Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World, about the innovation in Israel
I was lucky to be in Israel. I have always associated it with the beginnings of Judaism and Christianity, strict adherence to religious principles and … wars. I did not think of Israel as a state of innovators.
Since I started running a startup, I am still discovering how many innovative projects have arisen in the country where the cultures of the East and the West intersect . A few years ago I participated in a Kickstart accelerator in Zurich, Switzerland. It was surprising to me that in the same building of the accelerator I met both Orthodox Jews in traditional clothes who devoted themselves to regular prayers, and the founder of a startup, a non-practicing follower of Judaism, who did not attach so much importance to religion in his life.
Although the religious and political issues of this country are very interesting and its rich history is an inspiration for more than one journey, it is worth looking at the country also in the perspective of the future. It turns out, that Israel is a cradle of innovation that influences the development of many aspects of the global economy.
We have recently completed the Startup Nation Startups Bootcamp V4 acceleration program co-organized by the Israeli Embassy. As a thank you we received a book called “And you will develop. Israeli innovation that changes the world ” written by Avi Jorisch. The reference to the 10 Commandments is not only in the title – the chapters are preceded by quotations from the Holy Scriptures. However, then the author focuses only on technology.
Avi Jorish was born in a family that survived the Holocaust. He grew up mainly in the New York City , but he spent long periods of his childhood in Israel – both as a teenagers and as an adult. In 2001 he moved to Washington. He worked in politics, focusing on radical Islam, terrorism and illegal finances. He has led, among others, to a significant reduction in Hezbollah’s media on satellite channels, which on television programs promoted psychological wars against “Zionist enemy ”, suicide missions and the ideology of hatred and extremism.
But he wanted to do more than politics. He founded a startup focusing on banking compliance software and compliance with sanctions. He obtained funds for development but the company did not survive. He eventually founded the IMS company, a merchant service provider that helps businesses change their fee structure and ensures compliance with card regulations.
The book is his last work . Out of many breakthrough innovations, which emerged in Israel, Avi Jorisch chose a dozen that, in his opinion, are the most interesting. I do not want to talk about each of them – I encourage you to read the book – but I will briefly describe some of them.
Since 2001, falling rockets have become an almost daily event in the southern Israel as Hamas fired missiles at Serdot and other Israeli cities. The army badly needed a solution to the missile attack problem, but no one saw the way. This task was later assigned to Danny Gold, the IDF official responsible for developing new weapons. He hoped to develop a system that could intercept missiles in flight.
Earlier , in the 1980’s, the US President Ronald Reagan proposed an anti-missile defense system in space. However, the technology was so complicated that later presidents stopped financing the project. That is probably why many though that Gold was crazy. The rocket is several meters long and one meter wide, it flies on a rough track and it can hit a city in seconds. However, Gold persisted.
He came across an Israeli company called Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which dealt with defense technology. The company assigned the task of figuring out a way to deal with short-range missiles to the senior engineer Hanoch Levine. When Levine got the task he called his wife and said that they would probably not see each other for the next five years. He was not much wrong.
After three months, Levine presented the concept of the project to Gold, who after a month of deliberations chose Levine’s team and gave him a contract for an initial 5 million dollars. The president of the company added twice as much. It was just a fraction of what the system was actually supposed to cost, but they decided to get started.
The team worked twenty-four hours a day in shifts. The first phase of development took several years, and there wasn’t a day for Levine to come back home before 11 PM – not even on weekends. For three years he did not take a single day off.
Their goal was to build missiles that, together with the radar system and the control and data analysis system, would launch at the enemies missiles and shot them down. The system was to calculate with the high degree of precision where the incoming missile was to be struck and whether it was a strategic or densely populated area. Then it was to fire a missile to hit the enemy rocket in the air.
An additional challenge was that the cost of such a missile should be around 1/10 the price of an average rocket, which costs about half a million dollars. Otherwise, the cost of the interceptor missiles could lead to Israel bankruptcy.
This limitation lead engineer to look for cheaper solutions. When project costs were cut, they used , among others, the components from RC cars from the Toys R Us store – they did the job and they were very cheap.
