. | Image: Jason Hiner

These kids have old souls.

Major S is the deputy commander of the First UAV Squadron, a division of the Israeli Air Force. Despite his babyface smile, he's actually 30 years old with over a decade of service in the military. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that he manages are the eyes in the sky that keep watch on Israel's borders as well as some of its aggressive neighbors who would love nothing better than to push modern Israel into the sea and pretend it never existed. Israel relies on the UAVs to run at least 50 hours of operations every day, according to Major S. Obviously, that means they are running multiple drones in multiple locations at all times. That's a lot of data.

"The most important thing is to collect information... every day of the year," says Major S.

A UAV hovers at 10,000 feet, he says. "You can't hear it and you can't see it from the ground."

Of course, the cynical view is that Israel uses UAVs to spy on its neighbors and invade their airspace. But, Israel has been facing existential threats from its neighbors since the day the modern State of Israel was founded on May 15, 1948 as a result of a UN resolution. Israel has had a bitter peace with Egypt since 1979. It's had a slightly more cordial peace with Jordan since 1994. Lebanon and Syria remain sworn enemies. And, the country's tenuous relationship with the Palestinian territories (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) is well known.

For the moment, Gaza is the biggest problem spot. When Israel withdrew its occupying forces from Gaza in 2005, the radical elements of Palestine used it to seize power and have been firing rockets at Israeli cities ever since. Israel has, of course, retaliated and civilians have been caught in the crossfire on both sides, but Israel has been losing the PR war. The Palestinians have done a far better job of publicizing the attacks against them and helping create a narrative in the international media that paints Israel as a callous oppressor.

 Image: IDF

Major S opens his laptop and plays a video from the bird's eye view of the drone. In this case, a UAV has identified a suicide bomber and is tracking it. The UAV operator is communicating with ground forces to intercept it. Just as they are about to pounce on it, the UAV operator frantically interrupts and tells them to wait as he spots Palestinian kids up ahead of where the bomber's vehicle is heading. After it clears the area, we see the IDF vehicles cut off the car bomber and the IDF soldiers jump out and surround the car. A soldier with body armour approaches the suicide bomber in the driver's seat, gets hit with several bullets, but pulls the driver out of the vehicle and the soldiers apprehend him. No harm done.

"In the Gaza Strip there are 1.5 to 2 million people and most of them are not terrorists," says Major S. "They just want to live their lives like me and my family. But our enemies know that and they try to [hide near civilians]."

He shows a couple more videos where disasters were averted and Palestinian and Israeli lives were saved from potential attacks. But, he won't let us publish the videos. He says they have released very few of these to the public in the past and he's always reluctant to allow it, because every video will be studied by terrorists and used to figure out how to evade the UAVs.

His implicit message is that his job is not to feed information to the press to make Israel look more sympathetic to the international community. His job is to protect lives. As polite as he is, it's clear that every moment he spends with us is a moment he's not doing his real job, and he needs to get back to it.

He says there is a warehouse that the UAVs have been continually tracking for three weeks. They know there is "bad stuff" being stored in there. As soon as that stuff starts to move then there's going to be a big problem that will need to be handled. His team is working with Israeli intelligence to make sure it doesn't turn into a tragic incident.

"It's a race. Everybody tries to get more capabilities and better technology." Major S

He walks us out to the hangars where the UAVs are located along with the command stations where the UAV operators run them. The command stations are like a whirlwind marriage between a sit-down arcade video game and a server room.

UAVs are the future, Major S asserts. The Israeli Air Force keeps closing down traditional squadrons and keeps opening new UAV squadrons. He also pointed to the fact the F-35 is the last manned fighter jet that the Americas are going to make. It's an inevitable trend.

"The wars we have today are not the same as what we had 20 years ago," he says. "It's a race. Everybody tries to get more capabilities and better technology."

He gestures toward one of the newest drones. "If everyone is using this, then the one with the best technology wins."

Israel, the innovator

Israel bewilders you with its contrasts and contradictions.

