Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Israel: The Land of Milk and Honey…and Technology

I recently returned from a family trip to Israel. I was struck by not only how much the country had changed since the last time I was there (25 years ago), but by the incredibly vibrant high tech and entrepreneurial community.

Contrary to the TV images that would lead you to believe that life in this tiny desert country is centered on war, violence, and religion, driving north from Tel Aviv to Haifa you can see large buildings with a “who’s who” of technology company names –Google, Intel, Cisco, and Microsoft. Much of the underlying technology that makes up our desktops and handheld devices was developed in Israel (so I guess you can blame Windows 8 on the Israelis). 

Venturebeat has listed Silicon Wadi (the Arabic word for Valley), a region in and around Tel Aviv, as second only to Silicon Valley in its startup ecosystem, with more startups per capita than anywhere else in the world and 89 companies trading on NASDAQ (second only to the number of U.S. companies). Not bad for a country roughly the size of New Jersey with just over eight million people!

There are probably a lot of reasons why Israel has been able to transform itself from a semi-socialist swamp with few natural resources into a major player in high tech. Others, including The Atlantic, have posited reasons for this success. Some common explanations include Israel’s need (given its “friendly” neighbors) to have cutting edge technology to support its defense forces, a lot of government investment in new enterprises, and the highest number of scientists, technicians, and engineers per capita in the world.

We drove over 1,200 kilometers in a week and saw much of the country. Fortunately, we were able to use the Waze app, a mobile GPS application developed in Israel that uses mapping technology and real-time data from users to determine the best route—think Google Maps on steroids (BTW, Google purchased Waze Mobile for over a billion dollars in 2013). My kids are still quoting the “Waze Lady”—“in zero point one miles, at the roundabout, take the second exit.…”

Unable to stay completely away from my career, we also seized the opportunity to take a tour of Technion (the Israel Institute of Technology). Technion was established in 1912 to foster education in science, engineering, and related fields and it was supported by some really smart people (including Albert Einstein). In addition to learning about the rich history of technology development (including several Nobel Prizes), we were able to meet Charlie and Billy, two 3D printed hexapod robots – invented by a current PhD student, Jonathan Spitz – you can control with your smart phone.

Yes, it’s clear that entrepreneurship and technological innovation are alive and well in Israel. I hope it doesn’t take me another 25 years to get back and see what else they have developed.

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