Big results from thinking small

20 years after pioneering digital color printing, Benny Landa's latest venture promises to shake up the industry, again.

Benny Landa’s latest start-up, Landa Digital Printing, reportedly harvested orders worth 450 million euros for its innovative digital printing presses at the Drupa printing trade fair in June (photo credit: COURTESY OF LANDA DIGITAL PRINTING)
Benny Landa’s latest start-up, Landa Digital Printing, reportedly harvested orders worth 450 million euros for its innovative digital printing presses at the Drupa printing trade fair in June
BENNY LANDA, one of Israel’s pioneer entrepreneurs, founded Indigo ‒ which makes digital offset color printers ‒ in 1977, and sold it to Hewlett-Packard (HP) in September 2001 for $830 million in cash and stock.
Unlike in most such exits, Indigo kept its production in Israel, in Ness Ziona, south of Tel Aviv. HP Israel employs some 5,500 people, a majority of whom work for the Indigo division. Indigo digital printing presses use colored electrically charged ink applied directly to a drum, eliminating the need for expensive lithographic plates and enabling shorter, economical print runs.
According to the business daily The Marker, Landa’s personal wealth is about $850m.
Landa is 70 years old, yet he continues to launch and grow start-ups, and tirelessly travels the world. He owns or shares more than 800 patents, a number approaching the thousand-odd patents held by Thomas Edison.
So, why does a billionaire – and many others like him – continue to start companies, file patents, work very long hours, take on enormous challenges and risks, and disrupt industries? What drives billionaires to be serial entrepreneurs? And why does Landa counsel us that “big results come from thinking small?” Last year, incoming tourism to Israel fell for the second year in a row, dropping 4 percent from 2014 to 2.8 million visitors. However, a different type of tourism is booming − “innovation tourism.”
These are visitors from China, Singapore, France, even the United States, who want to learn the recipe for Israel’s secret sauce ‒ the ingredients that generate Israel’s enormous innovative energy and creative start-ups, and fuel some 300 R&D centers. Many of them come to the Technion ‒ Israel Institute of Technology, and I am fortunate to meet and greet a lot of them.
So, what is this “secret sauce”? The story of Landa’s journey always captivates our visitors.
Lately, Landa’s start-up Landa Digital Printing harvested a massive number of orders for its innovative digital printing presses − by one report, 450 million euros worth − at Drupa, the world’s largest printing trade fair, which is held every four years, most recently from May 31-June 10 in Düsseldorf, Germany.
I watched Landa’s presentation at Drupa on YouTube, and it brought to mind Steve Jobs’s iconic announcement of the first Macintosh personal computer in 1984. Landa’s training in film was highly evident in his charismatic pitch.
Landa’s breakthrough technology, Nanographic Printing®, promises to radically change the way things are printed.
IT ALL began in remote Edmonton, Canada, where Landa’s parents immigrated from Poland when he was two. His father had a tobacco shop with a photo booth in the back that served as a studio and dark room, where he invented a new camera using bicycle parts and pulleys that captured images straight onto photographic paper rather than onto film. Decades later, after making aliya in 1974, Landa developed and perfected his father’s original idea for filmless imaging.
I interviewed Landa to learn firsthand the ingredients of his own “secret sauce.”
The Jerusalem Report: You have a wonderfully varied background ‒ son of immigrants with an inventor father, you studied engineering and physics, but also psychology, literature and film. I believe this varied background was extremely helpful in your success as an entrepreneur. Can you comment?
Landa: “Actually, I don’t think that being a career dropout had anything to do with being a successful entrepreneur. I dropped out of engineering and physics at the Technion, dropped out of psychology and literature at the Hebrew University, and graduated only in film [at the London Film School]. Being a dropout and an entrepreneur are both symptoms of the same afflictions: chronic impatience and pathological curiosity. It’s a deadly combination.
“As a student, as soon as you ‘get it,’ you need to move on to something else. As an entrepreneur, chronic impatience makes you race to the finish line, taking every possible shortcut. But that gets you there first, which is everything.
“And where is ‘there?’ That’s where chronic curiosity comes in. ‘There’ is a place no one else has ever been. For me, being first where no one else has ever been ‒ that’s what I live for. And I believe that’s also what motivates our people and is a key ingredient for success.”
Research by my Technion colleague Prof. Ella Miron-Spektor on innovation is pertinent.
She finds that creativity is universal, worldwide, but has different motives. In China, entrepreneurs seek useful, pragmatic inventions. But, in Israel, entrepreneurs like Landa want breakthrough novelty, to change the world. Sometimes, they shoot too high and fall on their faces. At other times, they enrich our lives immensely by “being first where no one else has ever been.”
Landa argues that 97 percent of all printing today is still done by conventional mechanical methods, in which a printing plate is smeared with ink and then transferred to paper, duplicating the same image over and over. He is determined to radically change that.
IN 1439, Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith, combined several key innovations – movable type, a wooden “screw” press and oil-based ink − to mass produce printed books. Initially, he printed 42-line Bibles, of which 49 still survive, in whole or in part. This invention contributed directly to the Renaissance and today’s knowledge- driven economy. Some say it was the greatest innovation of the millennium.
