A Fast-Track to Innovation: Israel’s R&D Preparatory Incentive Program
CTech – The story of Growee contains all the characteristics of a typical development and innovation process. Idan Avitan, a robotics engineer and founder of Growee, engaged in hydroponic agriculture (growing plants in water) as a hobby. Avitan identified the market trend, developed prototype systems that won awards at global innovation competitions, raised initial capital, and succeeded in proving technological, commercial, and preliminary sales feasibility. With the help of the Innovation Authority’s R&D Preparatory Program, and thanks to the support and counselling that it received, Growee is today progressing to commercialization and mass production of an innovative technology that will change the world of urban agriculture.
As a developmental engineer, Avitan had worked extensively with new inventions and developments. “When I started dealing in hydroponic agriculture as a hobby, I realized that it was too complex a task for the average person. The water’s chemical composition and the environmental surroundings require constant control, and most people simply don’t have the necessary tools for this,” says Avitan. “In addition, at that time, I could identify an increasing trend of urban agriculture — in homes, stores, apartment buildings, and on rooftops (places without suitable land) — and the evolvement of a new market consisting of millions of people interested in smart, organic home-grown plants. The familiar technological solutions are suited to large greenhouses and there was no automated solution for the home grower.”
A hydroponic gardener directly from the app
Growee provides smart solutions for the home grower. The company’s innovative development enables it to grow plants via a specially designated application and provides access to the hydroponic growing method that a simple grower perceives as too complicated. Via special sensors, the electronic system monitors the state of the water and surroundings, and the data is collected in the company’s cloud platform which analyzes it and takes action to fix the relevant parameters. For example, if the sensors indicate a low acidity level in the water near the plant’s roots, the system will perform an immediate analysis of the required level of acidity and inject substances into the water to remedy the situation. “There are 16 different substances which make up a precise cocktail suitable for any plant. This is something that the home grower can’t do, and which is error-prone,” Avitan points out.
“The field of urban home agriculture is largely DIY. Each person assembles his/her own garden. This can be in a flower box or plastic container on the roof and so our solution needs to be suitable for everyone,” says Avitan. “This is an example of natural evolution of a market that still lacks uniformity or industry standards, so the system interfaces and connects with what currently exists.” One of the clear advantages of Growee’s solution is scalability — the ability to grow. The system can make the necessary adaptations over time, so that today we can grow a single flower box of a particular size and, tomorrow, increase the size tenfold. Everything is managed via the app — from anywhere.
A large step for urban agriculture
In the four years since its establishment, Growee has registered several patents and completed development of the product and intellectual property. The company also conducted pilots around the world and established a distribution network to markets in the US and Canada. Prototypes created by Growee have won some of the world’s largest startup competitions — in Paris, Berlin, London, and Las Vegas. Today, the company is working on producing the first series of the product that includes hundreds of systems, while at the same time conducting pilots with medical cannabis companies in Israel and the US. The company is also collaborating with educational institutions that are establishing educational hydroponic farms, including partnerships with the Growing Beyond Earth research program and NASA to enable outer space cultivation.
Although the company’s development process began in Tel Aviv, following the support it received from the South Up technological incubator, the company’s offices moved to Kibbutz Nir in the Gaza Periphery area. “During my military service in the Egoz Unit, I spent many years in Gaza and always assumed that I would only return here to fight. I never dreamed of coming here to build,” says Avitan. “The incubator gave us operational support, assistance with submitting grant requests to the Innovation Authority, guidance of a professional team, new office buildings, and research laboratories.”
According to Avitan, the engineering development process is highly complex, but participation in the Israel Innovation Authority’s R&D Preparatory Program is undoubtedly one of its important stages. The program is aimed at helping industrial companies that have no previous experience in R&D or in leading innovation processes, and startup companies in need of counselling and guidance when preparing for production. “As part of the R&D Preparatory Program, the Innovation Authority also enables companies unaccustomed to research and development processes to get on the innovation elevator and enter the worlds of technological innovation”, says Malka Nir, VP of the Israel Innovation Authority and Head of its Advanced Manufacturing Division. “This way, the companies can improve their production processes, develop innovative products, and contend with global competition.”
“Fortunately, the team leading the program at the Authority also initiated a program intended for startups like us,” Avitan says. “Growee offers both software and a physical product and needs to provide a solution for the challenges associated with industrial production — a transition from creating a prototype to commercial manufacture.”
