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Dr. Eitan Yudilevich is the executive director of the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), which spearheads cooperation between the United States and Israel in research and the development of novel technologies.

U.S.-Israel Cooperation: An Interview with Dr. Eitan Yudilevich

Cooperative research and the co-development of new technologies are a cornerstone of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Central to this effort is the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), which for 30 years has promoted, facilitated and invested in groundbreaking, collaborative projects connecting American and Israeli companies, and which has recently turned its attention to the field of energy – an area of growing need and national security importance to both countries.

Operated by BIRD’s dedicated energy arm, BIRD-Energy, and strongly supported by AIPAC, the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Program has been a tremendous success since its codification in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. In testament to the importance of this new cooperative pillar, the Department of Energy hosted a senior delegation from Israel’s Ministry of National Infrastructure in late July for a day-long conference to discuss new ways to enhance the energy relationship.

To learn more about BIRD and U.S.-Israel cooperation in the field of technology, particularly as it relates to energy, Near East Report interviewed Dr. Eitan Yudilevich, executive director of BIRD.

Near East Report: Could you tell us a little bit about BIRD, its history and objectives?

Eitan Yudilevich: The genesis of the BIRD Foundation dates back to the early 1970s, when the governments of the United States and Israel were looking for ways to promote closer economic ties. The initial agreement was signed on March 3, 1976. In April 1977, Congress passed legislation providing U.S. funding (equal funding was provided by the Israeli government).

NER: What is the rationale underlying BIRD? What do American and Israeli companies have to gain from cooperating with each other? Does each side have particular strengths and weaknesses?

EY: U.S. and Israeli companies have much to gain from cooperation, especially when it comes to highly innovative and therefore risky technology developments. In a typical case, a young entrepreneurial Israeli company develops a new technology, which can help the more established and mature U.S. company to increase exports and revenue and thus leapfrog over its competitors. BIRD can help in both the “matchmaking” phase and in the funding phase of a joint project.

In general, U.S. companies have better “market discipline,” and Israeli companies tend to be more entrepreneurial and risk-taking. However, one should not stereotype, since today there are joint projects in which the start-up is the U.S. company, while the Israeli company is more mature.

NER: Could you give us examples of projects that BIRD has funded and have gone on to become commercial successes?

EY: Certainly. The U.S. company ACMI (later acquired by Gyrus and then by Olympus) cooperated with the Israeli start-up company CByond to develop the most advanced endoscope at its time. CByond was acquired by ACMI at the end of this successful project.

More recently, the Israeli company Argo has been cooperating with the U.S. company Allied Orthotics & Prosthetics in clinical trials of ReWalk, a technology that enables paraplegic patients to walk. And the Israeli company Tegrity cooperated with the U.S. company McGraw-Hill Higher Education to develop an advanced platform for e-learning content creation and distribution. Tegrity was later acquired, in October 2010, by McGraw-Hill.

NER: What led to the launch of BIRD-Energy?

EY: The common U.S.-Israel understanding that there is a need to develop alternative sources of energy in order to reduce the use of fossils, by developing renewable energy capabilities and finding innovative ways to use energy more efficiently. This U.S.-Israel cooperation received wide bipartisan support in Congress, leading to legislation and allocation of funding. BIRD-Energy was launched in 2009, and in 2011 we will approve a third round of joint U.S.-Israel projects on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

NER: President Obama has repeatedly emphasized the danger of America’s overreliance on fossil fuels and the need to develop alternative energies, as well as renewable and clean energy technologies. How have projects funded by BIRD addressed these issues?

EY: Through BIRD and specifically through the newly established BIRD-Energy program, we have raised awareness of the need to promote alternative fuels and clean energy technologies. The fact that both governments decided to set up a new joint program has had significant repercussions.

Many entrepreneurs and young companies have approached us with initiatives, and this is reflected in the number and quality of proposals we have received. Projects cover areas such as solar thermal energy, BIPV (building-integrated photovoltaics), energy efficiency for residential and industrial needs and, of course, alternative fuels (biodiesel and biogasoline).

NER: The Israeli government recently launched a major national initiative to reduce its dependence on gasoline. Do you see collaborative opportunities with the U.S.? Where are the areas of overlap?

EY: There is a great deal of overlap. Much of the Israeli program is directed towards international cooperation and, in my view, the majority of this cooperation should be with the U.S., mainly through three existing foundations: BIRD, BSF (Binational Science Foundation) and BARD (Binational Agricultural R&D Foundation).

Cooperation should be at all levels: from policy-making, through academia, to industry and commercialization. At the end of the day, for any innovative solution developed by an Israeli entity to gain broad acceptance, it needs to be recognized and accepted by global standards.

NER: Looking down the road, where do you see U.S.-Israel energy cooperation heading?

EY: Energy cooperation between the U.S. and Israel should be brought to the levels of their cooperation in the field of defense. It should cover all aspects and not only renewable energy. For example, natural gas is a very important subject for cooperation. I understand that a broad dialog between the two countries is being initiated. It should be sustained and deepened.

NER: Has the economic situation in the past few years had any effect on how BIRD operates? On the number or nature of the proposals you receive?

EY: The number of proposals has increased, although at the same time some companies have had trouble raising the additional funding required to carry out a BIRD project (BIRD provides up to 50% of the funding). Also, some projects suffered from the difficult economic situation in 2008-2009. Finally, we have been trying to increase our funding capacity, for the benefit of both U.S. and Israeli companies. We have been successful in the energy sector, but not yet in others, mainly because of priorities on the U.S. side.

NER: What are BIRD’s plans for the future? What fields show particular promise in terms of research and development?

EY: We believe that neurotechnology is a very promising sector. It covers a broad range of technologies: software, medical devices and of course, pharmaceutical products.

Having said that, BIRD will continue to support a wide range of sectors, choosing the best projects and the best partnerships. At our last Board of Governors meeting, held this past June, projects were approved in fields such as computer vision, healthcare, IT, agriculture, medical devices and more.

Also, we will continue pursuing regional cooperation, as we do with Jordan in a program called TRIDE (Trilateral Industrial Development). In the future, we very much hope to have a similar program with the Palestinians. U.S. support for these initiatives is critical. BACK TO TOP