The Old City of Jerusalem mercilessly floods your senses with its history. Whether you seek out its stories or not, this ancient place will not allow you to remain indifferent to the countless millions who across 60 centuries have streamed here in search of answers to big questions.

 The Old City of Jerusalem has a lot of stories to tell. | Image credit: Jason Hiner

Not far away, the modern cities of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Be'er Sheva pulse with the resistless energy of people searching for answers to smaller questions that fill every day, every hour, every moment.

Israel is a land of mystery, science, faith, reason, tension, and peace. Today, it is most widely known for its long-smoldering geopolitical conflict and its religious sites held sacred by four world faiths. But, the aspect of modern Israel that is having the most significant impact on global civilization in the 21st century often goes under the radar.

Since the rise of the personal computer, Israel has been quietly making major contributions to the technologies that are transforming humanity and giving people tools to solve age-old problems in powerful and exciting news ways. And, these contributions to the global technology ecosystem have accelerated in the past two decades.

Israel was one of the progenitors of the PC revolution in the 1980s when Intel's lab in Haifa designed the 8088 chip that powered the original IBM PC. Intel's Israeli team later created the Pentium chip that helped spread PC computing to the masses.

In the middle of the last decade, Intel's innovators in Israel pushed past objections from their U.S. counterparts and got the company to focus on power-conservation rather than raw speed and delivered the Centrino chip that fueled the growth of laptops. Then the Israelis pioneered multi-core processors to deliver Intel's groundbreaking Core product line that turned Intel around at one of its most difficult moments. Now, it's the Israeli team at Intel that is leading the company's charge into mobile processors.

 Intel's new facility in Haifa sets a high standard for green buildings. | Image: Intel

The world's most important tech companies run Israeli research centers, including Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Apple, IBM, Oracle, SAP, EMC, Motorola, HP, Facebook, and eBay. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously said that Microsoft was an Israeli company almost as much as an American company since Microsoft has so many workers in Israel and the work they are doing is so important to the company's future.

Intel and IBM opened research centers in Israel in the 1970s and hired lots of Israeli engineers. More often, tech giants have bolstered their presence in Israel by acquiring startups. Cisco alone has purchased at least 10 Israeli startups (that we know about), including Intucell in January 2013 for $475 million. In July 2013, Google bought the popular Waze mapping software for $1 billion, shining an even brighter spotlight on Israeli startups.

Israel has been dubbed "The Startup Nation" because it has the highest density of startups per capita in the world—one for every 1,844 citizens (or 2.5 times the U.S. rate). More Israeli companies are listed on the NASDAQ than from all European companies combined. Israel ranks third in the world for venture capital availability and second in the world in the availability of qualified scientists and engineers. Yet, this is a tiny country with roughly the same land mass as New Jersey.

The story of how this undersized, continually-threatened nation of 7.5 million people—less than the population of New York City—has become one of the pre-eminent players in the tech world is complicated. Plenty of journalists, researchers, and government officials from across the globe have probed this issue and argued with each other about the genesis of Israel's technological success.

The influx of technically-savvy Russian immigrants in 1990s played a big part. Conscription of young Israelis into the entrepreneurial ethos of the IDF was an important factor. Facing continual geopolitical conflicts created the confidence to solve problems that others deemed impossible. The fact that many of Israel's founders were scientists and intellectuals certainly laid the groundwork for placing a high cultural value on technology. But, above all, the fact that Israel is such a small country with limited resources confronting multiple simultaneous threats means it must rely on better tools and automation and ingenuity in order to survive.

In one sense, Israel is defined and bolstered by threats against it.

That's also how Israel has created such a center of excellence around cybersecurity. The combination of the country's perpetual concern with defense and its technological prowess have turned cybersecurity into one of its most important exports. In 2013 alone, IBM, Cisco, and GE have all made large acquisitions or investments in Israeli cybersecurity companies. And, because of the new security and privacy issues being raised by the spread of cloud computing, that trend is very likely to accelerate.

The economic anchor

September 3, 2013 opened a new chapter in the history of the tech industry and cybersecurity in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the inauguration of the Advanced Technology Park on the campus of Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva.

