Thanks to the recent expansion in flight routes from Cluj, I can now take a 15 minute drive to the local airport, then get on a plane to virtually anywhere in Europe or the Middle East, and arrive there that same day in time for a meeting. On my recent visit to Israel I had the chance to meet some remarkable people: a Nobel laureate of great renown and a famed venture capitalist who is also a social activist.
I first met Dan Shechtman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry three years ago, at the Israel Institute of Technology. Professor Shechtman has been organizing an open course on entrepreneurship, exposing students to the concept and practice of starting their own business, and inviting local businessmen who started from zero and went to become leaders in their respective industries to tell their stories.
His own story is a curious one, he first discovered what is now known as "quasi-crystals" in 1982, but nobody thought it was serious. Every scientist, from Shechtman"s own research to the prominent two-times Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, who was quoted referring to Shectman, saying: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."
Shectman kept believing in his discovery regardless of the opposition, and his work is an example of empirical self confidence and perseverance. Almost thirty years later, he managed to prove his critics wrong and win the Nobel prize. He has since been constantly on speaking tours across the world, and his schedule is filled for a long time in advance. When I asked him to come and speak in Romania, he could only offer dates in 2016.
I met Erel Margalit last month in a startup event. He was talking about his initiatives, as a recently elected member of parliament, to empower less fortunate communities in Israel. Margalit is better known through his successful venture capital firm Jerusalem Venture Partners, which managed over $1B in investments turning them into $17B, boasting some of the most memorable exits in Israel"s startup history, such as QlikTech, XtremIO, CyOptics, Netro Corp, Chromatis, Precise and Cogent.
Part of the money he earned from investments in technology, Margalit channels to social and cultural projects in Jerusalem, focusing on rough neighborhoods and poor families. He has also opened a performance club and a startup incubator next to it, stating that these IT professionals need to be connected to musicians and artists from other disciplines in order for them to be creative. Margalit says that Jerusalem should attract young people by offering high tech jobs, startup funding, cultural life and
Margalit says he is passionate about finding where people and communities excel, and building a cluster around a certain industry where they have a chance to compete globally. When he was in his late twenties, he met with the Mayor of Jerusalem and suggested to position the history-rich but economically poor town as a high-technology center, and invite international players to build their R&D centers in Jerusalem. He is now doing the same for the less known desert city of Be"er Sheva. The idea is to make it a global capital for cyber-security, attracting the likes of Deutsche Telekom, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Orcale and EMC, who will invest, together with JVP and the Ben Gurion University in Be"er Sheva"s "Cyber Spark".
Be"er Sheva happens to be a sister city of Cluj-Napoca. It is the seventh largest city in Israel, with just about 200,000 residents, and with more than 20,000 university students, many of them attracted from other parts of the country. For many years, the city was neglected and left out of national development budgets, young people moved to Tel Aviv and never came back, and the population became increasingly older and poorer. But in recent years Be"er Sheva managed to gain renewed interest, thanks in part to a new dynamic mayor and a vibrant university campus. The city was recently connected to Tel Aviv, which is 113km away, by a fast train which takes less than an hour, and allowing more exchange of ideas and human capital between the center and the periphery.
Back in Cluj, I can hardly avoid drawing a comparison between the two sister cities. For one, finding a theme where the IT community in Cluj could innovate and compete globally, attracting international players as partners and investors, would make the city attractive to its residents and to other Romanians and internationals. Secondly, I would love to be able to get from Cluj to Bucharest in a reasonable time, either on a super-fast train, a good highway or a low cost airline. Making travel accessible and affordable will allow people to go for meetings in the capital in the morning, perhaps see a concert in the evening and get back home that same night. It will also bring more people and ideas from Bucharest, to the benefit of both cities.
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