The project was called the Iron Dome. At one point, the team ran out of sources and they still had little to show. In 2007, Defense Minister Amir Perec gave 10 million dollars to the project. At the end of 2007, after stormy negotiations with the Ministry of Defense, the IDF allocated additional 200 million dollars.
When the system was ready to launch in 2009, Israel did not have enough batteries to launch the missiles and the significant number of missiles, costing 75, 000 dollars each. The US President Barrack Obama came to the rescue , asking Congress to grant 205 million dollars for the deployment of the Iron Dome batteries in Israel.
The first tests were carried out in the early 2009 in the Negew desert. Engineers began to bet on the outcome of the tests. They divided into three groups – one estimated that the missile would pass the enemy rocket by at least 800 meters, the second one claimed that it would be 90 meters, and the third group claimed that it would be 9 meters.
The enemy rocket was launched and the countdown for the Iron Dome began. Nothing happened – the Iron Dome did not react at all.
The test was repeated – again nothing. The team was devastated, especially Levine.
A fault was found within 24 hours -someone incorrectly inserted one of the wires in the Iron Dome. A week later it was decided to repeat the tests. The bets started again. The enemy rocket was fired and then the Iron Dome reacted and launched its missile. Everyone held their breath. Suddenly, both missiles appeared on the screen and collided.
By March 2011, the Iron Dome was fully ready for battle. The system could successfully intercept rockets, mortar artillery shells, planes, helicopters, drones and all kinds of missiles in the 40-mile range. It operated during a sandstorm, rain and fog. By October 2014 alone, it had knocked down over 1,200 rockets. The Iron Dome success rate is almost 90%.
In the video below you can see Iron Dome knocking down one of the rockets during the wedding in Israel:
Take a look at this video that shows a number of rockets intercepted by the Iron Dome in one minute:
Gold became a hero in the Israeli political world, and in 2012 Israel awarded him, Levine and seven other engineers with the prestigious Defense Prize.
The Iron Dome is a defense element and it helps to protect the inhabitants. However, new information technologies, including artificial intelligence, are more and more often used to defeat the opponent faster or to multiply his losses. Israel has recently admitted to having waged its first war led by AI . It used supercomputers and artificial intelligence during the recent conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Like it or not, such innovations will become more frequent in the military industry.
ReWalk – exoskeleton for the paralyzed
Recently, our project called CodeAll – chatbot teaching programming – has been happily selected for the top 10 startups in the Huawei Startup Challenge acceleration program. The first place was won by the startup called Wheelstair, which built a wheelchair add-on that would allow the disabled people to climb stairs.
And in Israel they developed device that lets paralyzed people walk.
Dr Amit Goffer from Israel is an entrepreneur- he founded a company that produces magnetic resonance imaging devices. One day in 1996, he rented quad bikes for himself and his children. Unfortunately, the brakes in Goffer’s vehicle failed – he fell out of the way, hit a tree and broke his neck against branches. He dealt with the medical industry on the daily basis, so he knew well what the disability is associated with. He knew he would never walk again.
He was paralyzed from the mid-back down. He was learning to brush his teeth and write again. However, he suffered most mentally. He was given heavy doses of painkillers and other medications, which made it difficult for him to think. His IQ dropped, he said : “I feel stupid.”
He did not give up, however, and in 1997, the hospital sent him home and shortly afterward he stopped taking medications. The fog in his head cleared and he regained the ability to think, and the more he wondered how the paralysis had taken control of him, the more he wanted to change that.
His motivation was to give a disabled person a device with the help of which he could go to the cinema, theatre or restaurant without asking in advance if there were stairs. It became his obsession.
The first documented information about a device similar to the today’s wheelchair comes from the 16th century, when King Philip of Spain used it. Another innovation appeared in the mid-nineties, when Dean Kamen, together with Johnson & Johnson company, built the iBOT, a wheelchair that was said to be able to go up and down the stairs. It was something similar to the Polish startup called Wheelstair with the difference that Wheelstair is much cheaper and the add-on is for any wheelchair. iBOT did not catch on – it cost 25, 000 dollars, but it also turned out that the stairs were to much of a challenge for it.
