If Chemi Peres has one regret, it’s that he didn’t travel enough or live abroad for an extended period of time. The 61-year-old son of the late Israeli president Shimon Peres, a prominent figure in Israel’s tech ecosystem and chairman of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, says travel and knowledge of other cultures and languages “contribute to a better society and a better world.”
While this wanderlust is unrelated to the global coronavirus pandemic currently upending life as we know it here in Israel and across the world, Peres does say that more travel would have afforded him the opportunity to better promote his most important message — the power of collective innovation.
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And that is exactly what the world needs at this moment, he tells NoCamels in a phone interview earlier this month.
“There is a lot of power in our ability to innovate and in our ability to be entrepreneurs and to change the world for the better. We are transitioning from an old world where greatness and strength and wealth came from the land and from natural resources, to a new era where the source of power, the source of greatness, is coming from brainpower, from the mind,” he explains.
Entrepreneurs all over the world must now tap into this ability to “collectively address the global threat that is taking the place of wars,” Peres urges. There is a great need currently for global collaboration surrounding the coronavirus, “how to contain the pandemic and how to innovate in order to solve it. It a classic reflection of the new era that we see.”
No single country can address the pandemic separately without collaboration from other countries, he says, just like “nobody can deal with climate change by themselves; it’s a new age.”
Peres may not have traveled as much as he would have liked – and there’s no telling when he might be able to in the near future – but he has seen and done a great deal, with a career that spans aerospace, technology, and finance. He co-founded Pitango Venture Capital in 1996, a firm that has invested in some 250 global high-tech companies, including disruptive Israeli-firms such as Via, Taboola, AppsFlyer, Drivenets, and DouxMatok. He sits on the board of directors of a number of those companies. Over the years, Pitango has become one of Israel’s largest VC firms to date, and recently raised $250 million in a second growth fund during a global crisis
“We believe that even during the turbulent times of Coronavirus, keeping a long-term strategy and investing in exceptional teams, will enable [us] to keep building big companies out of Israel,” Pitango announced in a Facebook post last week.
Peres has also served as the chairman of the executive committee of the Peres Center for Peace, first established in 1996 by his father Shimon Peres – the Nobel Prize-winning elder Israeli statesman who advocated for peace with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors, one of the architects of the country’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and a former prime minister and president. The center rebranded as the Peres Center for Peace And Innovation after the establishment of an innovation wing for Israel, one of Peres’ flagship projects before his passing in 2016 at 93. Shimon Peres was a champion of Israeli technologies and Israeli startups.
The innovation center officially opened its doors in October 2018 in an inauguration ceremony attended by diplomats and executives from across the world. Last year, the center welcomed more than 75,000 guests from around the world — including government representatives, business leaders, founders, and members of the public — who wanted to learn from the Israeli innovation model.
The visitors’ wing highlights Israeli innovation through the ages, drawing on advanced technologies for highly visual platforms and interactive displays showing life-changing, cutting-edge tech developments. The center also hosts an exhibition of products or services from ground-breaking Israeli firms and runs innovation programs that draw from Israel’s diverse communities.
Last fall, the Peres Center partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Israel’s Interior Ministry to expand a program that would establish new innovation hubs in 12 Israeli cities. The program allows mayors to fund in-house innovation teams that investigate complex local challenges and design solutions with clear goals to improve citizens’ lives.
For his efforts, Chemi Peres was recently named the recipient of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s 2020 Reinhard Mohn Prize, named after the
German-born international entrepreneur and philanthropist and awarded bi-annually to “an internationally renowned individual who has played a key role in developing forward-looking solutions to social and political challenges.”
“It is his outstanding efforts to promote innovation that serves both business and society” as well as his “leading role in shaping the discourse on innovation and its positive potentials” that earned him the prize, the foundation said in February. There are initial hopes to open a branch office of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Berlin, the foundation added.
The award ceremony is set to take place in September.
Here is our full interview with Peres where he talks about the prestigious prize, the global need for social cohesiveness, and his father’s legacy. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
NoCamels: What does it mean to you as a representative of Israeli innovation to win this prestigious award?
Chemi Peres: First of all, it’s a very prestigious award and I was very surprised and very honored to be the recipient. I know that it’s an opportunity for me to share with the audience and the public the work that we do at the Peres Center For Peace and Innovation and talk about the true things that are actually related to this award.
One of them is to – of course – promote innovation to as many people as possible the idea that the world is becoming much more innovative and there is a lot of power in our ability to innovate and in our ability to be entrepreneurs, to change the world for the better. But also, the other aspect is the fact that it is an opportunity and a challenge for social cohesiveness because when the world is moving so fast forward, lots of people are unable to catch up and they are left behind. And this is becoming one of the biggest challenges of humanity in our generation.
