The Kinneret Academic College Water Innovation Community is part of a network of communities established in recent years in various fields (digital health, smart energy, smart transportation, etc.) created to encourage start-up innovation and growth in the Israeli market.
The Water Innovation Community connects startups with established companies, development and engineering companies, equipment suppliers, students, researchers from academia and other stakeholders, and provides an umbrella of support during various stages of formation and during the implementation of innovation, by building infrastructure, opportunity sources and events.
We met with Prof. Ram Shpiner and Gali Fux for a short interview, in which they discussed the Water Innovation Community, recently established under the umbrella of Kinneret Academic College.
Tell us a little about yourself and your connection to the Water Innovation Community
Prof. Ram Shpiner, Head of the Department of Water Industry Engineering: I established the Water Industry Engineering Department at Kinneret Academic College 11 years ago, which to date has trained approximately 240 water engineers, and is currently the largest such program in Israel. Today, many graduates are employed in key and significant positions in the Israeli water industry, and are active in leading organizations as well as in start-up companies. The very establishment of the department and its teaching methods including close relationships with major players in the water market is in itself innovative. Additionally, students have already participated in dozens of R&D projects, some of which have become products currently implemented in the Israeli and international water industry market. The department is currently in the preliminary process of opening an international M.A. program in water technologies, currently in deliberation at the Council of Higher Education (CHE).
Gali, who is currently the Director of the Water Innovation Community, was a former student of mine at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and from my acquaintance with her and knowledge about her experience, I found it fitting to endorse her to be the person who would head the community. We hope to lead a community based first and foremost on extensive professional knowledge of community leaders, so the added value would be not only about creating opportunities and connections but also about preparing and empowering them professionally.
Gali Fux: I was born on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, and since childhood have had an intense desire to work for the environment. I participated in environmental protests in the area and watched with concern, not through a screen but in person, the level and quality of water in the Sea of Galilee. After completing my IDF service, I earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in environmental science, and worked in consulting for water corporations around the world about drip irrigation, desalination and savings. Countries who until a decade ago treated water resources as endless and ‘free’, today understand that the issue has to be put on their agenda and are currently investing enormous budgets in R&D and infrastructure projects in the field.
The water issue is still relevant in Israel. Although water supply challenges have been solved by desalination facilities, there are many more challenges ahead. Worldwide, over 2 billion people do not have available drinkable water and reasonable sanitation. UN goal #6 of the 17 goals for sustainable development is to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The approach to solving these challenges is through innovation – development of new solutions and implementing them in large organizations, integrating methodologies and practices from diverse fields such as energy, artificial intelligence, information security, etc. Israel is the ultimate country to develop integrated solutions to help the world deal with challenges posed by infrastructure shortages, population growth, and climate change.
When and how was the idea to establish the Water Innovation Community born?
Ram: Over the past decade, and even more so since the economic crisis of 2008, the importance of the innovation component has risen as a necessity for continued growth in all sectors of the economy, industry, trade and services. There has also been a growing recognition that innovation often does not develop spontaneously, and therefore a methodical approach is needed, which supports the need for a supporting environment and promotion of innovation.
One of the earliest ‘innovation environments’ in Israel was developed by the Ministry of Economy and Industry, the Israel NewTech program, a national program for the advancement of Water & Energy, which was approved by the government as early as 2006. The program was expanded to include energy by my friend Oded Distell, a program that, for the first time, looked from a systemic and holistic perspective on the array of innovation in a particular field, and connected the various players operating within it – the various government ministries, industry, start-ups, academia and more. Our Water Industry Engineering Department was also established, among other things, as a result of the work of Israel NewTech, which showed a growing shortage of excellent professionals in the field of water, and I have kept in touch with Israel NewTech throughout the years since establishing the department.
Based on this concept, the Ministry of Economy and Industry, in recent years, developed a new strategy to encourage Israel’s economic growth, which includes the establishment and management of innovation communities (Innovation Eco-System Management). The innovation communities are intended to work for socio-economic development by integrating innovative technologies in a particular field and its development, creating permanent inter-sectoral dialogue between various players, in order to position Israel as a world leader in the field.
We would love to get to know the people who are behind the Water Innovation Community, tell us about the team
Ram: Gali Fux is the community manager, she is originally from Kibbutz Kfar Haruv in the Golan Heights, has a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and a degree in business administration, and several years of experience in the global water market, mainly in innovation and adapting innovative solutions in traditional water companies and water corporations. In addition, the team includes, Mia Dekel, an alumna of the fifth class of the Water Industry Engineering Department, a resident of Kanaf in the Golan. Shir Alyagor and Shahaf, the team from the Kinneret Innovation Center will also work with us, leading community events for members of the Water Community, including professional meetings, conferences, an employment fair, and more.
