Disasters and Innovative Solutions: The ICI Fund

When assessing the problems (political, economic, social, psychological, security, etc) associated with an exogenous shock, the entrepreneurial process demands our respect and attention.

Studying the nature, sources, and consequences of disaster and recovery must be done in a manner that does not unleash with which Robert Higgs describes in Crisis and Leviathan as the “ratchet effect;” ultimately threatening our ability to tap into the creative powers of innovation. Actually, one would do better in considering William H. McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples. Published in 1976, this brilliant book shows “how varying patterns of disease circulation have affected human affairs in ancient and modern times.”

COVID-19 is influencing different industries in different ways. Thanks to modern technology, we might be far better prepared to deal with the consequences of the pandemic than we think: Israeli technologies are leveraging data to help organizations continue their operations with less disruptions.

Some Israeli companies use data to prevent further risk to public health. These days, the Israel-Colorado Innovation Fund (ICI Fund), together with its Israeli portfolio companies, is taking a different approach to bring Israeli technologies into the U.S. market. “As partners of our portfolio companies, we think together about our alternatives, and then we look for another alternative that we didn’t think about; that doesn’t exist, and we make every effort to turn the current challenges into new opportunities,” said Gili Elkin, General Partner at the ICI Fund.

Gili Elkin, General Partner at the ICI Fund

The ICI Fund invests in Israeli companies up to US$1 million and collaborates with the Israel Innovation Authority based on a unique agreement; allowing portfolio companies to apply for additional grant money. As a General Partner in the ICI Fund that supports the scale up of the Israeli portfolio companies in the U.S. market, Innosphere Ventures, located in Colorado is a non-for-profit technology incubator that supports the scale up of 40 companies a year for more than 20 years. Moreover, ICI Fund’s activities are supported by a couple of U.S. governors, among them is the former Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, and the Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan.

Gili Elkin with U.S. leaders in a delegation to Israel to learn about the startup ecosystem (The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, Feb 2019)

When faced with the genuine threat of a pandemic, there are reasons to think that humanity will rise to the challenges ahead. ICI Fund’s partners are coming up with innovative solutions in wastewater, agriculture, and construction industries.

All over the world, wastewater pipes tend to get clogged due to the use of toilet paper replacements, such as wipes and towel paper which were designed to absorb water and not to be dissolved like toilet paper. In addition, coronaviruses have been recovered in manure and shown to be infectious from wastewater. Wastewater utilities also lack the personnel that used to manually monitor wastewater by taking random samples for the identification of pollution events. Overflows of wastewater and spills in the streets, especially if contaminated, could carry viruses (COVID-19 and other kinds) and pose risks for public health and collapse of the health systems. Kando, an Israeli company, has developed a solution that monitors remotely and continuously the wastewater network. Based on data collected over around a decade, Kando’s system analyzes the data received from the wastewater network and identifies unusual events in the wastewater network. Using machine learning and data analytics techniques, the system tracks events to their sources (i.e. the city would know exactly who has caused pollution). As a matter of fact, Kando’s system has proven to reduce pollution events in various cities around the world.

According to Kando’s CEO, Ari Goldfarb, “With the risks involved—e.g. the collapse of the wastewater treatment plants, contamination on the streets in cases of overflow of sewage, and discharges of polluted wastewater into rivers and oceans—Kando’s system protects the health of the public by continuously and remotely monitoring the wastewater network and alerting in cases of pollution, and this is critical these days.”

From right to left: Tim Jones (Senior Analyst, ICI Fund); Gili Elkin; Ari Goldfarb (CEO of Kando)

“In Israel, where natural resources can only provide 50% of water demand, the reuse of wastewater is a national priority, and wastewater is viewed as a treasured national resource. As such, Israel treats around 95% of its wastewater and reuses 85% of the treated wastewater mainly for agriculture. Treated wastewater makes up about one third of the national water used for agriculture or 20% of all water used for all purposes,” said Gili.

Using wastewater for agriculture increases the importance of protecting wastewater quality and reducing pollution; however, the agriculture industry is also suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, mainly due to the lack of workforce in the fields. Foreign farmers do not cross borders and working farmers are at risk of getting sick. Viridix has developed an autonomous-irrigation system to help farmers around the world get information from their fields and increase their yield—all remotely and autonomously. Based on a revolutionary sensor that imitates the behavior of plants’ roots and provides indication to farmers about the availability of water, the Viridix system—which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning—provides farmers with valuable insights: “We allow farmers to understand the most efficient way to irrigate their crops and increase the yield without the need to go to the field as our sensors do not require maintenance,” said Tal Maor, CEO of Viridix.

The Viridix system

As for construction, the industry may suffer due to the lack of employees, increasing concerns for their health, and delays in material and tools. Genda, an Israeli construction-tech company, has created a worker-friendly, easy-to-deploy real-time system that can track workers’ and equipment’s locations on-site. Genda’s solution is used to provide insights about the project’s status and create clarity regarding the construction process, thus saving site managers’ time and money. In addition, it enables maintaining on-site social distancing, records location documentation for necessary contact tracing, and includes a daily health checkup to make sure workers arrive healthy on-site. “These days, it becomes clear how remote monitoring is essential in the construction industry. Genda’s goal is to generate continuously and remotely data from the construction sites, allowing general managers to manage their sites, using their limited resources optimally, and saving substantial time and money,” said Erez Dror, CEO of Genda.

Genda’s system on-site

The threat from COVID-19 should be taken seriously, but there are reasons for rational optimism. In times of adversity, the ICI Fund and its partners provide a deep perspective: we are fortunate to live in an age of scientific advances, better technology, and more extensive cooperation among scientists and innovators. “Together with our portfolio companies, we will do whatever it takes to not only survive this current challenge but get over it; stronger and more resilient, for the next challenge,” said Gili Elkin.

During and aftermath of the coronavirus, one should highlight the role of innovative, informal, and voluntary efforts. With little reference to what enables societies to realize the gains from productive specialization and peaceful cooperation, we forget that where post-disaster resiliency has been observed, private responses and innovative solutions in the wake of a pandemic were largely responsible in aiding the return to normalcy and promoting post-disaster rebound.

To quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with innovation, humanity is resolved to “take arms against a sea of troubles” in responding to this crisis and future ones. In such calamity, entrepreneurial powers and innovative minds will prove tougher than structures and far more robust than theories.

About the Author
Fadi A. Haddadin is a Jordanian economist and policy analyst.
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