Shalom Life | October 22, 2014

Known for Chemistry, Israeli Nobel Laureate Also Champions Tech Entrepreneurship

Dan Shechtman, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a candidate in last June’s Israeli presidential election, has long championed technological entrepreneurship and its potential to improve lives around the world

By: Alina Dain Sharon, JNS.org

Published: October 20th, 2014 in Business » Israel

CHICAGO—Dan Shechtman, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a candidate in last June’s Israeli presidential election, has long championed technological entrepreneurship and its potential to improve lives around the world.

“In our world today, in the economic situation today, there are many disenchanted people because they can’t find a job,” Shechtman told JNS.org in an exclusive interview ahead of his latest technological entrepreneurship lecture, which came Oct. 20 at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science in the Chicago area.

On Oct. 21, Shechtman gave a second, more scientific lecture about his Nobel Prize-winning research on quasi-periodic crystals.

“People need to think with an entrepreneurial mind,” he said.

Twenty-seven years ago, Shechtman founded a course on technological entrepreneurship at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. To date, about 10,000 engineers have taken the class. Many of the course’s graduates went on to launch start-up ventures in Israel, a country that has developed a reputation for being the “start-up nation.”

“Somehow, the Israeli character is susceptible to thinking [of] innovation,” Shechtman said.

More specifically, Israelis tend to lack a fear of failure when compared with natives of other countries.

“I see that [when] I visit many countries,” said Shechtman. “I say failure is OK, start again.”

Entrepreneurship is particularly important because people need to think about caring for themselves, not relying on governments to provide jobs—but governments can provide “economic conditions that can foster start-ups,” according to Shechtman.

For instance, a government can encourage venture capital funds or other financial entities to invest in local start-ups. Over time, the Israeli government has committed to taking on part of the investment burden by inviting foreign entities to invest locally, mainly in high-tech start-ups. That move “brought a lot of money” to Israel and “created a major, major difference,” Shechtman said.

In addition, governments can open advice centers to budding entrepreneurs and business incubators that provide training, other assistance, and shared resources to emerging start-ups.

Private ventures can also help. In Israel, a company called RAD—founded by brothers Yehuda and Zohar Zisapel—invests in start-ups, offering workspace and funds to innovators. If the project is successful, the innovators open their own companies, becoming co-owners with RAD. This “creates a network of companies” that grows and turns profits, enabling them to make further investments and innovate more, Shechtman explained.

But when it comes to “intrapreneurship”—innovation that takes place in the context of a larger company, rather than independently—the process can be stifled. Scientists take an idea to their immediate supervisors, who in turn will take the idea to their own supervisors and present it as their team’s idea, and so on and so forth. The idea goes up the chain of command, but by the time it gets to the top it is out of the hands of the best scientists, said Shechtman, who argued that the bottom rungs on chains of command need access to the top in every organization in order for intrapreneurship to thrive.

In the 1980s, the Tel Aviv-born Shechtman discovered the quasi-periodic crystal, or a quasicrystal in short. During 70 years of crystallography research up to that point, scientists believed that crystals were always composed of atoms arranged in a repeating and orderly pattern. Other non-repeating patterns were thought to exist only on manmade structures, such as in the mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain, but not in nature. The atoms in the crystal Shechtman discovered, however, had an orderly pattern that did not repeat.

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