Barely a decade has passed since the GPS navigation app Waze was invented in Israel, but millions of drivers across the globe can hardly remember life without it.
What triggered the notion to use information submitted by other drivers to identify the quickest route to get from one location to another?
The place to learn fun facts about this and other brilliant Israeli ideas — from the horse’s mouth, as it were — is a brand new beachside museum that showcases the best of Startup Nation.
The Israeli Innovation Center, officially opened to the public in March, is housed in the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation (named after the late Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, and formerly known as the Peres Center for Peace), an architectural landmark located in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood.
Among the key attractions is the Secrets of Innovation Hall, where 18 leading Israeli entrepreneurs talk (via holographic images) about their lives, how they came up with their ideas and the challenges they faced along the way.
Uri Levine, a co-founder of Waze, reveals, for example, that his company — ultimately sold to Google for nearly $1 billion in 2013 — got its start when he was grappling with a problem faced by many Israeli drivers on the weekend. He and his family had traveled up north with friends for a nature outing. The friends decided to make their way back home earlier and so, before setting off with his own family, Levine called them to find out whether there were any roads he should avoid. “I realized that to bypass traffic jams, what I needed was to have someone ahead of me on the road telling me what’s going on,” he says, explains the simple concept behind Waze.
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Also featured in this interactive exhibit, Prof. Amnon Shashua, the brains behind Mobileye, admits that the car accident prevention technology he invented was based on something every seeing person (not only a distinguished scientist like himself) knows intuitively: If you close one eye, you can still see with the other. In other words, only one little camera (not two, as other scientists had assumed) was needed to accomplish the task. Simple yet brilliant. Mobileye was sold to Intel two years ago for a record sum of $15.3 billion.
Distraught to learn that a close friend was sick with leukemia, Prof. Hossam Haick of the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, resolved that he would come up with a way to diagnose such illnesses early on when treatment was more effective. He learned that the ancient Greeks were able to diagnose various illnesses by smelling a patient’s exhaled breath. Thus was born the idea for his now widely used Nano Artificial Nose, which provides a noninvasive method for diagnosing an assortment of ailments.
Contribution to humanity
The original Peres Center for Peace was established in 1996, when many in the world still believed a solution to the Middle East conflict was within relatively easy reach. Peres, who died nearly three years ago, never lived to see his dream of peace realized. He did, however, live to see Israel develop into a technological powerhouse.
In the years preceding his death, foreign heads of state and visiting dignitaries would often ask him where to go to find the jewels in the crown of Startup Nation under one roof. Since no such place existed, he decided to create one. Luckily for him, the peace center had a huge building at its disposal containing lots of unused space (perhaps a reflection on the dire state of the peace process), and so four floors were set aside for the new innovation center.
Currently, only guided tours are available, and they must be booked in advance. The standard tour is 90 minutes and suitable for families with children ages 10 and up, at a special introductory admission rate of 30 shekels (about $8.50) per visitor, regardless of age.
The first stop on the tour is the Israeli Expo, where 45 startups in four categories — digital health and health care; aerospace and security; information and communications technology; and agritech — are showcased. At any given time, as our guide explains, there are 6,000 startups operating in Israel. A large percentage of them ultimately fail, with about 1,000 new ones joining the list each year. To qualify for selection into the Israel Expo, which is meant to rotate each year, a startup must in some way or another contribute to humanity (“You won’t find any Israeli-developed gambling apps in this space, no matter how successful they are,” our guide explains).
The exhibit includes an eye implant that functions as a tiny camera and helps restore vision to people who have lost their sight due to retinal diseases; a system that enables vehicles to recharge themselves wirelessly while traveling; a new type of phone battery, based on nanotechnology, that can be fully charged in one minute; a technology that makes it possible to raise grasshoppers — a protein-rich source of food for humans (who knew?) — all year round rather than just for a limited four weeks annually; the company that landed (or rather, almost landed) the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon; and a device that tells you if water is safe to drink.
Some of the display boxes include the actual products, while others contain mock-ups. Many include interactive and digital features.
Situated a floor above, The Innovation Hall uses an interactive timeline to chronicle 100 key developments in Israeli technology, medicine and agriculture — ranging from cherry tomatoes to drug-eluting stents. A collection of artifacts, located on the other side of the room, includes the personal USB flash drive collection of Dov Moran, the inventor of the DiskOnKey, and a piece of the Israeli flag that survived the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia crash, taken onboard by the late Ilan Ramon (the first and only Israeli astronaut to date).
The final stop on the tour is The Capsule, where visitors get to put on virtual reality goggles and take a journey 20 years into the future. Using digital medicine, food technology, smart transportation, nanobots and space travel, they get 10 minutes to solve the future challenges of humanity.
The museum is well worth a visit, especially if you’re in the market for something indoors and kid-friendly to do on a stifling summer day. The main drawback is that the guided tour is a bit rushed, and not much time is left for visitors who want to roam around on their own. Introducing self-guided tours would go a long way toward improving the experience.