From long-life tomatoes to camera pills

By Rachel Fletcher, April 18, 2008
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60 years of invention

Israel is a land flowing with more than just milk and honey. If you have ever purchased long-lasting tomatoes, used a device to pluck the hairs from your legs, or sent an instant message, thank Israeli technology.

Perhaps the most significant advances are those in the field of medicine —sometimes with surprising sources. Israeli military scientist Gabriel Iddan designed a capsule with an optical camera that worked in a similar way to a guided missile when swallowed. Don Avni — Iddan’s colleague at the Rafael Armament Development Authority, at the Ministry of Defence — came up with a tiny camera for the missile pill, which was then marketed by Given Imaging in the late 1990s. The “camera pill” can now be used as a less invasive alternative to endoscopes.

Anti-cancer drug Doxil is also an Israeli development, from Professor Yechezkel Barenholz at the Hebrew University. The drug —full name: doxorubicin HCI liposome injection — is now advised for ovarian cancer. From the same institution comes Exelon, a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, developed by Professor Marta Weinstock-Rosin. Exelon is even available in patch form. Its worldwide sales exceeded $420 million in 2004.

Long shelf-life cherry tomatoes are another innovation, with the world’s most popular cocktail hybrids for greenhouse production coming from the Hebrew University’s Professors Nachum Kedar and Haim Rabinowich. The same Israeli technology is often the base for improving quality in other vegetables such as peppers and garlic.

Israeli company Solel, based in Bet Shemesh, is planning to build the world’s largest solar plant in the Mojave Desert in California in a contract with Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The project, announced last year, will deliver 553 megawatts of solar power — enough for 400,000 homes.

As for IT and computing technology, few people are aware of Israel’s vast input. ICQ (“I seek you”), the instant messaging service, was created by Mirabilis, an Israeli company founded in 1996. Internet provider AOL bought it shortly afterwards. And much of the Windows NT technology was developed by Microsoft Israel, the corporation’s first branch outside America.

Israel can also protect you from the internet. Firewalls are a development of Check Point, which has facilities in Israel among other places. Israeli technology also led to the first anti-virus software in the 1970s. The Pentium MMX Chip technology was also designed in Israel at Intel.

Even mobile-phone texting and voicemail technologies came out of this small country, and Motorola’s Israeli section is its largest development facility.

Then there are the military inventions. A smart mortar bomb with GPS-guided accuracy and a tiny video camera that fits to a gun barrel, allowing gunners to see around corners, are Israeli innovations.

Even the long-lasting but notoriously painful epilator, which plucks hairs out by the root, was pioneered by the Israel-based Epilady in 1986.

Nava Swersky Sofer, president and CEO of Yissum, the technology-transfer company of the Hebrew University, says that no-one should be surprised at such technological prowess.

“Partly it is because Israel is a small and young country without national resources, so people need to be inventive and think outside the box,” she explains.

“A lot of innovation comes from the military, for obvious reasons, and there is a highly educated workforce.”

Morgan Stanley reported last year that foreign capital flows to Israel totalled $23.4 billion in 2006. A land of plenty indeed.

    Last updated: 3:05pm, March 2 2009