Former chief scientist of Israel Avi Hasson, left, and MK Dr. Erel Margalit. (photo from Noa Yaar)
Having the Upper Galilee be the world’s food-tech hub is the dream of Israeli Member of Knesset Erel Margalit, who recently announced he will run for leadership of the Labour party. And the work has started in the form of Israel Initiative 2020 (ii2020).
Leading the establishment and development of the food-tech hub in Kiryat Shmona is Michal Drayman, a partner and chief financial officer of Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP). She has 11 years of high-tech experience and 14 years’ experience in the agro-bio medical activity area of investment.
For Drayman, ii2020 is her volunteer job, and she describes her role as “vice-chairman.” The initiative started up nearly four years ago, focusing much of its work in Israel’s upper north and south.
“We decided to focus on agri-food development in the Eastern Galilee, which is made up of a group of 22 municipalities, from Tiberius in the south, up to Metula in the north and the Golan Heights in the east,” she told the Independent.
They began working with the region in January 2014, holding brainstorm sessions and doing about six months of research with 10 leaders from the region to pinpoint a focus, which became agriculture.
“Anything that can be grown on earth can be grown in the Eastern Galilee,” said Drayman. “Because of the difference in height, climate, water and land, it allows them to grow anything from tropical things to cherries, apples and everything in between.
“We also discovered that the area already has a lot of activity when it comes to agro-bio research – in particular, with Migal, a foundation founded in the early ’70s that has about 115 employees, 65 PhDs and about 50 laboratories developing food and agro-bio activity.”
With Tel-Hai College to develop the academic focus – most of its 5,000 students are studying agriculture, bio-technology, food and nutrition – the region is well-positioned in the field.
As Drayman and team sought an even more specific focus, they decided on medical food, which means any food promoting health and preventing illness. “With this, we’re taking into consideration modified food, functional food, macro-bio activities, and how it will affect us concerning nutrition going forward,” said Drayman.
While work in this field is being done on a large scale by the Volcani Centre, as well as by other institutions throughout Israel, it has rarely reached the market. It took Drayman only six months to get consensus from area municipalities that medical food would be their focus, after which she began on the year-long process of writing up a plan.
“Bio-technology and health, there’s so much to do that, with the right investment, we see the potential of growing something significant in that area,” she said. “In food tech, there’s a lot of innovation and research, but not a lot of invested money. Much of the work that is done is void of being able to monetize it. That’s true of the world, not just in Israel.”
Looking at how food companies impact health by what they put into the food they make – ingredients such as sugar and salt, for example – Drayman and team are working with the industry to change regulations, especially food labeling. The goal is to give customers clear information about the nutrition content in the product they are buying.
“The idea is that companies cannot just [add] sugar whenever they don’t have another ingredient and want to fill [the product] with something very cheap,” said Drayman. “We’re going to show … a red stop light on food. If it has too much salt or sugar, it will be identified on the wrapping.
“The food industry is going through significant change,” she added. “Regulations, GDP talks, and the fact that people are more educated and understanding about what we’re eating, will affect how we’ll be when we get older. If we’re going to make sure we’re eating proper nutrition, then probably we’re going to affect a lot of the illnesses and reduce the amount of obesity.”
Exactly three years from the initiation of the project, with the 22 municipalities participating, the government approved about 80% of Drayman and team’s submitted budget. Next, they will speak with various multinational companies to see if they will invest in research and development in the area.
“One of the things that’s already in process is the movement of the Volcani Centre that is currently in the Tel Aviv area to the Galilee,” said Drayman. “It was declared, but I’m less optimistic about how fast it will happen. But it was declared it will happen, which is huge, because we’re talking about 5,000 scientific people doing research. So, moving that kind of activity would be significant.”
The municipality of Kiryat Shmona has allocated a building to house the new food innovation centre and funds are being collected to allow for the renovations, with Jewish National Fund picking up half of the $6 million tab.
“Basically, we want it to be an iconic building in the centre of Kiryat Shmona, something that will be visible from the road,” said Drayman. “It will have an accelerator for food-tech activities and activities with kids and education – trying to have two percent of top-tier students working together with the accelerator, incubator and entrepreneurship … being part of a success story.
“We’re going to also have music, because we don’t want to have it only as a high-tech building. We want to make sure we have regular people being part of it, living the scene, and not isolating this kind of activity.”
To raise the remainder of the needed funds, Drayman is working to create a consortium of five multinational companies that would run the accelerator and, subsequently, create and run an incubator.
“The accelerator, as opposed to regular accelerators that only do mentoring and primarily help when you’ve started to build a theme … we want to do proof of concept with our accelerator,” said Drayman. “We’d like to invest money, not only time and support, from high-tech people. We want to actually invest money and run the project for four to 12 months to identify an actual R&D project or research and bring it to commercialization.
“Assuming it’s able to be commercialized, then we’d like to take it into the space of an incubator and invest larger amounts of money to be able to run the project until an actual company is created.”
As of press time, IBM was considering providing data analytics.
For more information or to get involved with ii2020, contact Noa Yaar at [email protected] or 1-781-530-8025.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.