A Zionist pioneer from his childhood until his final days, Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion was the Jewish state’s leading visionary. After retiring from public life in 1970, he moved to a small home at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, setting a personal example to advance his vision of making “the desert bloom.”
Ben-Gurion, whose tenacious character defied his diminutive stature, famously believed the “creativity and pioneering vigor of Israel shall be tested” in the Negev. Yet few, even the white-haired leader, would have envisioned the current emergence of the Negev as a hub of cutting-edge cybersecurity development, artificial intelligence and defense innovation.
Beersheba, the peripheral city often referred to as the “capital of the Negev,” has long sought to shake off its reputation as a dusty home to blue-collar workers. More recently, Ben-Gurion’s decades-old dream has been rapidly advanced by teams located in the city, ranging from municipal leaders to multinational companies, Jewish National Fund-USA, and the Israel Defense Forces.
“My vision is that the city of Beersheba will become an incubator for dreamers from all over the world and will be an international anchor for start-ups and technological developments creating the future,” Beersheba mayor Rubik Danilovich, first elected to head the municipality in 2008, told The Jerusalem Post.
“With the help of human capital and the concentration of technology in one place, the city is becoming a central player in the international field. From the heart of the desert, we are becoming the center of the world.”
Danilovich’s ambition has been key to Beersheba’s rise in recent years, concreting its place as Israel’s latest technological and start-up hub far from the crowded high-rise towers of Tel Aviv and nearby Herzliya.
At the heart of the city’s lofty ambitions is a series of critical ingredients for hi-tech success – a combination of government support, multinational corporate investment, academia and medicine.
Disembarking at Beersheba-North train station, visitors to the city are now met by a sprawling campus connecting Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Soroka University Medical Center and the rapidly-expanding Gav-Yam Negev Advanced Technologies Park. A large plot of empty land nearby will soon be populated by the IDF’s expansive new telecommunications base, home to the military’s elite tech units.
“Ben-Gurion moved to the Negev region when he retired from office and expected the country to follow him, but it didn’t really happen as he hoped. Now, 60 years later, it’s finally happening,” said Roy Zwebner, chief executive of the Gav-Yam park, standing on a balcony overlooking the expanding project.
“We have 20,000 students at the campus of Ben-Gurion University, one of the leading universities in Israel, on one side of the park, and 7,000 tech experts will soon be doing their national service on the other side of the park. In the middle, we have the industry.”
Leading Israeli and international companies have already filled the three completed buildings at the hi-tech park, with construction of the fourth building underway and the fifth building permit already approved. Dell EMC, IBM, Mellanox and Deutsche Telecom are only some of 70 companies populating the park, employing over 2,500 engineers and hi-tech personnel.
As a stamp of approval of Beersheba’s rising status, the Israel National Cyber Directorate chose the Negev city as the location of its Computer Emergency Response Center, tasked with handling civil cyber defense capabilities, and CyberSpark, Israel’s first government-backed cyber innovation hub.
When complete, approximately a decade from now, the park will offer 200,000 square-meters of office space spanning across 15 buildings. A hotel and large conference center are also being developed adjacent to the park.
“Once finished, more than 40,000 people will all be here, dealing with advanced R&D in different technologies, all living and working together in close proximity. In the middle, the train station – a direct link to central Israel and its hi-tech sector,” said Zwebner.
“We develop the buildings but understand that it is not enough. We want to reduce the challenges that companies and potential employees face when coming to Beersheba,” he said, citing initiatives including assistance with employee recruitment, connecting companies to researchers at the university, and building a gym and retail space. Plans are also underway to build a daycare center for employees with children.
Danilovich cited a study conducted in 2015 by Brandeis University, which named Beersheba as one of the seven leading hi-tech cities of the future worldwide.
“The campus of knowledge in Beersheba, which includes the hi-tech park with advanced tech companies that are rich with knowledge, the national cyber center, a center of innovation and a start-up community, is of dramatic importance in turning the capital of the Negev into an international center of knowledge,” said Danilovich, serving as a magnet to attract human capital and companies from across the world.
