"The entrepreneurial spirit came from there," said Yoni Heilbronn, chief marketing officer at Tel Aviv-based Argus Cyber Security, referring to his company's roots. Argus provides solutions and services to protect connected cars and commercial vehicles against cyberattacks. "A significant portion of the team is IDF alumni."
IDF veterans are putting defense system insights into products and solutions for advanced driver assistance systems, connectivity, electrification, ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles. That work is why the region around Tel Aviv is touting itself as a new Silicon Valley, or even a new Detroit.
The chief catalyst? Israel's military has long relied on high-tech cybersecurity defenses and advanced weaponry, such as the ability to detect and react to missiles, a similar technology for self-driving vehicles that need to detect distant road obstacles.
Argus, founded in 2013, has several top executives, including Heilbronn and CEO Ofer Ben-Noon, who served in the IDF's cyber intelligence corps — popularly known in Israel by its code name, Unit 8200. The startup was acquired in 2017 by the German mega-supplier Continental, and now operates as an independent subsidiary of Elektrobit, of Erlangen, Germany.
In 2017, the Silicon Valley chip giant Intel Corp., which has huge ambitions for the automotive sector, paid $15.3 billion to buy the Israeli vision technology firm Mobileye. Mobileye is a leader in computer vision and machine learning, data analysis, localization and mapping for ADAS and autonomous driving. That deal alerted the world to Israel's potential.
There have been a flurry of deals over the past five years, said Joe Barkai, a Boston-based industry analyst and consultant.
Google bought the Israeli mapping firm Waze in 2013 for $966 million. Harman International Industries, which became part of Samsung Electronics in 2017, acquired Israeli automotive cybersecurity company TowerSec in 2016 and Red Bend, an Israeli company that makes software to perform over-the-air updates, in 2015. Ford Motor Co. bought artificial intelligence and image processing company SAIPS in 2016.
The small nation is clearly punching above its weight class.
Israel's total population of 8.9 million is smaller than metropolitan Chicago's. But Israel is now ranked No. 3 in the world, after the United States and China, in terms of the number of mobility technology companies and disclosed investments, with 36 firms and $18 billion in investments, according to a report by McKinsey & Co.
There are hundreds of other firms in Israel's high-tech space, beyond automotive, according to Jim Forlenza, engineering events director for SAE International.