Singapore undergrads cut their teeth in Israel – land of start-ups and tech

The Straits Times spent a week in Israel with seven students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design. They were there for a four-month internship as part of the school's tie-up with Israeli companies and universities.
Singapore University of Technology and Design third-year student Eunice Lee with Tel Aviv start-up Pick a Pier co-founders and brothers Idan Cohen (centre) and Asaf Cohen.
Singapore University of Technology and Design third-year student Eunice Lee with Tel Aviv start-up Pick a Pier co-founders and brothers Idan Cohen (centre) and Asaf Cohen. ST PHOTO: AMELIA TENG

Just before a group of Singaporean students made their way to Israel in May, worry hung over their heads.

Rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip, hitting the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, where a few of the students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) were headed for an internship. No injury or death was reported, but news of the missile attacks made some of the students' families a little uneasy.

Still, with reassurance from the university, the seven students, aged 20 to 23, went ahead with the trip.

Prior to their departure, SUTD kept in touch with the International SOS and held briefings for the students on developments in Israel and drills in case of emergencies.

None of the students heard any rocket sirens in the four months they were there.

They were the first batch of SUTD students to experience first-hand work in Israel, dubbed the land of start-ups and technology.

The seven of them belonged to either the information systems technology and design, or engineering systems and design specialisations.

Split across two start-ups and a research lab, they spent the past four months learning what it takes to be entrepreneurs and exploring research in cyber security. Their work stint ended last month.

SUTD had earlier this year established partnerships with two renowned Israeli universities - IDC Herzliya in Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion University (BGU) in Beersheba - making it the fourth Singapore university to send students to Israel for work or an exchange programme.

IN THE LAND OF CYBER DEFENCE

Israel is known for its Iron Dome, a missile defence system, but it has also been developing its cyber-security technologies.

At the forefront of these efforts is the Cyber@BGU, a research lab that delves into all sorts of projects on cyber security, big data analytics and applied research across fields.

This was also where three Singaporean SUTD students had the chance to work in, thanks to Professor Yuval Elovici, who wears two hats as the head of two cyber-security labs, one at SUTD and the other at Cyber@BGU.

Prof Yuval said that Beersheba, about 100km away from Tel Aviv, was named as Israel's cyber capital, and the research lab is part of a larger high-tech park with large companies and start-ups.

By next year, about 4,000 tech experts will be working in the area, and eventually, this will grow to about 10,000, when the Israeli military moves its logistics, cyber-defence and technology units to the "smart campus".

  • More go abroad for internships

  • The Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) ramped up overseas work opportunities for students in the past two years.

    Overall demand to get work experience abroad has risen, with about 30 per cent more students going for overseas internships. This year, 103 students applied for 120 such positions, double the number of applicants last year.

    Eventually, 47 students took up internships in 14 countries abroad this year. Some had either declined the positions offered or gone for local internships.

    There is funding from SUTD and Enterprise Singapore for some internships abroad, and some companies and partners provide a small stipend, lodging, or meal and transport allowance.

    Israel is one of the newest destinations for SUTD, which is Singapore's fourth autonomous university.

    SUTD president Chong Tow Chong said the university's culture of entrepreneurship has made students more interested in start-ups.

    "This has prompted us to expand our network of partnerships with start-up companies worldwide," he said.

    Eligible students who go on a four-month internship stint in Israel receive a sum of $5,400 from the Young Talent Programme grant, which is co-funded by Enterprise Singapore and the university.

    The others, such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, have work programmes in Israel for their students, while the Singapore University of Social Sciences has shorter learning trips to the country.

    Amelia Teng

Third-year student Kevin Yee, 23, found it exciting to be in the heart of Beersheba. His junior, Mr Suhas Sahu, 22, worked on research to streamline huge chunks of data, and speed up detection of abnormalities in network traffic. The second-year student also started writing a research paper on the project for the lab.

For second-year student Sithanathan Bhuvaneswari, 20, her project was on the detection of tampered MRI scans, which were injected with fake cancer cells.

"Previously our only reference of cyber security was hacking in movies. But these projects about protecting identity and networks make everything more real, and it opens your eyes to the opportunities out there."

A HOTBED FOR START-UPS

The other students were in Tel Aviv, the heart of Israel's booming start-up scene.

Third-year student Eunice Lee, 21, was an intern at Pick a Pier, a company set up to make booking of docking spaces more efficient for marinas and boaters.

She was asked to create a smart algorithm to better match the supply of these spaces to the demand.

"I feel empowered in a start-up, where I have to be more accountable for my own work and make sure nothing goes wrong."

She enjoyed her experience in Israel so much that she is even considering returning to work there full time after graduation.

In another part of the city, three students were based at I Know First, a fintech start-up that uses an advanced algorithm to analyse and predict the global stock market.

Their job roles included writing reports on the company's predictive technology, comparing data with historical prices, and creating programming scripts to speed up data processing for the firm's website.

Third-year student Jireh Tan, 23, who also helped to redesign the website, said: "I've always wanted to see what it's like to work in a small environment, to really feel the responsibility of what I do every day."

His peer Clarence Toh, 22, said: "Because start-ups are so small, you can see how they function and how they stay lean. Through this experience, I've seen how starting a business is not impossible, if you have a product that can meet demand."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 08, 2019, with the headline 'SUTD students cut their teeth in Israel - land of start-ups and tech'. Print Edition | Subscribe