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Refugee Energy: Tap It!

By Shlomo Maital


My friend and colleague Prof. Dan Shechtman (Nobel, Chemistry, 2011) has been tirelessly touring the world with a message: For poor and emerging countries, the way to a better life is technology-driven entrepreneurship and startups.

   Today’s Hebrew language newspaper Haaretz has some proof.

   Journalist Zvi Barel, who tracks events in countries bordering Israel, writes about startup energy in the midst of great misery – in refugee camps in Turkey and in Jordan, packed with Syrians fleeing the chaos and genocide in their country.

     Al-Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan and other camps have one million refugees, living in great squalor. Turkey has camps with even more refugees, 2.5 million.

     In Za’atari, recounts Barel, “Ra’shim” , from Aleppo, ravaged by war, fled his city three years ago. In the camp there are a great many shops opened by refugees. By one count – there are 3,000 small businesses (in the camp, and in nearby Jordanian cities) with monthly revenues of $13 million. I wrote about one such shop in an earlier blog – a shop that rents wedding dresses.   Aided by the Oasis 500 fund in Jordan, Ra’shim opened a website to enable these shops to sell on the Internet, and raised 3 million dollars. He now has branches in Dubai and Oman, employs many young Jordanians and Syrians and plans to expand.

     Some of the small shops and businesses in the camps in Turkey have been begun to employ local Turks, in significant numbers.

     Satellite photos show that nearly 60 per cent of Aleppo has been destroyed. It will take 7-8 billion dollars to rebuild it. Oil-rich Arab nations have the money, but will never contribute such sums. So when this awful Syrian civil war ends, it will be up to people like Ra’shim, with entrepreneurial energy, to rebuild their country, with minimal resources.

     And they will.

     The incompetent EU has now more or less decided to bribe Turkey to stop the flow of immigrants. Does anyone in the EU wonder, whether an injection of entrepreneurial energy like that of Ra’shim could revive Europe’s dead economy, and generate entrepreneurship where virtually none exists, like in France? Did anyone in the EU consider giving a small fraction of the $3 billion bribe to Turkey, directly to refugees and refugee entrepreneurs?  

     In Silicon Valley, a high percentage of startups are launched by Indians, Israelis, Chinese and others?   Precisely what the EU needs – but will now not get, because it cannot see its nose in front of its face.

Managing the Mill-Aliens: The Bright Side

By Shlomo Maital  


The Millennials (generation born between 1980 and 2000) were so named by Howe and Strauss, scholars who write about generation cohorts. If you re-arrange the last few letters, and drop an ‘n’, you get Mill-Aliens. For many of us in older generations, these young people are indeed aliens. Their values, behavior, and personality seem to utterly different from ours, as if they came from another planet.

     Of course, every generation feels that way about the younger people. In the year 1254 someone wrote this: “The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them…”  

I’ve just written an article for an Indian management journal about the “bright side” – the positive qualities that Mill-Aliens possess. In it I argue:

Here are eight ways in which Millennials bring positive qualities to organizations. These include: Their comfort with digital technology, their creativity and innovativeness, their embrace of the environment, their search for meaning rather than money, and their perpetual connection with their peers.

   Let’s be honest. Gen X and the Boomers have left the Millennials with a planet in a huge mess. As one Millennial observed wryly,   “Sorry our generation sucks, it’s not like we jacked up college tuition prices, destroyed the manufacturing industry, started two quagmire wars, gutted the union, destroyed the global economy, and left our offspring with an environmentally-devasted planet stripped of its natural resources – but we do text too much.”

To fully capitalize on the qualities Millennials bring, we in older generations have to open our minds and accelerate turning over leadership to them. The current trend toward later retirement is a negative one, in this sense. Let’s keep working – but let’s give the Millennials leadership roles. They can’t do any worse than we did.

Jerome Bruner: Possible Worlds

By Shlomo Maital


Jerome Bruner just passed away. He was 100 years old.

Bruner changed forever the way we see the world and the way we understand human thinking. As a pioneer cognitive psychologist, he helped us rethink the mind as what he calls a “hypothesis generator” – the human can envision “possible worlds” (the title of one of his most famous books.  

   As a child he recalls being influenced by one of his teachers, Ms McNamara, who taught him that “the world is an open question”. And that is how Bruner viewed psychology.   If you deal only with what exists, he noted, then psychology has nothing to do with life.   In giving advice to young psychologists, he urged them, “get out of your office and get into the real world.”  

   His older sister Alice influenced him strongly. She was smarter than me, he recalls, and asked him, “why are you always guessing?”   But Bruner saw the mind as a “hypothesis generator” – as something that asks questions, rather than spews out answers.

     He had a lifelong love of sailing. Sailing for him was a metaphor of life. You sail in an unpredictable environment, when the wind can change at any moment, and you have the illusion of control,   adjusting the sails, etc., but it’s only an illusion.

