By Ed Zwirn
(Originally published in the New York Post on May 28, 2017)
Wondering where to find the next tech startup propelling humanity to the next best thing?
Israel’s answer to Silicon Valley is Silicon Wadi, an area around Tel Aviv on the country’s coastal plain with a heavy concentration of high-tech industries that rivals the San Francisco Bay Area’s cluster of innovative firms.
There are about 4,300 startups operating in Israel, with about 2,900 of these located within a 10-mile radius, a rate of development second in intensity to only Silicon Valley itself.
Even as President Trump was meeting with the Israeli political elite on the Jerusalem leg of his first foreign trip, a huge slice of that country’s brain trust was gathered in Midtown Manhattan to explore the reasons behind this tech wave and showcase some of the developments that have enabled this small country to punch above its weight.
Or maybe jumping would be a more apt metaphor.
“The cat flea has the ability to jump almost 200 times its height,” Oded Shoseyov, a professor of protein engineering and nano biotechnology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the crowd at Nexus: Israel, a gathering sponsored by the American Friends of Hebrew University.
Shoseyov, who has his name on more than 50 patents and has served as the scientific founder of 10 companies specializing in everything from nanotechnology to production of medical cannabis, says one of the most exciting scientific quests is understanding the jumping power of the flea. That and other marvels of nature are helping spark solutions to real-world challenges faced by humans.
CollPlant, one of the companies he helped found, is attempting to bioengineer solutions to these problems by cloning human DNA onto tobacco plants.
“I have no doubt that we’ll be able to produce a human heart in the laboratory,” he says. “This heart is not going to be the same as a human heart, it’s going to be better.”
One of the more established players in both Silicon Valley and its Middle Eastern rival is Intel Corp., which set up a research and production operation in Israel in 1972. Intel Israel has since grown to the point where it has become Israel’s largest private employer, with more than 10,200 workers on its payroll as of last year.
According to Maxine Fassberg, executive in residence and vice president of Intel Capital, the company exported $3.35 billion of chips and other products from Israel last year, accounting for 1 percent to 2 percent of the country’s GDP.
In addition to the tech developments fostered by Intel, Fassberg credits both Israel’s defense sector and its academia for propelling this development.
“The bottom line is the people and the quality of the education there,” she says.
For his part, Dr. Yaron Daniely, chief executive of Yissum, Hebrew University’s technology transfer arm, and himself the driving force behind many Israeli developments in medical technology, credits the amazing performance of Israeli R&D to “chutzpah,” shown in the willingness of the country’s scientists and entrepreneurs to take on risk.
“Exceptional people exist everywhere who are more creative than others, but that doesn’t guarantee success,” he points out. “We were arrogant Israelis. We didn’t think that we were stupid.”