On the front lines of Israel’s weaponry

The challenges of defending the Jewish state get very real in the pages of “The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower” by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot (St. Martin’s Press). Although Israel is already known and praised as “the startup nation” — the seedbed of high technology — the story of its weapons development and deployment is especially fascinating and highly consequential.

Both authors are Israeli journalists who specialize in military coverage, and they recognize that advanced weaponry is just one element of Israel’s defense strategy. “Israel relies heavily on the reputation of deterrence it has worked hard to create over the years,” they explain. “We believe that this deterrence rests on three key pillars — Israel’s purported nuclear weapons capability, its strategic alliance with the United States and the conventional capabilities of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces].” It is the third pillar that is the focus of “The Weapon Wizards.”

“Conventional,” of course, means non-nuclear, but the weaponry itself is cutting-edge. Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, for example, acknowledges that Israel’s adversaries are well-armed and that fresh attacks are unpredictable but inevitable. “We will win though,” he tells the authors, “because our soldiers will be prepared and will have the best technology to assist them.”

The tradition is deeply rooted in Zionism. At a hilltop kibbutz near Rehovot in 1945, several years before statehood, a secret ammunition factory was established so that the Jewish fighters would be properly armed despite the ban on weaponry imposed by the British occupation of Palestine. It was literally an underground facility, buried deep underneath the laundry room of the kibbutz, and sunlamps were installed so that “the ‘kibbutzniks’ making the bullets looked tanned, as if they had been out in the fields all day.” The ruse was necessary because one of the customers of the laundry was the local British army base.

By the way, Southern California — and Los Angeles’ own Lou Lenart and Al Schwimmer — figure in the stories that are told here. During the War of Independence, Lenart flew combat missions in a Czech fighter, and Schwimmer participated in the smuggling of refurbished British warplanes from Burbank to Israel in crates marked “Refrigeration Equipment.” But the whole point of “The Weapon Wizards” is that Israel resolutely set out to become a weapons developer and manufacturer in its own right, starting before statehood and continuing with ever-greater sophistication to this day.

“To survive, the Jewish state could not rely solely on foreign assistance,” the authors write. “It needed to find a way to develop its own R&D and production capabilities. It was a matter of survival.”

As early as 1969, for example, an Israeli officer on the embattled Suez Canal longed for a way to conduct surveillance on the Egyptian positions. He had seen a newsreel that included a segment about a boy who received a remote-controled (RC) model airplane as a bar mitzvah gift, and the officer bought an RC plane of his own, installed a camera, and tested the new device by asking Israeli anti-aircraft gunners to try to shoot it down. The toy airplane survived its test flight, and the drone was born. When the United States later ran into serious problems with its own drone program, “the US finally decided to ask Israel for help,” the authors write.

Israel has long distinguished itself for its mastery of small arms. The American-made M-16, for example, has not only been replaced in the IDF with an Israeli-made assault rifle called the Tavor, but the same weapon is now exported to countries around the world, “from Colombia to Azerbaijan and Macedonia to Brazil.”  But much of its genius is applied to nonlethal technology that has come to be crucial in combat, including drones and spy satellites, and protective armor that has reinvented the tank as an effective battlefield weapon. There’s also the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, and the cyber-weapon called Stuxnet, which was co-developed by Israel and the United States and reportedly destroyed some 1,000 centrifuges in Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities.

Even more remarkable is the stroke of genius that inspired the IDF to recruit soldiers with autism to scrutinize the imagery collected by drones and satellites. Recognizing that individuals with autism often possess “remarkable visual and analytical capabilities,” they are trained to pore over the raw data and pick out the nuggets of intelligence. “If a bush moves a few feet or a building is slightly enlarged, they will pick up on it,” the authors explain. “To the average eye, these topographic changes might seem natural and be missed. But for [the autistic soldiers] they could mean that a rocket launcher or an arms cache is present but hidden.”

Israel’s accomplishments in weapons development can be explained by one of the hard facts of life in the Jewish state — almost everyone serves in the military, and the military is regularly called on to fight. “This means that engineers who work for defense companies meet soldiers not just in boardroom meetings to look over new weapons designs, but also during reserve stints, when they themselves put on uniforms and become soldiers again,” the authors write. As one weapons-maker puts it: “We know what it means to sit in a military vehicle, what it’s like to hit an explosive device or take a burst of gunfire.”

Anya Eldan: Helping boost Israeli high-tech startups

Earlier this year, the grant-making agency supporting technological research and development in Israel, known as the Office of the Chief Scientist, rebranded itself as the Israel Innovation Authority. The purpose of the renamed and restructured agency — an arm of the Ministry of Economy — is to improve traditional industrial sectors by engaging them with cutting-edge research and development practices and continuing to maintain the country’s high-tech leadership. 

Encouraging companies to compete for funds and expertise available through Israel’s network of specialized business incubators for early-stage entrepreneurs not only has driven the expansion of the nation’s economy, it also builds on the state’s market-oriented public investment in private enterprise as the formula to seed growth in the startup nation.

