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Are Australia and Israel destined to be best mates in high-tech?

Australia is one of the world’s richest and most democratic countries. So what were a visiting group of politicians and business leaders hoping to discover in Israel?

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Israel's chief scientist Avi Hasson with Australian minister Wyatt Roy (Courtesy)
Israel's chief scientist Avi Hasson with Australian minister Wyatt Roy (Courtesy)

By any measure, Australia is one of the most successful countries in the world. It ranks seventh in personal freedom and well-being (Israel ranks 38th), 11th in perceptions of corruption (Israel is 37th), and is considered the tenth richest country globally.

“We’re very lucky to live where we do,” Wyatt Roy, Australia’s assistant minister of innovation, tells The Times of Israel.

No doubt Israel has a lot to learn from Australia. But last week, an Australian trade mission of parliament members, venture capitalists, business leaders and entrepreneurs visited Israel to learn something valuable from this country, namely, how to jump-start Australia’s startup scene and transform the country into a knowledge economy.

“Everyone oversells Israel. We’re pragmatic people so we have to cut through that,” says Jonathan Marshall, CEO of Bondi Labs, a startup that creates job training games for the developing world, “but I was blown away.”

Indeed, if there’s one area where Israel actually excels, it’s in startups. Israel ranks fifth on Bloomberg’s index of the world’s most innovative countries (after South Korea, Japan, Germany and Finland) and attracts more venture capital per capita than any country on earth.

Simon White, CEO Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (AICC) for Queensland, explains that Australia has enjoyed 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth, in part due to the mining of gold, diamonds, coal, iron ore copper.

But as growth has slowed, Australia is seeking to diversify its economy.

The delegation's female members pose (Courtesy)
The delegation’s female members pose (Courtesy)

“We compete with Asia to grow food, but their production costs are a lot lower. Rather than compete, let’s innovate, let’s be the best in the world at agritech, drones in agriculture. But the barrier is Australians are risk-averse.”

“We have capital, talented people and access to markets,” says Murray Hurps, the general manager of Sidney-based Fishburners, Australia’s largest startup space. “The problem is the cultural part, ambition, people thinking they can do this.”

Wyatt Roy, who at 25 is Australia’s youngest minister, says he came to Israel because he wants to see the two countries collaborate more.

“I think Australia and Israel are a more natural partnership than Australia and Silicon Valley. We both have strong anti-authoritarian streaks, ‘chutzpah’ and ‘rosh gadol’ (thinking big),” he riffs, using Israeli slang.

“In Australia we support the underdog and always want to challenge authority.”

Specifically, Roy was impressed by his meeting with Avi Hasson, Israel’s chief scientist, whose office subsidizes Israeli startups to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

“I want to adopt Australian versions of these policies,” he says, noting that Hasson, representatives of VC firm Jerusalem Venture Partners, and serial entrepreneur Jon Medved are coming on a trade mission to Australia in a few weeks.

Innovation city

Campbell Newman of the Springfield Land Corps is the former mayor of Brisbane and is now in charge of creating a high-tech precinct in the planned city of Springfield, Queensland. The town currently has 30,000 residents but is expected to grow to 150,000 in the coming decades.

“I’ve been identifying features of the startup nation to be deployed in Springfield,” he says, explaining his motive for joining the mission.

Newman says he has already pitched several Israeli companies to open an office in Springfield.

Downtown Springfield, Queensland, Australia (Courtesy)
Downtown Springfield, Queensland, Australia (Courtesy)

“It’s a great place to get access to Asian markets and it’s a safe, secure environment with a great legal system.”

Newman currently has 42 hectares of forest and hills that he plans to transform into a cross between an office park and a hip urban hub.

“I am curating this innovation precinct. We’ll have incubators, accelerators, companies and large corporations. But also apartments, wine bars, restaurants and coffee shops. So there’s an active life and buzz.”

