CJP’s Israel Advocacy spent last week in Israel with a group from Harvard University, visiting some of the success stories that make up the Start-Up Nation. Nancy Katz, director of CJP’s Israel Advocacy and herself an alum of Harvard and a former professor at Harvard Kennedy School, is blogging about the group’s experiences and impressions.

In the last decade, Israel has vaulted into a global leadership position in water-related innovation.  We met with a panel of 4 Israelis at the forefront of this development to understand how and why.

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We heard from (L to R) Assaf Barnea, CEO of  Kinrot Water Ventures, the world’s largest water incubator; Booky Oren, former chair of Israel’s water utility, Mekorot, and former vice president for business development at Netafim, the world’s largest micro-irrigation company; Amir Peleg, CEO of TaKaDu, named last year to the Global Cleantech 100; and Eytan Levy, CEO of Emefcy, which has developed technology that generates energy from waste water. 

“In order to have outstanding innovation, you have to have three things: a mega problem, engineering know-how and capital to drive the process,” Peleg said.  In the case of water, Israel has had all three in spades.

Interestingly, Peleg did not come into this with any background in the water sector.  He, like the rest of the panelists, is a serial entrepreneur.  He has founded three other companies, including YaData in 2006, which was purchased by Microsoft in 2008. 

“I knew nothing about water.“ he said. “I was just interested in finding a big problem and solving it. I called some friends and asked, what are the most significant and pressing problems?  Thanks to my experience with YaData, with TaKaDu I could afford to be my own seed investor.”  Peleg explained the roots of his passion as follows: “Start ups are addictive, and so is the urge to make things better.”

The WATEC conference, which in November 2011 drew more than 25,000 people from nearly 100 countries to Tel Aviv, is testimony to Israel’s position as a source of world class expertise in water.  The conference, Booky Oren’s brainchild, is now the premiere water conference in the world.

Thanks to leaders like Peleg, Oren, Levy, and Barnea, Israel has become a powerhouse in water innovation in just 10 years.  Moving forward, what are the biggest barriers these leaders face?  The most significant challenges are not technological, they report.  “The biggest challenge we face is human – it’s culture,” Barnea said. “Municipal water systems are populated by 9 to 5 staff. They are very conservative, and have no interest in taking risks. You must convince them to change the way they do their work.”

Our meeting was held at the TaKaDu headquarters.  TaKaDu has developed technology that enables cities to monitor their vast networks of water pipes and detect and fix leaks as soon as they arise.  As a result, cities can reduce water loss by more than 30%.  As we listened to Amir Peleg and his colleagues, it was pretty cool to realize that, from this small office outside Tel Aviv, Water Thames, London’s system is being constantly monitored and optimized.