     I personally embrace Bruner’s landmark article The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), because I’ve come to believe, as Bruner showed, that we understand reality by telling ourselves stories – about ourselves, about others, about how things work. And some of those stories are fiction, made-up, “possible worlds”, this is called creativity and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs make up a possible world and then make it happen.

   My colleague Arie Ruttenberg defines creativity as “widening the range of choices”. That is,   imaging new possibilities, possible worlds. Bruner supports this.

       From childhood, Bruner had limited vision. But it never hampered him.   He brought common sense and a spirit of rebellion to his discipline, and embraced all other disciplines that he felt were related.   We will miss him.

Coursera for Refugees

By Shlomo Maital


   Today, Monday June 20, is World Refugee Day.  According to the UN, 65 million refugees have been created this year — torn from their homes. 

      It has special meaning for me, because in a very real sense, my mother and father were refugees. My mother’s family fled from Bessarabia (now Moldova), following pogroms in 1904 and 1905 that killed many Jews, in Kishinev, and came to Saskatchewan.     My grandfather, after whom I am named, left in order to raise money to bring his family out to safety; he saved every penny, sent the money – and it was lost when World War I broke out. He died heartbroken, in Pittsburgh, during the global influenza epidemic, in 1918.   My father, a teenager, then struck out with his sister, Dora, who was only 12, to emulate his own father, and after a very very hard journey, and bitterly cold winter in Antwerp, made it as an immigrant to Canada, and brought his mother and siblings over. My father became a small-time builder, providing houses for lower middle income people at affordable prices.   Canada has always had an enlightened policy toward immigrants, more than its big southern neighbor, and immigrants in turn have built Canada with energy and ambition, like my mother and father did.

That is why I am so delighted with Coursera and its Coursera for Refugees, which launches today. Coursera has partnered with Technion, so that we can offer a four-course Startup Entrepreneurship specialization. We hope thousands of people all over the world will take our courses. Perhaps even a few refugees.

   Working with Coursera has been a delight. The Coursera team knows how to build MOOCs (massive open online courses) and helps those willing to provide them.  

   Here is Coursera’s program, which emerged from a two-day ‘hackathon’ ideation session:

   “On World Refugee Day (June 20), we will launch our new Coursera for Refugees program in partnership with the U.S. State Department on World Refugee Day. Coursera for Refugees will provide nonprofits serving refugees with group financial aid and organizational support – for more details, please refer to our Q2 Product Roadmap. This program represents a big step toward realizing our vision of a world in which anyone, anywhere can access a high-quality education, and we are very excited for this launch! Please note that Coursera for Refugees is under a press embargo until June 20. On or after June 20, we hope you will share this news and the Coursera for Refugees site with all of your professional and personal networks once it is live on June 20.”

       There is much hand-wringing over the heart-wrenching refugee problem, but little effective action. Kudos to Coursera for taking action. Now let’s see if we can help refugees get the education they need, just as Canada helped me, son of immigrants, get an excellent education and eventually, become a professor and author.  

Phonak: A Hearty Endorsement

By Shlomo Maital


At last count, I’ve written 1,345 blogs over the past decade or so. In none of my blogs, have I endorsed a product. This one is an exception. This is a heartfelt endorsement, first of its kind for me, and probably the last.

   A month ago, a highly-trained and experienced clinician fitted me with two Phonak hearing aids. Phonak is a Swiss company that makes state-of-the-art hearing aids. For years I had known, after hearing tests, that I had lost hearing in the upper frequencies—the graph showing my hearing acuity dropped steeply at mid-to-high sounds.  

   I finally faced the problem and saw an expert. She fitted me with two high-tech Phonak hearing aids. They are small, barely visible. They are really tiny computers, with complex algorithms that filter out background noise while amplifying meaningful sounds. The two hearing aids, left and right, communicate with one another! And they store data – my clinician was able to download data from my first month of use and told me precisely how long I had used the devices each day, with the data recorded and later used by the company to constantly improve the algorithms.  

   Digital hearing aids are over a decade old. But I believe that there have been major breakthroughs recently in the hardware and algorithms.   I can now hear birds singing. I can hear my students’ questions. I can hear music – a concert by Joshua Bell, violinist, was amazing. I can hear my small grandchildren when they speak to me. I can hear the TV and radio. My Phonak hearing aids are life-changing.

     So, I want to inform readers who may have hearing loss or impairments, especially older ones — waste no time. These new high-tech devices are incredible. They will change your life. They changed mine.   Go for it!

What If Technology Does Destroy Jobs?

By Shlomo Maital


Larry Summers

   Larry Summers was Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, President of Harvard, and is one of the world’s top macroeconomists. In a recent New York Times article on how technology is disrupting the world, the author recalls how Summers spoke in November at a conference, about his undergraduate days at MIT in the 1970s. Nobel Laureate Robert Solow made the case then that new technology boosts productivity and overall creates jobs, employment and wealth. Sociologists at the time responded that new technology often destroys jobs and wealth.

