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Keeping my eye on Israeli agritech

Israel's start-up culture has planted the seeds to solve some of the world's biggest problems
A worker at the Eshkol Water Filtration Plant in Northern Israel, operated by Israel's National Water Company Mekorot (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
A worker at the Eshkol Water Filtration Plant in Northern Israel, operated by Israel's National Water Company Mekorot (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

I like to think of myself as an “almost early adopter” of new technology. I’m not a geek, per say, nor am I really technically-inclined. And while I am also apparently demographically over the tech hill for high tech, I do get excited about how technology can help us solve everyday problems.

In my head, I am often writing up the specifications for an app that will give me a solution to small problems, such as how to find rides for my kids from their after-school activities or how to locate suitable gifts for friends and family with greater ease.

So, maybe, I’m a semi-geek.

Living in Israel and working in high tech certainly contributes to that. It’s an exciting scene, and I’m often amazed by the innovations I see. As of late, however, it’s Israeli agritech that’s getting me excited.

I made “Aliyah” to a kibbutz in the ‘80s, when Israel was much more well-known for its agricultural and military prowess, rather than its propensity for building start-ups. We idealistic immigrants were fed the stories of the early settlers and the hardships of farming a land not conducive to agriculture.

It’s no secret that Israel is severely lacking in arable land and water resources. Despite this, Israeli farmers (who for the most part lived on kibbutzim or moshavim) learned early on how to optimize every acre of land and every liter of water – they did so relentlessly and stubbornly. While milking the cows on my own kibbutz (albeit in a state-of-the art milking parlor) I often wished for a robot to avoid being kicked once again while attaching the milking machine. It’s this exact type of wish that leads farmers to innovate.

When people talk about Start-Up Nation, many don’t realize that some of these kibbutz industries – some of which are now multinational companies – contributed to the innovation boom. Inventions such as drip irrigation and advanced water filtration systems, in particular, put Israel on the map for agricultural prowess and expertise.

In addition to farming, Israelis became renowned for scientific research. Even if every Jewish mother’s dream that her son become a doctor could not be realized, the push to excel at studies and in the sciences –in particular – bred a generation of strong Israeli scientists and engineers. Those who worked in the biological and chemistry spheres channeled this expertise to the practical needs of the time and brought about improved seeds, crop yields and varieties of fruit and vegetables. For example, the research of two Israeli scientists generated the development of a variety of tomato with slower ripening and longer shelf-life. These kinds of inventions have become synonymous with Israeli agricultural production the world over. Jaffa oranges and cherry tomatoes made us all proud.

During the last 15 years, Israel has emerged as a high-tech powerhouse, supplying the world with chat technology, disk-on-key flash memory and of course cyber security. My dream of creating an app to solve my kids’ travel issues is not so far-fetched in Israel where the number of start-ups per capita is the second highest in the world. In a country where solving problems is akin to a national sport, it is no wonder that so many technological solutions are the result.

But one of the world’s biggest problems, sitting and intensifying under our very noses, is one that Israel is actually very capable of solving: food production. Growing world populations, diminishing resources and climate changes have made food security a very real problem for the near future. If Israel has solutions to these problems, investors – particularly socially-conscious investors – should start paying attention to these young companies that have the potential to both solve real problems and becomes winning business, just as the kibbutz industries have shown they’re capable of.

Last week, I attended the Agrivest conference, organized by The Trendlines Group (the company I work for). The conference brought together industry leaders from the agricultural and food space, investors and Israeli start-ups to discuss how best to create an ecosystem that would leverage Israeli agritech and help provide solutions to the world’s growing food crisis. There was a buzz in the air at this event. We all understood very clearly in that room that, Israel, compared to other countries, has the unique advantage of a developed agricultural industry growing side by side a burgeoning and leading tech industry which forms a powerful combination. As Dr. Avi Perl, Chief Scientist of the Agricultural Ministry, aptly remarked, “agriculture is our culture.”

It is clear to me that in a society where smartphone penetration is one of the world’s highest, and there is an app for almost anything, there is no doubt that the transfer of technology will generate more and more agritech solutions. Personally, it is an exciting and stimulating space to be working in and be a part of at this time.

About the Author
Shira Zimmerman works as a marketing communications consultant for The Trendlines Group. She is originally South African and has lived in the Galilee for 26 years.
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