In Israel, clean tech is not the new new thing

David Ben-Gurion, a clean tech pioneer

David Ben-Gurion, clean tech pioneer

Sounding more like a clean tech venture capitalist than a head of state, David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, once said that Israel requires “the study of desalination, massive utilization of solar energy, preventing waste of useful rainwater and maximization of power from wind turbines.”

Ben Gurion, who was born in 1886, said this in 1955. This was a man ahead of his time.

Since then, an Israeli company called Netafim pioneered the idea of drip irrigation in agriculture to save water, another called Luz built the first solar thermal power plants, still another called IDE Technologies became a global leader in desalination and Chromagen developed solar thermal water heaters that can be found on most rooftops in Israel, and elsewhere.

Today, Israel, which has been dubbed Startup Nation, remains a seedbed of clean tech innovation–last year it ranked second in the world (behind Denmark) in a report called Coming Clean: The Cleantech Global Innovation Index 2012 [PDF, download] by CleanTech Group and WWF.  I visited Israel last week, and had a chance to talk with a founder of Israel Cleantech Ventures, the chairman of a company called Miya Water and executives at electric-car company Better Place. I’ll report this week on my findings.

First, some context. As Ben-Gurion saw more than half a century ago, Israel is short on natural resources–water, land, oil–and thus needs to use what it has efficiently. This is the biggest, but not the only, explanation for the growth of Israeli clean tech. Most everyone serves in the military, exposing them to advanced technology. Ariella Grinberg, a young associate with Israel Cleantech Ventures, told me she did her service in the Israeli equivalent of the US’s super-secret NSA (National Security Agency), overseeing a multimillion dollar budget and sophisticated software, when she was just 19. The country also benefits from its world-class colleges and universities, among the Israel Institute of Technology, aka the Technion, the nation’s oldest university. (Here’s a fun example of what their students can do.) A strong entrepreneurial spirit pervades the culture, which may also have its roots in universal military service. “People come out of the army, they’re tired of taking orders, they want to be their own boss,” one executive told me. Finally, targeted government support for basic research has helped underwrite the sector.

Jack Levy

Jack Levy

Jack Levy of Israel Cleantech Ventures (ICV) was born in the US, educated at Harvard and Columbia, and chose to move to Israel in 2003 because he wanted to help build the nation. He worked at an Internet startup called Register.com before founding ICV in 2006 with Meir Ukeles, a classmate from his Jewish day school in New York who worked on Wall Street and in venture capital, and Glen Schwaber, a college friend who also came out of the venture world. They have raised money in Israel, Europe and the US, close to $150 million in all.

Based in Kfar Hayarok, about 35 minutes north of Tel Aviv, ICV was the nation’s first green technology fund, but it required no explanation.

“For five decades, the mentality was that we have few resources, that we have to make do with less,” Jack said.

The fund  invests in very early stage Israel companies, working closely with the management team and connecting the startups with international partners.

“Israel is a beta site for a lot of our companies,” Jack told me. “But the real market is global.”

The company has made a dozen investments, most small. Among the most interesting:

  • Pythagoras Solar makes building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) products–basically, windows that generate solar energy, as well as shading and insulation. Founded in 2007, and with operations in Israel, China and the US, Pythagoras says it “will advance distributed power generation” and “help achieve Net Zero Energy Buildings.” Its first solar windows were installed last year at the LaFarge, Wisconsin, headquarters of Organic Valley, the organic farmers’ cooperative. Pythagoras is working closely with Guardian, a major Michigan-based glass maker.
  • Cellera is an early-stage fuel cell company whose technology eliminates the need for platinum in fuel cells, thereby lowering costs. Vodafone Ventures, the global venture capital arm of Vodafone Group, has invested in Cellera because its fuel cells could be economically used to provide backup power for mobile phone towers in the developing world. The company was started by Shimshon Gottesfeld and his son, Ziv; the senior Gottesfeld was for 16 years the fuel cell technology group leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
  • Emefcy is developing what it calls a “bio-electro-chemical” process for generating electricity, using wastewater as a fuel. As Jack explained it to be, tiny microbes are introduced into wastewater that remove waste and turn it into tiny bits of electricity that can be captured and fed into the grid. “The vision is that you could create energy-free waste water treatment,” he said. Last year, True North Venture Partners, a VC firm founded by Mike Ahearn, the former CEO of First Solar, and Energy Technology Ventures, a joint venture of GE, ConocoPhillips and NRG Energy, invested in Emefcy.