During the 600 years since Gutenberg, printing has remained a mechanical process ‒ until Landa’s introduced the invention of the world’s first digital color printing press, the Indigo E-Print 1000, in 1993. Bypassing Gutenberg’s printing plate altogether, digital printing enabled printing from a computer file directly onto paper. The advent of digital printing shook the industry to its foundations, spawning such products as short-run books, on-demand brochures, vanity publishing, personal photo albums, and even the “Share a Coke” campaign with personalized labels.
That isn’t to say that today’s digital printing doesn’t have drawbacks. It’s much slower than conventional printing; it doesn’t support large-size sheets needed for high-volume production, and prints on expensive, special types of paper. But Landa tells us that all this is about to change – again.
Landa has developed a second-generation digital printing process called “Landa NanoInk Nanography,” which uses nano- pigment inks. The process is up to 20 times faster than current digital solutions, and prints on any standard paper or plastic.
By thinking small (nano), Landa has created a potentially huge breakthrough in this $900 billion industry.
The Report: Do you believe that entrepreneurship can be taught, and if so, how? How can the Technion and other universities best inspire their graduates to do start-ups? Landa: “I think that you could inspire graduates by inculcating risk-taking and an appreciation of failure. Successful start-ups and innovation require an appreciation of failure. Of course, we are success-oriented, and certainly praise and reward those who succeed.
“However, true innovation comes only by thinking out of the box, by daring to do things differently. In other words, by navigating uncharted waters and taking risks, huge risks. Those who cannot take risks, cannot innovate.
“We, therefore, encourage our people to dare to pursue the impossible, knowing that they may well fail. Failing to achieve a goal is not failure ‒ not attempting is.
For me, nothing is more impossible than violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which, on the face of it, is what I asked of my team in pursuing low temperature thermal energy conversion. Of course, there was no intention to actually defy any laws of nature – only to question conventional wisdom as to their interpretation. The willingness of our researchers to take such risks was essential to their success, which spawned numerous subsequent nanotechnology innovations ‒ including our Nanographic Printing® process.
“NOTHING IS more ephemeral than technology: here today, obsolete tomorrow. It is, therefore, essential to constantly seek to disrupt the old way of doing things – even if you invented the ‘old way’ in the first place.
“Thus, barely 20 years after unveiling the world’s first digital color printing press (based on our invention of “Digital Offset Color” printing), we introduced a revolutionary new technology called Nanography, also known as the Landa Nanographic Printing® Process.
The technology is poised to take mainstream packaging, publishing and commercial printing to an entirely new level of quality and productivity – at much lower cost.”
The Report: Why do you consistently battle to keep production of your innovations in Israel?
Landa: “I think that, in general, Israel’s early-exit mentality is damaging for our country. We are becoming the world’s leading R&D lab instead of its hi-tech factory.
In my time, young entrepreneurs wanted to generate exports, not exits. Though R&D revenue has some trickle-down benefits for the economy, it will never compensate for Israel’s dearth of factory jobs.
“We will manufacture our Landa Nanographic Printing® Presses in Israel. We currently have several facilities in Israel, and we are currently building a large campus that will house all of our R&D, manufacturing and other functions. The special ink used by our presses, Landa NanoInk®, is already being produced in Israel, and we are opening a larger facility. In the coming years, we will also manufacture ink in other regions of the world.
“Indigo succeeded in maintaining production in Israel after being acquired by HP because that was a condition of sale. During the negotiations of the sale of Indigo, I insisted – and HP agreed – to continue to invest in Israel, both in R&D and manufacturing.
Today, HP-Indigo accounts for almost 0.5% of Israel’s GDP.
“The problem is one of values. Who is more highly respected in Israeli society today, the industrialist who employs thousands, or the serial entrepreneur who made millions? I am afraid to ask…”
The Report: Many or even most start-ups lose their creative spark as they scale up. How will you, at Landa Digital Printing, retain your innovative energy, as your company grows and becomes somewhat bureaucratized?
Landa: “Maintaining the energy of innovation as the company grows is a challenge. We try to continue this spirit of innovation by maintaining, as much as possible, the hallmarks of our organization when it was smaller. We have an open-door culture in which everyone is encouraged to express their frank opinions, even a “healthy irreverence” of authority, including my own.
“But true innovation comes from a combination of factors. First and foremost, the kind of people you hire. We look for energetic, committed and creative employees who love their work. Then we give them the best tools that money can buy – and challenge them to challenge conventional wisdom, to question the old way of doing things. And then we reward their failure to achieve the impossible. And do you know what? That makes the impossible possible ‒ sometimes. But sometimes is enough.”
World-renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner passed away recently. He was 100 years old.
Bruner forever changed the way we see the world and the way we understand human thinking. As a pioneer cognitive psychologist, he helped us rethink the mind as what he calls a “hypothesis generator” – the human can envision both actual worlds and possible worlds − the title of one of his most famous books.
Bruner’s landmark 1991 article “The Narrative Construction of Reality” showed that we understand reality by telling ourselves stories – about ourselves, about others, about how things work.
I think a key element of Israel’s “start-up sauce” is powerful stories like that of Benny Landa and his “think small” nanography − stories that are widely known and told, and create high aspirations. Small stories inspire our young people to think big. At the Technion, we tell them all the time.
Technology is becoming smaller and smaller – such as Landa’s NanoInk colorants or Intel’s 10-nanometer microprocessors.
(A nanometer, a billionth of a meter, is the width of just 10 hydrogen atoms.) But even as technology shrinks, Landa proves that human energy, creativity and aspiration in Israel is still big, and doing big things.
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at