What is the vision for the new Water Community?
Gali: The vision is for the Israeli water market, with its many players (start-ups, long-standing companies, water corporations, academic institutions, suppliers and government bodies) to become a world leader in innovation by providing water solutions to the many challenges of our era. The community will support players by raising the level of professionalism, creating opportunities and international collaborations, attracting foreign investment, and encouraging the growth of companies in the market.
What goals did you set for yourself for the first year of activity?
Gali: This year we will work to recognize the needs of community members, and create quality content to meet their needs. We will operate a digital infrastructure that will include a website, a monthly newsletter, a Facebook and LinkedIn group, in which we will publish announcements and content from government agencies, funding opportunities, calls for proposals, broadcast interviews, professional articles and more. In addition, we will initiate and implement events such as meetups, activities, a challenge competition and an annual conference that will include lectures, workshops and an employment fair.
Who are your community partners?
Gali: Our community cooperates with government officials in the Ministry of Economy such as the Innovation Authority and the Director of Foreign Trade, the Water Authority and more. In industry, the Department of Water Industry Engineering, of which the community is a part, has been cooperating for many years with established companies in the water sector, corporations and startups.
Ram, what advantage does the Water Innovation Community have as part of the Kinneret Academic College system?
Ram: The department’s unique experience and many connections and activities in the water economy were a key consideration that the community reach the north of the country. The department has been active for years in the Israeli water interface in a win-win model, i.e., in the configuration of contribute and provide. For six years now, the department has been organizing the largest professional conference in the field, held at Beit Gabriel, as well as holding industry exposure days. The professional knowledge that exists in the department will certainly be an empowering factor for a community that is less likely to exist in other communities. We intend to serve not only as a connecting factor but as an empowering factor, especially on the professional side, which will give companies and entrepreneurs professional guidance during their varying stages of initiation, development, recruitment and market penetration.
How will the community contribute to water engineering students at the college?
Ram: Of course, an engineering school operating alongside an innovation community creates an excellent environment for synergy between academic knowledge and quality innovation.
The department’s location at the heart of innovation will expose students to innovative technologies, participation in R&D projects, contact with potential employers, in – depth knowledge of the local and global market. Students will also be able to participate in professional events organized by the community at home.
Of course, modern water engineering, which includes quite a few launch areas with electrical, software and quality engineering, will also allow students from the other departments in the engineering school to integrate into activities, contribute to and even become employed during or after they complete their studies.
How will the theme of ‘innovation in water’ be conveyed?
Gali: Innovation will be reflected on both the demand and supply sides. On the demand side, in helping organizations such as long-standing companies and water corporations implement innovative ideas and solutions to improve various aspects of the organization (operation, work force, systems management), and in encouraging open innovation that grows out of the organization. Providing tools to assist startup growth, attracting foreign investment, and more.
Ram, how do you think the Water Innovation Community will contribute to the Israeli water industry?
Ram: The Israeli water industry needs ‘new blood’ and new initiatives in order to preserve and aspire to strengthen its position in the global water industry. The water community will strive to increase professional knowledge in the industry, on the one hand, and to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, on the other, while professionally accompanying those involved. These actions will lead to both an increase in the number of innovations that established companies bring to the market and the establishment of start-up companies that will develop in the coming years into independent organizations, which will expand and strengthen the local water industry.
The aspiration, of course, is to rehabilitate a number of companies with exciting ideas and capabilities that will bring about change in the world, similar to what a company like Netafim has done in the past.
In summary, 5 years from now, where do you see the Water Innovation Community?
Ram: This a question that is difficult to answer because it is not only contingent on us, but also on government decisions and budgets.
Assuming the community will operate for several years at Kinneret Academic College, we will see real transformation in the water industry landscape with a greater number of companies, ideas, and with a growing footprint in the global market.
At the managerial level, it is very likely that the Ministry of Economy will stop supporting activities at some point. Similar communities around the world that generate real value to its members sometimes operate through self-funding, and in many cases are supported by the local authority that indirectly benefits from community activities. If this combination of self-financing, a professional community that provides value, and the support of an authority is established, the community will be able to operate in the long term and be managed by an organization such as the Kinneret Center for Innovation.