Israeli technological innovations have permeated almost every element of our collective day-to-day lives. From the ways we communicate, feed billions of people, and build a comprehensive visual and digital understanding of the world around us, Israeli discoveries have simplified life as we know it. More so the R&D of countless unnamed and little-remembered Israelis has benefited global populations.
From microchips of cellphones and drip irrigation to satellite innovation and biomedical advancements, Israeli technology shapes so many elements of our digital interactions its nearly impossible to count. Through these and many other nation-defining innovations, the Jewish State has been irrevocably linked with scientific, engineering, and agricultural advancements.
What drives the innovation culture?
Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, the national financial backing for R&D has been unmatched in the global marketplace. According to Deloitte “Israel ranked second in the world in R&D expenditure per capita. Israel invests about 4.1% of its GDP in R&D, the average among the OECD is 2%”. Since the founding of the State, government policy has encouraged and supported science and innovation to develop sustainable economic growth and attract high-impact immigration.
Consequently, Israel became a hub of global brands such as IBM, Intel, and Google where Israeli ideas are cultivated for global gains. From Mobileye’s $15 billion acquisition (by Intel) to the over 250 internationally affiliated R&D centers based in Israel, the Jewish State has become a global tech epicenter.
Finding the perfect blend of culture, strong economic growth, long-standing government support, and market approach focusing primarily on export have help make Israel's innovation ecosystem one of the most successful in the world.
“In 2016 alone, Israeli startups raised a record $4.8 billion from investors, while high-tech and startup companies were sold for $10.02 billion through acquisitions or IPO's. Israel is also home to the highest number of engineers per capita and has the world's 2nd highest R&D expenditure as a percent of GDP (4.3%).”
Herzl’s Dream, Ben Gurion’s Vision, & Golda’s Reality
The importance of innovation in the modern Zionist vision had been reinforced by many of its early leaders. In his influential novel, Altneuland (“Old-New Land”) Theodore Herzl addressed the reality of Jewish settlement in Palestine stating: “This country needs nothing but water and shade to have a great future.” With these words, Herzl crystallized what would be necessary for Israel to be a viable nation, primarily creative thinking and bold resource management. Hertzl later correctly predicted that the water engineers of the Jewish homeland would become its heroes and patriarchs.
This ethos was echoed by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion when he expressed emphatically “Israel’s economic and cultural progress is due to three things: the pioneering spirit that inspires the best of our immigrant and Israeli youth, who respond to the challenge of our desolate areas and the ingathering of the exiles; the feeling of Diaspora Jewry that they are partners in the enterprise of Israel’s resurgence in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people; and the power of science, and technology which Israel unceasingly, and not without success, tries to enhance.”
The Water Carrier
One area of significant success was realized in the efforts of Israeli PM Levi Eshkol’s National Water Carrier.1 Israel today exceeds its water production needs due in no small part to the strategic thinking of its early pioneers.
As Israel grew its deserts into agricultural testing grounds, its political leadership quickly identified the value innovative capital could provide to the developing world. “In 1958, Golda Meir (pictured right), then Israel’s foreign minister, created a department whose mission was to help developing countries—particularly in Africa—overcome problems of water, irrigation, agriculture, education, and women’s status. The department, whose name translates loosely as [the] Center for International Cooperation, is known by the Hebrew acronym MASHAV.”2
Following the policies of her ideological forbearers, PM Meir brought Israeli innovations into a new light. Instead of technological developments in Israel focused on the domestic market, increasingly Israeli scientists were creating products and approaches viable to the international community.
Today, MASHAV operates in over 100 countries providing Israeli technological expertise to developing populations around the world. By utilizing Israel’s strongest resource, its intellectual capital, the Jewish State has figuratively and literally built bridges to nations near and far.
Israeli Innovation in the Global Marketplace
One of the most popular products in supermarkets around the world are cherry tomatoes. With a sweet taste, high yield, and firm skin designed to withstand shipping, the cherry tomato has become a staple food globally. What many might forget is this has not always been the case. In practice, the availability of this cultivar was wildly inaccessible before the mid-1970s.
