Elite Military Schools Feed Israel's Tech Firms
- How Elite Military School Feeds Israel's Tech Firms
By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal.
After graduating from high school in 1993, Arik Czerniak entered a
secretive Israeli military program called Talpiot. The country's most
selective institution, it accepts 50 students a year and trains them
in physics, computers and other sciences. Its mission is to create
innovative, tech-savvy leaders capable of transforming Israel's military.
Upon graduating from the nine-year program, Mr. Czerniak took a
different route: He helped launch Metacafe Inc., an online company
that lets users post short videos, such as a clip of an acrobatic
squirrel and one of a bikini-clad woman making a snow-angel. Now 32
years old, Mr. Czerniak spends most of his time in the Israeli
company's new offices in Palo Alto, Calif.
Three decades after Talpiot was founded to modernize the Israeli army,
the program has created an unforeseen byproduct -- a legion of
entrepreneurs that has helped turn Israel into a technology juggernaut.
With fewer than seven million inhabitants, Israel has more companies
listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange than any country except the U.S.
Its start-ups attracted nearly $2 billion in venture capital over the
past two years, equal to the amount raised during that time in the
much larger United Kingdom. Israeli companies pioneered instant
messaging and Internet phoning.
Mr. Czerniak and other Talpions, as graduates are called, have started
dozens of these companies in recent years, specializing in security
equipment, encryption software, communications and high-end Internet
hardware. Many, like Mr. Czerniak, have moved to Silicon Valley.
The Talpiot program's symbol
But the results have prompted concern about whether government
resources should go toward minting tech millionaires. In its goal of
creating a new generation of military leaders, critics say, the
program has fallen short. Graduates and Talpiot officials say fewer
than a dozen Talpions in recent memory have gone on to attain senior
ranks in the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF wouldn't disclose the
number of Talpions in top positions.
Some early supporters of the program are now asking whether the
military, rather than a university, is the best way to nourish some of
the country's brightest minds -- something they say a small country
surrounded by enemies can ill-afford to waste. They also acknowledge
that the booming tech sector Talpiot helped create, with its big
paychecks, could work against the program's goal of retaining
graduates in the military. The questions arise as Israel's military
leadership comes under broader scrutiny for last summer's stalemate
against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"The successful high-tech industry is a problem for the military,"
says Zohar Zisapel, 58, considered a father of Israel's technology
industry. Mr. Zisapel's Tel Aviv-based RAD Group has launched 28 tech
start-ups over the years, six of them listed on Nasdaq. "It provides
opportunities for Talpions the military cannot match," he says.
Israel's military says it has been more successful than it expected at
retaining program graduates. "We think it's excellent these people who
carried out important jobs in the army later move on to contribute to
the development of the high-tech sector in Israel," the IDF said in a
Unlike Talpiot's sometimes highflying graduates, the program itself
operates mostly out of view. During a rare recent visit to the
classified program, housed on the Hebrew University campus here,
officials would not disclose the work done during the military phase
of the program and identified cadets only by their first initials.
Though the cadets, who include a handful of females in each class,
spend most of their days together, they do share some classes with
other students on campus.
Talpiot's roots lie in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Syria and Egypt
launched attacks on contested lands held by Israel. The conflict
shattered confidence within Israel in its military prowess.
"It was the anguish of this surprise war -- there were so many
casualties," says Shaul Yatsiv, a retired professor of physics at
Hebrew University, who with another physics professor proposed the
idea for Talpiot. Mr. Yatsiv, along with some in the defense
community, argued that given Israel's scant manpower and limited
natural resources, its military needed a technological edge.
Many in the military opposed the idea, arguing that the country's
young talent could be put to more immediate use as pilots and
After several years of debate, the military leadership agreed to
launch Talpiot, drawing the name from a Hebrew word loosely meaning a
well-built structure. Hebrew University agreed to host it. In 1979,
the first class of 25 cadets entered Talpiot. The class size was later
increased to 50.
Each year, the program selects the most promising high-school
graduates in science and submits them to three years of grueling
study, paid by the government, followed by six years of paid service
in the military. That's twice the normal military service required of
Israeli men. Women serve two years.
