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Jewish Journal

Milken conference explores Israel-California tech partnership

by Jared Sichel

May 7, 2014 | 10:46 am

Governor Jerry Brown. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

Governor Jerry Brown. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an agreement in March to boost economic cooperation between Israel and California, positive feelings were high, but details were few and far between.

Plans became clearer — if only a little bit — at the recent Milken Institute Global Conference at the Beverly Hilton, which took place April 27-30.

Seven breakout sessions and panels with renowned businessmen, politicians and academics involved Israel and topics such as energy, agriculture and health, but it was the final one on April 30 that directly related to implementing the memorandum of understanding signed by Netanyahu and Brown two months ago in Silicon Valley.

The goal of that pact, both leaders said at the time, involves solving problems in the areas of water conservation, alternative energy and cybersecurity threats. It gives Israeli companies access to California’s Innovation Hub (iHub) Program, which is composed of 16 research clusters around the state.

Led by Milken senior fellow Glenn Yago, the local panel featured the likes of Nathan Brostrom, the University of California’s executive vice president for business operations, and David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles.

And although, as Yago said afterward, accomplishing concrete steps in a conference is always difficult, his goal was to gather under one roof major players from Israel and California who will play a role in helping both states work together.

“Neither the prime minister nor the governor had any interest in it just being a photo op or a press release,” Yago told the Journal. “They want the two states to really develop a global platform for breakthrough technologies.”

Take water, for starters. Israel is widely regarded as the most advanced nation in water conservation and purification. It has, after all, turned what was desert and swamp into a developed, vibrant nation. 

From its early-warning leak systems that allow farmers and water officials to detect dribbles before they become bursts, to desalination technology that allows Israel to safely draw a large portion of its annual water consumption from the Mediterranean Sea, it may have much to offer California, a state facing a severe drought. 

In a way, the memorandum of understanding signed by the two governments’ leaders came after years of intimate economic cooperation at the market level. Firms like Netafim, an Israeli irrigation company with an office in Fresno, and BrightSource Energy, a solar-thermal company with projects in the Mojave Desert, already have brought Israeli technology to the massive California market.

One new thing the Netanyahu-Brown agreement may have done was give the economic ties that already exist more attention, and make local governments across California aware of the benefits that so many Israeli firms can provide.

“Much is already happening between Israel and California,” Siegel said. “It’s a matter of giving it visibility and communicating to government officials and private sector and public sector officials the significance of Israeli technology in areas that are critical to California.”

The consul general told the Journal that one way the agreement could be implemented is by establishing a think tank or a nongovernmental organization to coordinate turning the promises of the intergovernmental memo into concrete economic development. 

In March, building upon the deal signed in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield introduced a measure to establish a task force for increasing cooperation between Los Angeles and its sister city, Eilat, in a number of areas, including water technology. 

One Israeli businessman who came in from London for the conference was Yariv Cohen, chairman of Kaenaat, a London-based economic development firm. An expert in bringing niche technologies to the global market, Cohen hopes that California can serve as a testing ground for Israeli technologies that could benefit much of the developing world.

“We are working now on how to redesign the tools that create public-private partnerships to promote the scaling-up of clean energy,” Cohen said. 

In other words, once California’s government works more at integrating advanced Israeli clean-energy technology — a key component of Netanyahu’s and Brown’s agreement — Cohen may then be able to bring “the technologies that have been developed and tested in Israel here to emerging economies,” particularly ones that have chronic shortages in two areas of economic development — water and energy. 

Cohen summarized how he sees Israeli technology using the California market to go global: “Use the strength of Israel, the ‘startup nation,’ and California, the ‘scale-up nation,’ to deal with world problems.”

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