David Ben-Gurion, a clean tech pioneer

David Ben-Gurion, clean tech pioneer

Sounding more like a clean tech venture capitalist than a head of state, David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, once said that Israel requires “the study of desalination, massive utilization of solar energy, preventing waste of useful rainwater and maximization of power from wind turbines.”

Ben Gurion, who was born in 1886, said this in 1955. This was a man ahead of his time.

Since then, an Israeli company called Netafim pioneered the idea of drip irrigation in agriculture to save water, another called Luz built the first solar thermal power plants, still another called IDE Technologies became a global leader in desalination and Chromagen developed solar thermal water heaters that can be found on most rooftops in Israel, and elsewhere.

Today, Israel, which has been dubbed Startup Nation, remains a seedbed of clean tech innovation–last year it ranked second in the world (behind Denmark) in a report called Coming Clean: The Cleantech Global Innovation Index 2012 [PDF, download] by CleanTech Group and WWF.  I visited Israel last week, and had a chance to talk with a founder of Israel Cleantech Ventures, the chairman of a company called Miya Water and executives at electric-car company Better Place. I’ll report this week on my findings.

First, some context. As Ben-Gurion saw more than half a century ago, Israel is short on natural resources–water, land, oil–and thus needs to use what it has efficiently. This is the biggest, but not the only, explanation for the growth of Israeli clean tech. Most everyone serves in the military, exposing them to advanced technology. Ariella Grinberg, a young associate with Israel Cleantech Ventures, told me she did her service in the Israeli equivalent of the US’s super-secret NSA (National Security Agency), overseeing a multimillion dollar budget and sophisticated software, when she was just 19. The country also benefits from its world-class colleges and universities, among the Israel Institute of Technology, aka the Technion, the nation’s oldest university. (Here’s a fun example of what their students can do.) A strong entrepreneurial spirit pervades the culture, which may also have its roots in universal military service. “People come out of the army, they’re tired of taking orders, they want to be their own boss,” one executive told me. Finally, targeted government support for basic research has helped underwrite the sector.

Jack Levy

Jack Levy

Jack Levy of Israel Cleantech Ventures (ICV) was born in the US, educated at Harvard and Columbia, and chose to move to Israel in 2003 because he wanted to help build the nation. He worked at an Internet startup called Register.com before founding ICV in 2006 with Meir Ukeles, a classmate from his Jewish day school in New York who worked on Wall Street and in venture capital, and Glen Schwaber, a college friend who also came out of the venture world. They have raised money in Israel, Europe and the US, close to $150 million in all.

Based in Kfar Hayarok, about 35 minutes north of Tel Aviv, ICV was the nation’s first green technology fund, but it required no explanation.

“For five decades, the mentality was that we have few resources, that we have to make do with less,” Jack said.

The fund  invests in very early stage Israel companies, working closely with the management team and connecting the startups with international partners.

“Israel is a beta site for a lot of our companies,” Jack told me. “But the real market is global.”

The company has made a dozen investments, most small. Among the most interesting:

  • Pythagoras Solar makes building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) products–basically, windows that generate solar energy, as well as shading and insulation. Founded in 2007, and with operations in Israel, China and the US, Pythagoras says it “will advance distributed power generation” and “help achieve Net Zero Energy Buildings.” Its first solar windows were installed last year at the LaFarge, Wisconsin, headquarters of Organic Valley, the organic farmers’ cooperative. Pythagoras is working closely with Guardian, a major Michigan-based glass maker.
  • Cellera is an early-stage fuel cell company whose technology eliminates the need for platinum in fuel cells, thereby lowering costs. Vodafone Ventures, the global venture capital arm of Vodafone Group, has invested in Cellera because its fuel cells could be economically used to provide backup power for mobile phone towers in the developing world. The company was started by Shimshon Gottesfeld and his son, Ziv; the senior Gottesfeld was for 16 years the fuel cell technology group leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
  • Emefcy is developing what it calls a “bio-electro-chemical” process for generating electricity, using wastewater as a fuel. As Jack explained it to be, tiny microbes are introduced into wastewater that remove waste and turn it into tiny bits of electricity that can be captured and fed into the grid. “The vision is that you could create energy-free waste water treatment,” he said. Last year, True North Venture Partners, a VC firm founded by Mike Ahearn, the former CEO of First Solar, and Energy Technology Ventures, a joint venture of GE, ConocoPhillips and NRG Energy, invested in Emefcy.

Not all of ICV’s investments will pay off of course but that, too, is business as usual for Israelis. No one who wants a safe and predictable existence would move to Israel.

“We’re a risk-taking nation,” Jack said. “Failure is part of life. You learn from failure, and keep going.”