Feeding the World, One Startup at a Time

Nitza Kardish is helping Israeli agtech startups take ideas from the research sector and commercialize them for the international market.

Back when she was studying at Mikveh Yisrael, Israel’s first agricultural school, Nitza Kardish wasn’t content doing the jobs that were normally reserved for the girls. Instead, she insisted on becoming the first “tractoristit” – female tractor driver – the school had ever seen since its founding in 1870.

Given that, it’s not such a quantum leap to get to where Kardish is today: The CEO of Trendlines Agtech - Mofet, a “Venture Accelerator” of Trendlines, an investment group that focuses on medical technology and more recently, the latest agricultural developments. All of the staff running the two-year-old incubator under Kardish’s helm – which gives seed money, help attracting investors, workspace and other support to new agtech companies – are also women. Their goal: feed the world with Israel’s latest inventions, and make a profit along the way.

“We have a problem of fewer and fewer resources, but the population is growing and the climate is changing. In 2050 there will be nine billion people on the planet, and everyone agrees that there’s no way to meet the need to feed them all with traditional agriculture,” Kardish explains in an interview in her office, where her clothing defies the farm-girl stereotype with a pair of gray skinny jeans, a sumptuous gray cowelneck sweater, and stylish black mules. Toweringly tall and blonde, it would be hard to predict that she is the daughter of Libyan immigrant parents who had nine children and reluctantly allowed their daughter to head off to boarding school – the now legendary Mikveh Yisrael, at the entrance to what would become Holon – at age 14.

“Our vision is to create and build companies that will improve the human condition,” says Kardish, who holds a PhD in plant molecular biology. “What amazed us when we began searching for the ideas to develop is that there is lots of knowledge in the research realm, but no one knew how much of it is applicable and can be commercialized.” Showcasing what’s available, the company founded and spearheads the new Agrivest Conference, which will be held for the second time on December 3rd in Tel Aviv.

Today, like most days, Kardish is working from Mofet’s startup “hothouse” in Efrat, a settlement in the West Bank, though Mofet and its parent company Trendlines is officially based in Misgav, in the Galilee. She commutes here from her home in Tel Aviv because the government provided the space here, in the industrial zone south of the residential part of Efrat, and “not for ideological” reasons, the company accepted it. From the conference room where she discusses why she returned to her first love, agriculture, after years of focusing more on medical technology, one can smell the nearby cows.

Cows, in fact, are a perfect place to start. Those growing numbers of people around the planet will continue to demand protein to feed their families, but every kilogram of beef produced requires nine kilograms of grain to feed that cow first, Kardish explains – an awful and unsustainable ratio. Instead, more people are turning to fish. But it turns out that the man-made ponds where most of those fish are being raised get dirty quite quickly, and cleaning or recycling the water afterwards is a filthy and expensive business.

BioFishency, one of the companies being supported by the Mofet Hothouse, is a water treatment system – a kind of improved filtration – than can allow fish farmers to increase their yield from the same body of water by 2 to 5 times before they need to discard it.

Still on cows, there’s an increased worldwide demand for milk, Kardish notes. It got an Asian boost in China when, five years ago, the Ministry of Health declared that each child should have a glass of milk each day – it hadn’t been a typical part of the Chinese diet. “We have a company that developed a robotic milking system that’s good for very large dairies – in other words, a place with thousands of cows. MiRobot – from Milk Robot – is developing a next-generation robotic milking systems for cost-effective, high-performance automatic milking. They also take into account “the cow’s welfare, the company promises, as well as offering an environmentally friendly procedure of automatically collecting and disposing of the iodine used for cleaning and disinfecting.

Indeed, tidying up the mess made by even the most innocent-sounding of crops, it seems, is one of the biggest challenges in the agricultural business. Corn, grown in huge quantities in the U.S. and Canada, is raised commercially with the pesticide atrazine, which kills weeds – and has a residue so harmful it’s been banned in some places in Europe. Catalyst Agtech, which is developing a technology for manufacturing degradable agrochemicals based on a breakthrough, patented technology developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science, is marketing it as a “self-destruct” mechanism for use with pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. More specifically, an appropriate “catalyst” is paired with an agrochemical, and together they’re applied to the crops in question.

“What we’re trying to do is to minimalize these pesticides’ impact on the environment and get them to break down faster,” says Shalom Nachshon, Catalyst AgTech’s founder and CEO. What brought him here? A meeting with Nitza Kardish at the beginning of the year. Their spouses work together: Kardish’s husband is an architect and Nachshon’s wife is an interior designer. Soon, Nachson found himself with an office here – and about $700,000 from Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist. Not a pot of gold, but a start. To succeed, they’ll need another $1.2 million by 2014, Nachshon says, and another $1.2 million by 2016.

“We invest around $1 million in each company and work with them for about two years,” Kardish explains. “We do a lot of work to raise the follow-up investment. We’re here to enable that, because in the past, there was no vehicle to build up agritech in Israel.”

The fact that she’s a woman with a heavily female staff in a male-dominated world of agriculture doesn’t faze her, just as it didn’t deter her when, as a teenager, she was initially told that girls don’t drive tractors. “Women are supposed to be catty, right? The only thing that’s very obvious about the women here,” she says, “is that each one of us is interested in the other’s success.”

Bloomberg
Raanan Tal/Omri Eilat
Ilene Prusher