And that is a very tough transition, which also calls for a change that if we fought amongst ourselves over the resources, now we can actually collaborate, enjoy the fruits of our brain, collectively and address the global threat[s].
And I think that the award is actually talking about these to things … on one hand, promoting innovation as a platform to change the world in a positive way, and at the same time to leverage it for social cohesiveness, to bring different parts of the societies to be participants, to be able to travel safely into a future, which is changing very rapidly. I take it as a good demonstration of the wonderful work that has been done at the center.
NC: What do you think can be done so that the high-tech industry CAN reach and benefit a larger sector of society and can hi-tech be a source to close some of the more widening gaps in Israel like in education and opportunity?
CP: Let me start by trying to set the stage a little bit differently. When we tell the story of Israel, we tell it as a story of innovation. What we say basically, is that in our short history of 70 years, one can identify five stages of innovation that brought us from pre-statehood until today.
I would say that the first stage was innovative thinking about how to re-establish or how to launch the state of Israel … how to bring a state for the Jewish people, how to create a very special society. The first part of our innovation relies on society and on culture, which is incorporated in the way we structured our national organization and systems.
The second part [was] when we started to affect the vision into reality and it all has to do with settling down; we needed to actually innovate in a few areas, the land was not sufficiently providing us with food and water and energy. As you know, Israel is a small country that has no water, it has swamps and deserts and we are not blessed with any oil reserves like many other countries in the Middle East. Or as my father used to say that in the Middle East, “you are either a holy country or oily country.” We are a holy country, and all the rest are oily countries. Later on, of course, we discovered gas in the sea but that’s much later.
So, this second part of innovation in our story is in agriculture, water and energy. This is why water dissemination came from Israel and this is why we developed drip irrigation and why we used solar energy to heat water. When we think about it, it all comes together to what we call sustainability. After we innovated for society and culture, including the revival of the Hebrew language, which by itself is an innovative approach, we stepped into sustainability.
The third phase of innovation is the phase of defense. As we were surrounded by hostile environments, isolated from the world, we had to defend ourselves and given the fact that we don’t have mountains, we don’t have oceans to protect us, we don’t have deep valleys, we don’t have stormy weather to slow down invaders (like we saw in the Second World War with Germany and Russia) we had to build a defensive shield.
It started with my father’s work on the nuclear facility in Dimona. It continued with the Israeli aerospace industry, cybersecurity), and all the way to the Iron Dome [Israel’s anti-missile system].
The fourth stage is what we call the Startup Nation, the creation of an economy. In 1984, our economy was imploding with an inflation rate of 444 percent. We had a socialist economy that could not be sustained. Then we changed our approach and we started building an economy based on technology, on high-tech and innovation. This has two components: one is to bring global enterprises to set up shop here [there are over 500 multinationals in Israel]. And at the same time encourage the young generation to start companies and export their brain powers through products and services. Today we have almost 7,000 companies at various stages and in various areas. All of them are trying to make a better world.
And now, we are entering the fifth generation of innovation and we ask ourselves what is going to drive innovation forward? Now that we are safe economically, now that we are safe militarily, we are going to drive innovation forward… to create a safer and better world.
I think that the young generation that we see today not only in Israel, but around the world, is a generation that cares about what they do. They care about the climate, they care about society. They want to work in companies that have a mission to make a better world. I think innovation will be driven not by necessity and not by military [needs], but by a sense of purpose.
No matter what you do, no matter what area you invest or no matter what technology you start your entrepreneurship journey, it needs to make sure that what you build has a positive human impact.
At the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, we are offering a new age of collaboration, a new age of what we call innovation affairs of working on a global basis, on sharing the knowledge and experience of Israel as an innovation nation, telling the story of how you can become a great nation based on your ability to innovate your ability to create entrepreneurship.
And we show the power of innovation and the power of entrepreneurship to make a better world, to make peace. We will have co-existence in our neighborhood, internally in Israel, but also between us and our neighbors. We are not a political platform, we are a co-existence, peace and innovation platform that looks at tomorrow as opposed to yesterday.
NC: Are there any industries or specific sectors where you think collaboration and inclusivity will thrive? Israel is already a tech leader in; where will the startup nation be in the next 10 years?
CP: If you look for example at healthcare and mobility, which are very large markets, and of course all the markets that relate to data. Transportation too. You want to make transportation much more affordable and you want to eliminate death and injuries and accidents as much as you can. So you can use machine vision tech, you can use artificial intelligence, you can use local technology platforms.
When you talk about healthcare, it’s all about outcome. It’s not about the procedures, but the end result. You want to focus on the positive end result and measure it and develop technologies that at the end of the day can prove a solution and address all the diseases and viruses and all the challenges that we are going to face.
Another area is energy. We need to save energy, we need to manage energy much more safely. We need to create and harvest energy in a much more efficient way. We need to make the energy clean, we need to make it renewable. All those things are already in process.
