Few aspects of Israeli society are dearer to the national identity than its high-tech sector — a class of entrepreneurs so churning with ideas and innovation that they have earned Israel the title of “startup nation.”
But can this legacy last forever? Research from the last few years has shown that Israel’s startup model is no longer sustainable, according to the Reut Institute, a forward-looking think tank formed 10 years ago by Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli peace negotiator, to help inform lagging government policy in Israel.
“What does it take for a country to lead an industrial revolution?” Grinstein asked during an interview at the institute’s sleek maze of offices, located among the tech warehouses of northeast Tel Aviv. “Generally speaking, what you need is broad exposure, broad literacy, a very large pool of talent — and out of this talent come the leaders, the entrepreneurs, the managers.”
By contrast, Israel’s current model — based on a few bright minds and a limited pool of seed money — “is extremely exclusive,” Grinstein said. “Very few people participate. So in order to make it inclusive ... we went open source.”
The Reut Institute took action on its findings in winter of last year, embarking on a wildly ambitious mission to familiarize the entire Israeli population with what Reut leaders, and tech experts around the world, are calling the centerpiece of the third industrial revolution: the 3-D printer.
By layering many razor-thin sheets of a material on top of one another — most commonly using a simple type of plastic called polylactic acid, or PLA, in a liquid form that dries quickly — 3-D printers can render 3-D computer designs into a fully functioning object in a matter of hours. This technology is the closest humanity has come to inventing touchable e-mail, Willy Wonka style: All one has to do is send a 3-D design file and a recipient can print it out on the other end. Some of the machines can even print chocolate.
And Israel, as the Reut Institute sees it, has the potential to lead the revolution. Reut has so far opened three public 3-D printing labs — in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Bat Yam — part of a rapidly self-replicating Cross-Lab Network (XLN) that uses its own minimalist 3-D printers to print more printers that can populate new labs, at very low cost ($400 to $600 per printer, according to lab managers). The “great-grandmother” of the printers, which to the untrained eye looks like a high-tech Tinkertoy, has a special spot on the shelf at the very first XLN location, in Tel Aviv.
By the end of 2014, Reut CEO Roy Keidar, head of the XLN, said he hopes to open 15 more labs across Israel. And five years from now, the goal is to expand to between 30 and 50 locations.
The Tel Aviv workshop, a bright-white basement littered with plastics and computer chips and half-built gadgets, recently celebrated the first graduating class of its weeklong “Maker’s Academy” — a crash course in 3-D imaging, printing and programming that Reut hopes will bring together and train the future leaders of the network. At the event, one 14-year-old from Haifa showed off his robot, which waves its hands when a motion sensor tells it someone is near, and L.A. native Ari Platt unveiled complex plans for a medical device that uses spatial recognition to help doctors improve their precision during surgery.
“I came here, and they really taught me the basics of programming,” said Platt, who added that he had barely any technological experience before the course. “Now I understand [the technology], and I feel much more comfortable using it. I wouldn’t mind going online and trying to teach myself. Before, I would never have gotten close to it.
“Once you get down to the basics,” he said, “you realize it’s not so hard. People get afraid of things that are unknown.”
Scientists have predicted that in the not-too-distant future, 3-D printers will be capable of spitting out full-scale buildings, space bases, working human organs and beyond.
This news, of course, comes as no surprise to the Internet’s tech-nerd community, which has been sharing open-source 3-D printing designs on Web sites like Thingiverse.com for years now. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also jumped on board in 2001, and started setting up a series of professional-level 3-D fabrication laboratories, or “fab labs,” around the world — of which there are now almost 150, including one in Jerusalem and one in the Israeli suburb of Holon.
But in the last year, world leaders have started to take notice as well.
“A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address. “And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America.”
Earlier this summer, the commercial potential of 3-D printing reached new heights when the largest manufacturer of 3-D printers, Stratasys — co-headquartered in the United States and Israel — bought up MakerBot, a more low-end 3-D printing company that got its start selling home-assembly 3-D printer kits. Together, analysts have predicted that the two companies will vastly expand 3-D printing at the consumer level.