Goffer could not believe that so few products were made in this market. He decided to build something like an exoskeleton, which a paralyzed person would enter and be able to walk.
In 2004, 7 years after his accident, Goffer completed the construction of his first device: an exoskeleton that embraces the user’s legs, together with crutches , that stabilize him while walking. With the remote control on the wrist the paralyzed can control their movements. The crutches help in climbing stairs and stabilize the weight. Goffer called his project ReWalk.
For the next two years, Goffer was constantly working on the device, changing its energy consumptions and weight. In 2006, he was admitted to the prestigious Israeli Technion Incubator, which helps startups in the early stages of development and received a grant for further development.
In the same year, he spoke at a robotics conference in Zurich. During the speech he showed a film in which a disabled woman used ReWalk. Many conference participants were skeptical about the recording or regarded the film as a counterfeit. One of the professors wrote a short letter to Goffer asking for a video in which the woman testing ReWalk walks without the device. It was a difficult experience.
He worked on the device for the next four years and he finally gained some interest. In 2010, he started cooperation with Veterans Affairs Rehabilitaion, Research & Development National Center of Excellence for the Medical Consequences of Spinal Cord Injury in New York. Doctors and nurses were very skeptical and did not believe that the device worked as it was described. Nevertheless, Goffer flew there.
As the person testing the ReWalk passed the stairs and then the long corridor, the nurses watching him did not believe he was truly paralyzed. It was only when he removed the exoskeleton and the observers saw his flabby feet – a clear symptom of paralysis – that they believed the presentation was not a hoax.
In May 2012, Claire Lomas, who had been paralyzed five years earlier in an equestrian competition, used ReWalk to run a 42km marathon in 16 days. This gave a great deal of publicity to the device.
Today, ReWalk is approved for sale in Europe and in the USA, and it has 400 users worldwide, including US policemen and veterans. Goffer introduced the company to the New York Stock Exchange, which gave him millions for further research and development. Behind the desk in his office there is a photograph of him with his hands raised in victory with the patients in Times Square in New York City on the day the company went public.
Unfortunately, ReWalk device is expensive. It costs between 69, 000 and 85, 000 dollars, so it is not possible for the poorer patients to buy the device. What is more the device did not help Goffer himself. In order to use ReWalk, patients need full upper body control, and Goffer does not have that.
He is 62 years old, but he has not given up on his dream to walk again. He is working on his latest device called UpNRide, which is a Segway type device and it allows fully paralyzed people to move while standing. Two months after the author of the book interviewed Goffer, he used his new device in front of his house in Yokneam. He stood on his own legs for the first time in 18 years.
You will find many other interesting stories in the book. You can read, for example, about a heat pump invented by the Israeli physicist and engineer Harry Zvi Tabor. Previously, a similar device was built in Los Angeles by William J. Bailey, but his company went bankrupt. Tabor also did not have an easy start. Despite applause from the government, high interest at conferences, and obvious access to sunlight in Israel, it was difficult to bring the heat pump to the market.
Only almost 20 years after the beginning of his work there was a breakthrough. In 1973, Syria and Egypt attacked Israel by surprise . The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has imposed oil embargoes against Canada, Japan, Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the USA. There was a world recession and a huge inflation. In1976, Kneset, the Israel’s legislature, passed a law requiring every building constructed after 1980 to have solar water collectors.
Today, about 90% of all Israeli households use the Tabor invention. It is estimated that his device saves Israel 8% of energy consumption, which is equal to the capacity of 900 MW power plant.
There are also many IT innovations in Israel. Such as the Check Point’s firewall that protects more than 100, 000 companies today, including 94% of Fortune 100 companies and almost every government worldwide.
Waze, on the other hand , is one of the best traffic navigation systems that Google has bought for almost a billion dollars.
Currently, there are over 6,000 startups in Israel. Many of these stories confirm the words of the former US president Calvin Coolidge, who reportedly summed up the importance of hard work in this way:
“Nothing in the world can replace persistence. Talent is not enough, there is nothing more common than people with talent and without success. Being genius is not enough – unrecognized genius is almost proverbial. Education is not enough – the world is full of educated losers. Only persistence and determination are omnipotent.”