At 78, Benny Landa is still ambitious, but also worried

Benny Landa  credit: Miguel Gutierrez
Benny Landa credit: Miguel Gutierrez

The restlessly inventive Landa, with huge successes to his name (and some failures), wants to contribute 2% to Israel's GDP, but warns: If our economy collapses, so will our defense.

Benny Landa, one of the founding fathers of Israeli high-tech, had been waiting many years for this moment. He was back at Drupa, the largest printing equipment exhibition in the world, held every four years in Düsseldorf, where the cream of the global printing crop can be found, and preparing to present his wares.

The printing industry has lost glamor lately, being far from the big money of cyber and artificial intelligence. Still, before the exhibition, which the other week, Landa was energized. Now, 23 years after selling Indigo to HP, and 16 years after founding Landa Digital Printing, he could finally breathe easy, and present commercial success to his professional peers.

After a launch that was delayed for years, and after a change in management that resulted in the appointment of the current CEO, Gil Oron, Landa was able to announce that the company had sold 60 large-format printers over the past year. "Globes" estimates that these sales were worth over $100 million in revenue. If Landa Digital Printing continues at its current pace, sales will cross the $1 billion revenue mark within three to four years. "The market potential is $35 billion, and we haven't even scratched the surface yet," says Landa in an interview with "Globes."

Landa Digital Printing's large-format printing machines are the biggest in the industry. At 20 meters long, and weighing 35 tons, each unit sells for amounts ranging from $3.5 million to $4 million. "It's basically a mobile printing house," says Landa. The machines are based on a unique invention, a Landa brain-child. While ordinary ink dampens and distorts paper during the printing process, Landa’s new printer injects nano-pigments - ultra-small color particles - that lay down a completely dry image on the paper. The Landa printer is competitive with conventional printing machines, and is considered efficient and inexpensive for high-volume printing.

Beyond presenting his commercial accomplishments in Germany, Landa also had the opportunity to meet old friends and colleagues. Despite knowing one another for decades, they had never discussed politics, but even the printing industry cannot be completely blind to current events. Since October 8, 2023, Landa’s Rehovot-based plant has printed, free of charge, posters demanding the release of the Israelis held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Not long ago, Landa also learned that some of his customers were printing signs calling to "free Palestine" "From the river to the sea" on machines he had sold them. "We can't tell our customers what to print and what not to print," he says. "But the fact that this war is affecting all industries and penetrating everywhere is shocking."

"Never taken government money"

Landa was born 78 years ago in Poland to Holocaust survivor parents, who emigrated from a displaced persons camp where they were placed after the war to Edmonton, Canada. He acquired his love for printing in his father's tobacco shop, where he helped operate a small photo booth outfitted with a passport camera his father had built from scrap materials. He was captivated by the ability to print the photograph directly on paper, without the need for film, and began experimenting with chemicals to improve the quality of the images.

Later, after immigrating to Israel in 1977, he founded Indigo with the idea of enabling print shops to print directly via computers to color digital printers. Up until that point, printing was an expensive process, characterized by heavy machinery. In 1993, he introduced the world's first digital printer, and shook up the industry. Even now, almost every hard-copy photo album of a family event or vacation is printed on an Indigo machine. In 1994, Indigo was among the first Israeli companies to be floated on Nasdaq, raising $100 million, and in 2002 it was sold to HP for $830 million, most of it in HP shares whose value increased over years, giving Landa a net worth of $1 billion-plus.

Landa may have sold Indigo, but he still presides over a business empire. Landa Digital Printing is only one of a large network of companies owned by the serial entrepreneur, of which only parts have been revealed to the media. "We are a group that focuses on very deep technology in the complex world of materials. Each product we choose to develop usually takes eight, ten, twelve, sometimes fifteen years before it reaches the market. It took sixteen years from the founding of the printing machine company (Landa Digital Printing) to launch a machine that was good enough. I have never taken government money or funding from external investment funds - and this has an advantage: no one comes up to you and asks what you're doing. Everything is kept secret. It’s a bunker. And honestly, what kind of an investor would be willing to wait fifteen years until launch? That's why the public doesn’t really know about most of our companies."

Products in all colors of the rainbow

Although he usually keeps things "in the bunker," Landa provides a rare glimpse into an empire that currently employs 1,600 people, holds a thousand patents, and spans a wide and varied range of products and colors: from heavy printing machines to solar panels, diamonds to hair color and straighteners, pharmaceuticals to printing on beer foam, and producing salt for snack foods.

About half of Landa's employees are employed by Landa Ventures, an investment fund that is invested in ten technology companies working on special materials that have the potential to develop into products with large markets. Within the group are, for example, public companies GenCell, which develops green hydrogen fuel cells, and Highcon, which has developed a machine for more efficient cutting of folding carton and corrugated cardboard packaging for supermarket products. The group also includes private companies with a lower public profile, such as Ripples, developer of a platform for printing on coffee and beer foam, and Evigence, a manufacturer of smart stickers that indicate food product freshness.

The other half of the group’s staff are employed by Landa Labs, the group's science innovation and incubation center, which develops technologies to the proof-of-concept phase and, as soon as the product matures, sells them to popular foreign brands or takes them public. Each company is held by Landa along with a changing partnership roster of veteran investors, with whom he has worked for decades. The Landa Labs group previously held three companies that were sold to European international brands for an amount estimated by "Globes" at around half a billion dollars in total. The best known of these is ColoRight, developer of an AI-based tool that scans hair to determine a custom dye, that can be paired with another tool to create the color for "printing" on hair, which was sold to cosmetics company L'Oreal.