On March 17, the Authority announced winners of the fifth annual incubator competition, with more global companies and investors wanting to gain from running an idea lab for new or enhanced technology products in Israel. The winners will enjoy an eight-year license during which projects they support can receive government funding of 85 percent of the budget approved for each startup company. Companies that win contracts to run the incubators receive a share of profits earned by the successful startups.

Anya Eldan, a seasoned high-tech executive and one of the leading women in Israel’s innovation ecosystem, was chosen by Israeli Chief Scientist Avi Hasson 15 months ago to manage the early-stage and incubator programs that have become a world-class model for 21st-century idea labs. 

Open innovation and enhanced international partnerships are at the top of her agenda. The Jewish Journal spoke with Eldan to discuss her choice to move from a top executive role in the private sector to coordinating the government’s effort to support early-stage entrepreneurs and innovators. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

JEWISH JOURNAL: You worked in biomedical research, software and venture capital, and served as a consultant to the government’s incubator program before joining the Office of the Chief Scientist. Tell us about your journey.

ANYA ELDAN: I studied math and computer science. I was in software and telecommunications for 10 years, working for a large software house. Then I worked for the RAD Group, which is a large communications group here in Israel. After working in marketing business development, I was asked by Israel Aircraft Industries to manage their investment fund. The idea was to commercialize defense technology. And what we see today, which is very funny, is that the trend is the other way around. Now, the defense technologies are looking to commercial markets for innovation that they incorporate into their products.

When I left venture capital, I wanted to manage companies. I felt that I needed to experience being a CEO. I ended up managing a company called WideMed. This company developed products for diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. We developed sleep products that got [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] approval. I took it public on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in 2006 and worked to foster their growth for about seven years.

JJ: How did you make the transition from the private sector, representing industry on panels evaluating startup projects, to managing the public venture side of things?

AE: In Israel, you can’t be in high-tech and not work with the chief scientist, because the chief scientist’s office supports such a wide array of innovation projects. Over the last several years — and this comes from the work I did around sleep research — I became increasingly interested in brain technology. One of the things that I found so compelling was that in medicine, the brain is like an unexplored continent. It seemed to me that the basic science is becoming more effective with significant gains in knowledge about the brain. And I thought that Israel could become a center for brain technology. 

I organized our first two brain technology conferences, and that’s when I met the chief scientist, Avi Hasson. Avi convinced me that since I’m already doing this work — looking at how to build up our technological industries — I might as well come and join him at the chief scientist’s office. He offered me, effectively, to come and establish the early-stage segment of their activities. That was very compelling because I thought that’s an opportunity to be able to look at the whole early-stage sector as one and improve some of the existing programs, but also generate some new programs that would not just help us keep the innovation here but also to create the conditions for scaling up. As of January, we became the Israel Innovation Authority, which is still a government agency, but it’s more independent in its structure, and that gives us more flexibility to address the needs of the high-tech sector.

JJ: It seems the idea is to innovate the process and structure of how the government contributes to innovation in Israeli industry. 

AE: Yes, and that change has received publicity, but the other thing is — and this is the one that attracted me to come and join the government — that, until last year, the chief scientist’s office was composed of 40 different programs, each one addressing different parts of the market. Some of the programs had the managers [guiding the programs on-site], some programs didn’t have [comprehensive] management. It was really a very program-oriented approach. 

The change we are making is that instead of looking at developing clusters of programs, we pivot to basing the incubators on market segments [such as health technologies, software and communications, digital life technologies]. It’s a more coherent approach with market segment executives not only responsible for management of all of the programs in that segment, but also in charge of identifying what’s missing in our infrastructure and what policies need to be changed if we are going to be the key players in those industries.

JJ: What’s on the horizon for the Israel Innovation Authority?

AE: We are looking at how to help startups. Not just give them money, but also how to bring partners that can bring added value to the startup companies. This week, the fifth round of competition was concluded in the technological incubators program in which licensees were selected to establish and run the incubators. It’s an interesting question on who are the best partners. I can tell you out of 19 tenders that we did, we have a whole mix. In some cases, it’s a large Israeli business. So Jerusalem Venture Partners is being joined by Motorola Solutions, Reliance Industries and Yissum, the research [and] development company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to focus on investments in software and communications. 

In some cases, it’s Israeli industries. Elbit has an incubator, as does Strauss, a large food-tech company here that has an incubator. In other cases, it’s the multinationals. We gave a contract to Medex, owned by Boston Scientific, to establish and run a technological incubator in Or Yehuda with Tel HasShomer Hospital’s commercialization company. They will invest in the fields of medical devices, combined medicine and digital health. 

Philips and Teva are doing medical devices. We have an incubator that won the tender in the summer, in digital health, owned by IBM; Medtronic, the largest medical device company in the world today; and Vitango, who’s the [venture capital] here, and the Rambam Hospital. This consortium is going to be investing in digital health. 

So we’re now at a place where about one-third of our incubators have major international partners. It’s a great example …  of a win-win. The large company comes here and finds Israeli innovation, but Israeli startups get significant added value from working with the market leader who can bring them to the market by helping them understand the segment in global terms.