Not all of ICV’s investments will pay off of course but that, too, is business as usual for Israelis. No one who wants a safe and predictable existence would move to Israel.

“We’re a risk-taking nation,” Jack said. “Failure is part of life. You learn from failure, and keep going.”

Comments

  1. This type of case underlines why the whole “green business” lingo and mindset needs to evolve, as it is really lacking in depth. What is really “clean tech” in a country where human rights violations are a massive problem?

    For example, how “clean” is drip irrigation technology when it applied on land that is shall we say…acquired by force…from a small landowner, who is to boot evicted, walled off away from his property and left to basically starve?

    Technology cannot be firewalled off from its social and economic context. We should know that by know.

    This type of coverage is all too shallow and bordering on little more than blatant greenwashing of any all all corporate and government practices.

    • Technology is what it is, no more and no less. Drip irrigation conserves water, whether it is applied by Israelis or Palestinians; or, by saints or sinners. It’s environmental benefits are not diminished by the history or politics of those who apply it, or by the history or politics of the lands in which it is employed.

      Surely you are not suggesting that the residents of the globe not use technologies which would improve their lives if those technologies were developed by those you (or someone else) judge to be imperfect.

      • Marc Gunther says:

        Well said, Ed.

        Cheap solar panels come from China where the government is repressive and undemocratic. (Not to mention cheap electronics, clothes, toys, etc.) Are they tainted as well?

        For what it’s worth, Israel is far from a monolithic country, to put it mildly. I’m not writing about the politics of the Mideast but I heard plenty of grumbling from business people and others about the current government.

        • Is that a trick question? Are solar panels tainted if they come from a polluting factory that pays slave wages? What’s the question here?

          You cannot substitute human suffering or increased pollution for technical advances. That’s insane. If these companies are clever enough to come up with evironmental advances, then they cannot expect praise for doing that while participating in the impoverishment of palestinians.

          At some point people have to come to terms with the fact that “sustainability” is a holistic concept, not a chinese menu, if you forgive the pun. You subscribe or you dont. Those who want to cherry pick are just greenwashing.

          • “If these companies are clever enough to come up with evironmental advances, then they cannot expect praise for doing that while participating in the impoverishment of palestinians.”

            First, there is no nation named “Palestine” nor is there a race of people called “Palestinians”. There are Arabs who live or lived in a geographic area referred to as “Palestine”.

            Second, technology companies do not participate in the impoverishment of “palestinians” (sic). Technology companies invent, design and sell products and services using advanced technologies with the intent to profit from those activities.

            Finally, “You cannot substitute human suffering or increased pollution for technical advances.” China and North Korea do so routinely, though I would not argue that it is wise, or sustainable.

            I am not sure that allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good is a wise strategy, especially in developing countries.

        • I’m not sure what Ed Reid is after by going heading off on a tangent about what a “palestinian” is, unless he is maybe trying to hint that these people should be called “Israelis” and given full citizenship of that country.

          Whatever the case, I am just pointing out that “green” talk here is massively limited in scope – as underlined by the profiling of these companies that are sustainable. They are deeply engaged in what is clearly unsustainable actions. Supply tools to people to work stolen land is not exactly sustainable. no doubt the supporters of this action would find a way to excuse this – but hypocritically of course they would be up arms if any of the companies who benefited from slave labour in 1940s Europe wanted to profile their work from that time as “sustainable”.

          If you cant see and respect others’ humanity, there is no point even getting into any “green” discussion – its just window dressing if used in this blinkered manner. Sustainability is about creating a better life for all – not some chosen few.

          • Somehow I don’t think requiring Lowes and Home Depot to perform background checks and require proof of clear title before selling drip irrigation tubing would work out too well.

            Achieving “sustainability” is not and event; rather, it is a process. Workers in developing countries may someday benefit from the equivalent of a living wage, OSHA inspections, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, etc. However, that will not happen today, or tomorrow. Today, they benefit from having jobs and receiving pay. Tomorrow will likely be better.

            There is no “EASY” button in the real world.

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