“When the company grew and orders increased, we realized at Growee how much the R&D Preparatory Program was the best process for us,” Avitan explains. The program enables access to different kinds of technological experts usually employed in factories and large companies, but not at a small startup in its early stages. “In our case, we cooperated with the mass production expert — Charlie Ozana — who previously led production of the Disk-on-Key systems. Within three months, Growee progressed from development to manufacture of the product’s first series. The Advanced Manufacturing Division’s leading team accompanied us with great professionalism throughout the process. We now intend to submit a request for the Authority’s follow-up program,” he concludes.
Smart management of medical inventories
The Israeli company Pegasus Medical also participated in the R&D Preparatory Program and later even continued to the Innovation Authority’s MOFET Program. The company was founded in 2007 and is active in the development, production, and marketing of storage and inventory management systems in hospitals and medical institutions. “We are one of the three leading companies in the field of development in this area, especially in Europe and the US,” says Oren Mendelson, the company’s CEO. “We underwent a three-month process in the Innovation Authority’s R&D Preparatory Program where we submitted our long-term development plans, received guidance and assistance in focusing the R&D process, and continued on to the MOFET Program. The initial budget enabled us to obtain the advice of external consultants for conducting market studies and surveys so that we could focus the development plan while at the same time receiving almost immediate feedback from Innovation Authority representatives about the feasibility of development in the Authority’s programs.”
Pegasus Medical is currently in its third year of development. The company specializes in automatic inventory management technology at the point of use. At the center of its system is a core of ABS-injected modules sized 40 x 60 cm — the global standard for storage systems. On this basis, the company supplies various systems — cabinets, transportation carts, medication carts, and others — made from different polymers, aluminums, or metals. These systems provide a solution for storing disposable materials and medications in the different hospital departments.
The physical storage systems are also used as an infrastructure for technological inventory management systems that are based on Kanban methodology, and which enable efficient and precise management of inventory levels. In most hospitals in the Western world, the central material warehouses manage inventory via logistic systems assimilated into the organizational ERP systems such as SAP and others; however, for material that has left the hospital warehouse to the various departments, inventory control gradually decreases or is non-existent. Pegasus Medical’s solution meets this challenge. “The company offers an inventory management system that provides a good picture of the inventory levels at the point of use, thereby saving the medical team the need to engage in the logistical activity associated with inventory management,” Mendelson explains.
In order to expand use of the Kanban methodology and to upgrade the inventory management system at the end points so that they are appropriate to the second half of the 21st century, Pegasus Medical joined the Authority’s R&D Preparatory Program. “The project included the integration of a system of RFID antennas and tags that enable the end users to easily and efficiently ‘mark’ the storage compartments in which the central warehouse is required to renew the inventory.”
The storage compartment signals the central warehouse
The physical storage system, made of aluminum and polymers that don’t disrupt the RFID tags, was built over the course of two years. At the same time, the company designed and adapted a system of controllers and antennas that is responsible for receiving the signals in the different storage areas. In other words, as soon as a compartment containing a certain material is emptied, a signal is created in the hospital warehouse’s computer system that informs of the shortage. The entire project included development in a range of disciplines — hardware, software, and mechanics — and concluded with a successful pilot and the product’s launch in North America.
Pegasus Medical’s broad line of products requires significant investment in development, so the Innovation Authority’s support is an extremely important factor in our success. The system is based on an international storage standard core and each of its components needs to fit in with the others. Most of the development is centered on adapting the parts which create the system’s methodology so that it can be used optimally by the medical team, such as medication trolleys and shelves from different materials that must be suitable for use in every hospital unit and conform to its required level of cleanliness.
“Pegasus Medical manufactures 80% of its systems in Israel, including the metal, plastic, and aluminum parts designed by the company,” Mendelson emphasizes. The company employs about 20 workers in Israel and another 15 in North America. Pegasus Medical, which is located on Kibbutz HaGoshrim in northern Israel, owns distribution centers on four continents — Europe, Asia, Australia, and America — and sends its products to 25 different global markets.
The article was written in collaboration with the Israel Innovation Authority, responsible for the country’s innovation policy. Its role is to nurture and develop Israeli innovation resources, while creating and strengthening the infrastructure and framework needed to support the entire knowledge industry.