Canadian banks eye Israel’s cybersecurity know-how

CyberSpark CEO Roni Zehavi HOWARD KAY PHOTO

In October, the TD Bank Group became the first Canadian bank to announce that it will open a cybersecurity office in Tel Aviv, in recognition of the fact that Israel is home to some of the world’s top talent in the field.

And TD will likely not be the last, as at least one other big bank is looking into such a move – the Royal Bank of Canada, which hosted the recent launch of BGNetwork at its 41st-floor offices in Place Ville Marie in Montreal.

BGNetwork, a project started by the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Montreal branch, aims to acquaint the business community with what this rapidly growing desert university, which is renowned for its research and innovation, has to offer in numerous fields.

The inaugural speaker was Roni Zehavi, the CEO of CyberSpark, Israel’s central hub for cybersecurity research and development, which seeks to foster partnerships between academia and industry.

Launched in Be’er Sheva in 2014 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, CyberSpark’s goal is to bring together local and foreign companies, the national and municipal governments, and academia, namely Ben-Gurion University (BGU), in a common effort. The Israel Defence Forces is also relocating its specialized units to CyberSpark’s ever-expanding site near the BGU campus.

Israel has become a cybersecurity powerhouse, a leader in what is now a US$82-billion ($104.5-billion) industry worldwide. Due to its defence imperative, Zehavi said Israel was in on the ground floor over 30 years ago, when the term cybersecurity had barely been coined. BGU is a pioneer in granting postgraduate degrees in cybersecurity, he added.


Israel is home to more than 430 cybersecurity companies and around 40 R&D centres run by foreign multinationals, he said. By contrast, Canada has only about 30 businesses working in cybersecurity.

In 2016, Israel’s cybersecurity-related exports totalled US$6 billion, or approximately 10 per cent of the global market, he said. Israel has also attracted close to a quarter of the worldwide private investment in the field.

Although TD’s office will be located in Tel Aviv, more than 40 companies, including such giants as IBM and Oracle, are now located at the CyberSpark campus, thanks to the expertise of those working in the area (over 2,000 people work there) and government incentives.

Over the past year, Zehavi has been trying to convince Quebec businesses, universities, as well as research and health-care institutions to form relationships with the non-profit CyberSpark.

Municipal officials in Montreal want the city to become a world leader in artificial intelligence research and the federal and provincial governments are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into making that happen. Israel wants to help, according to Zehavi.

He hosted 250 delegations from abroad last year, including high-level industry representatives and politicians. Former Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre visited CyberSpark, while on a trade mission in November 2016.

RBC’s offices in the Place Ville Marie complex in Montreal HENRY W. PHOTO

There is a massive shortage of cybersecurity experts in the world, Zehavi said, as the number of cyber attacks explodes. This is one reason why almost all Israelis now graduate from high school with some education in cybersecurity.

Zehavi stressed how crucial it is for all countries and industries to work together to face this crisis. Much as national boundaries became irrelevant in setting safety standards for civil aviation, so should the battle for the security of electronic data, he believes.

CyberSpark, he said, can tailor a solution for any business or institution, with little commitment or risk on their part.

Before making a decision to establish an R&D or innovation entity in Israel, CyberSpark offers to do the groundwork, recruiting local people and dealing with the administration and logistics, including managing the bureaucracy.

Organizations can participate in the program for one year and if they are satisfied, the arrangement can be extended. If not, they can leave with no consequences.

“We do it all for you. You define your goals. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand cybersecurity. We listen to your vision and know what has to be done to reach it,” said Zehavi.

“In other words, you can jump into the water without getting wet.”