EMC Corporation became the first multinational company to open an R&D center at the hi-tech park in 2011, and remained there following the company’s $67 billion acquisition by IT giant Dell Technologies in 2016. Entering the company’s Beersheba office, visitors are greeted by a photo of a caravan of camels strolling in front of the first building at the park, shortly after moving in.
“The decision to build a site in Beersheba from scratch, taken at the time by the company’s management in Israel and the United States, was considered then as courageous and even Zionist,” said Maya Hofman Levy, Dell EMC’s Beersheba site leader. “The duty of proof has been and still remains with us, and we are working to persevere and succeed via the recruitment of excellent engineers, whose work is of strategic importance to the company.”
Dell EMC is currently the largest employer at the hi-tech park and the company’s growth in recent years has been supported by recruiting employees from Ben-Gurion University and the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering. While many employees opt to stay in the city after concluding their studies, Levy said, others return to the city after building a career in central Israel.
“[They return] because they were given the opportunity to work in technological innovation closer to their place of residence, thereby preserving their work-life balance,” said Levy, adding that approximately 30% of employees had relocated to the city from elsewhere, many attracted by enhanced financial opportunity for young families.
Despite the positive reputation gained by the hi-tech park in recent years, Levy cautions that the new hub is still far from realizing its potential. The relocation of IDF intelligence units, for example, “have been delayed for too many years.”
Israeli web-publishing platform Wix.com has repeatedly outgrown and been required to move offices since arriving at the hi-tech park in 2015. The Tel Aviv-headquartered company, one of Israel’s best-known hi-tech success stories, currently employs 80 workers at the Beersheba hub, with the vast majority living nearby.
“I believe there were a few motivations to set up this site in Beersheba – one was simply a Zionist goal, to be part of building the hi-tech community here in the southern region of the country,” said Koby Maman, a Ben-Gurion University graduate who now leads R&D for Wix Bookings at Wix.com.
“The second was also very simple – for the benefit of Wix,” said Maman, who worked in Herzliya for nine years before returning to the city where he studied. “The company has been growing tremendously in the past years and the growth engine of Wix is engineering. In order to do that, we need engineers and very good engineers. There is a very good source of talent here that we can draw into the park.”
Recognizing that young graduates are likely to be attracted by the reputation of Tel Aviv’s hi-tech scene, Maman believes Beersheba can do more to compete with its central Israeli counterpart.
“There are many benefits over here – lower cost of living, housing and a lack of traffic. It can suit many people who studied and liked the community here, and they stay here for very good jobs,” Maman added.
“What I would like to see and what needs to happen here is that the big companies can grow a community of start-ups. There are many people like me who were traveling to Herzliya and Tel Aviv for years. I have been on the road for a while. Now they have the opportunity to do it here.”
Ben-Gurion University has played a key role in the development of the emerging Beersheba tech hub, representing far more than just a pipeline of academic talent. The world’s premier innovation districts, whether in Boston or Barcelona, are found in locations with strong universities and hospitals.
Prof. Dan Blumberg, vice-president for regional and industrial development at the university, has played an integral role in building partnerships with hi-tech firms arriving in Beersheba and coordinating the long-awaited move of the IDF to the region. Through its research staff and students, Ben-Gurion University has joint projects with nearly every company at the hi-tech park.
“Theoretically, Israel could have decided to be another Singapore with everything concentrated in one place – Tel Aviv can grow and traffic jams will get even worse,” Blumberg told the Post. “I don’t think that is where we want to be or what the country wants to look like. The issue of geographic spread has been an issue since the country was established.”
Ultimately, Blumberg says, Ben-Gurion University’s commitment to the development of Beersheba is not a matter of rivaling the thriving start-up ecosystem in Tel Aviv. Rather, their commitment is derived from a determination to build a new economy in the Negev region.
“Ben-Gurion University was established with an original mandate to bring the academic population to an underdeveloped part of the country. It is in our DNA to be attuned to the social and economic needs of society,” said Blumberg.
“We are not competing with Tel Aviv, but we’re building another place to build a society, and a healthy society. Beersheba started as a city of chemical industries and hard labor and is becoming a 21st-century economy.”