An amazing innovation

 

Sobhi Basheer (LinkedIn)
Sobhi Basheer (LinkedIn)

Michael Betar of Standard Commodities spent his day off visiting Sobhi Basheer, an Israeli Arab food engineer who he said has developed a breakthrough method to convert used cooking oil into biodiesel. Basheer’s company, Transbiodiesel, uses a natural catalyst as opposed to the traditional method that uses polluting chemicals.

“It’s amazing, it’s natural and it cuts costs of time and energy by virtually half.”

Changing the world

Jonathan Marshall, CEO of Bondi Labs, speaks as quickly as the ideas spill out of him.

During his travels in India and China, he said, he noticed that a few million people work in high-tech while hundreds of millions lack job skills altogether, a situation he fears could lead to civil unrest.

One day Marshall noticed a friend who is a civil aviation pilot using a flight simulation app on his iPad.

“It can’t be that good,” Marshall ventured, to which his friend replied, “it’s almost as good as the flight simulator I used to sit in ten years ago that cost $10 million.”

Members of the delegation listen to a speaker at Tel Aviv's port (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Members of the delegation listen to a speaker at Tel Aviv’s port (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

This gave Marshall an idea for his company. “What about flight simulators for farmers, healthcare workers, construction and aged care? In Australia we have a lot of game designers. I decided to create games for the environment and food security.”

Marshall’s clients are companies and aid organizations in the developed world. He has created a game that helps farmers diagnose diseases in plants.

“Forty percent of crops in the developing world are wiped out by pests and diseases. Yet even farmers who are illiterate have mobile devices.”

So far the app has been used by 3,000 farmers in over 30 countries, which he admits, is a drop in the bucket, but he hopes to reach 300,000. He’d also like to develop a game to train people in Sierra Leone to identify Ebola.

A spiritual question

As for why Marshall came to Israel, he said it was to answer a personal question

“One of my best friends — we grew up together in Canberra — was a Russian Jewish immigrant to Australia, very bright, and his father was a nuclear physicist at the university.”

Twenty years ago, this friend, Ari, decided to immigrate to Israel, leaving Marshall confused.

“I never understood his connection to this desert outcrop. He was living a great life, he had great potential. I wanted to understand that connection.”

Marshall said he still didn’t get it when he arrived in Israel, but on the first Friday of the trip, when the group arrived in Jerusalem, and the next day, at Masada, it hit him.

Masada (Itamar Grinberg/Ministry of Tourism; www.goisrael.com)
Masada (Itamar Grinberg/Ministry of Tourism; www.goisrael.com)

“Masada was one of the most spiritually powerful experiences. It made me sad, because I love Australia, but that deep connection, it’s hard for me to comprehend. As I was doing my runs in the morning and around bits of Jerusalem, I went into the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. I never understood [ultra-Orthodoxy], but then I saw that connectivity, that community. I said to myself, ‘I don’t have this.’ I went to the Western Wall, seeing the absolute immersion in something that is much more than yourself.”

Marshall believes this observation has something to do with Israel’s success in high-tech.

Israel reminds him a bit of Papua New Guinea, where he spent the first few years of his life. “It’s the village, it’s the village connectivity. There’s all this technology that people say connects us, but not at the human level. And people are becoming atomized. If you go to a Papua New Guinea village now — the young people go to the city, they spread away, leave mom and dad. It’s happening in Africa, it’s happening everywhere.”

Israelis, he says, also have a strong sense of community and meaning, “except, here, it’s actually being used as a motivator to get people together and it speeds up progress. I’m still thinking it through. It’s the religion of the book; there’s something remarkable here around knowledge as we move into a knowledge economy.”

In fact, Marshall has decided to join forces with his now-Israeli friend Ari, who currently works for the Joint Distribution Committee.

“We want to use tech to solve food, climate and water problems. Ari wants to take drip irrigation into Ethiopia. We’ll work together, it’s a prototype. That’s what I’m taking away from this trip. Let’s do it.”

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