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Constructing a Green Future

There are a lot of Cleantech developments in Israel and there is an opportunity to create a strong industry here. This field should be supported and encouraged as an additional route to significant economic development, precisely like high-tech. In the third in our series on cleantech in Israel, we look at the importance of sustainability in construction.

The field of construction is regarded as a traditional sector that doesn’t take kindly to technology and innovation. Two Israeli companies – Buildots and TIGI – have successfully overcome these challenges and developed revolutionary technologies that are commercially beneficial, save on resources, and contribute to protecting the environment.

Whatever you envision when you think about technology, it’s probably not pictures of building sites, construction workers, and dirty hands. But for some, these are the very places where real innovation is born. One such example is ‘Buildots’ – the company founded by Roy Danon, Aviv Leibovici, and Yakir Sudry, graduates of IDF Talpiot and intelligence units, all with a background in physics and computer science.

Danon, the company’s CEO explains: “During our time in the defense establishment, the three of us learned how revolutionary technology can be created with limited resources. Already then, we felt the desire to influence a more traditional industry which technology people are hesitant to engage in – one with a lot of unresolved challenges and a range of opportunities for change and innovation. We quickly settled on the world of construction”.

The three entrepreneurs invested 6 months for a full-time study of all aspects of the construction industry. They visited building sites, talked with laborers and supervisors in an attempt to understand the industry’s pressing problems, and searched for a specific problem they could solve. They eventually arrived at the biggest challenge that they believed could be solved via technology, formulated an idea, and progressed to developing the system:

“When you enter the construction industry, you understand relatively quickly that ultimately, it’s just a production process: repeated construction of one apartment after another, performing exactly the same procedures in all of them. The concepts we talk about in the world of industry, such as bottlenecks, quality control etc. are all very relevant in the construction sector. At any given stage on the building site, there are dozens and sometimes hundreds of workers, each of whom is dependent on the one before him in the process”, Danon explains.

The greatest difficulty is that in the building sector, unlike a factory, there is a definite lack of control. While a factory has a control room that enables the managers and workers to observe what is happening each day, this information is very difficult to obtain on a building site. It was this problem that the three entrepreneurs decided to solve i.e., to enable the managers on a building site to understand what’s happening on their site, both with regards to the project’s schedule and that of the plan versus actual execution.

The Buildots system involves the managers wearing helmet cameras such as GoPro as they walk around the site. The algorithmics developed by the company, that are based on image processing and artificial intelligence, compare the observations from the site with the plans, thereby enabling an understanding of the building’s project status in relation to the plans – down to the level of the individual wall socket. After the data is analyzed, the project managers receive the processed results in a form that matches the way in which the building industry works, operates, and reports.

Buildots’ goal is to facilitate more efficient construction and to forecast delays and superfluous work performed, for example, simply because things were not done in the correct order. This entire process is supported by studies that showed how improving control procedures on building sites can lead to a significant increase in production and productivity. The costs of malfunctions in the construction process increase exponentially over time and the significance in terms of saving raw materials and labor costs is therefore considerable.

“There is no technology capable of analyzing a complex and noisy environment such as a building site”, Danon says. “We developed everything within the company”. During development, the company collaborated with the Tidhar corporation: “Tidhar joined us along with the Innovation Authority and provided us a warm home and large playing ground to develop our product. They had a lot of faith in us throughout the process and joined as investors. The startup sector benefits greatly when local industry participates and opens the door for these companies. Development requires a physical access and it’s not at all trivial to open up to a technology company.

“We have been supported by the Authority right from the outset via the Startups Incentive Program. In a field that is relatively foreign to venture capital investors, especially in the initial stages, the Innovation Authority’s support was critical. It was challenging to raise the first round of funding because the venture capital industry in Israel is less endeared towards the traditional sectors. It is easier to raise funding today because companies such as Buildots and others have paved the way, but we needed support from the very beginning”.

Buildots’ product was launched onto the market in 2019 and today it serves dozens of construction companies worldwide in large projects such as office buildings, residential complexes, and airports. The company has approx. 130 employees and has raised almost 50 million dollars to date.

“Our vision is to make all building sites advanced”, says Danon. “This will allow project managers to deal less with solving problems and more with actual management. This effort is important because the more we facilitate a cheaper and more advanced construction world, the more we can save on raw materials and accelerate the rate at which old buildings are replaced with new and environmentally friendly ones”.

The Next Generation of Solar Water Heater

We are all familiar with the home solar water heater that utilizes the heat of the sun to save electricity. The Israeli TIGI corporation took this familiar technology, infused it with a good measure of innovation, and created the next generation of solar panel systems aimed at creating and storing thermal energy that is used by large industrial customers.

Often, when we refer to renewable energy we think of electricity – such as photovoltaic systems and batteries. This can lead to the mistaken understanding that a future in which electricity is provided mainly by renewable energy will solve the greenhouse gas emissions problem. However, when we look at how the world receives its energy, we see that electricity constitutes only 20%. The other energy uses are primarily transportation fuel, that constitutes about 30%, and burning of fossil fuel for heat, that constitutes nearly 50% of the world’s energy! There is a need to replace the heat from fossil sources with heat from renewable energy sources and this is where TIGI’s revolutionary technology comes in.