"Today we are launching the economic anchor that will turn Be'er Sheva into a national and international center for cybernetics and cybersecurity," Netanyahu said at the opening ceremony. "This is a day that will change the history of the State of Israel and we are doing it here in Be'er Sheva."

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center right) cuts the ribbon inaugurating the ATP. | Credit: BGU

Culturally, geographically, and technically, things had been leading up to this critical event for a long time. In fact, some of the seeds were planted all the way back at the birth of modern Israel by the country's first prime minister. Nevertheless, this has the signs of a historical turning point written all over it—groundbreaking cooperation among powerful forces, coalescing resources, economic gravitas, and impeccable timing.

ATP creates a symbiotic relationship between three potent entities:
1. Academia
2. Tech companies
3. The Israeli Defense Forces

Where the magic is expected to happen is in co-locating these three onto adjacent campuses where they can collaborate on projects, share data, and feed each other's needs for talent, resources, and thought leadership.

"This is a day that will change the history of the State of Israel and we are doing it here in Be'er Sheva." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The ribbon-cutting on September 3 marked the official opening of Building #1 of the ATP. This is where the tech industry is taking up residence in a commercial park that will consist of 16 buildings on 23 acres, including office space, labs, a hotel, and a conference center. The ATP is connected to the main campus of BGU by a new walking bridge, with a new train station running right between them so that it can easily whisk scholars, professionals, and soldiers from Be'er Sheva to Tel Aviv, the current technology capital of the country.

The first tenants of Building #1 include tech industry stalwarts Deutsche Telekom, EMC, RSA, and Oracle, as well as three incubators—Jerusalem Venture Partner's CyberLabs, Elbit Incubit, and BGN Technologies (a BGU entity that commercializes academic research). Venture capital firms are in negotiations to take up residence in Building #2, which is currently in development and will open in early 2015.

One of BGU's key catalysts in bridging the gap between academia and industry is its commercialization arm, BGN Technologies, which uses a unique model for what it calls "technology transfer." That is the way that the university takes valuable breakthroughs and brings them to market by partnering with a company or selling the company a patent. BGN Technologies has signed agreements with over 150 companies, including ExxonMobile, Johnson & Johnson, Siemens, and General Motors. BGN Technologies has been so successful at this that universities from the U.S. and Europe are studying their approach.

"Our model is that we have no model, which is the strength of it." Dr. Moti Herskowitz on BGU's approach to commercializing tech research

Dr. Orna Berry, corporate vice president at EMC, said, "Normally, researchers do not have good business understanding, so matching researchers with businesses is really the job of [BGN Technologies] and I think they are doing a fantastic job... They go beyond what a commercialization office at a university normally does."

Dr. Moti Herskowitz, BGU's Dean of Research and Development, said that when it comes to technology transfer, U.S. universities tend to want to own everything and then sell the rights, and so they don't sell very much.

"Our model is that we have no model," said Herskowitz, "which is the strength of it. We deal with it case by case."

 Building #1 of the ATP opened Sept. 3. It is the first of 16 commercial buildings. | Image: BGU

Netta Cohen, CEO of BGN Technologies, which is wholly owned by BGU but operates as an independent business, said that academia and industry have different goals, different languages, and different cultures. BGN Technologies exists to translate and put together deals. Some companies simply want to buy the rights to develop a technology. Others want to do a joint venture and create a new corporation. Others want BGU to function as their R&D and then the company simply brings the product to market. Thus, BGN Technologies treats every agreement like a "tailored suit" said Cohen. And, it's working. BGU now generates 16% of its research income from the industry agreements negotiated by BGN Technologies. In the U.S., universities generate an average of 7% from industry deals.

BGU expects its numbers to to accelerate with the launch of the ATP.

Dr. Rikva Carmi, BGU President, said, "We are already leaders, but... the fact that leading high tech companies are going to dwell across the street from us is definitely going to boost it very, very much... This is the only place in Israel where there is such an intimate relationship between the industry and academia, and actually an on-going collaborative project. There are relationships with the industry at other universities but it is not like [having] one campus. For our purposes, the ATP and the university is one campus."

