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Shooting down missiles, squeezing water from nothing: Why Israel is the innovation nation

Israel has long punched well above its weight in inventing things the world wants

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The National Post has been celebrating the modern state of Israel ahead of its 75th anniversary on April 26, telling the remarkable story of its rebirth and resilience against all odds.

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It’s often said of Israel that in a land devoid of natural resources, they had to build an economy based on their human capital.

Tack on a deliberate government focus on driving innovation, and it’s part of why the country has long punched well above its weight in the tech field. Israel routinely ranks number one in the world for per-capita startups, and it has a rate of tech investment that has been as much as 28 times higher than the United States.

The USB stick was invented in Israel in the 1980s. Israeli agricultural scientists helped to popularize the cherry tomato. And any smartphone is inevitably going to be shot through with Israeli code, most notably if that phone has Waze installed.

But in addition to the country’s overall talent at inventing things, there are a few very specific niches in which Israeli companies are curiously dominant.

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Israel is a weird place, with any number of strange conditions that don’t really exist anywhere else on Earth: Small size, lack of water, heavy immigrant population, unusually hostile neighbours. The result is that the country’s scientists keep inventing their way out of uniquely Israeli problems — while unwittingly creating technologies with global appeal.

Below, a few of the areas where Israel has become particularly dominant, thanks in large part to pragmatism.

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Computers that can translate in real time

Only about half of Israelis are native-born speakers of the country’s national language, Hebrew. All across Israel’s borders, meanwhile, are speakers of everything from Arabic to French to Kurdish.

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These factors might explain why Israeli tech companies have shown a particular interest in developing translation machines. In 1997, an Israeli company debuted Babylon, one of the first software programs to offer instantaneous translation of documents and web pages.

Another 1990s Israeli company, Wizcom Technologies, debuted pens that could scan words and translate them onto an LCD screen. More recently, an Israeli firm is also behind OrCam Read, a handheld device that can scan printed pages and read them aloud.

Squeezing water from nothing

If you’re holding a conference on water conservation, chances are good that your keynote speaker will be an Israeli. Maximizing scarce water resources was one of the first major technical challenges to face Israeli scientists: The country is largely desert, and almost all of the usual sources of surface water come by way of neighbours that are not particularly fond of Israel.

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And now, as an increasingly drought-stricken world looks for ways to scrimp on water consumption, they’re looking to an Israel that is now managing to produce 20 per cent more water than it needs. There’s three main ways Israel has been able to do that. Huge desalination plants that repurpose seawater into drinking water. A centralized water management system that repurposes wastewater, replenishes aquifers and moves water around on a complex system of canals, pipes and reservoirs.

And the most famous is drip irrigation, a method of agriculture developed in 1950s Israel that – as its name suggests – waters crops using targeted drips rather than sprinklers.

Ubiquitous home seltzer machines

Food is one sector in which Israeli inventions have generally failed to obtain global appeal. The country’s most popular packaged food is Bamba, a kind of bland Cheeto that has utterly failed to achieve popularity outside Israeli borders. Ditto with the national soft drink, Mitz Paz, a chemical-y brew whose appeal is a mystery to most outsiders.

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But Israel can definitively claim title to one gastronomic revolution: Ubiquitous countertop carbonated water machines.

Home carbonation technology is not particularly new; the home seltzer bottle predates the creation of the State of Israel by several decades. And SodaStream itself was originally a British company selling home carbonation units primarily to the U.K. market.

But the Jewish diaspora has long played a hand in the worldwide popularization of seltzer, with the result that the world’s only Jewish state quickly emerged as a safe customer base for any company selling fizzy water. In Israeli hands, SodaStream’s key innovation was launching a global distribution network in which millions of consumers across more than 40 countries were within range of a place that could swap out their refillable CO2 cylinders.

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The Pillcam ESO is used to photograph a patient’s esophagus.
The Pillcam ESO is used to photograph a patient’s esophagus.

Getting tiny cameras inside the human body

The Israeli medical technology that typically gets the most attention (at least on the Internet) is Rewalk, a robotic exoskeleton that allows paraplegics to walk again. But one facet of medical research that has become dominated by Israeli researchers is the rather futuristic goal of getting tiny cameras and sensors into the human body.

Tel Aviv-based ENvizion Medical has created a “smart” feeding tube that helps chart its own path down the esophagus — preventing health-care providers from accidentally sending the tube into the lungs.

The Aer-O-Scope colonoscope is a particularly flexible and high-resolution means of sending in a tube to look around the human colon. And then there’s PillCam, which is exactly what it sounds like: A camera-equipped pill that you swallow so doctors can take a look at the state of your intestines. Best of all, the PillCam’s components are cheap enough that it’s disposable.

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As to why robust tiny cameras are an Israeli specialty, it’s largely an offshoot of the country’s well-developed security tech sector. With surveillance cameras, drones and spy cameras a big part of Israeli defence technology, there just happened to be a lot of researchers around who knew how to see into hard-to-reach places.

Israel has an advanced catalogue of technologies designed to shoot down missiles from hostile neighbours.
Israel has an advanced catalogue of technologies designed to shoot down missiles from hostile neighbours.

Shooting down missiles

Israel doesn’t have a monopoly on technology that can bring down an incoming missile. Of late, Ukraine has been doing a fantastic job taking down incoming Russian missiles, and they’ve done it exclusively with technology from Germany, Norway, the United States and the former Soviet Union.

But Israel has been taking more incoming missiles — for longer — than anyone else on the planet. The result is a pretty advanced catalogue of technologies designed to shoot these missiles down. Iron Dome is the famous one; the latticework of sensors and interceptor missiles along Israel’s border can block about 90 per cent of incoming rockets and artillery shells.

For larger threats — say, an incoming warhead from Iran — Israel has developed Arrow 3, a quick-reaction missile “designed to intercept and destroy the newest, longer-range threats, especially those carrying weapons of mass destruction.”

And they even have a tiny anti-missile system that can be attached to tanks and armoured vehicles. The Trophy countermeasure system is designed to detect an incoming anti-tank missile and then cripple it at the last second with a burst of small projectiles.

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