High-tech Chanukah at Shalhevet

It was Sunday morning — just hours before the first night of Chanukah began on Dec. 6 — and Adrian Krag stood at the front of a Shalhevet High School classroom that was filled with inquisitive students. A skyscraper of a man with silvery hair tied neatly in a ponytail, the educator bellowed over a steady chorus of electronic hums and buzzes. 

“It’s just like your cellphones,” he said. “The protons in your batteries that power your smartphones and allow you to make calls and send texts work the exact same way.” 

Heads stayed down. Eyes glazed over. Students were too enthralled with their own creations to pay much attention to Krag’s final shpiel. After all, motorized spinning dreidels — all made by a 3-D printer — dizzied their way around the classroom’s countertops before them. More than 30 prospective Shalhevet students went home with dreidels, courtesy of the nonprofit Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE), that surely made them the envy of their friends. 

CIJE, founded in 2001 and dedicated to enhancing and enriching Jewish education, operates in more than 150 schools in 13 states across the country, including Shalhevet. Its mission is to bring state-of-the-art science education to more than 30,000 Jewish-American high school students. Other local schools participating in CIJE’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs include YULA Boys High School, YULA Girls High School, Harkham GAON Academy, de Toledo High School in West Hills, Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills. 

Krag, an accomplished inventor and entrepreneur in the fields of aerospace and biomedical and electronic engineering in his own right, serves as CIJE’s director of STEM West Coast programming. His day-to-day role entails mentoring teachers, helping them implement the fixed curriculum in his organization’s partner schools. On Sunday, though, students were treated to Krag’s hands-on involvement as he led proceedings. 

“I enjoy teaching and I enjoy working with kids,” Krag said. “I used to teach at the University of Colorado. At the university, you teach the course. In high school, you teach the kids. That’s why I’m here.”

Under Krag’s guidance, students were given pre-made dreidels created using a 3-D printer, a contraption resembling something Q might present to James Bond. A sleek black cube complete with buttons flashing bright red and green, the futuristic gadget was on display for students to check out. Students then connected the circuits of their batteries that powered the motors of their dreidels with the help of Krag and a team of volunteers. 

Nicholas Fields and Zach Helfond, a pair of eighth-graders from Maimonides Academy, appreciated the fresh approach. 

“It’s a break from studying and taking tests. It’s a different way to learn something,” Helfond said. “It gives us a chance to explore.” 

“Plus, it’s just a lot of fun and in the spirit of Chanukah,” Fields said.

Amy Sirkis, a first-year chemistry and physics teacher at Shalhevet, was on hand to help facilitate. Sirkis knows from experience that lesson plans straying from convention are a teacher’s best bet to pique the interest of students. 

“Students are able to be creative,” Sirkis said. “They’re not just working toward a test. They really get to explore. They’re actually incredible problem-solvers. Often, you give them a task and just let them figure it out.” 

Some current Shalhevet students sacrificed a precious Sunday off, volunteering to assist the likes of Fields and Helfond with their dreidels. Their presence enabled prospective students to get a feel for what a future at Shalhevet might look like. Jamie Berman, a Shalhevet ninth-grader, and Hila Machmali, a Shalhevet 10th-grader, made it clear that electronic dreidels are just the beginning of what students can do. 

“Right now, I’m working on a flashlight that turns on automatically in the dark,” Berman said. “I thought of it after a power outage. I couldn’t find my flashlight and I thought it’d be cool if it would’ve turned on automatically.” 

Machmali has already mapped out and executed a project with exciting real-world applications and presented it at an engineering conference Shalhevet’s CIJE students attend each spring. 

“My team and I started by asking, ‘What if a nanny or parent is at home and can’t hear a baby crying?’ We made a teddy bear that detects high sound frequencies and can actually send a text to the parent telling them the baby is crying,” Machmali said.  

According to Natalie Weiss, Shalhevet’s director of admissions, who watched from the sidelines,, students such as Berman and Machmali are well on their way to being the success stories that CIJE works so hard to produce. 

“STEM is our children’s future,” Weiss said. “We know our students will be part of the solutions facing our global society. CIJE is a part of that endeavor.”

Krag added: “Sometimes the Jewish education portion in our schools takes away from all the secular subjects. Our kids are going to be competing with kids who basically had an extra three hours a day to study science, math and engineering. It can put them at a disadvantage. What we do at CIJE is try to take the time that we have and use it effectively.”

While speaking with the Journal, Krag was approached by a student who thanked him profusely for the dreidel he just helped her make, telling him the creation would be a part of her holiday festivities later that night. As she left, Krag was overcome with emotion. 

“That, right there, is why I do this. It doesn’t get any better than that. That’s just wonderful.” 

Israel’s high tech aims to help the elderly

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

More and more elderly people worldwide are joining the technology revolution, and technology is coming to meet them halfway. In Israel, one of the world’s high-tech capitals, companies are racing to develop new applications and products for the senior citizens set.

“The population is getting older and this creates a lot of challenges as people are living alone and not being involved in society as much as younger people,” Eran Gal, CEO of Xorcom a company developing a home monitoring solution, told The Media Line. Called Amity, the software is capable of monitoring both location and behavior patterns to ensure that an older person has not fallen or wandered away from their home in cases of dementia. The idea is to give elderly more independence while keeping them safe.

