July 26, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
A sex-altering research facility for unborn chicks opening in New York State later this year had its origins in Kaokab Abu-Alhija, an Arab village in northern Israel. It was there that Nashat Haj Mohamed found in his family’s chicken coop that certain sound vibrations could alter embryos from males to females.
SooS, the biotechnology company Nashat founded in 2017, has perfected that technique for use in mass production. It has received international acclaim for humanitarian and agribusiness reasons. Some seven billion male chicks worldwide are culled annually soon after hatching because they will not be able to lay eggs. Gender-switching increases the numbers of hens, yielding higher rates of egg production. The company won the $1 million first prize in the prestigious Grow NY competition last November.
SooS is one of eight pioneering Israeli start-ups initiated by Arab entrepreneurs which received critical seed money from Takwin Ventures, a venture capital fund that has pioneered in identifying, developing, and bringing to market their innovative concepts.
While Israel is known internationally as the start-up nation, Arab citizens, 20% of the country’s population, comprise only 3% of the hi-tech workforce, and no blockbuster global innovation developed by an Israeli Arab has yet emerged. Takwin is determined to enhance the role and influence of Arab citizens in the continually expanding hi-tech field.
“Takwin is a journey enabler,” Takwin CEO Itzik Frid told me. “We are bringing together the best minds and experts in Israel to assist any company in our portfolio.”
Takwin was launched in 2014 by Imad Telhami, a leading businessman and entrepreneur, together with the heads of Israel’s two largest venture capital funds – Chemi Peres, founder of Pitango and son of the late Israeli president Shimon Peres, and Dr. Erel Margalit, founder of JVP – Jerusalem Venture Partners and a former Knesset member who has focused on developing industries in marginalized areas.
The business sector is one area in Israel where Jewish-Arab relations are positively deepening and expanding. Not only is the cooperation necessary to bring needed financing to start-ups initiated by Arab citizens, but each company supported by Takwin has both Arabs and Jews in the senior management team. And two of the companies are led by female managers.
The collective value of the eight companies that received initial Takwin investments totaling $8 million have a valuation today of $170 million, illustrating the recognized impact of the innovations and interest among financiers and corporations in Israel and other countries that also have provided funding.
Another company, Imagry, created by Adham Ghazali, a Palestinian from east Jerusalem, is developing driverless vehicles that do not rely on HD pre-mapping or HD GPS. The real-time software and built-in camera Imagry uses to identify the route, other vehicles, pedestrians, other obstructions is said to be more scalable and optimal than alternative solutions which are based on pre-mapping and HD GPS, that may not be as affordable and scalable. Ghazali studied biomedical engineering in Jordan, and received a graduate degree in mechanical engineering at Tel Aviv University. Imagry operates internationally, in Haifa, Israel; Tempe, Arizona in the US; and Rawabi, the Palestinian city in the West Bank.
Seismic AI, founded in 2014 by Dr. Habib J. Nasser, an Israeli Arab physics PhD graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, created, with seismologists at Tel Aviv University, an Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system. The company has detected earthquake activity in Israel, Canada, India and Turkey, enabling smart cities and utility companies to take real-time actions to save lives and critical infrastructure. The company was awarded a World Bank grant earlier this year, and currently is raising funds in Israel via the Pipelbiz platform to finance a deployment of EEW networks globally.
And a nanotechnology company, FeelIT, created by Arab and Jewish professors at the Technion, has developed a product that enables inanimate machines, pipes, valves and other vital equipment to self-detect and report problems that may lead to costly breakdowns. FeelIT creates a custom “electronic skin” with wireless communications capability that sends alerts when weaknesses are sensed and identified. The company is active in Germany, Israel, Japan, and the United States, and raised funding from investors from all these markets.
Israel’s continued economic growth will depend on more fully integrating its Arab citizens into all levels of the economy. Frid is confident the number of Arab citizens engaged in the start-up nation ecosystem will grow dramatically. “In 10 years, it will be 20%. Why? Israel hi-tech has to integrate Arabs,” says Frid, noting that one-in-five of the students at the Technion, Israel’s leading technology institution, are Arab.
He sees it as a natural evolution and progression in career choices. “Ten years ago, there were hardly any Arab doctors, and today 20 percent of the doctors in Israel are Arab,” says Frid.
Successful companies founded and led by Israeli Arabs can serve as models, encouraging younger Arabs to pursue higher education studies in engineering and sciences, fields that traditionally have not been of interest.
Takwin also is an exemplar for other financiers to seriously consider emerging Arab hi-tech entrepreneurs in Israel. Their success will benefit Israel, and, with the right inventions, also be of life-changing value to many other people and countries around the world.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.