Instead of serving in combat units, Talpiot cadets are charged with
improving the armed services through technological innovation. Some of
the cadets delivered. Avi Loeb, who entered Talpiot in the
early-1980s, developed a way to make projectiles travel at more than
10 times existing speeds, propelled by electric rather than chemical
In 1984, Mr. Loeb, who was then 21, was asked to present his project
to a visiting U.S. military officer, who turned out to be the head of
President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile-defense
program known as Star Wars. Mr. Loeb says the officer, Lt. Gen. James
Abrahamson, agreed to provide U.S. government funding for the project,
which quickly grew to a group of about 30 people headed by Mr. Loeb.
Lt. Gen. Abrahamson, now retired from the military, didn't respond to
calls for comment.
Another Talpiot innovation came from Amir Beker, who turned down
medical school to attend the program. During his military service
under Talpiot in the late 1980s, Mr. Beker learned that Israeli
helicopter pilots were suffering from severe back pain from vibrations
during flight. To build a better seat, he first had to determine how
to measure the effect of vibrations on the human vertebrae.
Together with a Talpiot classmate, Mr. Beker led a team that installed
a custom seat in a helicopter simulator, cutting a hole in its
backrest. Training a pen on a pilot's back, the team used a high-speed
camera to photograph the marks caused by a range of vibrations. The
researchers analyzed the computerized data to come up with a way to
redesign the seats.
In the program's early years, many Talpions went into academia or
stayed in the military. "We had no idea about tech start-ups then,"
Mr. Beker says. "Only the grand pursuit of helping our country."
Mr. Beker, now 42, earned a Ph.D. in physics after the program and
helped start a private college for financial studies in Tel Aviv. Mr.
Loeb, now 45, pursued postdoctoral studies in astrophysics at
Princeton University and is now a tenured professor of astronomy at
Talpions' pursuits began to change in the 1990s, as the global tech
boom got under way.
Israel began to develop its own start-up culture, in part by using tax
incentives to establish a local venture-capital industry. The country
also benefited from an infusion of talent from abroad, primarily from
the collapsing Soviet Union. Among more than one million Russian Jews
who arrived -- increasing the total population by one-fifth -- were
well-trained scientists and engineers.
By the current decade, U.S. cash began pouring in. In 1999, Sequoia
Capital, the Silicon Valley venture-capital firm that invested in
Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc., opened an office near Tel Aviv. It now has
five partners there managing close to $400 million in funds devoted to
Israeli start-ups. Venture-capital firm Accel Partners has directed
about 35% of its $500 million for Europe and the Middle East to
Israel, after opening a London office in 2000.
Today, the office parks in northern Tel Aviv and in nearby Herzliya --
housing lawyers, venture-capital firms and start-ups -- evoke the
atmosphere of U.S. tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Boston's Route
128, even down to the coffee shops where deals are done. Some call the
area Silicon Wadi, after the Hebrew word for a dried-up stream bed.
"Taking risks, realizing it's OK to fail once or twice, wanting to
strike out on your own and make something happen -- that is very hard
to replicate," says Moshe Mor, a partner with Greylock Partners, a
Walthan, Mass.-based venture-capital group with an office in Israel.
"Those attitudes are very prevalent in Silicon Valley and Israel."
About 30 Talpiot graduates return every year to run a two-day test to
select the next class from a group of about 100 applicants. That
number is winnowed down from the several thousand top scorers on a
test taken each year by all of the country's graduating high-school
During a blustery winter afternoon in a drab, four-story stone
building where Talpiot's 150 cadets reside on the Hebrew University
campus, the two-day selection test was taking place. Talpions ran one
exercise by dividing applicants into groups of 10 in different
classrooms. A psychologist who helped design the exercises moved
silently among the groups.
Uzi Eilam, a retired brigadier general who fought under Ariel Sharon
during the Six-Day War in 1967, gives a tour of battle sites around
Jerusalem to first-year Talpiot cadets.
In one classroom, the 10 applicants, wearing blue T-shirts with the
program's winged symbol emblazoned on the back, were given several
minutes to complete a task. Without warning, a Talpion said they had
less time than they had been promised. At other times, they were told
suddenly to switch roles.
"We need to move on! We need to move on!" one candidate shouted to the
other group members. After more minutes passed, a Talpion stopped the
exercise. The allotted period had already expired, and he wanted to
know why they hadn't kept track of the time. The idea was not whether
they got the right answer, but how they tried to find it -- testing
for creativity, leadership and social skills.
