Exceptional, July - December 2015

Benny Landa:

Born in a panic

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After he invented digital commercial printing and sold his company to HP, Benny Landa could have retired to a beach anywhere in the world. But his passion for creation wouldn’t stay quiet, and he’s set on revolutionizing the printing world once again.

For Israeli start-up entrepreneurs dreaming of invention followed by a high-value exit, Benny Landa is an icon. More than a decade before Waze set a record with its billion-dollar sale to Google, Landa stunned his nation by selling his company to Hewlett-Packard for US$830m.

In the printing world, he’s just as much of a celebrity. Still, those from other sectors sometimes react with bemusement when he tells them he’s in printing. “You’re in steam engines,” says Landa, paraphrasing how they react to him. ”Haven’t you heard of the iPad? Printing is dead; it’s an old thing; why would anyone be in printing?”

Landa says these naysayers don’t realize the global printing market is worth US$900b a year, and it isn’t about to be usurped by screens. Packaging, he points out, accounts for almost half of all printing.

There’s no doubt the sector has been good to this energetic innovator. He invented the world’s first color digital printing press, the E-Print 1000, turning his company at the time, Indigo, into the prize HP snapped up in 2002.

Now he plans to change the face of the printing industry once more. He wants to usher in an era when your magazine will contain articles personalized to your interests, when catalog shoppers will only see clothes that suit them, and when every neighborhood café will have its cups and mineral water bottles branded with its own logo.

The “holy grail” of the printing industry, he says, is an EPID press that can rival traditional presses. EPID is shorthand for “every page is different,” and it’s the major benefit of digital printing, which is used for producing items like custom photo books and personalized direct marketing.

Digital presses hit the market when Landa launched the E-Print 1000 — but 22 years later, they are still significantly slower and print on smaller sheets than traditional presses. Thus, digital printing is more expensive for all but the shortest of jobs. Landa plans to change this with his next revolution in digital printing: Nanography.

In 2012, he took this technology to a trade show in Germany, showed seven prototype presses and left with US$1b worth of orders. Today, the first of his US$2.5m-plus machines whirs away in a facility near his office, undergoing final tweaks, and six more are in production, ready for beta shipment by the end of 2015.

“For the first time, you can print digitally at the speed of traditional printing, at the quality of traditional and at the cost of traditional,” he says.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however, with significant delays in preparing the presses, which were originally promised for delivery in early 2013. But new orders more than replaced the cancellations, and an injection of US$135m in 2014 by the German specialty chemicals group ALTANA, in return for an unspecified “minority” holding in Landa Digital Printing, is keeping the company’s finances intact.

Famously reluctant to take on investors, Landa says he is excited about ALTANA because it is a strategic partner — supplying raw materials — without also being a competitor.

A natural inventor
Landa has inventing in his blood. After spending his first years in a refugee camp in Germany with his Holocaust survivor parents, he moved with his family to Canada, where he stayed until he emigrated to Israel in 1974.

He is convinced his father, a tinkerer who built his own filmless machine for taking passport photos, could have been a prominent inventor had he not been so poor.

From that harrowing history came an educational fund run by Landa and his wife, Patsy, that gives opportunities to others of “privileged minds and underprivileged means.” He has so far spent more than US$50m to help both Jews and Arabs with limited means to study in Israel’s universities. “I grew up poor, and that never leaves you,” he says. Landa delights in the out-of-the-box thinking of Israeli scientists — he employs 200 researchers at his facility in the Rehovot Science Park — but admits to the challenge of managing many of them due to the “direct correlation” between intelligence and idiosyncrasies.

The key, he says, is not trying to tackle their quirks, but building on their strengths. His self-styled “egalitarian capitalism” determines his treatment of non-scientist staff, including janitors: they’re always direct employees, never contractors, and they and their spouses/partners are included in company events, including some foreign junkets.

Energy out of thin air
Landa has no financial need to continue innovating, but he doesn’t plan to stop. The Landa Group now works in a range of areas, from hair products to nano-metallic materials for printed electronics.

As if revolutionizing the printing market weren’t enough, Landa is also working on a project to conjure energy out of thin air. Power stations could start shutting their doors and climate change could be stopped in its tracks. It sounds like science fiction, simply too good to be true. But when its inventor holds 800 patents, you have to at least hear him out.

“We’re surrounded by low-temperature heat in the air,” Landa says excitedly. “If you could convert a tiny fraction of that low-temperature heat into useful electricity, you could power cars, mobile devices, homes — you could save the planet from global warming.” He estimates his ambitious project, now in its 14th year, will reach fruition in a relatively short time frame: 5 to 10 years.

Thermal energy is something Landa discusses with as much enthusiasm as he talks about any of his many works-in-progress. “When people have a certain drive, a passion for something that could be as an artist or a technologist, you have ideas and you have to see them through,” he says. “You have to see them work.”

But his desire to achieve goes deeper than this. “I was born in a panic,” he says, referring to the fact that his mother gave birth to him as a displaced person en route from Poland to a refugee camp near Munich after World War II. “My life is a panic, because the clock is ticking and I need to get so much more done than the time permits. I feel there’s so much I have to do and no time to do it.” Even now, he works 15-hour days.

“When you have a background like mine that shows how fragile life is, maybe this is a factor in trying to squeeze so much out of my time,” he says. “If you work 15 hours a day instead of 10, you squeeze a lifetime-and-a-half out of one lifetime.”