A second startup, E2C has developed a simplified operating system that works with off-the-shelf hardware to create a smartphone that is more user friendly for older customers. The program responds to longer presses on the touch screen (to prevent accidental calls), always uses a full screen keyboard, and collects pictures and messages from different programs into one easy-to-find location. The program is aimed at reconnecting elderly people to friends and family and allowing a smartphone to be an aid rather than an obstacle. Currently, only around 20% of seniors in the US are using smartphones, E2C’s co-founder Amir Alon, told The Media Line, and he hopes his application could increase that number.

“We are taking the latest technologies and making it relevant for the senior citizens, and we can change the life of the senior,” Alon said. “Our flagship product is our smartphone for seniors. We take off the shelf hardware, and we make our own kind of Android for seniors.”

It makes good business sense, as well as ethical social responsibility, to cater to the elderly, Nir Shimony, the CEO and co-founder of TechForGood, a group which aims to promote social works through innovative technological solutions, told The Media Line. “We want to harness the Israeli out-of-the-box way of tackling business issues into tackling social issues,” Shimony explained. The size and growth of the elderly population in the developed world makes them an attractive consumer group to companies, as does their relative wealth.

Other Israeli startups moving into the field of elderly care include: Video Therapy, a solution aimed at improving the efficiency of therapy for older citizens by allowing them to interact with their trainer via video-call; and Atlas Sense, unobtrusive, wearable technology that can read and transmit a subject’s vital signs to monitor their health, and even detect if a person falls.

Many of the new companies’ technologies raised questions regarding the ethics of monitoring an individual or of the continuous integration of a person’s body with digital technology. This was something acknowledged by several of the entrepreneurs who noted that new technologies can have an impact on society at large.

This was especially true of Moran Zur, the CEO of Safe Beyond, a startup which enables a user to leave video messages for their loved ones after their death.

“We try actually to change the perception of death… we believe that the fact you stop existing in the real world does not mean that you will not continue existing in the digital world,” Zur told The Media Line.

Safe Beyond’s video messages can be triggered by a date, an individual going to a certain location or even by a key event like a grown child’s wedding. Facebook turns a user’s page into a memorial site after their death so this sort of program is not without precedent, the CEO suggested. Rather the application gives control of this digital legacy to the user who can decide what to leave behind and who to leave it for, Zur said.

Google in Tel Aviv recently hosted all of these companies as part of Aging 2.0, high-tech pitch events for 30 cities in 30 days. At the end of the day in Tel Aviv, the audience voted for their favorites, and E2C’s smartphone received the most votes. CEO Amir Alon will go on to the next level of the competition in San Francisco later this year.

Lebanon goes digital

This article first appeared on The Media Line.
“Ironically everything that makes Lebanon a tough place to live makes it a good place for a start-up,” quipped Nasri Atallah, a partner in the Lebanese media publishing firm Keeward. “There are a lot of very talented people who have few opportunities and are pushed into starting their own thing.”
Lebanon may not be the ideal place for entrepreneurial growth, but the country has a growing tech-start-up industry that is starting to attract international attention. 
At a British Embassy celebration for the Queens’ birthday earlier this month, the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub — a joint initiative between the UK government and the Lebanese Central Bank — announced the winners of a start-up accelerator. Forty-five small and medium Lebanese start-ups had been chosen from over 150 to undertake a 4-month training program. This is on the back of a push by the Lebanese government to foster a healthy tech sector and encourage entrepreneurship. 
In a statement at the ceremony, Tom Fletcher, UK ambassador to Lebanon, highlighted the need for the British government to help Lebanese businesses forge strong ties with international firms and networks. 
Keeward, who employ around 46 people in Lebanon, was one of the recipients of the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub accelerator. Atallah explained that just a week after being told of their place on the program, the intense program of entrepreneurial MBA style courses, networking and business discussions had already started. At the end of the first phase, 15 of the firms will be taken to London to continue their development.
“The education aspect is great and the network angle is great but just having the stamp of approval of the Central Bank and the UK government is a motivating factor,” Atallah told The Media Line.
Atallah thinks that the UK government has seen that the next Google, Amazon or Alibaba is going to come from somewhere unexpected, so they are actively looking to support and build links with potential business leaders all over the world. The UK-Lebanon Tech Hub program also has the explicit aim of increasing employment in Lebanon and directly contributing to the country’s economy.
Over the last few years the Lebanese government has started to take a proactive approach to developing its own answer to California’s Silicon Valley. The move started in August 2013 when the Lebanese central bank issued a circular providing support for commercial banks and venture capital funds to invest in technology start-ups, incubators and accelerators. Among a large raft of measures, the law assures 75% of the cost of bank loans to start-ups. This lowers the risk to banks for investing in potentially risky but profitable start-ups. The aim was to encourage investment in the sector and to free up credit for entrepreneurs to pursue new ideas. After just 7 months funds in excess of $400 million were available to business leaders with new, inventive ideas. 
A second major boon for start-ups came earlier this year with the opening of the Beirut Digital District (BDD). It is located just off the capital’s still recovering downtown area, devastated in the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990. BDD has quickly became the center for the growing digital and creative industries, attracting a number of major business partners such as Touch– a major Middle Eastern telecommunications company. Both small and large firms have moved to the expanding site, which mixes offices, conference space and residential homes into one place.
However, despite financing and support there are still challenges ahead for Lebanon’s fledgling tech-firms.
Nassib Ghobril, an economist at Byblos Bank – a major Lebanese commercial bank – expressed concerns that the huge funds now available could lead to a bubble. 
“Will that encourage creativity and entrepreneurship? I certainly hope so,” he told The Media Line. “I’m fully for this sector but I have concerns – there is too much money for too few deals. You have to assess the quality of the deals and then get the cash to chase them, not the other way around.
Atallah also admitted that he too had been concerned about the large scale of the funds the Central Bank were making available. However, when one of the projects that Keeward was running got funding through the system, Atallah says he saw first-hand the rigorous checks and level of due diligence that was required in order to qualify for the money. He says that this went some way to easing his mind that the banks were investing responsibly. 
Beyond the scale of the funding now available in Lebanon, Ghobril says Lebanon needs to strengthen intellectual property rights and protection of minority shareholders in venture capital firms. In addition, he said, it is very hard to liquidate a company in Lebanon. “It takes around six years and a large amount of bureaucracy and paperwork,” he said.
Ghobril believes the key to fixing these issues is simply political will to improve legislation. However, Lebanon has now been without a president for over a year and parliament is often blocked and inefficient, which doesn’t bode well for changes in these areas. 
Despite these concerns, the Lebanese are resilient businesspeople and the achievements to date, even without large levels of assistance, point to a bright future. If these funds and support systems can continue to foster the growing tech start-up economy then Beirut’s Digital District could soon be the home of Lebanon’s answer to Bill Gates. 

