With the creation of Desertech, Israel is finally ready to tap into its biggest resource
Israel’s Negev is the perfect spot for a global effort to turn the desert into a hub of innovation and economic growth
There are so many sectors in Israeli hi-tech that it might be hard to name them all. There’s Healthtech, Agtech, Fintech, Foodtech, and plenty more that are building reputations around the world. It is strange, then, that Israel has not yet made a name for itself by taking advantage of one of its biggest resources: the Negev desert that takes up 55% of the country’s land area at some 13,000 square km.This is where four organizations have stepped in. The Desertech community is a non-profit joint initiative of the Merage Foundation Israel, the Israel Innovation Institute, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and Ben-Gurion University to help establish the Negev, and its largest city Beer Sheva, as a leading hub in innovation for startups around the world that can contribute to an entirely new sector. Some of its international partners, announced as part of the Climate and Biodiversity Week at Expo Dubai 2020 at the Israeli pavilion, include the Embassy of the Netherlands in Israel, the Wohl Foundation, the British Council Israel, and the British Embassy in Israel.
The Desertech community’s international partners include the British Embassy in Israel and the Embassy of the Netherlands in Israel, two unlikely partners in the effort to capitalize on hot weather and desert conditions. While the two countries don’t have the same climate as Israel, technology and solutions for a global problem have no borders."I think the Netherlands and Israel are quite alike as entrepreneurial countries, albeit in different places and contexts in the world,” added Anouk van Eekeren, Policy Officer, Water, Climate and Political Affairs at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Israel. “However, the Netherlands has a long-standing tradition to look outside and is always looking for partnerships, such as in climate adaptation and sustainability. I think Desertech is an amazing opportunity to do just that." According to Keren Shurkin, Head, Science and Innovation Network, at The British Embassy in Israel, there are three main reasons that inspired Britain’s cooperation with Israel. As well as it seeing itself as a leader in climate action - and hosting this year’s COP26 - the country sees value in learning from the Israeli innovation community and using that access to develop its own technology to grow into bigger markets. “The UK is Europe’s leader in agritech and we see the opportunity to develop and improve technology that’s created in the UK by working with Israel,” she told CTech.
Part of the effort to find partners in the Desertech community is its annual Merage International Desertech Competition, now in its second year. Its mission is to accelerate these technologies and address the challenges that affect an estimated 3 billion people. The competition has three tracks: one designed for Israeli startups, UK-based companies, and Netherlands-based companies who compete for 100,000 NIS from the Foundation as well as another $75,000 investment. The application process was launched earlier this month and is open until November 15th, and the final event will take place December 13th with an in-person three-day seminar hosted in February 2022.“The aim of the competition is to promote a global task force with the mission of improving the lives of billions of people and making the desert flourish,” added Jonathan Menuhin, CEO of the Israel Innovation Institute. “In addition, we shall promote the city of Beer Sheva as a national and global center of this field. Together with our partners, we invite companies from Britain and the Netherlands to join Israeli companies and propose their technological solutions in the struggle against desertification, and adjustment to life in the desert.” For companies that don’t think they are Desertech, do not fear. The DeserTech Innovation Community has a marketplace that launched at the same time as Dubai Expo as an online platform that describes the main challenges in the desert for desert life, including verticals like watertech, renewable energy, agtech, and infrastructure. According to Hod Stroh, the Merage Foundation has already mapped and presented 50 Israeli desertech startups that fit those challenges. “It seems like we tapped on something that was dormant and that everyone was waiting for, and there’s a lot of interest.” While she couldn’t name names, there are more countries eager to partner with Israel and the community’s plans to grow the sector. According to the community, the Negev provides the space for countries all over the world to test, adapt, and commercialize products that can help solve some of the challenges of desertification. And while Tel Aviv and Herzliya might be home to certain hubs, Beer Sheva is waiting to be host to companies from around the world. “If you Google Desertech, you will probably only find what we are doing so far,” Hod Stroh concluded. “It’s very exciting because just like Agtech, it’s a term that didn’t exist 40 years ago - and Foodtech was maybe in the last decade. Desertech is the next big thing and we want to make it the next big thing.”