Irwin Jacobs Talks Technology, Israel and a New Campus for Fostering Innovative Entrepreneurship

by Natalie Jacobs July 27, 2017


joan-and-irwin-jacobs-technion-cornell-instituteIn 2010, New York’s then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a competition to create an applied sciences graduate school within New York city limits. Many of the top American universities competed for the roughly $100 million in city funding plus land dedicated to the school. In 2011, Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won that competition, with help from San Diego-based tech innovator and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs. In 2013, Irwin and wife Joan announced a $133 million gift to the project, securing the name of The Joan & Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, the academic partnership between Cornell University and the Technion that is tasked with pushing the boundaries of academia at Cornell Tech. 

Today, the Institute offers two master’s degrees, in Health Technology and Connective Media. This September, Cornell Tech, home of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, will celebrate the opening of its new campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Leading up to the opening, I spoke with Irwin Jacobs about why he was interested in supporting this project, how Qualcomm’s history keeps him connected to Israel, and what technological advancements he’s most excited about today.

San Diego Jewish Journal: How did you initially come to support Cornell, the Technion and technology in Israel?

jacobsIrwin Jacobs: It goes back, if you include Israel, quite a ways. My first company was called Linkabit and over time a number of both faculty and people in the defense industry in Israel came and spent some time at Linkabit to get a feel for what commercial activities were like here in the U.S. We then built up an R&D center in Haifa. After I left Linkabit and started Qualcomm we again set up an R&D center in Haifa. Most of the workers who came there were trained at the Technion. We had this long relationship both in Israel and with Technion for a variety of R&D and educational activities.

Both Joan and I went to Cornell, so we had that connection. When the contest was announced by Mayor Bloomberg it was an area that interested us. In thinking about it, we felt that it would be advantageous both for Cornell to have a stronger New York City presence but also for Technion to have that presence given that many of its supporters and graduates were in the area.

So we helped with some of the planning and encouraged strong entries in that competition. Of course, the Cornell-Technion team did win and we then felt it was important to continue to support that. Then Joan and I decided to help with what’s now called the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute.

SDJJ: What is it about technology in Israel that has kept your interest as a philanthropic investor for all these years?

IJ: First of all, the whole area of education I think is absolutely crucial to our wellbeing. On the philanthropic side, both my wife and I benefitted in some sense from government support and a number of college scholarships both going through undergraduate and myself in graduate school. We feel that now that we’ve reached a position where we can do so that we should be providing support for others to accomplish their goals. So education has always been a big item.

The support for schools being able to take research that’s accomplished within academia and then apply it to developing businesses is one that I’ve always thought was a very important role of the university. That’s become increasingly recognized that we encourage that and provide support both at the university level, even at the k-12 level but particularly at the university level and then I have helped small businesses providing guidance.

SDJJ: When you look at all the research and innovation across industries and geographical regions, what new technology has you most excited today?

IJ: Most of the focus that I’ve had since early in Qualcomm’s history has been on mobile communications. Given that focus and the fact that you can use mobile devices just about everywhere in the world at this point, a great interest of mine is on [that area of technology]. We believe that they can make a strong difference and already that’s starting in education, medicine and many different ways in which people earn their income – fishing, agriculture.

Above and beyond that, I think we’re all aware of the problems with crypto-warfare or whatever you wish to call that but the need for both greater privacy but also protection against various types of intrusion. The cryptography areas are going to be a continuing issue.

Finally, I think there is a lot of attention being given to robotics and artificial intelligence right now. Many consider the fact that that can replace many existing jobs as a negative and indeed it is a problem that we need to pay attention to. On the other hand, it probably implies that we’re going to be able to produce all of the goods and services that we need with a smaller number of work hours total. We therefore need to think through better ways of distribution – how do we make sure that people can acquire goods, services and products that they wish, including healthcare, given that we’re able to produce them with a lot fewer hours of work?

SDJJ: Do you have one big vision for the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute?

IJ: The intent of the Institute is to be able to attract first very good students, give them a very good education and have them better understand a number of the real-world problems which will encourage them either to follow that interest and design their own company or work within larger companies. But having it provide the basis for students to both become excited about applying the technology and give them the capability of doing so.

We’re very excited about the opening of the new campus. I think a lot of thoughts have gone into the building both from an architectural and environmental point of view but also to encourage students, faculty and business to come together and be able to interact well with one another. 

For more info, contact ATS San Diego Chapter Director Mark Greenberg at (858) 750-2135 or

*Photo credit of campus rendering: Cornell Tech


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