Avi Jorisch and I met at the AIPAC conference. He was a panelist at an exciting forum titled “The Israeli Ethos,” dealing with Israeli technologies, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Jorisch is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Thou Shalt Innovate. We discussed what is it about Israel that nurtures entrepreneurship and innovation -- and how Israeli innovation has impacted the world.
Joseph Puder (JP): Tell our readers where you come from and what motivated you to write Thou Shalt Innovate?
Avi Jorisch (AJ): I was born into a family of Holocaust survivors and raised primarily in New York City. But I also lived in Israel for long stretches of my childhood, through my teenage years and into adulthood, because of my family’s cultural, historical, and religious ties there.
My interest in Israeli technology was kindled during the summer of 2014, when my family and I lived through Operation Protective Edge, in large part going in and out of bomb shelters. My family, like the rest of Israel, found comfort in the Iron Dome. I marveled at this invention. It kept Israel from descending into the chaos and carnage that was engulfing the rest of the Middle East.
I realized that the Iron Dome was not the only Israeli innovation saving lives. Almost by chance, I began to notice the other innovations around me that were making a real difference in fostering a kinder, gentler world. After every crisis — whether it was a rocket that came crashing down, a traffic accident, or a random heart attack — almost immediately an emergency responder appeared riding on a kind of half ambulance, half motorcycle — an “ambucycle” — which was dispatched using an Uber-like smartphone app. My Jerusalem gardener pointed out that he used a special dripper, which I soon learned was being used by farmers all over the world to conserve one of our most important resources — water — and feed our growing world population. One of my colleagues was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and began undergoing deep brain stimulation to help with his symptoms. I learned that the device being used had been designed by Imad and Reem Younis, an Arab couple from Nazareth. Their innovation has revolutionized brain surgery through a GPS-like system that allows surgeons to treat all kinds of movement and psychiatric disorders by inserting an electrode into the exact part of the brain requiring stimulation.
These stories were like small rays of hope cutting through the darkness I felt was overtaking the region. I wanted to connect with this inspirational side of Israel. I began to deliberately seek out social innovators who were working on challenges — small and large — and were making life better for millions, if not billions, of people around the world
JP: What is it about Israel that nurtures entrepreneurship and innovation?
AJ: There are many reasons why Israel is such a technological powerhouse. Chutzpah, obligatory military service, renowned universities and smart big government — alongside a diverse population and a dearth of natural resources, go a long way in explaining how a country the size of New Jersey is so innovative. But as I show in my book, these reasons only partially explain the story. They do not explain why so many Israeli tech companies, rather than simply trying to make money or making our lives more convenient, also wind up making the world a better place. But you can’t understand Israel if you don’t also look at the country’s culture.
After hundreds of interviews, I have come to believe that Israel’s desire to repair the world is part of a host of Jewish values. Since the Middle Ages and possibly before, Jews have recited the aleinu prayer three times a day, which instructs us to repair the world. Pirkei Avot, or Chapters of the Fathers, a collection of ethical teachings compiled around the second century CE, encourages people to help others. And the prophet Isaiah instructed the children of Israel to act as a light unto the nations. Israel’s founding fathers, chief among them David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, were inspired by these religious teachings. And today, these powerful ideas are woven into the fabric of Israeli society, affecting everyone from Yemeni Jews who have returned to their ancestral homeland to Christians from Nazareth or Muslims from the Golan Heights.
Israel is well known for its foreign aid missions. In the last 70 years, the country has sent aid missions to Africa, Armenia, Argentina, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Rwanda, Turkey and more. Israel engaged in these missions for a variety of reasons, some pragmatic and others idealistic. But the desire for tikkun olam, repairing the world, and bringing more light into the world played a large role in all of them.
Israelis of all faiths see it as their duty to improve the lives of other people across the globe. Yossi Vardi, one of the godfathers of the country’s high-tech revolution, likes to remind me Jewish culture has bred “a nation of people who do seek higher meaning.”
JP: How has Israeli innovation impacted the world?
AJ: In my book I focus on 15 examples of Israeli innovations that are impacting billions of people, and I also list another 50 in the back of the book to round out the picture. One example is an organization called United Hatzalah which essentially acts as the Uber of emergency responders. The organization’s emergency responders all use a crowdsourcing smartphone app that dispatches the five nearest responders to the scene of an emergency in less than three minutes on average, using ambucycles. Developed by Eli Beer, the founder of a nonprofit called United Hatzalah (United Rescue), this technology can be found today in over 20 countries. Another innovation is drip irrigation, which is used by over a billion people around the world, using a third less water than traditional irrigation techniques and doubles yield. Yet another is Rebif, a drug used by 600,000 of the approximately 2.5 million people afflicted by multiple sclerosis (Copaxone, another popular MS drug, was also developed in Israel). In addition, the firewall was created in Israel by Checkpoint, whose solution protects more than 100,000 businesses, including 94 percent of Fortune 100 firms, 87 percent of Fortune 500 firms, and nearly every government in the world.
The Grain Cocoon, a hermetic storage bag, is playing an important role in curbing global hunger, saving people from malnutrition, and pulling farmers around the globe out of the cycle of poverty. There are 805 million chronically undernourished people in the world. In the developing world, many farmers still use burlap sacks to store their goods. Insects can easily infiltrate these bags, often destroying more than half of a farmer’s harvest. When farmers use pesticides, it often leads to extreme sickness and even death. And worse, over time, toxic products become ineffective.
Professor Shlomo Navarro of the prestigious Israel Agricultural Research Organization is the innovator behind this “Ziploc bag” for rice, grain, spices and legumes. The bag can hold anywhere from five to 300 tons of grain. It’s made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a strong material that doesn’t tear easily. When farmers seal the bag, it traps bugs and their eggs inside and deprives them of oxygen, suffocating them to death, which makes pesticides unnecessary. On average, Navarro says, the cocoon can save more than 99 percent of a farmer’s crops. It can be used any time after harvest collection, and once grain is placed inside it, the insects generally die within about 10 days.
JP: What are your predictions about Israel’s future in the global community?
AJ: Entire industries and countries are looking to Israel to help them solve their challenges: Israel has over 300 research and development centers owned by multinational companies in various fields, including Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Intel and Microsoft. China, India and the United States now look to Israel to help solve their increasing water needs. Universities around the world are forging strong partnerships and creating joint innovation centers with Israel’s best and brightest institutions so as to work together in fields including engineering, biology, physics and chemistry. Also, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and agricultural ventures are reaching out to Israel to help them cure the sick and feed the needy. The country is a beacon of hope, and its citizens are ready to help solve local and global challenges.
I expect Israel’s global impact for good to continue into the future. The innovators featured in my book, along with others, will continue to forge ahead and do their part to make the country — and the world — a better place.