By Aliza Arbeli

Forget about the old-economy dream of making the Negev bloom. Israel is building a biotechnology research village in the desert. Its foundations will be be laid on February 1.

The village is meant to meet several goals: to boost biotechnology research in Israel, to halt the brain drain of talent to overseas facilities, and to help provide employment in the southern region. Initial investment in the village will come to about $185 million.

The village will boast research laboratories, a training institute to prepare students for work at the village, and 100 apartments for visiting academics expected to visit on sabbatical.

The project initiator, Asher Goldwasser, has spent six years planning the village. He says it is based on existing models. Two years ago he proposed the idea to Shmuel Rifman, head of the Ramat Hanegev regional council, and the two began the necessary procedures to set the project in motion. The regional council and a group of entrepreneurs established IPV Intellectual Property Village - as a corporation and began to seek investors to join the venture.

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Goldwasser, who based his idea on incubator projects, said in this incubator village experts would be able to concentrate on research alone.

Professor Kobi Tal of Galil Technologies in California joined the corporation as an investor and strategic partner. The Ramat Hanegev regional council owns 40% of IPV, another 50% is privately held by the village founders and Tal owns the remaining 10%.

The corporation has raised $110 million from private and institutional investors abroad. The chairman of the board is Eli Cohen, former head of the settlement division of the Jewish Agency, and an adviser to the Ministry of Defense.

At a press conference yesterday, Rifman said investors wanted to do more than just start a business. They hope the project will win government financial support, but that was not the main motive for choosing the Negev.

The first stage of the village is scheduled for completion by 2003, including a research center, a residential area and community services for 100 families.

The second stage of the project is expected to be completed by 2010. By that time, the village's founders envision it becoming the dominant research center for biotechnology in Israel and already have IPV products on market. Goldwasser said he is confident the village will draw more investments to the Negev region.