Since 1966, 13 Israelis have been awarded Nobel prizes. In 2022, Israeli tech attracted some $17 billion in startup investments. And the number of Israeli unicorns (private companies valued at over $1 billion) has been estimated in the 70 range. Israel has the third highest listing of companies on the Nasdaq, after the United States and China, and over the years, approximately 300 multinational corporations have opened offices in Israel to benefit from its R&D capabilities.
Why has Israel been so successful in the technology world? Jewish history and religious practice point to innovative and “out of the box” attitudes dating as far back as the time of the writing of the Talmud, and the establishment of the State of Israel itself also helped to create an innovative mentality, as Jews in the fledgling country had to work together, make quick decisions, and change course as soon as evidence suggested it was required. Later, from 1989-2006, the arrival of nearly 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of them scientists or engineers, also had a strong positive impact on Israel’s technological capabilities.
In addition to immigration, mandatory military service has also been a key component of Israel’s technological success. As described by Inbal Arieli, author of Chutzpah: Why Israel Is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fosters the scientific and technological capabilities of recruits, encourages risk taking, and strengthens the ability to work together in small teams. The graduates of Unit 8200, Israel’s elite intelligence unit, are a core component of Israel’s technological advantage.
Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, the Israeli government supported R&D in the defense industry. In the late 1980s the government began to support high tech through the Office of the Chief Scientist in the Ministry of Economy, which in 2016 became the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA), an independent but government funded agency. The IIA now offers a wide variety of support, ranging from “incubators” for the initial stages of innovation to providing training and seed money to connecting startups with funders in Israel and overseas.
Finally, several of Israel’s universities (notably Hebrew University, the Technion and the WeizmannInstitute) are ranked among the top in the world. These universities have been responsible for educating a majority of startup founders in Israel’s high-tech sector as well as its scientists and engineers. “Building a startup is a journey of failures,” says Uri Levine, a serial innovator and author of the new book, Fall in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution. Innovators must be quick to reassess their approach as soon as they see that their model is inadequate or doesn’t fit the market. Israel, the so-called Start-Up Nation, has seen that journey end in success many times.
And yet, according to some experts, the current political climate threatens Israel’s status as a tech giant. Recent overseas investments in Israeli startups have already declined, and future young entrepreneurs could well decide to leave Israel. As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, it’s important to keep this tenuousness in mind—to remind us of what’s been gained and what should not be lost.
Ten Innovations that Help Tell the Story of Israel’s Tech Success:
- Iron Dome Missile Defense
Iron Dome detects incoming short-range rockets and mortar, assesses the threat, and dispatches a high-speed missile to intercept and destroy anything determined to be a danger. Developed by two Israeli firms—Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries—with support from the United States, Iron Dome has been highly effective (the IDF claims 97 percent accuracy) in thwarting missiles launched to strike Israeli population centers by Hamas and Hezbollah since it was introduced in 2011.
- Waze Real-Time Traffic Reports
In 2006 Israeli entrepreneurs Ehud Shabtai, Amir Shinar and Uri Levine developed a commercial-free digital database to help drivers shorten travel times around Israel. Today it is Waze, the real-time driving app now owned by Google and used by 140 million people a month worldwide. Users report traffic accidents, road hazards, police activity, street events and even gas prices. Waze then uses the data to constantly update its maps and offer people directions and fastest routes.
- Mobileye Safe-Driving Technology
Cars didn’t always have cameras and software to tell you when you were coming too close to another driver. Hebrew University professor Amnon Shashua’s research on a monocular vision system led him to start Mobileye in 1999 and develop myriad safe-driving technologies. Today Mobileye has its sights on semi- and fully-autonomous vehicles.
- Drip Irrigation by Netafim
Simcha Blass and his son Yeshayana observed a tree in Israel that seemed to be growing without a trace of water but later found a leaking underground pipe feeding it small amounts. This led Blass to invent modern drip irrigation using plastic for the emitter and long passageways called “labyrinths,” thus reducing water usage and changing the world of agriculture. He partnered with Kibbutz Hatzerim in the mid-1960s to form the company Netafim and patent the technology, still in use today.
- Pillcam: A View of the Digestive System
A camera inside a swallowed capsule the size of a jelly bean takes pictures of a patient’s bowel that are transmitted via sensors attached to their abdomen. This is Pillcam, a noninvasive method for diagnosing diseases of the digestive system invented by Israeli engineer Gavrial Iddan and Israeli gastroenterologist Eitan Scapa.
- ICQ Instant Messaging
ICQ (short for “I seek you”) was a pioneer in instant messaging services. It was developed in 1996 by Mirabilis—an Israeli company started by Arik Vardi, Yair Goldfinger, Sefi Vigiser and Amnon Amir, who met each other while working at Zapa Digital Arts in Tel Aviv. Until ICQ’s acquisition by AOL in 1998, it was one of AOL Instant Messenger’s main competitors.
- USB Flash Drive
Before Israelis Dov Moran and Aryeh Mergi invented USB flash drives, or “memory sticks,” at the turn of the century, it wasn’t possible to walk around with a bunch of data in your pocket that could simply be moved from one source to another—remember “floppy disks”?
- The Sniffphone
The Sniffphone works like a breathalyzer but instead of measuring blood alcohol content, it detects cancer, namely gastric and lung cancer. Understanding that disease has a pattern of molecules in the breath, Israeli chemical engineer Hossam Haick of the Technion launched the Nano-Artificial Nose (NaNose for short) with Tel Aviv University professor Nir Peled in 2014. The Sniffphone incorporates the NaNose and is able to transfer its measurements via smartphone.
- Rewalk: Bionic Walking Assistance
Israeli entrepreneur Amit Goffer invented the ReWalk robotic exoskeleton after a 1997 car accident left him a quadriplegic. Available for home use since 2014, the ReWalk “exo-suit” features motorized joints and a computerized system that allows the wearer to stand, walk and climb stairs. While the ReWalk suit is incredibly expensive (upwards of $70K), it is in use in some hospitals for patients recovering from strokes and spinal cord injuries.
- 3-D Printed Heart
The number of heart transplants in the United States and elsewhere increases every year, but the availability of donors can’t keep pace with demand. This makes the work of Tel Aviv University scientists who created a 3-D printed heart so groundbreaking. In 2019, using tissue from a human heart, Tal Dvir and his team converted fat cells into stem cells and eventually into heart cells that were used to create a “bioink.” Layer by layer, the printer constructed the tiny organ (about the size of a rabbit’s heart), complete with vasculature. Scaling up to a fully functioning human heart is Dvir’s team’s ultimate goal.
Opening image: Jean-Pierre via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)