TIGI’s CEO, Zvi Klier, explains that the company has developed a new type of solar-thermal collector that heats water to the higher temperatures needed for large-scale industrial and commercial heat users who use 60-100 degrees all year round for different processes as opposed to the 40 degrees currently provided by solar thermal systems to heat water for the shower and other home uses. The new collector dramatically increases the renewable energy efficiency and can operate at high efficiency both when there is a need for high temperatures and in cold and cloudy conditions.

The problem with the regular flat collectors is the lack of insulation on the side that faces the sun. This means that if it’s cold outside and the collector is heating up, the significant difference in temperature drives loss of all the energy back to the external surroundings and to a large decline in efficiency.

TIGI has developed a transparent insulation that allows the sun in and, at the same time, dramatically reduces energy loss. The result is that while there is sunlight, even if the sky is cloudy, the sun penetrates and heats the collector. All that is needed is solar irradiation. The new collector works at an efficiency level higher than any other existing collectors. There are also other advantages such as a mechanism that prevents overheating, sealing of the collector against dust, production of more energy per unit of area, and a longer expected lifespan. The new collector is therefore cheaper to use per energy unit, and very often cheaper than burning fuel and with a short return on investment – and that’s very important.

The system reduces local emissions and is beneficial both for the environment and for regulation. “Renewable energy does not usually attempt to provide a complete energy solution that is suitable all of the time. TIGI’s systems reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions between 50%-80%”, Klier explains.

Like photovoltaic systems, these are large systems consisting of hundreds of collectors, pumps, other energy sources, storage and more, that supply a complete solution for efficient energy use. In addition to the engineering solution, the company has also designed solutions that provide scalability of control, cloud services, and others, that are intended for factories, alongside solutions for very efficient storage of heat thereby facilitating its storage for relatively long periods with minimal heat loss.

The cloud service informs of the current storage status, continuous data about temperature, flows, pumps, and other vital information. The system will supply the client with ongoing reports and alerts when something isn’t operating properly even before it causes a malfunction. The data’s algorithmics will enable remote optimization with regards to the use of energy sources, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions etc. At the same time, the system will show the financial saving and the level of greenhouse gases reduction.

“The fact that we offer the systems also via a heat purchase model, is innovative in itself”, Klier adds. “In other words, instead of the client purchasing the system itself, in certain cases, we assume the cost of installing the solution and offer the client the option of purchasing thermal energy at a lower price than that of current fossil fuel alternatives. This means both savings and environmental benefits via a long-term agreement without having to commit to an initial investment”.

“So far, we have installed more than 30 systems, primarily in Israel but also in Norway, Germany, and the US”, Klier adds. “Our clientele is relatively diverse: the systems are installed in places such as industrial factories, retirement homes, kitchens, laundries, and kibbutzim. The possible uses are numerous in almost every industrial sector: washing, drying, paint baths and more”. The company was listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in March 2021 and is now working on penetrating further global markets.

According to Klier, the field of heat has yet to receive the desired emphasis, but the high environmental awareness is helping to advance activity in this area. When he approaches large corporations, they understand that 75% of industrial energy consumption worldwide is thermal energy and are aware of the need to address the issue of renewable thermal energy. We are in a large ocean with only a few players and although there is a need to educate the market, there is also tremendous potential. Klier believes that there is no future without renewable energy solutions for industrial heating and the opportunity exists to do something that is highly beneficial, both commercially and for the world’s challenge of global warming.

“State support is extremely important, especially during development stages”, says Klier. “We received government support via the Ministry of Energy and the Innovation Authority’s Startup Division. The problem is that Israel is not as strong at supporting companies in the ‘Valley of Death’ stage i.e., when they have an existing product that is not yet selling at scale. The government is taking positive measures, but I think that they need to increase these efforts. For example, we received assistance from the Program for Reducing Greenhouse Emissions where we also gained recognition as an innovative technology and once the Innovation Authority also gave their approval, we received greater support for actual projects.

“Another important issue is the support for financing projects of new technologies in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency because renewable energy is almost entirely funded by external financial institutions. You can’t set out in this field without first securing considerable financing. The State of Israel decided to provide state guarantees for funding of these projects and set up an entity to administer this, but in my opinion, the criteria they set were too restrictive, so programs of this kind did not receive enough funding and state support. I believe that a way must be found to make such funding more accessible. There are a lot of Cleantech developments in Israel and there is an opportunity to create a strong industry here. This field should be supported and encouraged as an additional route to significant economic development, precisely like high-tech.

“We can be a key global player in the field of industrial and commercial heating solutions using renewable energy. In this context, I believe that TIGI can be a very successful company and one that will contribute significantly to solving the planet’s climate problems”.

About the Author
Dror Bin is CEO of the Israel Innovation Authority, an independent public entity that operates for the benefit of the Israeli innovation ecosystem and Israeli economy as a whole.
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