TEL AVIV, Israel—Around the time General Motors was killing brands, slashing jobs and closing plants as it spiraled toward bankruptcy, its top executives placed a bet on a little-known corner of the automotive world that's now paying dividends.
GM opened a technical center in the Israeli coastal city of Herzliya in 2008, a year before its Chapter 11 reorganization, becoming the first major auto maker to secure a foothold in what's become an oasis for mobility startups on a par with Silicon Valley.
"They understood this was the future of the company," Gil Golan, a GM lifer who lobbied for the Advanced Technical Center and now is its executive director, said in an interview. "It was like a baby."
Since GM, dozens of auto makers and Tier 1 suppliers—including BMW, Hyundai, Bosch and Lear—have opened similar centers in Israel to tap into the talent there. Ford Motor Co., which acquired Israeli computer vision company SAIPS in 2016, formally opened its own research and development center in Tel Aviv last week.
The boom is driven by culture and necessity.
Near-universal conscription into the Israel Defense Forces has instilled a sense of maturity and leadership among Israeli entrepreneurs. And many autonomous technologies, from cybersecurity systems to radar and lidar sensors, have their roots in military applications.
The culture that encourages risk-taking, local leaders say, stems from a historical lack of natural resources and an ingrained belief that Israelis can overcome challenges by creating something where nothing exists.
"We go after the impossible," Golan said. "This is how we're educated from childhood."
While the country produces talent in multiple areas, the auto industry has become a major player in recent years.
Since 2013, some $6 billion has been invested in high-tech mobility startups, according to data from EcoMotion, a nonprofit that launched an annual mobility conference in Tel Aviv that year. Since then, the number of mobility startups has exploded to 644 from 87, organizers say. They make up about 10 percent of the country's total startups.
"We're becoming this mobility hub that everyone comes to brainstorm, test and develop," Orlie Dahan, EcoMotion's executive director said. "You can Skype and fly in from time to time, but there's nothing like being close and on the ground."
Next to Apple
That's the message Golan lobbied to GM's top brass even as the company hemorrhaged cash in the depths of the Great Recession.
The auto maker had been scouting in the region since the late 1990s, but having a physical presence before many competitors helped GM attract top talent—and keep it after rivals followed suit.
The site today has roughly 350 employees—mostly computer scientists and electrical engineers—in 50,000 square feet of office space. It expanded to a second location a few blocks away in late 2017.
The new building features a trendy ground-floor cafeteria and two levels of open office space. Meeting rooms bear the names of famous inventors, including da Vinci, Newton and Curie.
The site is next to offices for 1,700 employees of Apple, near Amazon and about half a mile from Microsoft, all of which are looking for similar talent, Golan said.
GM workers there help develop sensor hardware and are directly responsible for multiple innovations in vehicles today, including a map on the myChevrolet app for users of the Bolt electric vehicle that shows how far the car can take them and nearby charger locations. The team also was responsible for the OnStar app interface in Europe.
"This is my startup," Golan said of the company's Israel operations. "I'm building something from scratch. The auto industry has a great story to tell. We're impacting society, and (workers) want to be part of something big."