There’s also finance. How can we use the financial world to reduce poverty, increase sufficiency and have a better distribution of wealth around the world? You can actually work in every industry but you need to make sure that whatever you do is working along those lines and are seeking to improve the situation.
There are also some technologies that are not vertical, they are more horizontal. They touch a lot of industries like artificial intelligence that are becoming very pervasive, or like data. And here I think the most important thing is how to make information accurate, reliable, how to get away from fake news, and how to keep up with the right information that is positively adding to what we do. Not misleading us, not causing problems. How do we protect our privacy?
The empires of tomorrow are not necessarily nations, they are organizations; some of them are very large companies. We’ve entered an era of trillion-plus dollar empires that have the ability to impact the lives of billions of people. From Amazon to Facebook, to Microsoft and Chinese companies. You see the creation of a new generation of empires, new generations of leaders (that besides being business leaders are also entrepreneurs and innovators), they’re actually impacting the lives of human beings in a very significant way.
There is a new responsibility on their shoulders and their ability to impact our world, our empowerment, our society, are huge.
As I said previously, there’s also more inclusivity and more participation. Social cohesiveness is going to be also a major mission statement worldwide.
NC: You spoke about the horizontal application of technology and Israel has been very good at adapting to new fields and applying tech in new kinds of fields. Why do you think Israel is good at doing this?
CP: For three reasons. One is necessity. It is what drove us to where we are. I also get a sense from the ecosystem in Israel that people really want to make “tikkun olam,” they want to make the world better, they want to repair the world through their intentions and through their ideas to make our lives safer, more affordable, more accessible, more sustainable. I think it’s a set of values.
So, if you combine necessity plus values and you add the third ingredient which actually was contributed by my father, which says that the biggest contribution of the Jewish people to the world is dissatisfaction; they’re never happy with what they have. So if you combine the three of them, I think it makes us very creative and in addition to that, we have a very unique infrastructure through the Israeli defense forces and through the education systems that contribute to leadership, to thinking out of the box, being informal.
I think that now, in terms of innovation going forward, we need to have a reinforcement of our role in the world. When it had to do with software, communication, algorithms, semiconductors, all the way to cybersecurity, you would find that innovation was driven primarily by the defense industry.
Now we are entering a new layer of innovation coming up, such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence. Those will be driven less by necessity and less by the defense industry and more by research institutions and entrepreneurs with a mission statement for a better world.
They will look forward to the world of collaboration, they will look at the global threats that we are piling on by day from climate change to health pandemics, to movements of people around the world ( the mobility of people), especially when people look for better lives in other places around the world.
We have to deal with it collectively and together and what we offer at the Peres Center is to create “innovation affairs” as opposed to “foreign affairs.” Meaning: we need to reach out, we need to collaborate, we need to share information, we need to exchange ideas, we need to set joint targets, joint visions for the world, we need to focus on the future.
And one of the most beautiful incarnations of this is the 17 sustainable development of goals set by the United Nations, which are a source of inspiration, a source of coordination and more and more countries and more and more companies are adapting those ideas. We need to work together, as opposed to fighting each other.
NC: There are talks to open a branch of the Peres Center, maybe starting in Berlin. Is the purpose to build ties between countries and ecosystems?
CP: Yes, the idea is actually to connect Israel to other ecosystems, other cities, other countries, other cultures, other societies, to create a network of modes of collaboration. And to implement the vision, the legacy, of my late father.
We want to help societies open peace and innovation and coexistence and innovation centers to inspire the young generation about the opportunities and challenges of tomorrow. To inspire them to take initiative, to be entrepreneurs and innovate in every aspect of their life. They don’t have to be scientists. They can be people from different walks of life, but they have to have an innovative way of thinking.
So we want to see peace and innovation centers in Europe, Asia Pacific, in the US, Latin America, Africa, and of course in the Arab countries. And as a matter of fact, we are talking to different centers about this. It’s a non-profit organization that is going to be sponsored by private/public partnerships. It will be sponsored by local authorities, other municipalities or governments, together with big enterprises in those countries that want to build up innovation.
The first and foremost mission statement is to encourage entrepreneurship, innovation, and collaboration for making our world better, safer and more connected.
NC: One more question and it’s a more personal one: What are your proudest achievements and your biggest regret?
CP: [Laughs] I don’t think we have enough time to talk about my mistakes. In general, on a personal level, I would say that I did not have enough time to spend outside of Israel, for education, something that I feel I needed to do. I did spend a couple of years in Silicon Valley working there, but I think that what I call brain circulation – not brain drain – is something that I would have loved to enjoy a little bit more.
And I think that the fact that people can travel from one country to another learn other languages, and learn other cultures is contributing to a better society, a better world.