Replicating revolution: Reut Institute advances 3-D printing for all

Few aspects of Israeli society are dearer to the national identity than its high-tech sector — a class of entrepreneurs so churning with ideas and innovation that they have earned Israel the title of “startup nation.” 

But can this legacy last forever? Research from the last few years has shown that Israel’s startup model is no longer sustainable, according to the Reut Institute, a forward-looking think tank formed 10 years ago by Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli peace negotiator, to help inform lagging government policy in Israel. 

“What does it take for a country to lead an industrial revolution?” Grinstein asked during an interview at the institute’s sleek maze of offices, located among the tech warehouses of northeast Tel Aviv. “Generally speaking, what you need is broad exposure, broad literacy, a very large pool of talent — and out of this talent come the leaders, the entrepreneurs, the managers.” 

By contrast, Israel’s current model — based on a few bright minds and a limited pool of seed money — “is extremely exclusive,” Grinstein said. “Very few people participate.  So in order to make it inclusive … we went open source.” 

The Reut Institute took action on its findings in winter of last year, embarking on a wildly ambitious mission to familiarize the entire Israeli population with what Reut leaders, and tech experts around the world, are calling the centerpiece of the third industrial revolution: the 3-D printer. 

By layering many razor-thin sheets of a material on top of one another — most commonly using a simple type of plastic called polylactic acid, or PLA, in a liquid form that dries quickly — 3-D printers can render 3-D computer designs into a fully functioning object in a matter of hours. This technology is the closest humanity has come to inventing touchable e-mail, Willy Wonka style: All one has to do is send a 3-D design file and a recipient can print it out on the other end. Some of the machines can even print chocolate. 

And Israel, as the Reut Institute sees it, has the potential to lead the revolution. Reut has so far opened three public 3-D printing labs — in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Bat Yam — part of a rapidly self-replicating Cross-Lab Network (XLN) that uses its own minimalist 3-D printers to print more printers that can populate new labs, at very low cost ($400 to $600 per printer, according to lab managers). The “great-grandmother” of the printers, which to the untrained eye looks like a high-tech Tinkertoy, has a special spot on the shelf at the very first XLN location, in Tel Aviv. 

By the end of 2014, Reut CEO Roy Keidar, head of the XLN, said he hopes to open 15 more labs across Israel. And five years from now, the goal is to expand to between 30 and 50 locations. 

The Tel Aviv workshop, a bright-white basement littered with plastics and computer chips and half-built gadgets, recently celebrated the first graduating class of its weeklong “Maker’s Academy” — a crash course in 3-D imaging, printing and programming that Reut hopes will bring together and train the future leaders of the network. At the event, one 14-year-old from Haifa showed off his robot, which waves its hands when a motion sensor tells it someone is near, and L.A. native Ari Platt unveiled complex plans for a medical device that uses spatial recognition to help doctors improve their precision during surgery. 

Seen from above, this image shows an open-source 3-D printer built and used by Reut Institute’s XLN Initiative. Photos courtesy of the Reut Institute

“I came here, and they really taught me the basics of programming,” said Platt, who added that he had barely any technological experience before the course. “Now I understand [the technology], and I feel much more comfortable using it. I wouldn’t mind going online and trying to teach myself. Before, I would never have gotten close to it. 

