Water Mission to Israel (Day 3): Startup Day in Startup Nation


Tuesday, December 18th, was the midpoint of the Mission agenda and the centerpiece event of the trip. The Massachusetts Delegation hosted the W.E.T. Revolution at Tel Aviv University in the lovely and historic Green House, which was apparently originally built as part of a Palestinian Village, and at various times since has been part of the British complex in Tel Aviv, served as a HQ for the Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and is now the Gordon Student Center at the University. Such is the complex and swirling history of so much of Israel.

The W.E.T. (Water Export Technology) Revolution was conceived to highlight the most promising Israeli water startups and build a bridge for them to the U.S. via Massachusetts. Applications were received from thirty-two companies across a broad range of technologies and stage. From this pool, seven semi-finalists were selected and recognized at the event. But the real action surrounded the six companies selected as finalists that pitched the two hundred people gathered in the Green House, including the MA Delegation, Israeli entrepreneurs and investors, and a wide variety of water industry executives and government officials.

The six finalists had four minutes each to present their business and to differentiate themselves to the six judges who then had three minutes for questions. The judges were a collection of both MA Water Trade Delegates and very senior Israeli water industry players including Dr. Avner Adin (Professor of Environmental Sciences at both Hebrew University and The National University of Singapore), Henri Charrabe’ (President & CEO of RWL Water Group, a global water systems integrator), and Shimon Tal (Former Water Commissioner of Israel and Chairman of WATEC 2013).

WATEC (Water Technology And Environmental Control) is one of the world’s largest gatherings of global water players and has emerged, along with the Singapore International Water Week, as one of the main global gatherings of the water industry. WATEC is Oct 22-24, 2013, and SIWW is June 1-5, 2014.

The fast-moving presentations were well conceived and delivered; only one went (slightly) longer than the allotted time. The Israelis, for all their independent mindedness, were surprisingly compliant to the rules of engagement for the contest.

The finalists were Atlantium Technologies (UV disinfection of water), Blue I Technologies (real-time water quality instrumentation), emefcy (pronounced MFC, lost cost, waste-water filtration), CuraPipe (leak curing for underground pipes), Peak Dynamics (water delivery management system) and TACount (real-time microbiology measurement).

As the judges were deliberating, members of the MA Delegation presented a cross section of initiatives, organizations, and opportunities designed to foster water and clean technology innovation across Massachusetts and New England, and which the Israeli startup community could leverage to use MA as a landing point for U.S. operations.

Hundreds of Israeli-based companies have done just this over the past few decades and now represent an estimated $2B of direct annual revenue, and over $5B of indirect income into MA-based operations. There is significant opportunity to expand this in the cleantech and water sector, an aspiration which drove the initiative for the Mission itself and which was validated in our travels and interactions across Israel.

The crowd also heard from Avi Hasson, Chief Scientist of Israel, and Dr. Orna Berry, General Manager for EMC’s Israeli Center of Excellence, who was herself formerly the Chief Scientist of Israel. The main role of the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS), which is part of the Ministry of Industry, Labor & Trade, is to assist in the development of technology in Israel as a means of fostering economic growth and encouraging technological innovation and entrepreneurship. The OCS interfaces across the Israeli R&D infrastructure, especially with the military and also with various industries, including venture capital, to ensure Israel is and remains a global center for high-tech entrepreneurship.

If you have not read Start-Up Nation, I definitely commend it to you as it does an excellent job of examining the Israeli high-tech complex and deriving lessons that are applicable in other locations and contexts.

I was struck listening to both Avi and Orna that the U.S. does not truly have an equivalent role. Sure, DOE, Commerce, SBA, and even the White House have programs, but none as integrated into the national innovation enterprise. I took a major personal action item to explore this further when I return to Boston as, given the importance of innovation in the future of the U.S., we ought to have an Innovation Czar (pardon the ideological oxymoron).

By the way, the winner was TACount, whose CEO, Charles Gast was born and raised in New York City, but has been in Israel for much of his professional career.   TACount was awarded a broad range of prizes including airfare, office space, legal support, and customized support to help facilitate their efforts to explore setting up shop in Boston.

Pictured above: W.E.T. Competition Winner TACount (CEO Charles Gast, 3rd from left) with (from left) John Harthorne, CEO of MassChallenge; Alicia Barton McDevitt, CEO of MA Clean Energy Center; Nadav Efraty, CEO of Desalitech; and Hadas Bar-Or, MA’s Trade Representative in Israel. Yours truly was the host & emcee for the W.E.T. Revolution.

Once the event wrapped up, we boarded the bus (again) and began the hour-long journey southeast up the Judean Hills into Jerusalem. I had only been to Jerusalem once before, in 1991, for a fast and furious three-hour tour of the Old City. I had not appreciated how large the city’s footprint had grown over the millennium, but, as the second largest city in Israel and its capital, the dense blend of architecture literally spanning most of human history was astonishing.

The delegation went to dinner in the American Colony Hotel, which was charmingly decorated for the Christmas celebrations and has a fascinating history dating back to the late 1800s and has since been a centerpiece of “modern” Western presence in Jerusalem. Over dinner we had the chance to hear from the Dr. Alon Tal, the impressive founder of The Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, which is dedicated to finding sustainable solutions that know no borders or religion. Alon is a Green Party candidate for Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

Alon’s comments covered a broad set of topics centered on how sustainable technology solutions can bring peace and prosperity to the entire region. But he was most impassioned when discussing the surprisingly low penetration rate of renewables in Israel. Given the high levels of annual sun, dedication to sustainability, and the impressive record of innovation in every other sector Israel has set itself to tackle, it was notable that far less than 1 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from solar. Given that nuclear power is problematic for geopolitical reasons, solar would be the likely solution to reducing carbon emissions. However, given the nascent exploration of the massive off-shore natural gas fields, it appears unlikely that renewables will gain a foothold in Israel anytime soon.

After dinner, our guide Abraham Silver took us for an evening visit to the Western Wall (see photo below) in the Old City of Jerusalem for a walking tour of the underground tunnels along the old Wall. These tunnels, opened only in the last decade for public touring, brought our group from the public area providing access to the sacred Western Wall to a set of tunnels meandering beneath the Old City and literally along thousands of years of history. The walk uncovered the scars of dozens of battles across these many years and highlighted the amazing engineering feats that built the original city. King Herod had serious vision and, apparently, a talented corps of engineers. Built in 19 BCE, it took ten years and ten thousand workers to complete the construction of the Old City, including leveling several hilltops and moving endless 200-ton blocks of stone to build the city without cement, cranes, or CAD-CAM. It was truly impressive, and fascinating.

Wednesday is the final day for the full delegation. We will meet with the Israel governmental leaders, plan for the return trip home, and decide how best to continue the momentum generated during this visit; and extend the tour of Jerusalem by picking up with the story of Jesus’s role in shaping the history of the city.

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