"For our purposes, the ATP and the university is one campus." BGU President Rikva Carmi

As a university, BGU has long been overshadowed as an epicenter of Israeli technology by Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute of Science near Tel Aviv, and the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) in Haifa. Partly, this is due to the fact that Technion (1912), Hebrew University (1918), and Weizmann (1934) have had decades of a head start on BGU, founded in 1969. Part of it is also due to geography. Weizmann, Hebrew, and Technion are located in Israel's three largest and most developed cities—Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, respectively.

Tel Aviv is currently Israel's undisputed tech capital. In fact, The Wall Street Journal has called it "Europe's main technology hub." With a population of 400,000, Tel Aviv is twice the size of Be'er Sheva and is home to over 1200 high tech companies and 700 early-stage startups. About two-thirds of all seed stage startups in Israel are currently located in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. However, if there's one thing that the ATP threatens to change more than anything else, it is moving the nexus of the Israeli tech community 70 miles southwest to Be'er Sheva.

 Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva: Tech hot spots. | Image: Jason Hiner

A big part of that is due to the other force multiplier connected to the launch of the ATP: The new IDF Technology Campus will sit directly next to the commercial buildings of the ATP and will have its own connecting walkway to the campus. There, it will become the new home for the IDF's elite technology units, which will be relocating and centralizing in Be'er Sheva. This will include 5,000 professional staff and cyber soldiers from the IDF's Center of Computing and Information Systems. The vast majority of these jobs will be migrating from Tel Aviv.

According to Carmi, these IDF units will be focused on a combination of traditional cybersecurity plus analyzing data from Israel's borders and sensors that relay information on both physical and digital security. A major component of the IDF's plan involves building a facility that paves the way for collaboration with academia and industry.

"It's not going to look like an army barracks," said Carmi. "It's not even going to have a fence. It's a virtual fence."

Cybersecurity prowess

Ben Gurion University has been quietly developing cybersecurity prowess for a decade. It has also been laying the groundwork for the kind of public-private collaboration that is the foundation of the ATP. The stimulus, in both cases, has been a partnership with Deutche Telekom, which came to BGU looking for an ally to collaborate on tech research.

In 2004, the German telecommunications giant created Telekom Innovation Laboratories (called "T-Labs") and chose BGU as an affiliate to focus on security. T-Labs also opened three labs in Germany and a Silicon Valley Innovation Center in Mountain View, California.

"We have a very good model," said BGU President Carmi. "Deutche Telekom is a very successful collaboration between industry and academia. It has been part of our university for almost 10 years and the kind of students and startups that have come out of this collaboration are really amazing. The whole field of cybersecurity that we are now leading in Israel was actually developed based on this project with Deutche Telekom."

Today, BGU has 20 students (18 graduate students and 2 post-graduate students) working in its Telekom Innovation Laboratories. BGU now offers a masters degree in cybersecurity (technically in Information Systems Engineering with a specialty in Cybersecurity). This graduate degree is closely intertwined with the work for Telekom Innovation Laboratories.

Much of the research that BGU is doing as part of T-Labs focuses on the most important security issues in the tech world today—especially social media and mobile computing. But, Deutche Telekom will sometimes come to BGU with specific questions.

 The ATP is across a walking bridge from BGU and next to the new IDF Tech Campus. | Image: BGU

"We were asked by Deutche Telekom to analyze Android to tell whether it is secure," said Dr. Yuval Elovici, Director of BGU's Deutsche Telekom Laboratories and a Professor in BGU's Department of Information Systems Engineering. Dr. Elovici's team of graduate students concluded that Android was "relatively secure." One of the big weaknesses they pinpointed was that Android updates can be used to hijack a device or inject code.

His team has largely discovered: "Any mobile phone today can be attacked and compromised," said Elovici. "They are many, many ways to compromise it."