“Once you get down to the basics,” he said, “you realize it’s not so hard. People get afraid of things that are unknown.” 

Scientists have predicted that in the not-too-distant future, 3-D printers will be capable of spitting out full-scale buildings, space bases, working human organs and beyond. 

This news, of course, comes as no surprise to the Internet’s tech-nerd community, which has been sharing open-source 3-D printing designs on Web sites like Thingiverse.com for years now. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also jumped on board in 2001, and started setting up a series of professional-level 3-D fabrication laboratories, or “fab labs,” around the world — of which there are now almost 150, including one in Jerusalem and one in the Israeli suburb of Holon. 

But in the last year, world leaders have started to take notice as well. 

“A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address. “And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America.” 

Earlier this summer, the commercial potential of 3-D printing reached new heights when the largest manufacturer of 3-D printers, Stratasys — co-headquartered in the United States and Israel — bought up MakerBot, a more low-end 3-D printing company that got its start selling home-assembly 3-D printer kits. Together, analysts have predicted that the two companies will vastly expand 3-D printing at the consumer level. 

Another Israeli startup, Something3-D, has big plans to “put a 3-D printer in every home” in Israel, according to business journal
The graduating class of the first Makers Academy. Among those in the class are: back row, left, Etai Evenhaim, and back row, third from left, Ari Platt, both of L.A. Standing, far right, is Arnon Zamir, XLN’s Chief Operating Officer. Second from left, third row, is Sefi Attias, XLN’s Chief Technology Officer, a graduate of YULA in Los Angeles.

Reut also has put a strong emphasis on designing cheap and customizable devices for people with special needs: In late August, the institute will host an intensive 3-D-design competition for special-needs devices. Competitors are currently pulling all-nighters in the lab, shaping entries such as a hearing aid that can attach to a smartphone, a computer mouse for a person with arthritis and customizable glasses for kids. 

The only rule: Entries must remain open source. 

“Our purpose is not to build a high-end printer that will compete with $20,000 printers,” Grinstein said during a tour of the lab in Tel Aviv. “Our objective is that you’ll have Israelis from all over the map understanding what is a 3-D printer, building one, designing stuff, participating — and those who take to it will eventually become the leaders and the entrepreneurs.” 

Experts at the Reut Institute aren’t the only ones to warn of the potential downfall of startup nation, if access to modern technology and cutting-edge education does not become available at all levels of Israeli society. A recent Google Israel study, whose results were published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, found that “in the last decade, an unacceptable gap has developed between the integration of ICT [information and communications technology] into all aspects of life and the reality in Israeli schools, and between Israeli schools and those in the other countries.” 

To meet this challenge, the Reut Institute is working with schools and other learning institutions across Israel to set up 3-D printing labs within existing structures, with financial help from city governments. The lab in Bat Yam, for example, is a collaboration with the Branco Weiss School for At-Risk Students. “The students really responded to the machines,” Keidar said, “and to this method of using their hands.” 

Reut hopes to reach every level of Israeli society by setting up 3-D labs in unlikely places, such as the low-income kibbutz town of Kiryat Shmona, the heavily Arab town of Sakhnin, the heavily Orthodox town of Tsfat — even one day in Ramallah in the West Bank. 

“The [economic] model of the Israeli government failed to deliver on the pledge that growth will trickle down, so our challenge is to generate inclusive growth — growth that includes all the population,” Grinstein said. 

At Reut’s Tel Aviv location, that dream is having growing pains. At the first Maker’s Academy graduation, of almost a dozen participants, Grinstein noted that no women were present but was proud that about 20 percent of graduates were in the racial minority.

“Next time, if we still have 100 percent males in the graduating class, it will be a problem,” Grinstein said. He explained that in order for women — especially religious women — to be attracted to the XLN, “they need to trust the environment.” 

These nameplates were produced by pupils at the Branco Weiss School for At-Risk Students during their first course in 3-D printing.

Reut is also fighting fears that the 3-D revolution could be more of an apocalypse. The sexiest controversy of the 3-D printing era, both in the United States and Israel, has been the big 2013 reveal that the printers can print gun parts that would otherwise require a license to buy in a store. Cody Wilson, a Texas law student, opened up a fiery debate about the future of tech crime this spring when Forbes published proof that his 3-D-printed firearms were fully functional and downloadable from the Internet. Although he has since removed the code for the gun from his Defense Distributed Web site, it is by now hosted on countless other sites — perfect proof that lawmakers can’t fight open-source sprawl and will need to find new ways of policing the products of the 3-D era. 

In Israel, this July, Channel 10 news reporter Ori Even sneaked a plastic, 3-D-printed pistol into parliament and pointed it at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while a TV crew filmed his trembling hand. The controversial report proved that in security-obsessed Israel, officials must race to fit policy around the future of technology. 

Leaders at Reut said that although 3-D-printed weapons pose a major regulatory challenge for lawmakers, any new realm of technology will have a dark side — and the institute’s mission is to “focus on the good, and the opportunity.” 

The future of Israel as a global economic leader could depend on it. 

