Nano Girl Michelle Dickinson: Proud Israel actively nurtures tall poppies

In Year 10, students create a new business and learn skills like computer coding.
Equal opportunity, compulsory military service for young people and pre-selection of smart students fosters a young generation with strong leadership skills. Photo / AP
Equal opportunity, compulsory military service for young people and pre-selection of smart students fosters a young generation with strong leadership skills. Photo / AP

As a small country, isolated from others with a strong background in agriculture, there are many similarities between New Zealand and Israel, a country I've been travelling around this week.

As part of a New Zealand business delegation, Sir Peter Gluckman led us in a meeting with Dr Avi Hasson, Israel's chief scientist to the Ministry of Economy and a man who previously worked in the high-tech industry. In a country with a political system that plays like a Hollywood drama, Avi was very clear that Israel's start-up success is through the stability of his role no matter what government was in power and through their 4.5 per cent of GDP financial commitment to R&D investment.

As one of the small, advanced nations which invests only 1.27 per cent GDP into R&D, New Zealand has been looking at Denmark, Finland and Singapore to identify defining characteristics of successful. high-tech countries.

One difference I noticed in Israel was the incentives given by technology transfer offices in universities and research institutions.

If an academic commercialises their research in Israel, they personally receive 40 per cent of the revenue and their university gets the other 60 per cent. That is a huge financial incentive for a scientist to take their idea to market and a big contrast to the priorities of our current Performance Based Research Fund system, which rewards academics publishing their ideas and trade secrets quickly.

As I meandered around the historic, biblical alleys of Jerusalem and pushed through the bustling streets of Tel Aviv, the contrast of brushing past young women, some dressed in business suits while others dressed in military uniform carrying automatic weapons, showed the biggest difference from New Zealand. Their equal opportunity compulsory military service for young people and pre-selection of smart kids while they are still in school results in a young generation with strong leadership skills, maturity beyond their years and a drive to make positive change for their country.

Because of this, Israel has the opposite of Tall Poppy Syndrome and is proud of their people, with every Israeli I met praising successful start-up founders, celebrating business success stories and talking about how they have to work together as a country to succeed.

On a visit to a school in a rough neighbourhood, I was surprised by their ancient Windows XP operating system. Despite the lack of funding for technology in the school their "can-do" attitude shone through. By making 'start-up studies' part of the curriculum, Year 10 students spend a year creating a new business while learning computer coding, business and management skills.

The teachers admitted that children are much more tech savvy, so industry experts are brought in to help the teachers in their own classroom. As our country still doesn't have computer coding as a requirement on our curriculum, it was obvious to see how 15- year-olds being taught hands-on skills in cybersecurity go on to build some of the world's leading cybersecurity companies.

With over 7000 start-ups at any given time, 104 of which were sold last year for around US$9 billion ($13.18 billion), Israel is a strong leader in entrepreneurship. However, as a peaceful nation with a limited budget for public research, the Israeli model isn't a fix-all for us. But I did learn how one country believing in itself and working together to build companies that have to be global from day one, can go on to lead the world in clean/green exports and keep its talented people living there.

- NZ Herald

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