However, their research also revealed that crowdsourcing information from mobile devices could be used for the public good. For example, the gyroscope motion detector in the iPhone is sensitive and accurate enough to detect earthquakes. If enough iPhone users in earthquake zones opted in to a service, then it could rapidly create a low-cost early detection system.

Where Elovici's team has made its biggest contribution is in the security and privacy issues surrounding social media.

"We were asked by Deutche Telekom to analyze Android to tell whether it is secure." Yuval Elovici, Professor of Information Systems Engineering

"We are very, very concerned about the issue of privacy," said Elovici.

His BGU graduate students have been digging deep on the privacy issues of social networks for several years, since before Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin became so ubiquitous. Of course, that makes their research more relevant now than ever.

One of their big discoveries is how much data can be discovered about a person over the web even if they have a tightly-controlled social profile or don't participate in social networks at all. Age, education, main interests, and other important facts can be derived fairly quickly based on your friends on social networks (or simply by knowing who a few of your close real-world friends are, if you don't have a profile on social networks, and then data mining their information on social networks).

"Our control of our profile isn't in our hands any more," said Elovici. "It's in the hands of our friends."

This research was published but it was pulled from the web because it was so controversial. It was feared that the information could be more useful to bad guys trying to perpetrate these acts than by average users to protect themselves. Now, they are exploring a system that people could connect to that could keep them from being profiled so easily.

"The risk from pedophiles is even stronger," Elovici said. "There are people who are creating fake profiles and connecting to teenagers and then selling them to pedophiles."

 This future rendition of the ATP shows Building #1 plus the rest of the buildings filled in. | Image: BGU

BGU's research concluded that 5%-10% of Facebook profiles are fake and these fake profiles are often being used for nefarious purposes, especially by pedophiles and occasionally by agents of industrial espionage. This project was led by one of the program's star grad students, Michael Fire, along with two undergraduate students.

The students not only pinpointed the problem, but they coded a solution. In 2012, they created the Social Privacy Protector, which functions as a Firefox Add-on or a Facebook app (for any browser). It scans your friends list in Facebook and based on the "connectedness" algorithm that the BGU students devised it then flags potentially-suspicious accounts that you have friended. You can then either restrict the information they can see about you or defriend them.

Fire, who is a Ph.D student in Information Systems Engineering, said, "While Facebook encourages connecting with as many people as possible, we advocate limiting users, and have, for the first time, provided an algorithm to scientifically determine who to remove from friend lists... An important feature of our app is the ability for parents to better protect their kids' privacy with just one click instead of having to navigate the more complicated Facebook privacy settings."

Beyond mobile devices and social networks, the BGU researchers involved with Telekom Innovation Laboratories are also tackling Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), honeytokens and more. If you look at the work that BGU has already done in this one public-private partnership with Deutche Telekom then you can understand why they are so bullish about getting a whole fleet of tech industry giants located across the street. And then, next to that is going to be all of the top technical talent of the Israeli Defense Forces, ready to collaborate in order to find solutions to impossible problems and push Israel's technical advantage farther and faster.

Rise of the Negev

Israelis treasure a biblical verse in Isaiah 35:1-2 that predicts: "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing."

Israel's founding father and first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who was far more pragmatic than spiritual, nevertheless kept a copy of this verse on his desk. To Ben Gurion, this prophecy encapsulated the hope and the possibilities of Israel's Negev desert. He believed science would unlock those secrets and create those opportunities. He even did a little bit of future forecasting of his own.

 The natural beauty of the Negev desert can surprise you. | Image: Jason Hiner

Ben Gurion predicted, "The South will be at the center of Israel's activity and concern. Only in these areas is there a little open space, totally absent in the North, and there is room for additional extensive settlement based on agriculture and pasture as well as on workshops, mines and industry... Only researchers and scientists who live within the gates of the Negev ... will succeed in revealing what is concealed in the bosom of the earth, and the Dead Sea. They will study the blessings of the sky and the sun and the uppermost air which shower endless treasures of energy, dew, winds and beneficial rays which go to waste because we do not yet know how to utilize them to make the wilderness blossom."

