It’s second nature for an Israeli innovator or entrepreneur to wake up and think about how to solve problems in a place such as Silicon Valley or Toronto, says Aliza Inbal, director of the Pears Program for Global Innovation at Tel Aviv University.
What’s more challenging is getting one to wake up and think about solving problems somewhere like Kenya.
“He doesn’t understand Kenya, he hasn’t been there and doesn’t know anyone who’s been there,” said Inbal, who was in Toronto late last month to visit family.
The purpose of the Pears Program, which the Toronto native founded in 2008, is to leverage Israel’s strengths as a startup nation, known for fostering successful innovators and entrepreneurs, and also to build awareness for the ways innovation can help developing countries.
The program works with government, the private sector and entrepreneurs.
“Israel is among the best countries in the world at solving problems that affect rich people, but now Israeli innovators are also starting to looking at how to solve problems affecting poor people,” Inbal explained.
The Pears Program helps to connect Israeli innovation to challenges in the developing world in a number of ways: it offers consulting, free of charge, to Israeli startups interested in creating products geared to developing markets; it connects Israeli innovators and the markets of Africa and South Asia; it hosts hack-a-thons, seminars and panel discussions on innovation for development and, for the past two years, it has run an accelerator program that exposes experienced Israeli innovators to a challenge faced by a specific developing country.
Last year, for example, accelerator participants were educated about smallholder farming in Kenya and next year, Inbal said, participants will explore medical technology in India.
Over a dozen ventures have gone through the accelerator and seven have received grant financing or investment of some kind, Inbal said.
“Our assumption is that with experienced innovators, all you really need is to help them fall in love with a problem and connect to a market. Once you have done that, a good innovator can develop a solution and create a successful business model without much support. Our job is to support them on a path to learning,” she noted.
Inbal, who made aliyah at age 18, said she’s particularly proud of the work she’s done in collaboration with Grand Challenges Canada, a program funded by Ottawa that provides support to innovators in low and middle-income countries, as well as in Canada.
Integrating science, technology, social and business innovation, Grand Challenges Canada funds projects committed to improving and saving lives in dozens of countries around the world.
On a trip to Toronto several years ago, Inbal met with Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, to discuss bringing the program’s model to Israel.
With the help of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which Inbal said was instrumental in enlisting the support of key Israeli politicians, they worked with the Israeli government to help the country establish its own Grand Challenges program.
Grand Challenges Israel launched two years ago and is housed in the Israeli Office of the chief scientist of the Ministry of Economy, in co-operation with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The program has since supported innovators working on projects such as creating diagnostic tools to help those in communities far from doctors or laboratories, and building technology to generate energy at the household or village level in places where clean water or energy aren’t available.
Inbal has long been interested in development. She previously worked at the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the International Labour Organization, and was a career diplomat for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. She also worked in the Israeli Foreign Service as the deputy chief of mission at the outbreak of civil war in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
She served in the Israeli Defence Forces as a first lieutenant, initially working in Gaza during the first intifadah and later producing radio news for the army’s radio network Galei Zahal.