In the past nine years, Israeli nanotechnology researchers have filed 1,590 patents (769 granted so far), published 12,392 scholarly articles on the subject, and had 129 nano-success stories, which include establishing start-ups, selling ideas or technology to multinationals, licensing a patent, etc. Israeli nanotech innovations are part of some of the world’s biggest most innovative pharmaceutical, water filtration, diagnostic, energy, security – even hair coloring – technologies and products.

And currently, there are over 1,600 ongoing research programs between Israeli universities and local or international companies studying the application of nanotech research conducted here to a slew of industrial, infrastructure, and information technology issues.

That’s enough for Israel to call itself a nanotech superpower, according to Dan Vilenski, an Israeli entrepreneur who believes that Israel’s “next billion” is in the nanotech business. “Ten years ago the world is going to look completely different, thanks to nanotechnology, and Israel will have a lot to do with that,” said Vilenski, who runs the Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative (INNI), and is helping organize this year’s NanoIsrael 2016 event.

That nanotech hasn’t taken off in the way that the media has been portraying that it would over the past decade and a half – clothes that clean themselves with nano-engineered bacteria still aren’t common items on department store racks – doesn’t bother Vilenski.

“There was a lot of skepticism when they came out with the transistor, and now look at the world,” he said. “And even if it isn’t fully obvious yet, we are already seeing nanotechnology upending a number of industries. It’s just that the products look the same, so we don’t realize what is happening inside.”

Agreeing with Vilenski is Rafi Koriat, who is chairing the NanoIsrael 2016 event, set for February 22 in Tel Aviv. “Like many other technologies, nanotechnology in its initial stages has been evolutionary, even though it operates in revolutionary ways. Soon, however, we will begin to see the more revolutionary side of nanotechnology.”

A good example: Israeli energy tech firm 3GSolar, which is using nanotechnology to develop integrated photovoltaic energy cells that will allow consumer devices to recharge themselves not in the sun, but with ordinary lighting – including electric lighting – indoors, thus eliminating a need for batteries altogether.

Vilenski has a good eye for business; he has directed and/or invested in numerous local companies that eventually got acquired by multinationals, including KLA Tencor and Applied Materials, and has helped hundreds of Israeli start-ups to develop products, technologies, and partnerships with local and foreign companies as an advisor to BIRD (the US-Israel Bidirectional Industrial Research and Development organization), the Fulbright Scholarship Foundation, and other activities. Currently, he is working with several nanotech start-ups that he believes will be very successful.

Those companies, and many others, will display their wares and technologies at NanoIsrael, a biennial event that brings together entrepreneurs, researchers, and executives from local and international firms to review the state of the nano-art in areas such as materials, medicine, mobile, aviation, semiconductors and other industries. The event will serve as a meeting point for top researchers and leaders from Israel and abroad, and will give visitors a first look at cutting-edge technologies, scientific achievements and unique business and investment opportunities, said Koriat.

Among the guests at the event, to be held at Tel Aviv University, will be 200 high school students who will check out the kinds of technologies they could find themselves helping to develop when they begin college. “These are the future researchers, and we want to inspire them to think about their place in nanotech research,” said Koriat. “They will be able to attend, along with the other visitors, presentations by Nobel prize winners and other top academics and professionals in the nano-business.”

Israel as a nanotech superpower

Those who do bite the nano-career bullet will join thousands of others who have studied nanotech over the past nine years. There are currently 1,995 PhD graduates from the six universities in Israel that offer a doctorate in the field, in addition to 2,908 graduates with masters degrees – besides the several hundred already in school.

Those numbers, too, make Israel a nanotech superpower; The Technion’s Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute (RBNI), for example, includes over 110 faculty members and some 300 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows – making it one of the largest academic programs in Israel, and among the largest nanotechnology centers in Europe and the US.

If Israel has a notable nanotech program, it’s largely due to the work of INNI, which acts not only as a promoter of the industry – but as a strict overseer, said Vilenski.

“We began in 2005 with a fund that we acquired from the government, private donations, corporate donations, etc,” said Vilenski. “We developed a pay for play model, very rare in academia. Universities that wanted funding for their nanotech programs had to make an effort and raise money on their own, which we matched. In addition, payouts were linked to performance – how many students were enrolled in nanotech programs, how many graduated, how many research projects they were carrying out in cooperation with other universities or companies, the number of doctorates graduated, and much more.”

Altogether, the five year fund raised $250 million for the programs – and was so successful that it was repeated.

Now into its third five year program INNI continues to fund new research programs, provide scholarships, and assist researchers to bring their ideas to market – along with helping sponsor NanoIsrael.

“INNI is seen as an academic success story worldwide,” said Vilenski. “We have invested a lot of money in nanotech, but I am positive the investment will pay off big. We have so far 55 start-ups with unique ideas and projects that no one anywhere else is doing. If even just one of those turns into a billion-dollar company, that will have already made the investment worthwhile – and I believe we have a lot more than one of those unicorns on our side.”