Analysis: The startup nation reaches for the stars

“Small country, big dreams” read the sign affixed to the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet, which last month entered lunar orbit before crashing during its attempted landing. Despite the failure to land on the moon, Israel still became the seventh – and by far the smallest – country in the world to bring a spacecraft into lunar orbit.

Israel’s moon mission began in 2011 with the founding of SpaceIL in response to Google’s international LunarX challenge for nongovernmental groups to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface. Google ended the contest in 2018 without a winner, but the Israeli team decided to continue its efforts privately. SpaceIL partnered with Israel Aerospace Industries to build the $100m spacecraft, funded almost entirely by donations and at a fraction of the cost of previous lunar missions. They named it Beresheet, Hebrew for genesis, in the beginning.

Launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in February, the small craft captured the attention of the Jewish state that had created it. Thousands of Israelis came together to follow its journey on social media and at watch-parties across the country.

Whilst the spacecraft did not succeed in its primary mission of landing on the moon’s surface due to an engine failure during the landing sequence, Beresheet still marked a major milestone in Israel’s world-leading scientific and technological development.

The reaction to Beresheet’s failure to land on the lunar surface illustrated the spirit behind the self-styled ‘startup nation’. Morris Kahn, the chairman of SpaceIL immediately announced he was launching project Beresheet 2, adding: “We started something and we need to finish it. We’ll put our flag on the moon.”

As Abigail Leichman summarised, “a disappointing end to a spectacular space mission is seen as a temporary setback on a sure trajectory to success”. At a watch-party for dozens of Israeli children at the president’s residence, President Rivlin summed up the mood: “Yes, we are disappointed, but there is no doubt that our achievements and abilities – of our scientists and our country – are wonderful.” He added, “when we were children your age, we never even dreamed we would go to the moon. I hope that you will be the scientists who get to the moon and achieve even greater things. We will succeed in the end.”

The children then joined the president in singing Israel’s national anthem, ‘Hatikva’ (The Hope).

This spirit has underlined Israel’s technological success. Start-Up Nation Central executive director Wendy Singer described the mission as “a tribute to all the entrepreneurs in Israel and around the world for whom ‘No, it can’t be done’ is their starting point.”

From ‘making the desert bloom’ through agriculture in previously arid lands, to the world’s first video pill to image the digestive system, the history of Israel’s scientific development is filled with impossible ideas that Israelis turned into reality.

A recent addition to the list of life-changing Israeli inventions is the first ever 3D-printed heart with human tissue developed by researchers at Tel Aviv University. It marked “the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart replete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers,” said Tal Dvir, who led the project. “People have managed to 3D-print the structure of a heart in the past, but not with cells or with blood vessels,” he added. The major medical breakthrough may eventually lead to the production of hearts suitable for transplant into humans as well as patches to regenerate defective hearts.

Israeli technology is also pivotal to the construction of the world’s first ‘electric road’ in Sweden. It will allow electronic buses and trucks to wirelessly charge via dynamic wireless power transfer. Electreon, the Israeli company behind this innovation, is a global leader in the technology, installing its unique copper coil technology underneath the road surface, making it invisible to road users and enabling a steady electricity flow by supplying power as vehicles drive. “The selection of Electreon by the Swedish government after careful filtration testifies to the recognition of the potential of the technology to bring the global electrification revolution to the next critical stage of full implementation,” said Electreon CEO, Oren Ezer.

Scientific and technological innovation continues to be a significant driver of the Israeli economy and shows no signs of slowing.  Total foreign investment in 2017 hit $129.1bn, an increase of 30 percent from 2015. In the first quarter of 2019, Israeli hi-tech firms raised $1.55bn across 128 deals, an increase of funding by 28 percent and deals by 15 percent compared with the same period in 2018. “Israeli hi-tech opened the year 2019 with momentum,” said Israeli law-firm ZAG-S&W managing director Shmulik Zysman. “We are particularly optimistic as the first quarter of 2019 was the most successful first quarter in the past six years, both in terms of total funding and number of transactions.”

As Prince William remarked during his historic visit to Israel in 2018, “the modern story of Israel is one of inventing, creating, innovating, and striding confidently into its future.”

The spirit behind that story shows no signs of abating. Israelis will continue to lead the world in technology and innovation, striving to make the impossible, possible. There is little doubt that one day, whether through Beresheet 2 or Beresheet 3, the small country will fully achieve one of its most remarkable dreams and land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon.