Food, energy, space tech in top 5 of Israel’s new national R&D priorities

Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology to distribute NIS 180 million a year in research grants

Ricky Ben-David is a Times of Israel editor and reporter

In this composite image from left: a view of a star-filled sky and astrophotography equipment in Israel. (Yael Ne'emen via the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology); Redefine Meat's plant-based steak (Redefine Meat); and wind turbines (RnDmS via iStock by Getty Images)
In this composite image from left: a view of a star-filled sky and astrophotography equipment in Israel. (Yael Ne'emen via the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology); Redefine Meat's plant-based steak (Redefine Meat); and wind turbines (RnDmS via iStock by Getty Images)

Israel has identified food technologies, renewable energy, and space technologies among the top five new national priorities for significant investment over the next five years.

The list of national priorities guides government funding for civilian research and development (R&D) ventures, with prioritized areas receiving special emphasis.

The list of prioritized areas was presented this week by Minister of Innovation, Science, and Technology Orit Farkash-Hacohen to the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Science and Technology, along with research done by the ministry’s Israel National Council for Research and Development on the decision-making process.

Fourteen areas were selected by the council, with the top five being food tech, renewable energies and energy storage, bio-convergence (technologies applied in the fields of biology combined with engineering such as electronics, computational biology, physics, nanotechnology, and materials science), civilian space tech, and “bluetech” — using the sea as a national resource.

The expanded list includes smart cities, education tech, waste management and the circular economy, and semiconductors. These join three areas previously declared as national R&D priorities: artificial intelligence, data science, and quantum computing.

The selection criteria for the list of 14, determined by the council, evaluated factors such as Israel’s comparative advantages in certain sectors, its strategic needs as a developed country, its strength in R&D and position as a global innovation hub, and whether the specific sector needs government support and has a scientific component.

The Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology will promote national programs in the prioritized areas and distribute some NIS 180 million ($52.4 million) a year in research grants with significant emphasis on these fields.

Hilla Haddad Chmelnik, the ministry’s director-general, said in a statement, “Israel’s scientific-technological leadership is critical for its civil resilience, and it is imperative that we sustain and strengthen it.

“Mapping and defining the national priority areas, based on an understanding of the international arena, as well as the relative local scientific advantages is crucial for strengthening the various sectors of the economy that are based on innovation and advanced technologies.”

Haddad Chmelnik said the list will “provide the basis for the ministry’s policy and work in coming years, and will also inform all relevant government bodies in this context.”

Prof. Peretz Lavie, chairman of the National Council for Research and Development, said “the five fields recommended by the committee are significant in terms of global competition and the continued advancement of Israel’s cutting-edge technologies, with a view to ensuring its economic future and maintaining its scientific excellence over the next five years.”

Most of the selected areas are multidisciplinary, combining several disciplines, and are expected to grow rapidly in the coming years, explained Lavie.

He said the council’s study included research on countries that have already set national R&D priorities and have seen that these investments “bolstered employment and quality of life and generated surplus growth.”

These include Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Britain, Ireland, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan.

“Israel, which relies on its human resources and the knowledge in high-tech fields, is likely to lose its relative advantage in technological fields if it forgoes such investments,” Lavie warned.

Minister Hacohen said she will adopt the council’s list of national priority R&D areas to “ensure Israel’s scientific and technological leadership in decades to come.”

Food tech as a national priority

Israel has already been investing in some of the selected areas. Last year, the Israel Innovation Authority put together $69 million for four consortiums — groups of industrial companies and research institutions that will jointly develop technologies — in the fields of cultivated meat (a key food tech subsector), insect farming, fluid sampling for medical diagnosis, and human-robot interface (HRI), a multidisciplinary field that studies interactions between humans and robots.

The cultivated meat consortium kicked off in April. It comprises 14 companies, including leading food tech startups, and 10 universities and research institutions.

But the extra funding boost will go a long way.

The inclusion of food tech, and specifically the alternative proteins sector, as a prioritized area “positions the field as a key growth engine for Israel,” said Alla Voldman-Rentzer, VP Strategy and Policy at the Good Food Institute (GFI) Israel, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote research and innovation in food tech.

The alternative proteins sector includes plant-based substitutes for meat, dairy, and egg; cultivated dairy, meat and seafood made from cells; and various fermentation processes and products. Cultivated protein startups and fermentation tech startups often overlap.

Israeli food tech startup Yo! Egg makes a plant-based ‘whole egg’ food product with ‘egg’ whites and runny yolks. (Asaf Karela)

“These technologies promote the country’s national needs and leverage its relative advantages, especially in light of global trends such as the climate and global food crises, and will be a global strategic asset as well,” added Voldman-Rentzer.

Earlier this year, a GFI Israel report argued that Israel will need a national plan to support its growing food tech industry if it hopes to maintain a key role in the sector over the coming years. A strong local food tech industry can establish food security and become a strategic national asset for Israel, the report said.