Another Israeli startup, Something3-D, has big plans to “put a 3-D printer in every home” in Israel, according to business journal NoCamels.com — but still, each model retails for more than $2,000.
The difference at XLN is its fiercely open-door and open-source approach. Community members who drop into the labs can either design their own printables or print an existing design, and are charged only the cost of materials — often as low as a few dollars.
“You’re going to have access to 3-D printing in Eilat before Beverly Hills,” Grinstein said.
Reut also has put a strong emphasis on designing cheap and customizable devices for people with special needs: In late August, the institute will host an intensive 3-D-design competition for special-needs devices. Competitors are currently pulling all-nighters in the lab, shaping entries such as a hearing aid that can attach to a smartphone, a computer mouse for a person with arthritis and customizable glasses for kids.
The only rule: Entries must remain open source.
“Our purpose is not to build a high-end printer that will compete with $20,000 printers,” Grinstein said during a tour of the lab in Tel Aviv. “Our objective is that you’ll have Israelis from all over the map understanding what is a 3-D printer, building one, designing stuff, participating — and those who take to it will eventually become the leaders and the entrepreneurs.”
Experts at the Reut Institute aren’t the only ones to warn of the potential downfall of startup nation, if access to modern technology and cutting-edge education does not become available at all levels of Israeli society. A recent Google Israel study, whose results were published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, found that “in the last decade, an unacceptable gap has developed between the integration of ICT [information and communications technology] into all aspects of life and the reality in Israeli schools, and between Israeli schools and those in the other countries.”
To meet this challenge, the Reut Institute is working with schools and other learning institutions across Israel to set up 3-D printing labs within existing structures, with financial help from city governments. The lab in Bat Yam, for example, is a collaboration with the Branco Weiss School for At-Risk Students. “The students really responded to the machines,” Keidar said, “and to this method of using their hands.”
Reut hopes to reach every level of Israeli society by setting up 3-D labs in unlikely places, such as the low-income kibbutz town of Kiryat Shmona, the heavily Arab town of Sakhnin, the heavily Orthodox town of Tsfat — even one day in Ramallah in the West Bank.
“The [economic] model of the Israeli government failed to deliver on the pledge that growth will trickle down, so our challenge is to generate inclusive growth — growth that includes all the population,” Grinstein said.
At Reut’s Tel Aviv location, that dream is having growing pains. At the first Maker’s Academy graduation, of almost a dozen participants, Grinstein noted that no women were present but was proud that about 20 percent of graduates were in the racial minority.
“Next time, if we still have 100 percent males in the graduating class, it will be a problem,” Grinstein said. He explained that in order for women — especially religious women — to be attracted to the XLN, “they need to trust the environment.”
Reut is also fighting fears that the 3-D revolution could be more of an apocalypse. The sexiest controversy of the 3-D printing era, both in the United States and Israel, has been the big 2013 reveal that the printers can print gun parts that would otherwise require a license to buy in a store. Cody Wilson, a Texas law student, opened up a fiery debate about the future of tech crime this spring when Forbes published proof that his 3-D-printed firearms were fully functional and downloadable from the Internet. Although he has since removed the code for the gun from his Defense Distributed Web site, it is by now hosted on countless other sites — perfect proof that lawmakers can’t fight open-source sprawl and will need to find new ways of policing the products of the 3-D era.
In Israel, this July, Channel 10 news reporter Ori Even sneaked a plastic, 3-D-printed pistol into parliament and pointed it at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while a TV crew filmed his trembling hand. The controversial report proved that in security-obsessed Israel, officials must race to fit policy around the future of technology.
Leaders at Reut said that although 3-D-printed weapons pose a major regulatory challenge for lawmakers, any new realm of technology will have a dark side — and the institute’s mission is to “focus on the good, and the opportunity.”
The future of Israel as a global economic leader could depend on it.
“This is about the fundamental learning that Israel’s society and economy need to go through in order to survive and thrive in a world of self-manufacturing,” Grinstein explained, pointing to a dizzying graph of the startup-nation model that had been left up on a dry-erase board in the Reut offices.
“Our vision here is not just 3-D printing, not just a network of communal technological spaces — our vision is Israel leading the coming industrial revolution.”