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When it comes to Israeli weddings, jeans may be the fashion; but when it's about mingling with the international business community, Israelis have learned to clean up their act. Last week (May 9-11), the nation's local and international agricultural exhibition, Agritech - a three-day conference and business market - was held at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.
It was time for Israelis to show the world that a national recession is no longer looming over our heads. Shoes were shined, tractors polished, ties were in place and enthusiasm for new business prospects abounded as visitors bearing name tags from countries such as Spain, the US, China and Holland came to learn how Israelis have built agricultural technology famous the world over.
The event offered something for everyone. There were opportunities for foreign governments, multinational companies and venture capitalists looking to invest in agricultural technology. At the same time, the meet appealed to local farmers looking to forecast apple quality, how to fertigate* the organic way or cool down cattle with highly pressurized mist.
This year's Agritech also hosted The Tides of Change, an intimate conference and showcase of Israeli companies dedicated solely to advanced water technologies.
In Israel, water and agriculture are inseparable. It takes either great amounts of water or crafty ways of using it to grow crops in the country's hot and dry climate.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," noted Baruch Oren, chairman of the national water company Mekorot. "Since Israel's early days, the country's water sector has been forced to provide its citizenry with advanced solutions," he wrote in the conference brochure, explaining boldly that Israel pioneered the concepts of a national water carrier, drip irrigation, water desalination and purifying wastewater.
Today the market is ripening, and business magazines predict that water will be the oil of the future. About half the world's countries face serious water shortages, and the World Health Organization estimates that more than a billion people are without access to renewable water sources. Insufficient clean water leads to death by diarrhea, which kills about 1.6 million people a year, most of them children under five. Things are only expected to get worse as the world's population grows.
Israeli technology promises to alleviate some of the problems in developed and developing nations alike, especially in the areas of water conservation and treatment.
Just meters from the Luna Park fairground with its roller coaster overhead, dozens of Israeli companies displayed their water wares at the Waterfronts pavilion. Some have been around for decades, like Plastro Irrigation; others like start-up Shir Solution are hoping to be the next big thing.
Eytan Levy, CEO of AqWise, was surprised by how much attention his Hadera-based company received at the Tides of Change symposium, since it was an event for intended for agriculturalists, he said. He left with a pocket full of business cards from Singapore and India.
His company is delivering a much-needed solution for water treatment plants that are failing to measure up to environmental guidelines. The core of the technology is seemingly simple: Thousands upon thousands of plastic beads are sent swimming among wastewater. The structure of the beads provides surface area for cultivating fecal-munching bacteria. In effect, AqWise is building condominiums for bacteria. The company helps bacteria do their job more efficiently by providing optimal conditions such as increased air circulation, which means that more water can be reclaimed and less polluted water sent into the environment.
"We are upgrading existing wastewater treatment plants so that waste won't go to rivers, the sea or irrigation systems," Levy told Metro, explaining that new environmental regulations around the world are forcing water treatment plants to comply. "We are adding our technology to existing plants not in compliance," he noted.
Business is already booming for the company, with units installed in the US, Canada, Latin American and Israel.
"It looks like a simple application," says Levy, "but there's a lot of hi-tech behind it. We have used software to simulate the [biomass conversion] process and calculate the amount of air needed in the system."
Locally, AqWise's bacteria condos are being used at treatment plants in Yavne, Gush Etzion, Kfar Rupin near Beit She'an and the company's research and development center at the Hadera treatment plant.
"The whole water industry is buzzing now. It used to be conservative, but over the past year there was a revolution when multinational conglomerates including Siemens, General Electric and 3M entered the market," said Levy. "These companies are now key players. They are acquiring companies to get the critical mass to be dominant in this market."
The flipside of big corporations swallowing smaller companies, he agreed, is that new technologies will be able to bring low-cost solutions that can affect people around the globe.
"Efficient wastewater treatment prevents contamination of underground water. Many diseases we see in Africa will be eliminated in the future. We hope to be a part of this," Levy said.
Israel has the potential to be a leader in providing water technology solutions, noted Ori Yogev, chairman of Waterfronts, the Israel water alliance.
"Israeli companies are known abroad for their expertise in water reclamation and purification, quality and treatment, measurement and leakage, and safety and security."
Water is a $400 billion annual business said Siemens VP Joseph Zuback, who was speaking at the conference and looking to Israel as a strategic partner in new water technologies. The water industry is growing for several reasons. One, he pointed out, is that the more people look into water and its constituents, the more "we keep finding trace contaminants from Teflon production, rocket fuel and fertilizers in our water."
The health effects of these chemicals will be a major consideration for the future, he believes. His company is in Israel looking for business opportunities.
"We need real-time analytics to determine trace constituents immediately."
Shir Solution claims to be able to remove toxins as small as viruses from water.
"The product, called Sulis, is a tiny filter inside a cork that can be plugged onto various types of bottles, containers and water taps," says PR rep Aya Achimeir. "It cleans the water. Even if there is a virus, mud or... you know... in the bottle, you can plug it and drink straight from the bottle. It can be used after ecological disasters like the tsunami, when it was hard to bring clean water in."
A third company promising to deactivate the environmental dangers of heavy metals from factory run-off is Veracon Metal. Using iron through a chemical reaction, Veracon claims to make by-products such as nickel and zinc form a precipitate which can easily be separated from water before the effluent enters rivers and the water table.
For a time, Veracon was supported by the Jordan Valley incubator Kinarot, which earlier this month was bought out by a Canadian-Jewish investor, Ronald Stern, for about $25 million. Kinarot will be the first incubator in Israel solely dedicated to advancing water technologies.
"Israel created defense exports up to $5 billion," says Kinarot general manager Meir Teichner. "This [industry] was built by a combination of national ability, science, technology and need. It's the same story as water."
*Fertigation is the process of applying a commercial fertilizer, soil additive or reclaimed water with irrigation water.