Named after the nation's first prime minister, Ben Gurion University of the Negev is the school's official title. Even most of the locals shorten it to Ben Gurion University or BGU, so it's easy to overlook the fact that the Negev remains one of BGU's greatest geographical and political assets—and one of its most defining characteristics.

Be'er Sheva, where BGU is based, sits on the northern edge of the Negev, but serves as its cultural and administrative capital. It's a biblical city (sometimes called "Beersheba") with connections to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When the UN divided up Israel and Palestine in 1948, Be'er Sheva was actually part of the Palestinian territory. However, during the proceeding Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the Israeli Defense Forces defeated the Egyptian Army in Be'er Sheva and it has been a Jewish city ever since. In fact, there are so few Arabs left in the city that Be'er Sheva's traditional mosque has been converted into the archeological museum of the Negev, despite legal objections from some of the Muslim citizens in Israel.

Today, Be'er Sheva has a population of 200,000 and is one of Israel's fastest growing cities. Meanwhile, outside of Be'er Sheva, there are about 170,000 semi-nomadic Arab bedouin who roam the Negev. It is a stark contrast between a rapidly-advancing modern civilization and a traditional culture that feels increasingly threatened about its future. Nevertheless, there are also now bedouin students attending BGU as well.

The Negev as a whole is the hottest region in Israel, both literally and figuratively.

It comprises Israel's southern desert and it has a completely different character than the coastal towns of Tel Aviv and Haifa or the Jerusalem plateau. As you drive from those northern cities with their cypress trees, sloping hills, and ample ground cover and pass into the Negev with its rocky terrain, craggy mountains, and sparse vegetation, there's no doubt that you have passed from one place into another. The color change from green to brown is unmistakable. The Negev is a desert, but it's not the kind with blowing sand dunes like you see in the movies. It's more like an ancient gravel driveway, stretching and rippling in every direction. If that sounds ominous and undesirable, then the untamed beauty of the Negev can surprise you.

The Negev represents 60% of the land mass of Israel, but is home to only 9% of the population. It is an arid climate that averages only 8 inches of rainfall per year, but the Israelis have turned the Negev into the only desert in the world that is currently receding. Using a combination of high-tech and low-tech research and best practices, Israel has taken advantage of the benefits of the desert while making it a more productive and hospital place to live. Israel has changed grazing patterns of animals, adopted ancient Nabataean farming techniques for growing crops in areas with minimal rainfall, and become a world leader in solar energy research. Israel now reuses over 70% of the country's waste water (mostly then reused for farming the arid land), more than any other country in the world. In second place is Spain, which reuses 17%. The U.S. reuses 1%.

 BGU has 20,000 students. | Image: Jason Hiner

Despite the fact that David Ben Gurion and other politicians have been calling the Negev "the future of the country" for over 60 years, the Israeli people have been slow to migrate to the region. Until recently, Be'er Sheva felt too provincial and remote to tempt many citizens of the developed cities of the north to relocate to the desert. However, the city of Be'er Sheva has created cultural momentum over the past decade by developing the arts, theater, libraries, and culinary diversity. This has been funded in part by American Jews who have embraced the vision of the Negev and used their philanthropy to help fund the expansion of BGU and Be'er Sheva.

Over three decades ago, David Ben Gurion put his money where his mouth was and moved to the Negev in 1970 after he retired from public life. Now that the national government, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the technology industry have fully bought into the future of the Negev, the region is expecting explosive economic and population growth over the next decade. The population of the Negev is projected to double to 1.2 million in 2025.

That's another part of the motivation for the ATP. Carmi said, "The basic idea for the park is to provide for high tech jobs for our graduates, for our [students in] computer engineering, computer science, data systems and all kinds of high tech departments, so they stay in the Negev and so they don't go to Tel Aviv."

However, one of the challenges to drawing more citizens to Be'er Sheva is the fact that it's currently in missile range from Gaza and has been a regular target. Be'er Sheva residents have had to get used to regular warning sirens and taking shelter in pre-designated areas. When I was taken to the BGU dorms for visiting scholars and other guests, one of the first things they showed me was where to take shelter if a missile warning went off.

