Herrera for TOI

Photo courtesy of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

U.S. Marines Captain Derek James Herrera was born in Delaware and lives in Los Angeles. He is celebrating his 30th birthday this week. He is Assistant Operations Officer for 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion. Derek served in Iraq and then on a Marines disaster relief mission to Port au Prince after the Haiti earthquake. So far, so good… What you can’t tell from the photo above (he is the good looking young guy on the right) is that Derek is confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down from a bullet he took to his spine in Afghanistan in June 2012.

Now, hold that thought…..

I have a great job. I admit it. As director of public affairs of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, I get to promote some really cool things, and meet some very cool people from all over the world. These are people who seek a connection – each in his or her own way – to a university that is not only at the heart of the Start-Up Nation phenomenon, but whose global footprint, from New York to Toronto to Paris to Singapore to China (to name a few) is expanding every day.

Just a few recent ones: Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man and one of the world’s great philanthropists, who chose the Technion to establish a new tech institute in China and backed it up with the biggest donation in Technion’s history; David Skorton, president of Cornell University, who teamed up with the Technion to establish a new innovation institute in New York City;  Thomas Friedman, who devoted a column to the first massive open online academic course ever given in Arabic, taught by Technion professor Hossam Haick and currently being taken by thousands throughout the Arab world; Benjamin Netanyahu, who insisted that the Technion be included as the showcase for Israeli science and technology in the recently-released “Israel: The Royal Tour“, now showing on TV throughout the U.S.

But no less inspiring than these movers and shakers are those who come to the Technion to learn about the ways researchers and alumni parlay their scientific prowess and creative genius for what I call “TTO – Technological Tikkun Olam” (Tikkun Olam = “repairing the world”): inventions such as a robot that makes spinal surgery safer and more effective; a non-invasive, non-chemical method to cure brain tumors; a biological glue to heal internal incisions; a drug to treat Parkinson’s; and much, much more.

One of the better-known Technion TTOs is “ReWalk“, a bionic exoskeleton device that enables paraplegics to walk and even climb stairs.  It was invented by Technion graduate Dr. Amit Goffer of Yokneam-based Argo Medical Technologies, and has garnered its share of fame. In a December 2010 episode of the American TV series “Glee”, the character Artie Abrams, a teenage paraplegic, stands up and walks for the first time using Rewalk. (“Some guy in Israel invented it,” he says.) British paraplegic Claire Lomas completed the 2012 London Marathon using it. We wowed President Barack Obama with it during his visit to Israel last year.  Time Magazine chose it as one of the 25 best inventions of 2013.

Which brings me back to U.S. Marine Captain Derek Herrera, whom I had the singular honor of hosting this week at the Technion (warning: the description you are about to read is full of clichés. Only the best writers can tell this kind of story without clichés. I won’t even try….).

Derek’s personal awards include the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the Purple Heart. Following his rehabilitation, Derek became an advocate for the paralysis community and for veterans, raising money for charities such as the MARSOC Foundation, The Ride for Semper Fi, and Knights of Heroes Foundation.  He is married and competes in Para-triathlons.

Derek was one of the first people to use ReWalk regularly for his rehab. He has met in L.A. with some top Technion researchers and alumni and was inspired by the work being done here. When he was planning his trip to Israel, he asked his friend Diana Stein Judovits, who heads the American Technion Society on the West Coast, to arrange a visit to the Technion campus.

For me, he is a fantastic example of how Technion and Israeli innovation are making a real difference in people’s lives everywhere.

Derek has a degree in systems engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and is now pursuing his MBA at UCLA. He wants to be an entrepreneur – and you just know he is going to succeed.  

The ostensible purpose of Derek’s current visit to Israel – his third – is actually rather prosaic: He and a group of his fellow MBA students came to learn about Israeli technological entrepreneurship. He will also be spending some time with the folks at Argo, makers of ReWalk.

But in fact, the most powerful effect of Derek’s visit was to inspire — me, and everyone else he met. It is almost impossible to fathom that this impressive, thoughtful, determined and dignified young man had his life suddenly and violently turned upside down less than two years ago, at  age 28 and at the height of his youthful vigors and abilities.  Instead of sinking into despair – a condition of the psyche one would almost expect from a person with Derek’s affliction – he seems to be one of those rare people whose operating system is “PO” – Pure Optimism.

Life is funny. Sometimes the most important messages come to you when, and from whom, you least expect them. Thank you Captain Derek James Herrera. You made my week.