“This is about the fundamental learning that Israel’s society and economy need to go through in order to survive and thrive in a world of self-manufacturing,” Grinstein explained, pointing to a dizzying graph of the startup-nation model that had been left up on a dry-erase board in the Reut offices. 

“Our vision here is not just 3-D printing, not just a network of communal technological spaces — our vision is Israel leading the coming industrial revolution.”

UCLA’s new hospital takes technology to new frontiers

More than eight years and $829 million in the making, the new Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center is scheduled to open its doors to patients on June 29. The 10-story, 1-million-square-foot complex — which houses the The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA and Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA — features vast, light-drenched spaces and an airport terminal-sized corridor that connects the three centers.

But what’s more impressive about the new center are the elements that most visitors won’t see. Many of these features involve electronic gear and wireless technology, particularly in the hospital’s 23 operating rooms. Especially striking is how bare the operating rooms look. No equipment sits on the floor. Instead, it is suspended from the ceiling by movable booms. Two flat panel monitors, lights, an anesthesia station and a surgeon’s computer control panel all hang down from above.

During a procedure, surgeons can use a touch-screen panel or voice commands to display and control images, adjust room lighting, or phone a colleague. They can access patient histories, X-rays and lab results, and use their fingers on the console to draw — just like a football commentator — on images displayed on a screen.

Multiple cameras record activity in the room, the operating site, and — using an endoscopic camera when appropriate — the patient’s insides. These images can be saved on DVD, shared with a colleague in the next room or across the globe, or transmitted to medical students in a viewing theater two stories below. The fiber optics and other cables necessary for the room’s extensive connectivity fill a phone booth-sized box located against one wall.

The hospital was designed for “efficiency, control and connectivity,” said Dr. Peter Schulam, chief of the Division of Endourology and a member of the design committee for the operating rooms. He said the design process reflected an unusual collaboration between medical staff and equipment manufacturers.

“The companies we worked with were our partners in designing everything,” Schulam said. “Nothing was off-the-shelf.”

The new hospital replaces the one built in 1951 to herald the atomic era. That facility was designed and constructed at a time before CPR, kidney transplantation or open-heart bypass surgery, and without magnetic resonance imaging, laparoscopy or the Internet. Then, as now, planners had to anticipate the needs of the hospital decades into the future.

Schulam said it was challenging to plan a hospital that would take years to build, not to mention one able to adapt to future decades of technological innovation. To ensure that operating rooms can change as future needs dictate, they were designed to be physically and technologically flexible, allowing reconfiguration as needed.

Already, new developments have occurred since the planning process began.

“When we started design, high definition didn’t exist,” Schulam said.

Now four operating rooms feature HD, complete with 42-inch wall-mounted plasma screens.

He said that while UCLA can currently claim the most state-of-the-art hospital in the country, that will change when the next major teaching university builds a new facility.

“It’s a leap-frog effect,” he said, noting that UCLA benefited from observing previous new research hospitals.

The new medical center came about because of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The university chose to rebuild, rather than retrofit, the hospital in order to meet new seismic safety requirements. The facility can not only withstand a magnitude 8.0 earthquake, but remain functional after doing so.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $432 million in earthquake relief funding for the hospital, and the state kicked in another $44 million. Private donations accounted for nearly $300 million, and the balance came from hospital financing and bonds.

Reflecting input from more than 500 physicians, nurses and patients, the hospital was designed by celebrated architects I.M. Pei and his son C.C. Pei, along with a team headed by commercial architect design firm Perkins+Will, Pei Partnership Architects and RBB Architects.

Each of the 520 inpatient rooms boasts a sweeping view of Westwood or the UCLA campus, offers wireless Internet and features a fold-out sofa for overnight guests. The rooms can adapt to various levels of care, minimizing the need to transfer patients from one room to another. If patient transport becomes necessary, the patient’s bed — rather than a gurney — serves as the vehicle. Mobile units featuring medicines and IV fluids are also portable, and travel with the patient from one location to another.

A sophisticated electronic records system provides medical staff with immediate access to patient reports, lab results, clinical imaging and real-time vital sign monitoring from any hospital location.

But with all the technology it contains, the hospital is ultimately about the people it serves, according to Dr. James Atkinson, professor of surgery and senior medical director for the transition from the former facility to the new hospital.

In the medical center’s June 4 dedication ceremony program he stated, “Now that we have our building, it is time for us to breathe life into it. It’s up to us to walk the halls, to fire up the machines and to start doing what it is we do best here at UCLA: healing people. Once that happens — once we’ve saved our first life in the new building — we’ll have fully transformed our original vision into reality.”

VIDEO: Hebrew U and Berkeley scientists perfect tech for medical imagery via cell phones

Professor Boris Rubinsky and his team at Hebrew University and the University of California, Berkeley, have designed a system to transfer medical images via cell phone. Watch how this technology works

Partners in Profit

While Israel searches for a reliable partner in peace, partners in business were in no short supply at last month’s California-Israel Bio-Partnering & Investment Conference. The “Bio” is short for biotechnology, a collective term for the various medical and technical innovations currently gathering great momentum. The “Partnering” was a meeting of the minds and monies of businesses in California and Israel, previously separated by thousands of miles, concerned with these innovations. The conference brought together Israeli companies specializing in biotechnology with scores of Southern California firms in biotech, venture capital and marketing, and other businesses eager to join in the Israeli biotechnology boom.

