Israel discovers oil
Lucien Bronicki is one of Israel’s foremost experts in geothermal power, but when I ran into him recently at Ben Gurion University, in Israel’s Negev Desert, all he wanted to talk about was oil wells. Israel, he told me, had discovered oil.
Pointing to a room full of young Israeli high-tech college seniors, Bronicki remarked: “These are our oil wells.” Once a year, Ben Gurion students in biomedical engineering, software, electrical engineering and computing create elaborate displays of their projects or demonstrate devices they’ve invented. On this occasion, Yossi Vardi, the godfather of Israeli venture capitalism — ever since he backed the four young Israelis who invented the first Internetwide instant messaging system, Mirabilis, which was sold to AOL for $400 million in 1998 — brought some of his VC pals, like Bronicki, down to Ben Gurion to scout out potential start-ups and to mentor the grads.
The first student exhibit I visited was by Yuval Sharoni, 26, an electrical engineering senior, whose project was titled ‘Innovative Covariance Matrix for Point Target Detection in Hyperspectral Images’ (which has to do with military targeting). When I told him I was from the NYT, he declared: “This project is going to make the front page, i’m telling you.” The cover of Popular Mechanics, maybe, but it could one day make the Nasdaq, where Israel now has the most companies listed of any nation outside of the US. “Today, every Israeli Jewish mother wants her son to be a dropout and go create a startup,” said Vardi, who is currently invested in 38 different ones.
Which gets to the point of this column: If you want to know why Israel’s stock market and car sales are at record highs — while Israel’s government is paralysed by scandals and war with Hamas — it’s because of this ecosystem of young innovators and VCs. Last year, VCs poured about $1.4 billion into start-ups, which puts Israel in a league with India and China.
Israel is Exhibit A of an economic phenomenon I see a lot these days. Of course, competition between countries and between companies still matters. But when the world becomes this flat — with so many distributed tools of innovation and connectivity empowering individuals from anywhere to compete, connect and collaborate — the most important competition is between you and your own imagination, because energetic, innovative and connected individuals can now act on their imaginations farther, faster, than ever before.
Those countries and companies that empower their individuals to imagine and act quickly on their imagination are going to thrive. So while there are reasons to be pessimistic about Israel these days, there is one huge reason for optimism: This country has a culture that nurtures and rewards individual imagination. “We are not investing in products or business plans today, but in people who have the ability to imagine and connect dots,” said Nimrod Kozlovski, a top Israeli expert on internet law. Israel is not good at building big companies, he explained, but it’s very good at producing people who say, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could do this,” then create a start-up to do it — which is later bought out and expanded by an Intel, or Google. “The motto here is not work hard but dream hard,” Kozlovski added.
My guess is that the flatter the world becomes, the wider the economic gap we will see between those countries that empower individual imagination and those that don’t. High oil prices can temporarily disguise that gap, but it’s growing.
Iran’s president, who keeps talking about how Israel is going to disappear, ought to pay a visit to Ben Gurion and see these rooms buzzing with student innovators, with projects called ‘Integration Points for IP Multimedia Subsystems’ and Algorithms for Obstacle Detection and Avoidance.’ These are oil wells that don’t run dry.