Final applicants appear before a panel of judges -- professors,
military leaders and other officials -- who ask for explanations on
things like the theory of relativity and how solar heating works.
Missiles in Haifa
Some of those selected by Talpiot say the biggest challenge is
realizing they will devote their military service to research, not
fighting. During Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer,
missiles rained down on the northern part of the country, reaching as
far as 30 miles inside the country to cities including Haifa. Cadets
say it forced friends and family in the area to abandon their homes.
"All of our friends were fighting in the war, and we were here
studying for exams," a lanky third-year Talpiot cadet said one
evening, sitting in his dorm room. Posters of rock bands and the
Kramer character from "Seinfeld" covered the walls. "I felt ashamed
that I couldn't do anything." Another in the room, with a neatly
trimmed dark beard, said he has to convince himself that the "changes
we are making are far bigger than anything we could do in a combat unit."
Over dinner in the building's simple cafeteria, cadets lamented that
soldiers, in particular fighter pilots, are far more popular with
girls than "computer geeks." But they think that is beginning to
change as tales of technology IPOs become more common.
The commander of Talpiot, Maj. Roy Shefer, says he tries to counter
the trend toward the high-tech world by instilling in the cadets a
sense of obligation to country. He recently took the first-year class
on a tour of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland.
"We view them as a national resource, and we want to determine how
they can best contribute to the state," says Maj. Shefer, a
28-year-old with thick-framed glasses. He acknowledges, however, that
the private sector's pull is difficult to resist. He sometimes
questions whether the country, and in particular the military,
benefits as much as it should from the program. "Some commanders have
tanks," he said. He nodded toward photo identifications of the 150
Talpiot cadets, attached to a whiteboard on the wall next to his desk.
"I have them."
Talpiot co-founder Prof. Yatsiv says he's having second thoughts about
the program. There's no evidence that cadets couldn't receive better
training elsewhere, he says. "No one knows if we developed
resourcefulness -- or if such things just grow naturally in people,"
he says. He doesn't mind that graduates are getting wealthy, but says
that if they aren't working in the country, "Israeli money should not
be invested in them."
Aharon Beth-Halachmi, who helped create Talpiot as the brigadier
general in charge of the military's research and development arm in
the 1970s, says the Talpiot approach is necessary in a small country.
"What we are showing is that you don't need a lot of people for
breakthroughs, just the right people," he says. Today he runs his own
venture-capital firm from offices next to a seaside hotel his company
owns in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Czerniak of Metacafe suggests the military could retain Talpions
by managing their careers more carefully. Mr. Czerniak and his class
were trained in paratrooping, operating armored tanks and firing a
variety of weaponry, and he realized a childhood dream by becoming a
He considered working on a multimillion-dollar flight-radar project,
but he says a superior made him a flight instructor instead. The
military "didn't always step back and look at the big picture," he
says. The IDF says it places a priority on using Talpions to their
After completing his service in July 2003, Mr. Czerniak was recruited
to help launch Metacafe, first in the basement of his grandmother's
house near Tel Aviv, then in a loft and now in an entire floor in a
large office building in downtown Tel Aviv. During one afternoon,
employees dressed in jeans and T-shirts, most in their 20s and 30s,
moved about desks made of light wood and separated by glass walls.
Mr. Czerniak, who last November opened the company's Palo Alto office,
has tapped his Talpiot network for new recruits. A year ago Mr.
Czerniak hired Ido Safruti, a Talpion who finished the program last
July, to run the Tel Aviv office. Talpiot is "a very aggressive,
extremely competitive, stressful environment," says Mr. Czerniak.
"This is why we hire from there -- it's a stamp of approval."
Mr. Beker, who developed the helicopter seat, has gotten the start-up
bug as well. Three years ago he began working full-time on a new
company, Biological Signal Processing Ltd., that has developed
software he says can test for heart disease at one-tenth the price of
prevailing methods. After listing on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange last
year, the company opened a sales and marketing office in Rockville, Md.
The company's head of research and development is also a Talpion.
Though most graduates aren't involved in defending Israel, Mr. Beker
acknowledges, their role in the country's economy is just as important
to Israel's survival. "What we are doing is generating new ideas and
solutions," he says. "That is very difficult to wipe out in a war."
Email your comments to sjeditor @ dowjones.com.
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