I just returned from Israel where I was participating in a course entitled “Health Care Technological Innovation- From Idea to Commercialization.”
Each year dozens of Israelis seeking to start biomedical businesses based on a novel invention or discovery learn what it takes to turn a new invention into a useful innovation. It was the 10th such course which was conceived by Benny Zeevi, one of Israel’s leading venture capitalists and run by Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Business in collaboration with Israel Advanced Technologies Industry Organization. I have been honored to help found and develop the courses since it began in 2006.
A ten-year anniversary is a good time to reflect the purpose of any relationship or enterprise. I have met and taught hundreds of would be life science entrepreneurs. The optimism, imagination and perseverance of the ‘students’ is widely regarded by all faculty members as unique. The experience proves – at least to me – that Israel’s reputation as a “Start-Up” nation is well-deserved.
But the Jewish State’s unique intensity and novelty of economic enterprise has little do with mandatory military service and immigration as Dan Senor and Saul Singer argue in the book by that name. Rather, it has everything to do with the incredible investment Israel (and Judaism) makes in hope. I understand the desire to explain Israel’s ceaseless entrepreneurial activity as the result of material conditions that can be recreated by changes in policy. But there are many countries with mandatory military service and open immigration. Europe has both and by any measure, the continent lags behind Israel and the United States in entrepreneurship. The difference can’t be explained by the regulatory and tax burden. Israel is still shedding its socialist origins and indifference to administrative efficiency. And of course, unlike Europe or the United States or anywhere else in the galaxy, Israel’s existence as a nation is continually challenged.
Hope is what makes Israel so exceptional. As economist Deirdre McCloskey observes, “hope is a virtue of forward looking, of having a project.” And by virtue, she means words and deeds that nourishes society and validates hope. Without the hope and courage to pursue an uncertain future, there can be no willingness or capital to invest in new ideas. And without such investment, there is no real economic enterprise or increase in well-being.
The rapid explosion in economic growth and increase in life expectancy that took place after the 20th century occurred because a handful of countries used commercialization to democratically well-being. Israel’s emergence as one of the wealthiest and secure nations on Earth has occurred over the past 30 years. It had mandatory service and mass immigration before then. It had little land, few natural resources and it was encircled by enemies and nearly eliminated by the Holocaust. Israel should be struggling, not surpassing.
The critical difference: Israel has placed an incredibly high value on economic and intellectual novelties as a way of improving life and the world. In this regard it is a lot like England before the Enlightenment.
As McCloskey observes,” no one would have bet on England to have made the modern world. It was an accident, a happy accident of bourgeois dignity and liberty, a new thing under the sun.” Hatikvah – the Hope – is not just Israel’s anthem. It is the renewable energy fueling entrepreneurship. Innovation is, as Professor McCloskey observes, the forward looking enterprises that creates -as the Torah teaches — the liberty and dignity that free ordinary people from suppression, ancient and enduring.