26-year-old from Atlanta wants the Israeli army to innovate like Google

Sure, ranks and discipline are important in the military, says the air force’s Sgt. Ilan Regenbaum, but the culture should allow good ideas to circulate freely

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Sergeant Ilan Regenbaum, right, and his commander Maj. Omer Yuval of the Israeli Air Force Innovation Unit (IDF Spokesperson Office)
Sergeant Ilan Regenbaum, right, and his commander Maj. Omer Yuval of the Israeli Air Force Innovation Unit (IDF Spokesperson Office)

A 26-year old immigrant from the United States and his commander in the Innovation Unit of the Israeli Air Force are undertaking the ambitious mission of overhauling the Israeli army and transforming it from a complex, sprawling bureaucratic machine into a Google-like organization.

The goal is to create a culture of innovation within the military, explained Sgt. Ilan Regenbaum, originally from Atlanta, Georgia, who is working on the project along with his commander, Maj. Omer Yuval. “We want organizational innovation to be viewed as as important as tech innovation.”

Israel’s military and defense industry are recognized globally for churning out successful spin-off companies led by graduates of its elite technology units, like Gil Shwed, a former member of the Intelligence Corps’ 8200 unit who went on to co-found the $17.3 billion cybersecurity firm Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. But there is much more innovation that can take place, Regenbaum believes.

On the plus side, Regenbaum declares, “We are the only air force in the world outside the US that has the F-35. We are leaders in many areas, including in creating the missile defense system, the Iron Dome or the plethora of innovations stemming out of its technology units. When you are talking about technology it is here. There is no doubting that.”

Successful test of Iron Dome anti-missile system, February 22, 2017 (Missiles Defense Agency, Ministry of Defense)
Successful test of Iron Dome anti-missile system, February 22, 2017 (Missiles Defense Agency, Ministry of Defense)

But, he added, “at the end of the day we are a military and a military has ranks. And ranks are very important when you are in a battlefield and you need to know who needs to do what, and what needs to be done, and follow orders.” But ranks, however necessary, also “stifle innovation.”

If 18-year old privates notice a problem, whether it is on their base or in their office, they raise them with their 20-year-old commanders who in turn bring the issues up with their 22- year-old commanders. Chances are these problems won’t get addressed, Regenbaum posited.

“So, when we talk about innovation, we mean creating the culture that allows for ideas to be heard and people to have a voice within the organization.”

Technology companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook all have systems in place — a sort of a corporate DNA — in which the voices of all employees can be heard and ideas and problems raised, he said. “But in the military, that is by design not the case. So, our unit is trying to figure out, within the culture of the military, how to allow these ideas to rise up.”

For now the efforts of the Innovation Unit, with its 10 soldiers, are limited to within the air force, but the aim is to expand the culture to the entire military.

Fighting to keep the best in the army

The push by the Innovation Unit comes as the IDF is fighting a battle to preserve the best of its talent within its ranks as career soldiers, as the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook entice them with salaries as much as five times what the army can offer. With Israel’s startup scene flourishing and multinationals setting up research and development centers, a shortage of engineers is heating up the competition for skilled personnel, with companies offering fatter and fatter salaries to recruit talent.

“I can’t talk to the army’s bigger strategy,” Regenbaum said. “At the end of the day the army of course wants to keep good people. I was meant to do six months, loved what I do and because of many other reasons I decided to stay. To keep people, you need to be innovative.”

But that is not the main reason for the Innovation Unit’s push, he said. The aim is to change the culture of the IDF in a way that will enable the ideas to flow.

The unit aims to take initiatives from the civilian world and introduce them into the culture of the army. These include setting up hackathons that bring together participants from all the branches of the army to brainstorm and work together to develop ideas and prototypes of products.

A female graduate of the IAF's June 2012 course (Photo credit: courtesy: IAF)
Graduates of the IAF’s June 2012 course (Courtesy: IAF)

In one such event, the best and the brightest from all the branches of the military are brought together to build projects “that have zero practical applications,” Regenbaum said. Last year the teams built a trampoline that squeezed oranges when people jumped on it to make juice.

“The point is that you bring very smart people together and they get to meet other very smart people and share ideas and they also feel they are not in this very structured environment. So, they feel more open and free to share ideas.”

Similarly, on an army fun day, soldiers were taken on a tour of the City of Tel Aviv, visiting the stock exchange and startups to learn about the ecosystem. “Showing them what is happening on the outside is another way we change the culture.”

Some air force soldiers were also sent to Tel Aviv University to take part in a course about how to be innovative in a big organization.
If you go to a course, said Regenbaum, then you are not just a 19-year-old with a bright idea, but you are someone who can approach their commander and say we should be doing “this,” because “this” is what is being done at Google. The course, said Regenbaum, “gives the soldier ammunition. They become an ambassador for innovation.”

Expecting to be an IDF truck driver

Regenbaum, a finance and business management graduate who was born in South Africa but grew up in the US, immigrated to Israel three years ago after setting up three startups in the US. Two of them failed, but he sold the third, a photography business, to a relative and it is still running.

Upon his arrival to Israel he got called up for six months of compulsory IDF army duty.

“Typically, I was expecting to be a truck driver or something so I thought six months would be free ulpan [language classes] and I’d get to help the country a little bit and learn some Hebrew,” he said. “And then I met my commander at a startup conference and was invited to join the innovation department here at the air force.”

He did his compulsory six months, and then signed up for six more and then another six. He has now been in the army for two years. We “will see what happens after that,” he said with a smile.

Sergeant Ilan Regenbaum of the Israeli Air Force Innovation Unit at his desk (IDF Spokesperson Unit)
Sergeant Ilan Regenbaum of the Israeli Air Force Innovation Unit at his desk (IDF Spokesperson Unit)

The Innovation Unit has also set up an ideation platform, at the moment only available to air force soldiers, in which any soldier, regardless of rank, can submit ideas about issues. Other soldiers can rate the ideas and the top ideas then get developed.

One project that is being worked on at the moment is an app that will allow soldiers to hitchhike, which is prohibited by the army because of the risk of soldiers being abducted by terrorists. The system would create a car-pooling app via which soldiers could connect with the various drivers of the army’s vehicles and enable them to get a ride home.

“At the end of the day the military has one goal — to keep the country safe. But if we can do some things to make it more efficient and make it function better so that it can better accomplish that target, then that is the goal,” said Regenbaum. “There are a lot of amazing things that happened within the army that have been turned into startups. Now we hope that a lot of things that are in the startup innovation world are going to come back and affect the military. “

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