The Bengis centre for Entrepreneurship and Hi-Tech at Ben-Gurion University was set up to equip Israel’s southern region with the business acumen and technological prowess, currently concentrated in Tel Aviv.
But the centre, established in 2000, has struggled to disassociate itself from its founder, South African businessman Arnold Bengis.
Ever since Bengis, a fishing magnate, was sentenced to 46 months in prison and fined $5.9 million in 2004 for illegally over-harvesting fish in South Africa and illegally importing into the United States, the centre has had to defend its co-founder.
Professor Amos Drory, the centre’s chief executive, says the conviction should not detract from Bengis’s support for Israeli entrepreneurship.
“The man was tried and punished — that’s the end of the story,” says Prof Drory. “Many business people find themselves in trouble with the law.
“As far as we are concerned it’s over.”
The centre, based in the under-developed Negev, is revitalising the local economy by encouraging students to move to the region.
Prof Drory says the centre is targeting army graduates, as “the engineers and developers, who complete their service in these units, are the backbone of Israel’s start-up nation.”
But Professor Dafna Schwartz , co-director, says many need to be taught how to become team-players and not just “better employees”.
Prof Schwartz, an economist and Teva pharmaceutical board member, says: “In order to be competitive you need to be entrepreneurial and innovative in everything.
“Most start-ups are a team initiative.”
The centre — which has been backed by Israeli Yossi Vardi, the world renowned investor behind at least 40 start-ups — will launch its fourth innovation conference next month, in a bid to showcase student projects and share success stories.
Its programmes, specialising in bespoke projects from women to young entrepreneurs have been widely hailed.
However, Prof Drory admits that the region is well-behind Tel Aviv when it comes to launching new enterprises.
He says: “The Negev makes up 60 per cent of Israel’s land mass but only 10 to 12 per cent of the population live here.
“This [population concentration] is not healthy — not in terms of security, environmental impact or anything else.
“With all the new changes taking place, Beersheva will take its place alongside Tel Aviv, Haifa and Herziliya as one of the leading high-tech centres of Israel,” he adds.