If “Start-Up Nation” declared to the world how Israel became an innovation powerhouse, another book published in March gets at the question of why.
In “Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israel Ingenuity Is Repairing the World”, financial technology entrepreneur, foreign affairs commentator and author Avi Jorisch examines the spiritual mindset that has spurred world-changing Israeli technologies. He says it all comes from the marriage of millennia-old prophetic traditions with strong secular institutions like the military, government and universities.
Visiting Atlanta for a book talk, Mr. Jorisch said that the Jewish people have historically held out “repairing the world” (known as tikkun olam in Hebrew) as an ideal; the modern state of Israel has just provided the machinery to make it happen practically.
“I really feel like our moment has arrived — we have finally met our destiny after 3,000 years,” Mr. Jorisch told Global Atlanta in an interview the morning after an evening book signing and lecture sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel in Atlanta and Conexx.
The idea was implicit in the establishment of the state of Israel, when founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared it a place where all Jews could come home, bringing a pool of diversity that, when blended together, would benefit the rest of mankind. For Mr. Jorisch, whose four grandparents all survived the Holocaust, that’s a particularly resonant theme.
“He seemed to be saying that at the very center, at the very heart and soul of the state of Israel, part of its raison d’être, was not only to improve the lives of its own citizens, but to play an active role in improving the lives of people around the world,” Mr. Jorisch told Global Atlanta.
The author’s book, his fifth overall after a series of tomes focused on terror finance and money laundering, grew out of sheer fascination and optimistic vision. As he traveled to Israel, he was stunned at how the country was able to tackle big problems at home, then export and scale solutions. It happened so frequently and naturally, he reasoned, it must be fueled by a deeper, overarching ethos.
One piece of technology that brought home the possibilities of Israeli innovation was the Iron Dome, a missile-defense system that uses advanced radar and imaging software to shoot incoming rockets out of the sky. It was first deployed during the war with Gaza in 2014, a time when Mr. Jorisch happened to be in the country.
But other technologies — some life-saving in more traditional ways — practically begged to be highlighted, he said. The book contains in-depth profiles of 15 such innovations, from exoskeletons to help paraplegics walk again to solar arrays that also collect rainwater. Mr. Jorisch could have easily kept going.
“I waited for the ones that really spoke to me the loudest. They were all inspiring stories,” he said.
Among them were drip irrigation, the water-saving agricultural technique commercialized between early researcher Simcha Blass and an Israeli kibbutz. The resulting company, Netafim, now sells in 110 countries and holds nearly a third of the world’s market share for drip irrigation products.
Then there’s the United Hatzalah, a medical dispatch system that notifies the five closest volunteer responders to an emergency. They often show up on “ambucycles” — mopeds outfitted with medical equipment that enable them to weave through traffic. Average response time has been shaved to three minutes nationwide in Israel, and now the solution is coming to the U.S.
Despite having steeped in these stories while writing the book, Mr. Jorisch still gets visibly animated while outlining the ways Israel has set new standards in otherwise-staid sectors like wastewater treatment. Israel recycles about 90 percent of its used water, a percentage that’s about five times higher than Spain, its next closest competitor. Drugs made in this country of 8 million treat more than half the world’s 2.5 million multiple sclerosis patients. New desalination methods are cutting the cost of fresh water. Deserts are being turned into farmland. The list goes on and on.
“This is the story I want people to walk away with: When they think of Israel, I do want them to think of a technological powerhouse,” Mr. Jorisch said. “But there are a lot of technological powerhouses. I want them to think of Israel as a force for good.”
While the ideas of “social enterprise” or “connected capitalism” have been floated as a remedy to greed that creates inequality, Israelis have been quietly using business as an instrument to change the world, with profit driving long-term sustainability, said Mr. Jorisch. He sees it as silly to separate the relational aspects of business from the financial ones: Doing so might reflect that some entrepreneurs aren’t thinking big enough.
“When you are solving a large global problem like water scarcity, like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or a whole host of other afflictions, you are by definition going to make money in order to drive the ability to solve the problem,” he said. “It’s kind of baked in.”
Surrounded by hostile neighbors and armed with a sense of global community, Israeli entrepreneurs didn’t have the luxury of resting on a good-enough solution for a large-enough home market.
“That both kills ideas very quickly and also, for the very good ones, scales them,” Mr. Jorisch said.
Two solutions outlined in the book have strong Atlanta connections.
Alpha Omega, a company founded by Arab Israelis Imad and Reem Younis, has found success in the U.S. selling medical devices that help map brain activity, enabling neurosurgeons to pinpoint specific areas for stimulation to treat Parkinson’s and other ailments. The North American operation is managed out of Alpharetta. (Hear the couple speak at this upcoming event July 12)
Given Imaging, which developed the PillCam that takes pictures of a patient’s gastrointestinal tract after being swallowed, was sold for about $860 million in 2013. Atlanta was its springboard into the U.S. market.
Mr. Jorisch has traveled to Atlanta many times (his merchant processing company has a relationship with payments giant First Data) and sees potential locally for deeper collaborations with Israel.
He suggested that Georgia foster more university relationships, sponsor more trips for lawmakers and businesspeople and forge research partnerships that tap into Israeli brainpower to tackle unsolved problems.
That has already begun. As Global Atlanta first reported in June, the application period opened this month for grants that will be awarded to Israeli and Georgia companies working together across a variety of industry sectors. Atlanta-based Southern Co. and the Israeli Innovation Authority are evenly splitting responsibility for the $2 million in seed funding. The Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Centers of Innovation program is administering the project.
Learn more and buy the book here.