Government support is a necessity, Voldman-Rentzer said. “The government has the relevant resources to promote the field, including creating mechanisms to ensure reserves of skilled personnel, policy tools for establishing factories for innovative technology, regulation and standardization, and the inclusion of the alternative protein field as part of the climate and national food security strategies.”

At the moment, Israel’s food tech industry is thriving and its strength growing. Last month, GFI said Israeli companies were leading the world in food tech investments in the plant-based alternative proteins sector, and come second only to the US in funds invested in the alternative protein industry as a whole in 2022.

Late last year, Israel’s Future Meat, a Jerusalem-based biotechnology firm that creates chicken, lamb, and beef products made from animal cells, raised $347 million, the largest single investment in a cultured meat company to date.

Future Meat recently announced that it had produced its first cultivated lamb, made from cells isolated in 2019 from Awassi sheep.

Cultivated lamb kebabs by Future Meat, September 2022. (Future Meat)

In the plant-based protein sector, the most notable deal so far was the $135 investment in Redefine Meat, a maker of 3D-printed plant-based meat products, to fund production lines in Israel and the Netherlands, as well as expand its partnerships with restaurants and eateries. The company’s products include animal-free lamb and beef cuts, burgers, sausages, lamb kebabs, and ground beef, and are sold in some 200 restaurants and establishments in Israel and Europe (including Michelin-starred eateries).

Israeli food tech startup Remilk, a developer of animal-free milk and dairy, raised $120 million this year, also a large investment. The company uses a yeast-based fermentation process to produce milk proteins that, the company says, are indistinguishable in taste and function from cow milk proteins but are free of lactose, cholesterol, and growth hormones.

Israeli startup Remilk uses a yeast-based fermentation process to produce animal-free milk proteins that, the company says, are indistinguishable in taste and function from cow milk proteins, but free of lactose, cholesterol, and growth hormones. (Victor Levi)

New food tech ventures are announced every week, it seems.

This week, Rehovot-based Steakholder Foods (formerly Meatech), an Israeli maker of cultivated meat products, unveiled a beef product it called Omakase Beef Morsels (Omakase is a Japanese phrase that describes a dining experience).

Ashdod-based food tech startup Forsea Foods came out with cell-cultured, freshwater eel meat.

ForeSea Foods develops ceel-cultured seafood products, starting with freshwater eel. (ForeSea Foods)

Last week, Jerusalem-based Mermade Seafoods raised $3.3 million in seed funding to develop cultivated scallops made from cells using a cellular agriculture technology called aquaculture.

Israeli entrepreneurs and scientists are also working to make plant-based eggs, plant-based fish, cultured, bee-free honey, and even saffron, using new cultivation methods.

Saffron Tech uses a mechanized cultivation method to grow saffron. (Courtesy)

Space tech

Israeli also has its sights set on civilian space technologies.

In May, the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology said it is planning to spend NIS 600 million ($180 million) over the next five years to back the civilian space industry and support new startups developing advanced technologies for the space sector.

The plan was introduced amid what the ministry called a “dramatic change” in the space industry in recent years, as the endeavor has moved away from the exclusive realm of governments and opened up to civilian investors and entrepreneurs. This was seen most recently in the world’s first private mission to the International Space Station carrying three private astronauts including one Israeli, who fully funded their ride to the tune of approximately $50 million each.

A view of a star-filled sky and astrophotography equipment in Israel. (Yael Ne’emen via the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology)

Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander mission in 2019 by space startup SpaceIL, and the second mission in 2024, are also considered part of the budding civilian space industry.

Israel is home to a number of promising space tech startups including Helios, which is developing technology that can produce oxygen needed for fuel from lunar soil, and Ramon.Space, a company building supercomputing systems for the space sector.

This week, Ramon.Space said it has partnered with Lulav Space, a startup developing robotic navigation systems for the space industry, to provide an advanced navigation solution for the upcoming Beresheet II lunar missions.

Haddad Chmelnik told The Times of Israel in a previous interview that space was “being transformed from the domain of governments to the domain of the private market, and this presents a huge opportunity” for Israel.

Energy tech

In the renewable energy space, Israel is still waffling, with bureaucratic obstacles and a slow decision-making process hindering progress.

While the country has promised the United Nations that 30 percent of its electricity will be produced by renewables by 2030, the current figure is just 8.5%.

Environmental groups and solar power companies have long complained that lengthy procedures and obstacles were holding back the solar energy revolution, for example.

In a cabinet meeting last week discuss the country’s preparations for the effects of climate change, Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said that her ministry would offer a plan for cabinet approval aimed at speeding up the renewable energy rollout by simplifying the regulations, removing obstacles and erasing import taxes for technologies critical to solar energy deployment and energy saving.

Late last year, the Energy Ministry announced plans to spend NIS 100 million ($32 million) over five years on a national institute for hydrogen production and storage.

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