Israel’s Space Program Innovates to Beat Geopolitical Struggles

Ya3

Israel has long had to combat politics with innovation. The nation, which in recent years has become known as ‘Silicon Wadi’, has spun out some of the world’s best high-tech firms in fields like cybersecurity and agriculture, that have grown directly as a result of its many geopolitical binds.

Few industries have faced as stark a showdown as Israel’s space program. Conventional rocket launches, for example, are directed with the rotation of the earth to save fuel. Such launches would put Israel’s craft in the airspace of Iran, a longtime enemy, which has vowed to blow any Israeli objects out of the sky.

With regards to the satellites those rockets almost always carry, Israel has also become a world leader. Israel has made its satellites smaller, and smarter, than the majority of the competition. Nanosatellites have become so commonplace that this month a team of Israeli high-school kids built a 4lb device launched as part of the EU’s QB50 thermosphere research program.

That should be unsurprising given Israel’s commitment to public research spending. The country puts 4.3% of its tax funds into R&D, minus the military.

Avi Hasson, Israel’s chief scientist, is adamant that “Taxpayers’ money should go to the riskiest areas of the (tech) industry.” Israel’s space budget is the tenth-largest, as a share of its GDP, on earth.

“We’re the only country that launches the other way,” Jon Medved, CEO of Jerusalem-based crowdfund OurCrowd, tells Red Herring. “And if you do that you’ve got to make sure your payload is really small. So that’s what drove Israel to be such a leader in nano-satellites. It’s part of an overall theme of Israel taking a limitation and turning it into a relative advantage.”

One firm that OurCrowd has invested in is NSLComm, based near Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. The company has raised $3 million since its 2009 foundation, which it has used to perfect large expandable antennas that allow over ten times the bandwidth of traditional models.

That means antennas can be stowed compactly during launches, which alongside high-tech intelligence cooperation between Israel and the US, helps shield the country’s payloads from foreign intervention. “We have to come with cleaver and creative ideas while focusing on building a real and profitable business,” says NSLComm co-founder and CTO Danny Spirtus.

Winning more attention, perhaps, has been Israel’s SpaceIL, one of the five finalist teams in Google’s Lunar X-Prize, which challenges privately-funded teams to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit images and high-definition video.

Israel was the first country to make the final five, and by a huge distance the smallest. It has dropped behind India and the US in recent months, and is unlikely to win the competition. But the fact it is in the mix has delighted SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman, who tells Red Herring his success “is also prevalent in the defense area.

“We can’t collaborate with our neighbors, which has helped,” adds Privman. “Generally that’s a wider issue than space.”

The country suffered a major setback in September last year, when an Israeli communications satellite, the Amos-6, exploded while harnessed to an unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It was a huge blow–not least to Amos operator Spacecom, which lost a deal with Chinese investor Xinwei worth a reported $255m.

That has led some local commentators to herald a slowdown in Israel’s space ambitions. Its probable loss in the X-Prize may, at least for a short while, do just that.

But while public and private money continues to pour into space-race firms, and while space exploration remains a hallmark of national tech pride, Israel will stay a key player in space technology. Its politics are focused firmly on earth. But Israel’s tech companies are looking far beyond this planet.