   “It sort of occurred to me,” Summers recalled, “suppose the ‘stupid’ people (sociologists) were right, and the ‘smart’ people (economists) were wrong. What would it look like?   Well – pretty much how the world looks today.

     Uber is eliminating taxi-driver jobs. Internet news is destroying print journalism jobs. Digital education will soon eliminate my job (as professor).   Long ago, software made the entire mid-level managers’ jobs (focused on processing and interpreting data) redundant. Add to that globalization and world trade, which led America to outsource its manufacturing to Asia.  

       What if technology really does eliminate jobs? What if, like Finland and Switzerland, we will need to consider providing a basic minimum living wage for everyone, when unemployment becomes widespread? (The referendum in Switzerland on this idea was soundly defeated…but nonetheless, the mere fact it happened is important).   What if in future, work itself will be a huge privilege and a luxury, granted only to a very few highly skilled, highly productive people who somehow are not made redundant by very smart machines?  

       The late MIT Dean and Professor Lester Thurow, who passed away recently, liked to say that sociology trumps economics. If sociology is about how people live and work together, and economics is about how money and capital procreate and proliferate,   then surely he was right. Perhaps it is time that economic policy should be shaped by the sociologists.

Beyond Moore’s Law: Vacuum Tubes?

By Shlomo Maital

  vacuum tube

Vacuum tube

   Sometimes, you can innovate by going back to the future. Take, for instance, the transistor. They are getting ever smaller, and more and more of them are packed into a microprocessor.   Semiconductor companies like Intel now work in 10 to 20 nanometer dimensions (a DNA strand is about 2.5 nanometers).   Below 10 nanometers, who knows how silicon will behave?  At those dimensions, it starts to emit light and becomes very flexible.

   Almost half a century ago, Intel founder Gordon Moore stated his famous law, that the number of transistors that could be etched into silicon wafers would double every 18 months or so. This has held true, remarkably. But it seems we are approaching the limit of Moore’s Law. The smaller transistors get, the more they leak electrons. This causes wasted power (up to half the power consumed by microprocessors is lost when electrons leak), and generates a lot of heat, which in turn requires massive cooling.

     Dr. Axel Scherer, a Caltech scientist, is working on a solution. He and two students have gone back to the vacuum tube. Vacuum tubes (“valves” in Britain) are devices that control electric currents between electrodes in an evacuated container;   electrons are emitted from a hot filament or a cathode heated by the filament. They are big, clunky and creating the vacuum is costly. But Scherer creates tiny tubes of metal, able to turn flows of electrons on and off between four very tiny probes. What is neat about this is that you do not need to use silicon, and the very ‘leakage’ of electrons that bedevils tiny transistors actually is the basis of the nano-vacuum tube substitute for transistors.    It reminds me of Dov Frohman’s invention of flash memory.  He was asked to solve a problem of stray electrons on the surface of silicon microprocessors, solved it, but realized you could make use of those electrons, as a way to store information.  Flash memory is now ubiquitous. 

   Could these tiny vacuum tubes help us keep Moore’s Law in business? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, think about other old technologies that can be adapted to create massive value in new ways.

   Source:   “Shrinking computer chips, thanks to grandma’s radio tubes”. NYT, John Markoff, Monday June 6, 2016

Tzameret Fuerst: Pass It Forward!

By Shlomo Maital

Tzameret Fuerst    PrePex

            Tzameret Fuerst                               PrePex

   Tzameret Fuerst is a highly-popular Israeli inspirational speaker, who travels the world telling her story.   Here it is, in short.

     She read about how HIV/AIDS is killing millions in Africa. In Botswana, one in every four persons has HIV.   Unlike the rest of us, she decided to act. She read about WHO research showing that circumcision greatly reduces exposure to HIV, by 70%, because removing the foreskin takes away the HIV virus’ favorite place to hide and invade (foreskin cells are sensitive, prone to abrasions and cuts, easy for the virus to invade). But so what? There is no way we can circumcise millions of African men.

     Well – why not?   Fast forward. Fuerst started Circ MedTech and tackled the problem with passion, and her company developed PrePex. PrePex is a device placed on the penis, that cuts off blood circulation to the foreskin; within a week it drops off. Simple. It has four parts: A placement ring; an elastic ring; an inner ring, and a verification thread. A nurse can install it; no need for surgery or a doctor. It has FDA approval and today, the Gates Foundation, WHO and the World Bank plan to get the device to 20 million men, saving 3.4 million lives and some $16.5 billion.  

