Israeli innovation on display

Museum exhibits the country’s top inventions; 'Start-Up Nation' author Singer says Israelis have "turned adversity into a renewable source of creative energy."

September 22, 2011 14:16
Israeli innovations on display at museum

Israeli innovation ML 311. (photo credit: Arieh O’Sullivan / The Media Line)

The Disk on Key. Popularly known as a flash drive, it comes in many shapes and sizes but they are all “data in your pocket” and another one of those modern necessities we can’t imagine living without.

It all began more than a decade ago when an Israeli scientist couldn’t get a PowerPoint
presentation off of his crashed lap top and began thinking of a way to transfer digital data easily. When it came out in 2000, Disk on Key could hold eight megabytes of memory. The latest one can store a whopping 64 gigabytes.

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It’s another example of some of the inventions produced by the ever-churning minds of Israelis, who have been the source of so many high tech inventions. A new exhibit at the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem not only puts them on display but attempts to discover just how they do it.

“The number of patents originating here per capita is a world record and we wanted to
expose the general public to these products and also to tell what happens in Israel that
allows the flowering of technological developments,” Varda Gur Ben-Shitrit, curator of
the museum’s “Innovation, Inc.” exhibition, told The Media Line.

Another invention is Baby Sense, which monitors an infant’s breathing, and then there
is the Better Place electric car, solar power windows for skyscrapers, 3-D printers and
cherry tomatoes. Some are still being developed - Like a Fish aims to separate air
from water so divers can literally breathe under water, thus eliminating the need for an

Mobile eye is a small camera that is attached to the front of a vehicle and detects objects that may be a danger to the car. Its eye blocks out the danger with a red box on a screen that shows the driver exactly where the object is located.

Israel is well known for its great innovations in weaponry and defense products:
from the Uzi sub-machine gun to the Arrow anti-ballistic missile. But the museum
decided not to even mention them in their exhibit.

“We in the museum wanted to take advantage of this stage to showcase innovations that weren’t defense related and had more to do with our civilian lives like medicine, food, agriculture, water, and communications,” Gur Ben-Shitrit says.

Yet many Israeli inventions emerged from technologies developed for the defense
industry. For example, the pill camera used to diagnose intestinal disorders uses the same technology employed first in laser-guided missiles. Looking like a miniature rocket with a glass eye, a patient swallows it and it sends back live-time video images of the digestive tract to detect abnormalities.

“We wanted this exhibition to be a sort of ambassador to the world. Pushing our military prowess is something that other bodies do, but pushing our intellectual and R&D capabilities is something that I think this exhibition can do well,” Gur Ben-Shitrit said.

Many people have speculated just what it is about Israeli culture that makes it so
innovative. Saul Singer is the co-author of the bestseller Start-Up Nation and he says one of the secrets is Israel’s geopolitical situation.

“Basically we have turned adversity into a renewable source of creative energy that goes into start-ups, that goes into culture, that goes into arts and social entrepreneurship and all kinds of things. That is what makes Israel so exciting,” Singer told The Media Line.

Another factor is the relatively massive resources devoted to innovation. Israel’s national expenditure for research and development is 4.9% of its gross domestic product, the most in the world. The number of scientists and engineers is 27 per one thousand people - second place in the world.

President Shimon Peres says that Israelis are innovative because they are
restless. Other countries have tried to replicate Israel’s seemingly unique hothouse
for creativity and invention, which takes place in its thousands of start-up high tech
companies as it does in the labs of its universities.

“To do start-ups you need to be very mission oriented. You need to be very driven, you need to actually be motivated by something more than money. And patriotism is one of those key motivations. The idea that you are doing something for your country, for the world is a very important part of start-ups,” Singer says.

Both Singer and Gur Ben-Shitrit cite the informality of Israeli society with the
networking provided by the mandatory military service as unique aspects that cultivate

“In many ways our society encourages non-conformism and breaking authority, where a worker has an open door to their boss and can propose ideas without going through too many formal channels. This informality of Israeli culture creates shortcuts allows for flexibility and quick answers,” Gur Ben-Shitrit said.

“We don’t believe a lot in hierarchy. We don’t have a lot of respect for authority. We
don’t have a lot of patience,” Singer echoes. “All these things make us good at start ups. They don’t make us very good at building big companies.”

At the museum, children are encouraged to be an inventor for a day and get the sense
of developing their own product. They don white latex gloves and decorate them at a
workshop with various materials such as sensors, magnets, electrical wire and other tools.

“We see a lot of reactions of pride. We are showing 46 Israeli developments. And to
come and see this mass of innovation, some known, some not, all Israeli generates pride,” Gur Ben-Shitrit says.

Asher Altshul, a father escorting his kids to the museum, was delighted to see Israel
showing off its innovative prowess and pushing a more positive side than what is often
portrayed in the media.

“Israel gets in the press so much for all other things,” Altshul says. “This exhibit is
something very important because it highlights our innovation. You want children to
come and be inspired to look for better solutions to their problems.”

So this begs the question, does Israel need a sense of adversity to be so innovative?

“As a nation we pray we have less adversity than we do now,” Singer says. “We wish
we didn’t have to be in the army as long as we do. We wish we didn’t have boycotts and attacks and so only and if those forms of adversity go down we will have to figure out other ways to keep us on our toes, to keep us on the cutting edge. The fact that we have used adversity to become innovative doesn’t mean that we want it to continue.”

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