Israel's new Iron Dome defense system has reduced the potential effects of these attacks, but it hasn't reduced the terror of the regular warnings. And, the Iron Dome itself makes bigger, scarier noises than the missiles they are intercepting, in many cases, which adds to the terror for many Be'er Sheva residents.

"Be'er Sheva is great, except for the missiles." Michael Fire, BGU graduate student in cybersecurity

This has affected a number of pioneering Israelis who have made the move to Be'er Sheva in order to support the momentum at BGU. One such professional has suffered from severe anxiety because of dealing with all of the missile warnings. Another has had to deal with family conflict because of a spouse being separated from family in the north along with the emotional toll of nurturing small children through all the missile warnings and evacuations. In both cases, they remain firmly committed to BGU and the larger mission of building the future in the Negev.

Michael Fire, the star BGU graduate student in cybersecurity, said, "Be'er Sheva is great, except for the missiles."

And yet, there's also the flipside to consider. You can make an argument that the constant threats don't ever let BGU researchers or IDF cyber soliders or even commercial businesses forget what's ultimately at stake. That remains one of intangible factors of Israel's success as a tech innovator. For six decades, Israel's existence has been continually under threat. That keeps Israelis sharp. It keeps them focused. It has also forged a pragmatism, a resourcefulness, and a disdain for hierarchy and protocol. They do whatever it takes to find workable answers to impossible problems, and they've learned how to maximize limited resources to do it.

"The opening of the Advanced Technologies Park in Be'er Sheva will be remembered as the turning point in the development of the Negev." BGU President Rikva Carmi

With the ATP, BGU and the State of Israel are counting on the combination of that pragmatism with the collaboration of academia, industry, and the IDF to speed up the development of cybersecurity, fight the new frontiers of national security threats in the 21st century, and tap these developments to incubate commercial products to improve information security across the globe.

That's an aggressive mandate, but if it succeeds then it's destined to magnify the role that Israel's tech ecosystem is going to play on the global stage in the years ahead.

BGU president Carmi proclaimed, "The opening of the Advanced Technologies Park in Be'er Sheva will be remembered as the turning point in the development of the Negev. We have always been at the geographical heart of Israel. Now we are on our way to becoming the true center for innovation and growth."

The next Silicon Valley?

The vision for BGU's Advanced Technology Park came the school's former president, Avishay Braverman, who led BGU from 1990-2006 and before that served as a senior economist for the World Bank.

"My dream that Ben Gurion University will do for Be'er Sheva what Stanford University did for Silicon Valley begins," Braverman said in a pre-recorded message that was played at the ATP inauguration. The former economist, educator, and administrator is now a member of Israel's Knesset (legislature).

 To see more of Jason Hiner's photos from Israel, click the photo above. | Image: Jason Hiner

However, in order for BGU and the Negev to become the next Silicon Valley, it's still going to need two major factors to develop.

First, it will need an even larger infusion of venture capital. While Israel attracts the most venture capital per capita of any nation in the world and Israelis are remarkably resourceful, the ecosystem will still need more if it is going to play in the big leagues with Silicon Valley. The U.S. generates about $30 billion in VC investment annually. Israel generates about $2 billion.

Second, Israel in general and the Negev specifically are also going to need flagship technology brands to arise in Israel and become global anchors in their own right, rather than sell to American firms. It needs its own Google, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, or Amazon. Or more likely, it's going to need several of them, with headquarters in the Negev flanking the ATP.

Still, if you're looking for where the next Silicon Valley could coalesce, then Ben Gurion University of the Negev is one of the most important places to watch. The groundbreaking work they are doing in public-private partnerships, the cooperation with the Israeli Defense Forces, the sense of mission and destiny that Israelis have about the Negev, and the determination, urgency, and resourcefulness that have been created by Israel's 65-year existential crisis are creating an environment where technology, cybersecurity, and entrepreneurship are uniquely positioned to succeed.


Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.