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inniThere’s hi-tech, and then there’s high level hi-tech – and on that level, you find Israel’s fledgling nanotechnology industry. But the industry is not so fledgling that it isn’t eligible to host an international conference – which is going on this week in Tel Aviv. The conference, NanoIsrael 2010, is sponsored by  INNI (The Israel National Nano–technology Initiative), an umbrella group that keeps track of research, development, and commercial efforts in the field by Israeli companies and university research centers.

Nanotech, of course, is the science of manipulating small stuff – very small, like on the atomic and molecular scale. Squeezing molecules through a tiny channel in a cell to build a $10 DNA test – instead of the current model, which costs $10,000? Reducing pollutants from internal combustion engines to next to nothing? Giving food the taste and texture of a full measure of sugar and fat, while reducing calories to super-strict diet levels? Nanotech is all that, and more!

A variety of applications and products were on display at the conference, and included panels led by world-class scientists – like Professor Andre Geim, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics, as well as a number of Israeli researchers, like Professor Reshef Tenne of the Weizmann Institute,  best known for leading the group that discovered and studied the inorganic fullerene-like nanospheres and nanotubes, generally termed IF nanoparticles, considered a new class of nanomaterials.

According to INNI,  there are over 80 large and small companies working in Israel’s nanotech sector, along with over 40 academic and governmental labs, employing some 300 researchers and scholars.  Israel, according to the organization, has the third largest concentration of startup companies in the world, surpassed only by California’s Silicon Valley and the Boston technology corridor. An INNI survey shows that the Technion employs 119 nano-researchers, followed by 55 researchers at Tel Aviv University, 47 at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 43 at the Weizmann Institute of Science, 39 at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and 30 at Bar Ilan University.

Since 2002, the number of nano researchers in Israel has doubled, and the fruits of their labor were evident at the conference. Among the applications Israeli startups have developed using nanotech are water purification membranes, agents for oral drug delivery, inkjet digital printing systems, diagnostic tools, holographic storage systems – and something called an “e-beam on a chip,” something like a laser beam, to be used for semiconductor manufacturing.

At a press conference, Professor Geim praised Israel for its nano-work, and said that medical applications using nanotechnology – which many of the Israeli startups are working on – is the right “fit” for a country like Israel. “Israel’s not big enough for an Intel type of operation. I think medical research is a good fit for a country the size of Israel, and is an area where the county’s nano-research can prosper,” he said.

But like we said – nano-level hi-tech is hi-tech, and then some. The “get rich quick” model of internet application startup success just doesn’t apply in the nano-world; in order to even get into the game, you need top minds in physics, electronics, and medical applications. And Professor Geim, educated at one of the most prestigious science schools in the world – the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology – doubts that Western students today have the stomach to digest the scientific education he went through. “Let’s just say that if I were to give my students at the University of Manchester, where I now teach, the same tests I had to go through, it would be a complete disaster,” says Geim.

Unfortunately, that western aversion to challenging education has hit Israel, too – but unlike the U.S. and Europe, Israel can’t afford to lose its pool of up and coming scientists. “Unlike many other countries in the world – like Singapore, which invests billions in inviting foreign scientists to live and work there – Israel is not in a position to recruit scientists from other countries,” says Prof. Uri Sivan of the Technion, one of Israel’s leading nanotechnology experts. Of course, immigration and aliyah play a role – but the bottom line is that Israel is going to have to rely on its university graduates to lead the coming nanotechnology revolution.

But to graduate scientists who can operate at the level needed to develop this brave, new technology, you need students who are enthusiastic about the hard sciences – and, says Prof. Sivan, that type of student is not so easy to come by. “Fewer than 20% of students in Israeli high schools today study science, and the pool of university students who can excel in areas like physics is already small,” says  Sivan. “But we have an even bigger problem: In the coming few years, many of our science and technology professors will be retiring – and right now we don’t have sufficient personnel to replace them.” Why? “It goes way back in the chain, to the elementary and high schools. The cutbacks in education funding have hurt all disciplines, but they have hurt science the most Although some money was restored, it is a pittance compared to what was cut.” According to Sivan, there are fewer teachers in the Technion today, but more students – and that on all levels, “Israel has one of the worst student to teacher ratios of any country.”

A bit more optimistic is Professor Arie Zaban of Bar-Ilan University, one of the chairpeople of the conference (along with Nava Swersky-Sofer, former CEO of Yissum, and Dan Vilenski of INNI). “There’s no question we have work to do, but with a little more government investment, we can set things right.” For now, Zaban says, Israel has the brain power it needs to hit the heights of the nanotech revolution. “We have a lot of competition, especially from the ‘tigers’ of the Far East, like South Korea and Singapore.” But Israel has no choice but it invest to win, says Zaban – our hi-tech future is riding on nano-success.

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