Minister Eli Cohen

A SYMPATHETIC EAR

Eli Cohen, Israels Minister of Industry & Economy and the head of the Israel Innovation Authority, spoke with Cutting Edge about the governments role promoting Israeli innovation

Mr. Minister, you claim Israel is a global leader in the development of innovative and breakthrough technologies. Are these mere words or do they have substance?

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Lets look at the figures. Our researchers and start-ups generate more patents for new technologies, products and services per capita than anywhere else in the world. Israel is an acknowledged global leader in agricultural, water, cyber and driverless car technologies. We lead the world in biotech, medical devices and digital health, with over 1,400 innovative, commercially viable ventures in this sector, and close to 100 new start-ups each year. Nations worldwide seek economic ties with us, and over 300 multinational companies currently operate in Israel. Were a recognized world technological hub.

How has Israel become so important a player in developing innovative and breakthrough technologies?

Were a resourceful people who improvise and problem-solve, rather than say We cant. This mindset enables us to transform handicaps into benefits. Our geopolitical environment is challenging, so weve built one of the worlds best defense industries. The Iron Dome, for example, was developed in just three years. We lack water, so weve become world water experts. With our ecosystem combining entrepreneurial spirit, first-class educational institutions and a skilled workforce, we were ideally placed when technology began supplanting energy (oil and gas) as the worlds dominant economy.

When you took office, you said: Israels Ministry of Economy is a jewel in the crown with tremendous responsibilities and a formidable mission. What did you mean?

A nation can be neither strong nor equal without a strong economy. Its education, welfare, health-care, security and culture are all underpinned by its economy. Every new economic venture thus strengthens us — puts computers in another classroom, buys another MRI. So every new venture in Israel has a sympathetic ear at the Ministry together with economic incentives. Tax on IP, for example, is only 6% and corporate tax for exporters 7.5%. In the life sciences sector, we help bridge the vast gap between R&D and the market with a $222 million venture capital fund dedicated to biomedical startups. Beyond that, were helping advance specific technologies by branding cities. Beersheba is a center for cyber technology, Jerusalem for autonomous vehicle technology, Rehovot is a focus for life science technologies,Yokneam for medical devices, and Haifa for e-commerce.

The Office of the Chief Scientist became the Israel Innovation Authority last year. Has it changed in more than name? Doesnt centralized, bureaucratic and budget-constrained government stifle innovation rather than promote it?

The world has changed since the Chief Scientists Office was set up in 1974 to foster industrial R&D. Todays IIA is a stream-lined independent agency, which directs Israels technology policy and oversees aid programs to the industry. Directed by Aharon Aharon, a Unit 8200 veteran who launched Apples Israel operations, the IIA builds, advises and nurtures a national network of start-up incubators. It brings together academia and industry, gives young entrepreneurs their first budgets, and shares risk by providing incentives that include generous grants and loans. While many IIA startups are traditionally biomedical, it has an active Societal Challenges Division, among whose focuses are technological solutions for the disabled, and diversifying the people employed in high-tech.

Youve said that you see joint economic activity with foreign partners as a strategic goal for the Israeli economy. Is this a goal thats being met?

Very much so! We currently have more than 800 joint ventures with the US, through the Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation. In March, we established with China a range of cross-border science and technology innovation parks. In May, we signed agreements with Japan to promote economic cooperation in cyber-security, artificial intelligence, robotics, IoT and autonomous driving. The EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation visited Israel the same month to discuss its Horizon 2020 research and innovation programs; the first non-European country associated with Horizon, Israel has been involved in over more than 3,250 of its projects. And two month later, Indias Prime Minister Narendra Modi was here, widening India-Israel cooperation from defense to science, agriculture and technology.

Do you see Israels global economic ties spilling beyond R&D and commerce?

I certainly hope they do. I believe we can change the world. Our Mobileye technology (sold to Intel for more than $15 billion), for example, will prevent 10 to 70% of traffic accidents — so even at its most conservative, this translates into huge numbers of lives and limbs saved. The arid Negev is our food-basket because of our water technology, which can make deserts worldwide fertile. Perhaps it will. Tel Aviv is hosting 90 nations at the Water Technology & Environment Control Exhibition & Conference (WATEC) in September, held here because Israel is one of the first countries to overcome water resources limitations. These are just two Israeli technologies that can change the world for the better, and nurture other bonds and relationships between Israel and the world.