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June 18, 2019

Start-up strategies unite FGCU with Israeli university

Schools team up in historic pact to make strides in entrepreneurial studies

As Dr. Sandra Kauanui stood on Israeli ground and gave a two-minute speech in front of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 100-person Florida delegation, dignitaries from Israel and officials from Tel Aviv University, she couldn’t help but think that she had come full circle.

The trip to Israel heralded the May 28 announcement that FGCU had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Tel Aviv University (TAU), Israel’s largest public research university, to cooperate on growing both schools’ entrepreneurial studies — part of an historic eight MOU signings involving five other Florida universities and one Florida college.

Kauanui, a professor of entrepreneurship and management at FGCU since 2007, had applied her unbridled passion to become the driving force behind the formation and management of the Institute of Entrepreneurship and the establishment of one of the nation’s few interdisciplinary entrepreneurship degree programs.

And there she stood — on the soil of a country that earned the nickname “Start-Up Nation” as the result of a 2009 book by the same name that immortalized the Israelis’ dramatic rise to entrepreneurial kingpin, with more high-tech start-up companies and a larger venture capital industry per capita today than any country in the world, according to The Economist magazine.

Picture shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with FGCU Professor Sandra Kauanui.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with FGCU Professor Sandra Kauanui.

“Our entrepreneurship program at FGCU is a start-up program,” she says. “It’s something I started and helped build. It felt like it’s come full circle. In Israel, I was in a place where they survived and they built and they grew and they created a name for themselves.

“I truly believe that’s something we’re doing here at FGCU with our entrepreneurship program. We’re making a difference in our students’ lives and creating a name for ourselves. We have grown rapidly. We’re not a big university with a large amount of funding, and yet we’ve been able to do this.”

How did Israel become the “Start-up Nation of the World”? And why are start-up accelerators still swarming to Silicon Wadi (Hebrew for Silicon Valley) on the coastal plain of Israel, with Tel Aviv as the epicenter?

This is a 71-year-old country with just 8.7 million people, virtually no resources amid a topography that is more than 50% desert, a geographical position surrounded by enemies, a history of external and internal conflict and an inflation rate that hit 400% after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1983 Israel Bank Stock Crisis.

That’s part of the fascination for Kauanui and a powerful driver for her belief that this MOU will be life-changing for her students and FGCU as a whole.

“They’re a small country, and the potential for being attacked is great, so they came up with a way to protect themselves and shoot down the missiles,” she says. “They came up with a way to sap the algae out of the water in lakes. They created the first 3D heart that the scientist can print. Their artificial intelligence is amazing.

“Through the universities and research and all the things they’ve done, they recognized that if they were going to become economically sustainable, they needed to support entrepreneurship and innovation. Entrepreneurship is seeing the need and solving a problem. And that differentiates you from other people.

“They knew that in order to survive, they had to be a start-up and grow. They created a start-up nation, and they’ve done it with very little funds. That is the basis for a lean start-up. That’s what entrepreneurs do when they start businesses and grow them. They do it with shear tenacity, determination and passion.”

The MOU will match a rising entrepreneurship program at a fast-growing Florida university with a developing program in a country that is leading the way in innovation and TAU’s newly formed, nationally funded Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI).

“Israel is known for entrepreneurship and innovation,” Kauanui says. “We’re unique because we have an interdisciplinary degree at FGCU, and there aren’t many in the country that have it. Tel Aviv University probably has a more traditional program. It’s more of a business program than an interdisciplinary entrepreneurship program that allows students to incorporate courses from other disciplines in the arts, science, health or engineering. They’re just starting to develop their Center for Entrepreneurship, which we could help with.

“Our students are very entrepreneurial. They’re out there trying to create new business and ideas. I think they have lot of entrepreneurial knowledge, and if we can tie it together, it will be a win-win for both sides. Our students would learn from them and learn from some of their innovative ideas, and they might learn some things from our entrepreneurship programs and our students.”

