Better Place, the electric car company, recently declared bankruptcy. Newspapers were full of learned analyses of why entrepreneur Shai Agassi’s initiative had failed. I believe this was not a failure at all, but rather a success that has not yet reached fruition.
Let me explain.
I do not know Shai Agassi personally, but I have met him on a few occasions. The first was six years ago, when he was the keynote speaker a t the annual gala of the Harvard Club of Israel. Attendees at the event had all encountered many articulate and charismatic speakers, but Agassi was in a class of his own. He simply mesmerized the audience, depicting an idea that was simple, yet far-reaching and visionary. His idea combined security needs (weaning the world off oil dependency), Zionism (Israel leading the revolution), and environmental considerations, all wrapped up in a for-profit business model. How could the audience fail to be enthusiastic?!
A century ago, the world was fascinated by Zionist pioneers working the desolate land that had awaited the return of its people from exile for 2,000 years. A few decades ago, it was the sight of brave Hebrew fighters who freed captives in distant lands and who shattered the image of Jews as weak and dependent that captured the world’s attention. In recent years it has been Israel’s start-ups that have drawn the spotlight of our admirers. Shai Agassi was considered a role model within this exalted circle, and he was given pride of place in the 2009 best-seller Start-Up Nation, an invaluable public relations asset for Israel.
An attractive young Israeli, the rising star who dreams, innovates, and turns an idea into a reality, an actual product; the company executive who leads, raises investments, and advocates for the electric car. That image of Shai Agassi was carefully nurtured by the Better Place PR professionals to promote the company, so it is not surprising that many people were happy to celebrate his downfall.
Contrary to popular opinion, I do not believe we are talking about a failure here. The list of successes and assets of the Better Place initiative is long and distinguished:
The patents and intellectual property created during development of the electric car and its associated infrastructure have not vanished. Some will undoubtedly become the basis for new developments and initiatives – if they have not done so already.
Positive attention from leading global companies. Israel? Cars? Not since the days of the legendary Sussita (the first and last Israeli-made car) can I recall Israel last playing any role in the global automobile industry. Yet today it does.
Hundreds of people have acquired new skills. Although we cannot quantify the value of the skills acquired while building electric cars and infrastructure, let us remember the crucial role played by the army and military industries in developing professionals who sustain our local advanced technology industries.
Most important of all – proof that electric cars are possible. Electric cars are now developed and produced by other companies around the world. It is only a matter of time before we see many more of them on the roads in Israel and elsewhere.
To my mind, the biggest danger created by the fall of Better Place is that it might scare off future entrepreneurs.
At the start of the 2000s I worked with leaders of the Cleveland Jewish community and local people to initiate a center of cross-border cooperation with Jordan near Beit She’an. After successfully developing Israeli-American inter-community cooperation under the aegis of Partnership 2000, we dared to expand that cooperation across the Jordan River.
To prove the viability of the project and to convince partners and investors that relations between Israelis and Jordanians were possible, I knew we would have to create small successes on the road to the big vision. So during our first year we brought together Israeli and Jordanian army commanders, who shared with the audience their war stories from the 60s when they fought each other, as well as their dreams of peace that had come to pass. We connected Jordanian farmers and Israeli farmers in a project to grow vegetables together. We identified advanced technologies for pest control and created collaborations for the benefit of both sides. We arranged the meeting of two photographers, one from each side of the Jordan River, who together photographed the vistas of both banks and then held a joint photography exhibition; and so on and so forth.
This initiative lasted only two years. Another regional flare-up, as unfortunately happens every few years, made it difficult to promote Israeli-Jordanian cooperation, so funding dried up. Over and above my personal frustration and sadness at the ending of this cross-border cooperation, I was troubled by the question of what effect this might have on the next entrepreneur to consider creating a similar program. Would our experience deter that would-be innovator? Or would our successes and failures instead be a source of “lessons learned” for the next initiative? In short – if a particular initiative has not yet succeeded, could it nevertheless be a step on the road to success?
Returning to Shai Agassi and the electric car, I believe that history will judge the fall of Better Place, not as a failure, but as a stepping-stone to success. In the words of the British Special Air Services motto, adopted by other elite forces around the world (including Israel’s Sayeret Matkal):
“Who dares, wins.”