What we can learn from SpaceIL

Rocket Launch


What we can learn from SpaceIL

By Jonathan Frenkel

COVID-19 has pushed many institutions that would not have normally cooperated to work together in facing the global pandemic. During this period, alliances that might have taken years to assemble under less dire circumstances have been forged in a fraction of that time. An example of a country that has been on the forefront of battling this threat has been Israel, the Startup Nation. Israel has a unique history of bringing seemingly unrelated organizational structures such as the military, academia, business, and the political world together in order to achieve a common goal.

Before the world’s resources were focused on fighting COVID-19 there were many institutions who aimed for the literal stars and worked on plans on how to reach them. Israel has been working on a number of big picture ideas; an example of how different organizations work in unison has been the race to land a spacecraft on the moon, making it the fourth country to do so after the United States, Russia, and China. While Israel has excelled in satellite technology for surveillance purposes, and the Israeli Air Force is one of the most powerful in the world, going to the moon has been a major leap for such a small country. Aside from the chutzpah required to attempt such a feat, Israel’s goal of landing a spacecraft on the moon was a solid example of academia, business, philanthropy, and government collaboration and should act as a case study for us in the United States.

Cross pollination

If there is one thing that makes the Startup Nation unique it is the idea of cross pollination. Israel is a tight-knit society and people are usually acquainted through familial, military, and business ties. Furthermore, the informal nature of the country is also a contributing factor. The Israel Defense Forces plays a key role in this idea as most young Israelis are conscripted to serve mandatory time in the army, thus strengthening those bonds and expanding their social network. What happens after the military is equally important as many soldiers go on to do reserve duty, particularly in highly technical roles such as the Intelligence Corp. Civilians put on their military garb and bring back ideas to the army they learned from their startups, and vice versa.

As a result, there are no real walls or siloed organizations preventing cooperation. The mindset is that everyone needs to cooperate for a common cause, a reminder that for many years Israel’s existence was not guaranteed and such collaboration was essential. That fear certainly pervades much of the Israeli leadership’s thinking as they grew up in an era of existential dread. As such, projects such as SpaceIL’s attempt to land on the moon epitomize the Israeli organizational narrative.

How the different parts worked together

What started close to ten years ago in order to raise awareness for the sciences morphed into a national race to land a spacecraft on the moon. In this case, non-profits, academia, private foundations, business, and government-supported industries all worked together in order to literally get this spacecraft into orbit and on its way to the moon. Traditionally, all these institutions would not have associated with one another, but given the scope, ambition, and chutzpah of the mission they came to rely on each other.

The catalyst for the SpaceIL program was the Google Lunar X Prize competition offering a 30 million dollar prize to the team capable of getting a spacecraft to the moon, and landing it successfully. As is typical of the “thrown together and figure it out along the way” style of many entrepreneurs in Israel, the SpaceIL team was one of the last teams to apply. However, instead of building the idea as a government or corporate-backed entity, they formed a non-profit. This enabled them to parlay a lot of “free” resources such as volunteers, raise grant money, and ultimately secure million-dollar financial commitments from major philanthropists such as Sheldon Adelson and Morris Kahn, an Israeli-South African billionaire who founded the software company Amdocs.

From the start the SpaceIL team parlayed institutions such as IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries) and Israel’s Space Agency that fall under the umbrella of the defense industry (much of which is government connected) as well as academic institutions such as the Technion, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Academia played a large role as the team worked with Tel Aviv University's Engineering Department and had strong connections to the Interdisciplinary Center north of Tel Aviv. Engaging all the major academic institutions in the country helped in galvanizing volunteers as well as creating a national initiative around science education.

Capturing the imagination of the country and of pro-Israel supporters abroad was key. One of the project’s main funders Morris Kahn stated, "putting a spacecraft on the moon is a little bit of a weird project. It almost seems un-doable, and even if it was doable, it takes somebody with imagination to actually see why you would do it." From an entrepreneurial perspective this was the first privately funded voyage to the moon, which in the days of SpaceX and Blue Origin set a standard for how much technology has changed and emphasized that innovation does not rely solely on government support. This is not to say that government funding was not key in making this happen; it’s that this project began as a startup and only later sought government assistance.

Ultimately Beresheet, the spacecraft, crash landed upon its attempted landing on the moon’s surface. That does not tell the whole story; as with any big idea, the entrepreneurial journey is part of the process and learnings. There were lessons learned, and new technologies created along the way as well. Additionally, it’s also important to put things in context as such a project was not even imaginable a few years ago. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated after the disappointing outcome, “if at first you don’t succeed, try again.” For many in Israel there is faith the country will be successful in the coming years, and that “an Israeli spacecraft will land on the moon, whole.” Even if we look at the long tail of this endeavor, and this inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs, then it is a success.

What we can learn

There are lessons of what we can learn from this enterprise and take with us as we plan out our own ambitions. While the spacecraft crash landed on the moon, it was a failure of operations, and not lack of cooperation and organization. Israel’s ecosystem is unique and its institutions world-class, but the points covered below are applicable for institutions here in the US and globally.

Ambitious projects marshal resources and capture the imagination. We have seen this with the “moonshot” projects from Google and the aspirations of entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. This goes back to the 1960’s with America’s race to land a man on the moon that was a priority of national importance. Money wants to capitalize and fund big picture ideas. Academic institutions and the government would be wise to pay attention to this idea, as we have opportunities now to create solutions to COVID-19. As Elon Musk says when it comes to ambitious projects and urgency, “when something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”

In order to achieve such moonshots, we must learn to be more open to cooperation with other organizations. This will not be easy as many organizations vie for resources, but we must learn to work together. Community plays such a significant role in parlaying and acquiring resources, and once people are behind an idea, they are more than willing to help pitch in.

Being open to and integrating entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs into our systems is essential for success. We must learn to say “yes” to new ideas and people, and not be fearful of the change they may bring about. If we are looking to truly create the next generation of entrepreneurs that will lead this country and business community, we must find ways to have them work within the system. SpaceIL succeeded because the entrepreneurs developed their idea outside the constraints of government and academia and brought them in to help build the project after the startup stage. The question we need to ask ourselves is why can’t we build a project like SpaceIL within our system?

As we’ve seen in Silicon Valley, the more ambitious the goal, the higher the stakes, and the more people believe in a brighter future, the more cooperation becomes essential. While Israel does have a unique ecosystem with members of the different organizations maintaining relationships, that does not mean it cannot be emulated here in the United States. Once we overcome this pandemic, we’ll see that some organizations collaborated in facing this threat quite naturally, which could serve as inspiration for future projects, whether they include travelling to the moon or facing the next pandemic.

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