Picture shows FGCU Professor Sandra Kauanui.
Dr. Sandra Kauanui signing a Memorandum of Understanding in Israel.

For FGCU, the path to partnership all started when Dr. Paul Snyder, senior associate provost and associate vice president for planning and institutional performance, learned that DeSantis was looking for universities to engage in joint relationships with Israeli universities.

“Governor DeSantis’ trade mission to Israel represented an opportunity to significantly increase FGCU’s and Florida’s international footprint. That is very much in line with the course President Martin has set for FGCU,” Snyder says. “Entrepreneurism is one of the five main themes of FGCU’s current strategic plan. It is also one of the emerging strengths of the university as it cuts across all disciplines. Matching the purpose of the trade mission with Professor Kauanui’s efforts just made perfect sense.”

Snyder assembled a proposal and Kauanui jumped on the opportunity. FGCU’s proposal was accepted by DeSantis, and Enterprise Florida set up the six-day mission in Israel.

The MOU covers five years and calls for the two universities to: cooperate in the exchange of scholarship plans of mutual interest; pursue faculty and student exchange programs; seek exchanges of cultural and artistic activities; and collaborate on cooperative research and hold joint academic seminars.

Points for potential traction include:

  • Veterans (FGCU has helped vets use their skills to become entrepreneurs, and Israel’s success has been largely due to the work of Israeli Defense Force veterans).
  • Accessible pools of venture capital (TAU Ventures).
  • Access to each other’s markets and intellectual capital.
  • International connections (TAU offers connections to East and South Asia, Europe and the Americas).

There will be joint projects and collaboration among students and faculty of FGCU and TAU; establishment of a venture capital pool, “shark-tank” competition and study abroad opportunities.

“We have some venture capitalists in our community, and they’re always looking for future investments,” Kauanui says. “I can see, through Naples accelerators, connecting some international businesses to our community. There are also potential investors who might be interested in investing in these businesses.”

FGCU wants to establish a relationship between its Institute of Entrepreneurship and TAU’s CEI. FGCU transitions to a School of Entrepreneurship on July 1, and aims to expand its footprint internationally as a key component in realizing the Board of Trustees’ Strategic Plan goal of eventually creating a College of Entrepreneurship to grow and support a more vibrant and diversified workforce and stimulate economic development for the region and the state.  The college will be established “when we get strong enough,” Kauanui says.

“I guarantee when they signed that Strategic Plan, they had no idea that we would grow as rapidly as we did,” she says. “We started with virtually no funding as a minor in 2014. We were the largest minor after a few years. Then they approved the major two years ago, and at the end of spring, we had 450 students in our major.

“The institute has been extremely active for the last four years, the minor was started four years ago and the major two years, so we’re a start-up. We’ve grown so large at this point that we really needed to become a school.”

These are exciting times for FGCU, and Kauanui believes that the Israeli collaboration won’t end with TAU.

“I talked with several other universities when I was over there, and they seem very interested in what we are doing in entrepreneurship,” she says, specifically mentioning Ben-Gurion University. “Maybe we could create a future partnership with them.

“It would be a great environment for our students to get involved in.  It’s a great experience for our students to see that Israel started from nothing and has built what they’ve built. You think of the entrepreneurial mindset. They’ve done it. It’s a great model for our students to understand. It’s not just about starting your own business. It’s about learning to problem-solve and evolve.”

About Tel Aviv University

  • Israel’s largest and most comprehensive institution of higher learning, with 30,000 students studying under nine faculties and over 125 schools and departments across sciences, humanities and the arts.
  • Consistently ranked in the top 20 in the world in terms of scientific citations and among the top 100 universities internationally.
  • 1 in research output among Israeli universities.
  • 1 in citation impact among Israeli universities.
  • 15 international study programs, with over 1,200 international students.
  • 130 research centers and institutes, with 3,500 research projects each year.
  • Alum Itamar Rabinovich was Israel’s Ambassador to the United States in the 1990s and former chief negotiator with Syria between 1993 and 1996.

— Tel Aviv University website