Does Jerusalem Have What It Takes to Build A Life Sciences Cluster?

11/27/12

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train many computer scientists and data wizards every year at a new technology campus on Roosevelt Island.

Even places where both capacities exist can fail if they are not linked—the two capacities are multipliers, not additive. Singapore has made massive investments in R&D and has a strong entrepreneurial community, but the two are not as linked as they need to be to have real impact. Likewise, London is working to determine how to connect its burgeoning entrepreneurial community to its innovators—engineers, computer scientists, and other creative “types”—in an attempt to make London a special place for digital media startups.

In Israel’s information and computer technology cluster, the linkages that tie entrepreneurs to the deep community of technical expertise is particular. Military service, as Mayor Barkat noted, throws young people together in a formative experience that not only links them across disciplines but does so in a way that builds team skills and an appreciation for the need for different skills in solving complex problems. At the same time, these future entrepreneurs and innovators also learn about the critical needs of the military and so become sophisticated in understanding “customer needs.”

Unfortunately, the military is less likely to provide the linkages that will weave the life science community together. Medical researchers and life scientists are less integrated into the entrepreneurial community; universities are not always as effective as they should at moving life science technologies across boundaries. Indeed, I vividly recall a presentation I made to the MIT Enterprise Forum in Tel Aviv about different models of bringing entrepreneurs and innovators together and the role of the technology transfer office. At the end of my remarks, a successful entrepreneur was deeply critical of the approach taken by Israel’s universities, arguing that they overreach in their licensing deal terms in a way that limits the incentives for innovators and entrepreneurs to work together. Solving this problem will be essential to the Mayor’s project.

In desiring a life science cluster, Jerusalem is not alone: At least 48 of the 50 states in America have a plan for one. So do Scotland, Andalucia, Australia, South Africa, and many other regions and cities around the world. Is there something Mayor Barkat can do to make success more likely? One idea comes to mind: What if the city can build on its existing capacities—entrepreneurial and innovation—in information technology and the existing linkages in that cluster and move to an adjacent opportunity such as health IT? Consumer health startups leverage expertise in hardware, big data and software as well as biology and medicine. Entrepreneurs and investors from information technology are migrating into health IT. Entrepreneurs without deep links to the pharma sector can play and build capacity at a younger age. And the capital requirements are more limited. Israel has a tremendous health care infrastructure. Building and linking innovation and entrepreneurial capacity to leverage it for growth could be transformative.

Mayor Barkat’s approach makes sense. It is in many ways consistent with the message we teach in through the Regional Entrepreneurial Acceleration Program at MIT, which emphasizes the multiplier effect of linking entrepreneurial capacity with innovation capacity in key areas of potential strength. Moving beyond a traditional view of life sciences to emphasize health IT could make it even stronger. At this time his vision is a welcome one and is surely an experiment worth running, since increasing prosperity and jobs is one of the surest ways out of the conflict in the Middle East today.

Fiona Murray is the Alvin J. Siteman (1948) Professor Entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Associate Dean of Innovation and Co-Director of MIT’s Innovation Initiative. She can be reached at fmurray@mit.edu. Follow @

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  • Michael K

    Interesting article, although you probably should factor some of the political issues into the equation. Many of the entriprenuers in the area are Arab, but the opportunities for such people, whether Muslim or Christian, are very limited. There is an inability to access capital, the inability to rent space or to expand existing areas. Coupled with the settlement activity and the 45 year occupation, that has led many organizations to begin calling for a South Africa-style boycott and divestment of businesses from the country, and investors and partners may be very hesitant to participate.