Much has been made of the recent growth spurt in the “Silicon Wadi,” the high-tech industry that has revitalized Israel’s once troubled economy, leading a surge of innovation that has placed Israel among the technology elite with the second highest rate of per-capita startups after California’s Silicon Valley. One might have expected any meeting between Californians and Israelis to be filled with the rhetoric of “a common pioneering spirit” and similar proud comparisons. Some of that natural pride could be heard in opening remarks and in the congratulatory letters of politicians in the conference handbooks, but 15 minutes into this two-day meeting, the business at hand was the business of biotech.

In all, more than 150 representatives of more than 70 companies and organizations met at UCLA’s faculty center on Sept. 11 and 12. Executives of Israeli start-ups, along with established firms in search of funding and strategic partnerships, showed off their wares with video and PowerPoint presentations. For their part, the California-based firms came in search of innovative technologies in the fast-growing field. Carol Schneider, a partner at Lyon & Lyon intellectual property law firm, noted, “There’s just a lot of opportunity [at the conference]. Our firm has most definitely seen an increase in Israeli clients over the past few years.”
Following the presentations, conference facilitators set up meetings between the Israeli firms and interested California companies. With multimedia presentations and private one-on-one meetings, the networking was intense as strategies were shared, funding was proposed and “there were some very strong connections made. Every company reported strong leads in making partnership connections,” said event chair David Herskovitz.

The conference also featured panel discussion seminars designed to help Israeli companies with the details of doing biotech business in the U.S. Four such seminars, on issues like Food and Drug Administration testing and American intellectual property law, drew standing-room-only audiences of Israeli professionals to the conference rooms of the faculty center.

The conference, which is expected to become an annual event, was Herskovitz’s brainchild, five years in planning.

“I’ve always had a passion for Israel,” says the executive vice-president of Skilled Health Systems, L.C. While visiting in 1994, “I saw that a lot of the technology was there, but they didn’t know what to do with it in terms of penetrating U.S. markets.”

Citing the Israeli government’s encouragement of converting advanced military technology for civilian uses, along with the influx of a large number of scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union, Herskovitz saw opportunities for strategic partnerships. As co-founder of the California Israel Chamber of Commerce (CICC), Herskovitz says, “I combined my twin passions, for my health care company and for Israel.” After years of inquiries and planning, CICC partnered with the Israel Export Institute and the Government of Israel Economic Mission to produce the meeting.

The event also provided an opportunity to honor Alfred Mann, one of Southern California’s great philanthropists and founder of more than a half-dozen biotechnology firms. Mann’s firm MiniMed has developed external and implantable pumps to reliably deliver insulin for diabetics, and his company Advanced Bionics has created a system for stimulating hearing in deaf people. Even with that level of success, Mann, seated in the audience during the Israeli presentations, was so impressed by one of the technologies in development that he invited the company’s representative to his home to discuss partnership possibilities.

The diversity of approaches and the range of technological innovations that make up the Israeli biotech industry was apparent to all in attendance at the conference, as was Israel’s place at the forefront of a health and business revolution. Said Tzur Ginad of DNR Imaging Systems, Ltd., “I started in data processing and networks 25 years ago. I see the same potential for growth now in biotechnology.”

For more information about the companies and organizations involved with the California-Israel Bio-Partnering and Investment Conference, contact the California Israel Chamber of Commerce at (323) 931-4469, or visit

A Hi-Tech Jewish High

The Milken Community High School celebrated the completion of its campus construction Sunday, putting the final touches on the nation’s largest non-Orthodox Jewish high school — and its most high-tech — bar none.

Families of the school’s 700 students marveled at the classrooms, each wired for the Internet and with video cameras to allow video-conferencing with virtually every place in the world.

Each seat in the six science labs has a fiber-optic hookup, so that students can plug in laptop computers. The curriculum includes both traditional Jewish studies and texts, as well as robotics and biotechnology.

Sunday’s ceremony marked the dedication of the last of four buildings on the $40 million campus, stretching over 10 acres.

Campus facilities include a broadcast studio, art studio, libraries, a 600-seat gymnasium, separate study and socializing terraces for students and faculty, and a cafeteria serving kosher food.

“We are now poised to set the standard of excellence for Jewish schools in America,” said Dr. Bruce Powell, school president, at the dedication.

Such standards come at a price, with the annual tuition fee set at $15,000 per student, although scholarships are available.

The largest financial supporter of the school is the Milken Family Foundation, headed by former junk-bond king, Michael Milken.

The completed campus realizes the dream of its founder, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who started the school nine years ago.

Although the temple is Reform, students of all denominations are enrolled.

The hilltop campus flanks the Sepulveda Pass, linking major Jewish population concentrations in West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, which is rapidly developing into a Jewish cultural and academic enclave.

Adjoining the Milken School is the Skirball Cultural Center and museum, and across the freeway are the University of Judaism and Stephen S. Wise Temple.