Archive for November, 2011

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               In honor of the 100 year anniversary of the laying of the Technion cornerstone, we are sharing the amazing stories of Technion innovators and leaders.

April 2012 marks 100 years since the laying of the Technion cornerstone. Caught up in Technion nostalgia, I cracked open historian Carl Alpert’s Technion: The Story of Israel’s Institute of Technology, and found an interesting reflection.

The piece was quoted by Arie Rosenfeld, a Technion alumnus who helped launch the digital printing giant Scitex, one of Israel’s first global start-ups.

Reminiscing and looking ahead simultaneously, Arie said: “when I graduated from the Technion in 1965, it didn’t have satellites, protein

Arie Rosenfeld

engineering, … supercomputer toolkits, active vision, eco-homes … membrane technology… medical imaging … cellular phones and phrases like cutting edge and state-of-the art.” The list went on for nine lines.  “But it had plenty of vision,” he added.

I tracked down the former Scitex CEO, to hear more about the days when Israel’s main export was oranges, and the Technion was still a fairly small school on top of a big hill.

“In my days at the Technion, we were using a central computer and slide rules,” says Arie. “No one had desktops or calculators. And of course there were no cell phones.” To put the era in context: Michael Dell, whose name is practically synonymous with personal computers, was born that year. The late Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc., whose birthday, oddly enough is the day after Dell’s, was just 10. And the Technion had not yet established five of its current departments, including those of Medicine and Computer Science.

A Hungarian immigrant, Arie moved to Israel when he was six. His parents, who did not speak a word of Hebrew, came with nothing – “just two kids and two suitcases,” he says. They moved to Kibbutz Kfar Szold in the Upper Galilee, but unaccustomed to communal living, soon moved to Acco, then Haifa.

After attending private high school in Haifa, Arie entered the Technion. “I don’t remember ever wanting to study anything but engineering.” The work was rigorous, the environment competitive, and most important “we were trained to take risks, to dare to think out of the box,” he says. “We came through the Six Day War, and before that we helped in building a nation. Everything was possible.”

Arie thought of studying aeronautics. But worried that his opportunities would be limited to a career in government or the Israel Air Force, he went into electrical engineering. “Now there are hundreds of companies to apply to. Then there were five or six. Most of my friends went to work for the Ministry of Defense.”

Graduating from the Technion, Arie served in the Ordnance Corps, where his main task was to update to western standards the Russian tanks that were captured from the Egyptians during the Six Day War. Finishing his service in 1968, he started looking for a job.

“I received good offers, big names,” including IBM. But he turned them down to join a four-person start-up, founded just three months earlier – Scitex. “I was already married and my family thought I was doing a stupid thing. But I liked the idea of starting something new. I was young, so if it didn’t work, I could always go back to IBM,” he says.

Arie’s first assignment at Scitex was to build a large tracking platform that would be used to mount cameras and telescopes photographing targets in the sky. “It was very challenging, very interesting.” The defense ministry gave Scitex two or three such projects, and the company gradually added engineers – most Technion grads. “This was how we got started.”

Soon however, the fledgling company realized they couldn’t depend on government work to turn a profit. “Sometimes they paid, sometimes they didn’t, and often they changed their specs midstream,” recounts Arie. Going after non-military work, they attracted jobs in imaging technologies – the first of which was designing patterns for knitting textiles. It was innovative and successful, and launched the group into printing fabric. “By the late 1970s, we moved into printing paper, and this is how Scitex became famous,” he says.

Producing products, systems and equipment for the graphics design, printing and publishing markets – which can all be done today on one’s desktop – Scitex is often hailed as Israel’s first high-tech company. “Every Jewish mother wanted her kids to work for Scitex,” Arie recalls.

At its peak, in early 1992, the company was worth close to $2 billion and so influential that following an announcement of weak earnings, Israel’s stock market dropped about 10 percent. “President Ezer Weizmann, called me up and said ‘do something about the market,’” Arie remembers. “What can I do? Scitex isn’t even traded in Israel, but on NASDAQ,” Arie told him. But Weizmann shot back, “it doesn’t matter. Just do something.’”

Arie went on to head up Scitex’s activities in Europe, and later in 1988, worldwide, and left the company in 1995. Since then, he has invested in start-ups and assisted half-a-dozen companies, taking them over at an early stage and turning them into viable businesses. He also mentors Technion graduates who are launching tech start-ups. Scitex has been sold in parts to Eastman Kodak and Hewlett-Packard.

He and his wife split their time between Brussels and Israel, where they have a son and grandson. Uniquely poised to compare entrepreneurship in Europe vs. Israel, he says: “Europeans are not trained to take risks. If they start a company and they fail, they can never start another one. In Israel, you can start, you can fail, you start again and nobody holds it against you. This is the mentality. And it is very good.”

— Jennifer Frey, American Technion Society

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