Known for chemistry, Israeli Nobel laureate also champions tech entrepreneurship

Click photo to download. Caption: On Oct. 19, 2014, Israeli Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Dan Shechtman is pictured in the lobby of the Hilton Orrington/Evanston hotel near Chicago, where he met for an interview with JNS.org. Credit: Alina Dain Sharon.

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org

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 is giving 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.

Click photo to download. Caption: Dan Shechtman (far left) discusses his groundbreaking discovery of quasicrystals with collaborators at the Maryland-based National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1985. Credit: Phillip Westcott, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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.

The discovery “created a revolution in our understanding of the structure of matter,” Shechtman said. “It created a paradigm shift in crystallography,” he said, so much so that eventually the International Union of Crystallography changed its definition of crystals. The practical applications for the finding involve the creation of extremely strong steel, which is especially beneficial when it comes in contact with the human body, including in electric shavers and surgical instruments.

But acceptance of Shechtman’s discovery did not come easily. For many years the scientific community treated the finding with great skepticism, and often hostility. At one point, Shechtman was asked to leave a research group because his insistence that his discovery was real was thought to reflect badly on the group.

The chief opponent of the idea that a quasicrystal can exist was Lynus Pauling, who was arguably “the greatest chemist of the 20th century,” Shechtman said. After Pauling died, Shechtman’s idea gradually gained more acceptance, and in 2011 Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery.

More recently, in addition to continuing his work with the Technion course on technological entrepreneurship, Shechtman has hosted a children’s science program on Israeli state-owned television, called “Being a Scientist with Professor Dan” (as translated from Hebrew). In each episode, Shechtman conducts science experiments with a group of first-grade children.

Click photo to download. Caption: Dan Shechtman. Credit: Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

Influencing the improvement of science education, and Israeli education in general, was one of Shechtman’s chief goals when he decided to present his candidacy for Israeli president earlier this year.

Despite meeting or speaking with about 90 of the 120 Israeli Knesset members who voted in the presidential election, Shechtman only received one Knesset vote. Reuven Rivlin  won the race and replaced the retiring Shimon Peres.

“I didn’t want to go into politics. I wanted to become the president of Israel. I thought that the president should be disconnected from politics. This is of course not what happened,” Shechtman said.

“I wanted to influence the education system in Israel… I also thought I could represent Israel very well abroad,” he said, adding that “politics and science are so far apart. Science is objective. It may take longer, but the truth is accepted.”

Yet Shechtman does see scientific work as quasi-ambassadorial.

“I think that what we should do [in academia] is show the positive Israel, the democracy, the good healthcare, the high education, scientific achievements… innovations [and] inventions that help the world,” he said. 

This is particularly important given the current wave of anti-Israel sentiment around the world, sentiment that is not based on real knowledge, Shechtman said.

“It’s based on feelings and stories. … The fact that we can protect ourselves better against the shelling of cities doesn’t make us bad guys,” he said, referencing the summer war between Israel and Hamas.

The media is prone to exaggeration, giving viewers “the small picture” but “presenting it as the big picture,” according to Shechtman.

“Why is television called a medium?” he asked rhetorically, before answering, “Because it is neither rare nor is it well-done.”

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Posted on October 20, 2014 and filed under Features, Israel.