Water Mission to Israel (Day 4): Bringing It All Back Home

12/22/12Follow @jmatheson

Wednesday, December 19th, marked the last day the full delegation was together in Israel. Several members headed for the airport to catch late-night flights after the final dinner, while a number of smaller groups are remaining behind to pursue additional meetings and touring activities over the coming days.

The morning sessions were dedicated to open discussions with members of the Israeli government and Parliament, focused on water and sustainability. These sessions reinforced the experiences and interactions of the past few days and the vital role that the Israel Central Water Authority has in driving policy for the production, delivery and consumption/pricing of water resources. It seems and sounds so simple, but actually having a coherent resource policy has been instrumental in allowing Israel to accomplish water independence.

It also reinforces and highlights the need we have in the U.S. for much crisper and consistent resource policy to help drive innovation and improvements in our infrastructure and resource portfolios. We often hear the cry for an “energy policy,” but what we really need is a “resource policy” that accounts for the interdependencies of energy, water, agriculture, and other critical resources.

Ed Freedman (Oasys Water’s CFO) and I also had the chance to have breakfast with one of Oasys’s scientific advisory board members, Dr. Jack Gilron of Ben-Gurion University. Ben-Gurion is, of course, named after Israel’s “Founding Father” and first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion and, with twenty-thousand students, is the largest University in Israel. It has exceptional engineering and science programs and research, and has a commitment to a “Green Campus” approach across the three distinct campus locations.

Jack Gilron is a world-renowned water technology and membrane expert, and while most of the conversation centered around Oasys-specific topics, as we discussed various ways to do joint research, the simplicity and cost effectiveness of the available mechanisms reminded me how the R&D infrastructure of the U.S. has become increasingly costly and complex to access. For example, the overhead rates charged by Israeli universities is significantly less than those in the U.S., and there is far more willingness to explicitly tie intellectual property into these agreements. There is also more money available to support and leverage industry-to-academic R&D work than in the U.S. As with many things, this all sounds good, but as we follow up on these potential opportunities, we will find out whether they were as efficient and impactful as they seem—but directionally there is clearly room for improvement in the U.S.

The MA delegation then gathered for lunch at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, the equivalent of a Presidential Library (see photo below). It was a modern facility in the hills of Jerusalem and was bustling with families, students, and other groups.

The goal of this final working session was to debrief the myriad activities and interactions of the past few days in order to distill the main lessons learned and to craft an action plan for our return to Massachusetts. Through small working group sessions, several key insights were crystallized and follow-up initiatives defined.

Creating Pilot Facilities: The most consistent observation and desire was to facilitate mechanisms whereby pilot testing opportunities could be created for new innovations at existing facilities. This initiative will require the facility owners & operators, regulatory agencies, funding sources, and the innovators to align around the process and risk & rewards of doing this. The hopeful part of this was that we had representation from each of these groups on the trip, and a detailed set of concepts were defined and set in motion.

Structuring MA Water Cluster: Another area of focus was what form the MA Water Industry initiative ought to take as it evolves. The industry and its players are very diverse, so defining an organizational structure and mandate will be challenging.  The Massachusetts Life Science Center is one model but has the support of the $1B industry grant. The New England Clean Energy Council and MA Clean Energy Center both have initiatives to understand their role in the water industry. In fact, MassCEC recently posted a new position for a business development executive to focus on a set of initiatives to help make MA a leading water cluster.

Facilitating Collaboration: The many researchers and academics on the trip had a chance to not only meet their Israeli colleagues, but one another. All the time on the bus apparently has led to a broad set of potential collaborations as we had folks focused on modeling, system development, surface and ocean water quality, membranes, public policy, and a variety of other areas.  Spawning more interactions across MA- and U.S.-based researchers can only be a good thing for the water industry. As is often the case, researchers get siloed, focusing only on their narrow field. Given the holistic nature of water challenges and solutions, facilitating more cross-discipline dialogues and projects is mission critical.

Expanding Water Missions: The trip to Israel was a natural first step for the nascent MA water cluster. MA and Israel have a strong relationship, and adding water to the list of other industries that have built bridges across the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea makes good sense. However, if MA is truly to build a world-class center of excellence in water, we need to extend the network to include other key locations. For example, Singapore, China, Australia, and Latin America are all areas that represent high potential export markets for MA-based water innovation. Overall, MA-based innovators, in the water sector or not, need to continue to push forward the mantra of Local Innovation, Global Impact.

After we finished up the debrief and planning session, the majority of the group headed off for an afternoon of touring in the Old City, this time focused on the stories surrounding the life and death of Jesus. We toured the various sites that comprise the “Stations of the Cross” so central to Roman Catholicism. After seeing these scenes on stained glass in churches around the world, it was remarkable to walk the tight, ancient, stone line streets including Via Dolorosa and realize that these events all happened in a tiny area essentially the size of Harvard Square. Whatever your interpretation of the story or your beliefs, it was a powerful experience to be in a place whose history has so strongly shaped the modern world.

We also entered Austria for about a half-hour. At different points in history, in the early 1800s for Austria, various countries have established domiciles in the Old City.  So when we entered the Austrian Hospice (of the Holy Family), we legally entered Austria. It was one of a number of these European-rooted hospices but the rooftop view from the Austrian Hospice offered an amazing, panoramic view of the entire Old City (see photo below) which gave a visual sampling of the entire history of the city.

The day wrapped up with dinner at the elegant Yvel Pearl Factory just outside Jerusalem. The Levy Family has been one of the world’s leading producers of pearls, and they established the modern facility in Jerusalem in 1986. Pearls are now “farmed” sustainably, increasing the yield of pearls while reducing the impact on oysters and the ecosystems they thrive in. At the factory, the Levys train dozens of Israeli immigrants, mainly from Ethiopia, to become artisan jewelry designers. The jewelry was exquisite, but the story of the Levys’ commitment to helping the next generation of immigrants gain valuable skills and to assimilate into society was compelling.

So the fourth and final day of the Mission was yet another mix of history, culture, technology, and insights into how our society has evolved, but also how we can shape the future to be even more productive and impactful.

Thursday I head back on an early flight through Newark, then to Boston. I have thoroughly enjoyed the Mission, having learned immensely from our hosts and my fellow delegates. While I am a bit sad to leave Israel with all its sights and sounds, I will be glad to get back to MA, where we can get to work on the various opportunities and initiatives.

Thanks to Governor Patrick and his Executive Team for prompting and supporting the Mission and to CJP Boston for their incredible planning and execution skills. And a special thanks to David Goodtree (@dgoodtree) for his tireless leadership in making this trip a reality.

Back to Boston, and back to work on making water innovation a reality…

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