According to Anna Wexler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the cherry tomato in the form that we know it today was formulated in 1973 by a group of scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.3 Until this point, the cherry tomato was used for store displays (primarily in the UK) but was not commercially viable due to low plant yield and poor physical structure for shipment – which left it unable to survive transport intact.
This all changed when British produce sellers Marks and Spencer’s approached Hebrew University-based scientists Professor Nahum Keidar and Professor Chaim Rabinovitch.
Utilizing Prof Keidar and Rabinovitch’s work on increasing production in tomatoes, the team under the guidance of seasoned seed breeder Hazera Genetics, turned its focus on making the cherry tomato a viable production crop for the masses. Within a few years, the research team engineered a variety known for its small size which retains firmness, flavor, and aroma even after a week at room temperature. The cherry tomatoes were bred to grow in a fishbone making packaging more efficient.
Through creative (non-GMO) agricultural engineering Israeli scientists helped usher in new foodstuffs omnipresent in the global marketplace. In doing so, the advancement of the small Jewish State has benefited farmers and consumers far beyond its humble borders.
In the 1980s and 90s transferring information from one computer system to another involved bulky disk, copious wires, and an abundance of time. Fast forward a few years and all one must do is plug in their USB flash drive. In a matter of moments what previously took hours are transferred and accessible.
How is it that what once involved large and cumbersome disks can now be accomplished on a drive the size of your thumb? The answer to this question lies in the adaptive approach of Israeli startup M-Systems. In 1999, M-Systems patented the technology which would become the USB Flash drive.
Marketed and distributed by IBM in 2000, the USB flash drive quickly became the dominant format for physical data transfer. USB eventually came to replace CD’s due in large part to their large storage capacity and ease of physical storage.
(To put the USB drive into perspective with the same 20-30-gram weight it can hold 800-1000 times the amount of data of the floppy disk.)
As is often the case of Israeli-developed technology, its impact has spread significantly beyond its territory, changing how the individual interacts with the computing interface.
The USB flash drive facilitated a new means to transfer information in an efficient and compact process. More importantly, this and numerous other market-ready products have further solidified Israel’s place as the epicenter of technological development. In the process, the advancements and innovations coming out of the Jewish State lose their national identity and become a product belonging to the world. In effect, Israeli ideas become part of the global consciousness.
Since the early 1970’s Israel has spearheaded international developments in UAS, more commonly known as drones under the direction of industry leaders such as Shabtai Brill, the first person to pioneer the strategic military application of unmanned aerial vehicles. “Shabtai Brill thought it was far too much work to take photographs on the ground only two miles from the Israeli border.
In 1969, Brill bought three model airplanes from a toy store in Manhattan and brought them with him back to Israel. It was there that he installed 35-millimeter cameras with timers programmed to take photographs every 10 seconds. This marked the birth of UAV reconnaissance. The success of Brill’s model airplane program and Israel’s desire for quality intelligence ultimately compelled the Israeli government to invest heavily in pursuing drone technology.”4
“Initially focused on military applications Israeli UAS quickly spanned numerous civilian applications including agriculture and domestic security. In developing UAS through the military establishment, Israeli engineers created drones with multipurpose platforms. Designers built UAS capable of carrying numerous optical sensors, as well as various military and non-military payloads.” 5
As is often the case in Israel, research and development directed by the military have paid significant civilian dividends. In the case of UAS, strong military support and the tactical demands of Israel’s geography helped it become the global trendsetter in UAS. In practice, this means that Israeli-produced UAS provides cheap and data-rich solutions to security and agricultural applications due to the longstanding investment of Israel’s defense establishment.
Looking back at these case studies in israeli innovation we can see the essential blend of government support, collective willpower and the role of dynamic individuals investing back into their communities in creating a culture of innovation. Can it be replicated? Can it inspire the next generation? We shall see…
For more information on this topic please refer to Israel’s National Water Carrier by Nathan Cohen
The Weapon Wizards