A Powerful Idea

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A shiny round motor has spun its way around the world, from an impoverished Russian laboratory to an Israeli science park to a California manufacturer. Thanks to the determination of a young researcher and an Israeli program designed to tap the know-how of immigrant scientists, this invention may power new growth in the production of compact electric motors.

Alexander Sromin's disc-shaped motor, the smallest version of which weighs just 700 grams and is as thin as a slice of bread, is one-third the size of a conventional electric motor. Yet it supplies twice as much power. The lightweight and efficient design makes it ideal for bicycles, wheelchairs and fans, as well as robots and mobile industrial machines. Other disc motors on the market use small carbon brushes, which often require maintenance and replacement, to switch electric current, while Sromin's invention dispenses with them and uses an electronic unit instead.

The innovative motor is now being checked against U.S. technical standards by a manufacturer of battery-run bicycles in California, who plans to order 10,000 motors for sale with his bicycles this year. Sromin is also negotiating with a vacuum cleaner manufacturer to pave the way for his motor's entry into the household appliance industry.
Sromin, 35 years old, created his company, Samot Engineering, through the Kiryat Weizmann Incubator for Technological Entrepreneurship, among the first of 26 such incubators established in a nationwide project in which the Weizmann Institute of Science played a pioneering role. He started working out of the incubator office space in the Kiryat Weizmann Industrial Park in 1992, just one year after immigrating from St. Petersburg. In 1995, he signed a financing deal with German investors who took on a quarter stake in his company for $250,000. Now he has seven employees.
All of his efforts might never have come to roost in Israel, if not for a few hard knocks the young scientist received early in his career. Sromin was the top student at his advanced high school for science, won first prize at the national science Olympiad and dreamed of continuing on to Leningrad University to study theoretical physics. He says he was turned away because he was a Jew.
He nonetheless went on to achieve high grades in a technical institute for aerospace instrument production, where he studied electrical mechanics and aerospace engineering. At the end of his six-year studies, his marks were the best of all 8,000 students in his program. The Soviet minister of education sent him the official job offer that was usually sent to the student with the best grades: a research position in his institute's electro-technical department.
Sromin was so proud of his accomplishment that he bought a new suit and tie to wear to the ceremony where all graduates would receive their job offers and congratulations from the institute administration. But, the night before the big event, his colleagues had surprising news for him: his job offer had been rescinded. An assistant to the president of the institute, who collaborated with the KGB, had seen to it that a Jew, no matter how qualified, would not receive such an honor.
"It was a shock for me in the country where I was born and worked from my soul," he says. "I said to my wife that if I was singled out as a Jew, I'd like to prove that I was Jewish." Five years later, after working out all the kinks in the prototype for his disc-shaped motor, he moved to Israel.
Israel's incubator program was launched six years ago to help immigrant scientists with little financial resources get their ideas off the ground. Financed primarily by the Chief Scientist's Office of Israel's Ministry of Industry and Trade, it gives promising entrepreneurs office space, guidance and seed money for two years. Then, they must fend for themselves.
At the Kiryat Weizmann Incubator - established with the help of the Weizmann Institute and Africa-Israel Investments Ltd. and headed by an alumnus of the Institute's Feinberg Graduate School, Dr. Shmuel Yerushalmi - seven of the 10 completed projects have successfully continued, and ten more are now in the incubator stage.

The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.