Investing in: Israel

Israel reaches for the skies and the moon

Ferry Biedermann; special to
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., is photographed walking near the Lunar Module during the Apollo 11 mission.
NASA | Getty Images

A telltale white plume streaked across the sky over Israel Monday morning, revealing the country's latest missile test. No announcement was made on what propulsion system was tested but experts say it was for an intercontinental ballistic missile or a missile defense rocket. Either way, it was a manifestation of Israel's activity in aerospace, a field in which it is developing significant new capabilities, including in the commercial sector.

The country has developed missile systems, such as the Jericho and the Shavit, which has been used to launch its own military satellites into space, anti-missile systems such as the Iron Dome and the Arrow, and is dominating the international export market for military drones.

One man who sits at the nexus of Israel's space and drone industries is Yariv Bash, co-founder of SpaceIL, the organization that seeks to put Israel on the moon, and CEO of drone startup Flytrex.

With the latter he's seeking to put into place complete solutions for automated drone delivery. While the former, SpaceIL, is a finalist, one of only five in the world, in Google's Lunar X Prize competition for a privately funded moon landing.

Bash spoke to CNBC about his passion for all things flying and how he expects the aerospace industry in Israel to develop.

"I like to say that I found other people to pay for my hobbies. Seeing something hover above you in the air or seeing a spacecraft leaving the atmosphere, these are two of the most amazing feats you can do as an engineer."

What does Flytrex do, what are you currently capable of?

"Our systems are capable of delivering up to three kilograms up to ten kilometers away. We can deliver everything. We have a complete system that allows you to drop packages from the air in a safe way, hovering at twenty meters above ground and lowering the package on a wire in a completely safe way that enables you to lower a package to someone."

Where Flytrex is currently seeking to operate, Bash will not divulge but he says that he expects that within the next quarter the company will be operating in an urban environment and he will seek a new funding round within the next few quarters. At the beginning of this year, Flytrex was reported to have raised $3 million from several angel and VC investors.

How do you see the Israeli drone and aerospace industries develop?

"It's like cyber[security]. Israel became a superpower when it comes to cyber startups because of the military capabilities and then you had personnel leaving the military and starting their own companies. I think it's a bit the same with the drone industry. We have a very successful military industry and drones are becoming more civilian. You see a lot of people leaving the military or the aviation industry today and beginning their own startups, joining other startups, to accomplish something on the industrial, commercial, civilian level."

How does Israel's international reputation in drones help Flytrex?

"I have to say that with our clients I haven't seen them think well, the Israelis are great in military drones so Flytrex might be a good company. I think it mostly helps, the reputation, when you approach government officials. If you want to fly in certain countries you need to be in contact with the local civil aviation authorities, like the FAA in the United States. I think that when it comes to that, most of the countries, most aviation authorities already know Israel as a drone exporter and they most likely went through Israeli documentation and have approved Israeli drones before. They're more familiar with Israel, which really helps when you start the process with them."

With SpaceIL you've had a setback (when SpaceX's Falcon rocket blew up in 2016, delaying SpaceIL's launch date and possibly ending its X Prize chances). What will that mean?

"It is rocket science, things sometimes explode and go off track. It did postpone a bit our efforts but we're building a spacecraft. It's amazing. Even if it's going to take a few more months than we anticipated, it's still an amazing project. In two months from now you'll be able to come to Israel and see the spacecraft being built. We'll be launching in 2018. We don't have a specific date yet but we're getting very close to the launch date, which is making things a lot harder and a lot more exciting."

So, SpaceIL will continue, even if it can no longer win the prize?

"For us it's all about Israel reaching the moon, planting out flag there and exciting the next generation… We're actually an education non-profit. Our main vision is impacting every kid in Israel... We'll be recreating something that in the '60s was called the Apollo effect. After the Apollo program kids went in increasing numbers to be scientists and engineers. Here in Israel that's our main vision and we're working to generate thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of new engineers for Israel a decade or two from now." SpaceIL is a $70 million program that has received much of its funding from two billionaire donors, Israel's Morris Kahn and the US's Sheldon Adelson, says Bash.

Will there be commercial spin-offs from SpaceIL?

That's why the Israeli space agency donated $1.5 million. They believe SpaceIL could sprout a new industry for Israel, just like the aviation industry or the civilian cyber industry. We're a non-profit. Once we go to the moon it will help our engineers and trainees to open up new companies and start new business, they will not be competing with us.

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