     A crucial milestone came when Fuerst, stalled in her efforts to disseminate PrePex, got on a plane and flew to a conference she knew was attended by Bill Gates. She approached him, said “ May I have a few moments of your time, outside?”. Gates agreed. She persuaded him to cut the red tape and help move PrePex forward.

     There is a very personal angle. Fuerst divorced her husband, who was Chair of her company. She felt that as CEO she could not continue, as a result. So she resigned, for the good of the company and its device. She now travels the world, gave a TED talk, and tells her story to inspire others.

     How many of us can say that our energy, persistence, empathy and creativity have saved millions of lives?   Thanks, Tzameret. Your name, in Hebrew, means “summit” or “top”. And you are.


If Only Humans Were Like Trees!

By Shlomo Maital


Prof. Dan Chamowitz

    “A person is like a tree in the field,

       Like us, trees grow,

         Like trees, we are sometimes cut down,

         And I don’t know where I’ve been or where I’m going,

       Like a tree in the field.”


   This poem, by Israeli poet Natan Zach, and sung by Shalom Hanoch, raises a question. Are people truly like trees? Because today we know that trees communicate and work to help each other thrive.   Do we humans?

     Dan Chamowitz, Dean of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, wrote a wonderful book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. (2012).   “Plants can communicate like people,” he notes. “What does that say about us human beings?”

       What it says is: We should be more like trees.

       A BBC report on this research notes that trees have an Internet, comprised of fungi – thin threads that link the roots of plants deep underground, known as mycelia. This fungal network “helps out the neighbors by sharing nutrients and information, or sabotaging unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals”. It’s the “wood wide web”, says the BBC. “Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficient relationships with fungi.” Why? Plants provide fungi with carbohydrates. Fungi, in turn, help plants suck up water and provide “nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen….fungal networks also boost their host plants’ immune systems by triggering release of defense-related chemicals”.   Plants do business with one another. Douglas fir and paper birch trees transfer carbon between them, through the mycelia.

     Darwin through trees are like individuals, competing for surval. But they are not. “They are interacting with each other, trying to help each other to survive,” notes Prof. Suzanne Simard, UBC Canada.

     This raises two key questions. First, capitalism. Is capitalism built on greed, on individual ‘survival of the fittest’? Because if it is, it is a gross distortion of how ‘survival of the fittest’ works in Nature.  “Let’s work together for mutual benefit,” say the trees. Perhaps that is true capitalism.

     Second: Ecosystems. Plants and trees have evolved complex highly-sophisticated ecosystems, based on mutual synergies and collaboration. We humans seem to be busy, first, destroying the fragile ecosystems of Nature, and second, destroying our own fragile social ecosystems, neighborhoods, communities and families, that build social capital.

     Humans are less and less like trees of the field. And it’s a shame.



No Money & Late Start: Go for It!

By Shlomo Maital

Saatva Ron Rudzin


The International New York Times’ Dealbook section today (June 3) tells about Ron Rudzin, who worked in the furniture business from the age of 16, becoming VP of national sales for a sofa company. When he left Jennifer Furniture, he decided to start his own business. His vision: Sell American-made high-quality coil-based mattresses online, for a fraction of the cost of the price retailers charged for store-based brands.

     Saatva means “truth” in Sanskrit. It became profitable after its first three months,   in 2010.   Sales were $2 m. in 2011, and $76 million in 2015.   In 2018 Rudzin projects sales of $275 million.

     What do we learn? First,   becoming an entrepreneur can be done as a second career, after a long first career.   That way, you start a business with substantial domain knowledge and contacts, which very young entrepreneurs often lack.

       Second – bootstrap. Rudzin took $350,000 of his own money, wrote a business plan in 2007 and began to form his online mattress company.

   “People who raise money, rather than be self-funded, tend to spend wildly because it’s other people’s money and they throw a bunch of stuff on the wall and see what sticks. I don’t do it that way,” Rudzin said. “I might go a little slower but in the end I believe I win.”  It took him from 2007 and a business plan to 2010 to launch.  Slow and steady wins the race.

     Bootstrap, and start late. It’s possible, because chances are, when you retire, you can scrape together a not-insignificant sum of savings. Start late, because when you do, you will know a lot more about the industry in which you want to be an entrepreneur. You can spend 20-30 years just identifying a need and an opportunity and validating it.

     Rudzin’s company provides full service – experts install the mattress, a service that buyers love. He knew this was key, because of his industry experience. Not everyone would have that insight.

   Boostrapping enables you to retain control of your destiny.   When you use VC funding, after initial, A and B rounds, the founder often has his shares so diluted that the VC controls the Board – and can fire the founder and boot him out. This has happened a lot. It even happened to Steve Jobs.

   People in the future are going to live a lot longer. So we seniors should consider entrepreneurship as a possibility for a 2nd or 3rd career. Gray-haired entrepreneurs can change the world, even if they use canes and hearing aids.      

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
June 2016