Solar energy is a surprising offshoot of Landa's long-time obsession. For years, Landa dreamed of printing solar cells to produce clean electricity. As early as two decades ago he tried doing this with Exjet, a company he co-founded that failed in its original mission, and ultimately changed its focus to 3D printing. Landa, aided by several former Exjet employees, went on to found Lumet Technology, which just last month launched solar panels with conductors printed on a printer developed by Landa and his group of scientists. At Drupa, Lumet announced that Korean solar panel manufacturer Qcells would adopt the Israeli solution. Qcells is one of the few non-Chinese solar panel manufacturers, and this deal challenges China’s domination of the solar panel market.

"If I'm right, we'll save the planet"

Although it sounds like it, it isn’t always sunny in Landa's kingdom, and he hasn't been able to fulfill all of his dreams. One dream was related to a strange feature he noticed back in his Indigo days: the particles of pigment ejected from the printer held an electric charge, for some unknown reason. Landa saw this not only as a potential gold mine, but also something that could possibly bend the laws of physics and generate electricity from heat at a low temperature.

"Indigo had electrically charged pigment particles and in all our years of work, no one could satisfactorily explain the reason why. I spent hundreds of hours staring at these particles under a microscope. One night, I woke up at three o'clock, woke my wife up, and said to her: 'Do you see? This is why they're charged with electricity! If I'm right, we can save the earth - we can convert heat at a low temperature into electricity.'"

Landa met with a great deal of skepticism from his inner circle. In fact, many of the scientists he consulted suggested that the idea contradicted the second law of thermodynamics, according to which heat always flows from a hotter body to a cooler one, never the other way around. In the patent filed in 2008, Landa revealed the development target, describing a chip that absorbs heat from its environment and converts it into electrical energy, and can thus operate any electrical device, from telephones to computers to electric cars.

"This was one of my biggest dreams and one of the motivations for selling Indigo to HP, so that I could focus on saving the planet. We hired the best physicists, the best chemists, and mathematicians, and we worked for fourteen years on this technology - that's how the Landa Labs group actually came about. At a certain point we concluded that it would never be efficient enough to justify the huge investment, and we stopped the project."

But out of the colossal failure and fourteen "wasted" years of work, the opportunity arose to return to the world of printing. The electrical product had required Landa Group to locate a suitable supplier of nanoparticles, and as they could not find one, they produced it themselves. "Because I came from the printing industry, I told my scientists, 'One day, maybe, we'll try them on printing. That's how we discovered nano-pigments, and their amazing optical properties. I had no choice. In the end, I had to go back to the world of printing, after I thought I would leave this industry forever."

Another challenge was his subsidiary, Lusix, which developed its technology for lab-grown diamonds production at the company's factories in Rehovot and Modi'in. Landa invested millions of dollars out of his own pocket, almost exclusively, until he brought fashion brand corporation LVMH, owner of Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, into the investor group. However, after raising capital at a valuation of approximately $400 million dollars, Lusix ran into a cash flow crisis, and Landa had to make an emergency fundraising round, and give up a significant part of his shares.

"The company produces the highest quality lab-grown diamonds in the world, and also does so in a completely environmentally friendly way. But two years ago, Indian diamond polishers began flooding the market with very cheap diamonds, and the wholesale price of lab-grown diamonds dropped by 80% within a year. Perhaps we are the most efficient producers in terms of kilowatt of electricity per unit, but India has cheap labor, cheap electricity, and cheap government money in the form of grants. For us, these factors are all very expensive and challenging.

"Israel used to be the leader in diamond polishing, until it decided that our workers were too expensive and brought Indian workers here, who learned the polishing craft very well. In the end, they returned to India, and when our industry shut down, they bought the equipment from us, and continued to grow." Landa says that Lusix is now in the process of moving into semiconductors for high-voltage hardware, as diamonds are among the best heat conductors available, and can cool, for example, artificial intelligence server farms which emit extremely high levels of heat. "We will continue to produce diamonds, but it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain this sort of industry in Israel, with its high costs."

"An existential threat to Israel's economy"

Landa talks about the difficulty of maintaining the diamond industry in Israel, but in recent months his other industries have also encountered unexpected difficulties. Before Landa sold Indigo, back in in 2002, he received a commitment from the buyer, HP, that it would continue to invest in Israeli research and development, and production. "The idea is that the company's economic contribution to Israel has a much farther reach than just to the 3,000 employees. It also reaches contractors, importers, infrastructure. In fact, Indigo is directly responsible for half a percent of Israel's GDP. But I'm not satisfied with that: I tell my employees that we need to develop a real Israeli industry, factories that will produce 2% of Israel's GDP, and in my lifetime - so they work faster."

Now, he is not at all certain that it will be possible. When Landa wanted to establish a new factory in Israel for one of the Landa Labs projects, a synthetic salt company, for production of Lot-brand snacks, (as first revealed by "Globes"), he was given some straightforward advice. "Not long ago, I had a conversation with one of the potential European distributors of the product. He told me: 'If you think you're going to produce it in Israel - forget it, Israel is becoming a pariah state'. It was shocking. And this was said by a senior, credible, and highly knowledgeable person. We are in a very sensitive spot right now, and anyone who thinks that what’s happening now is not the biggest threat to Israel's economy, is wrong."

How serious do you think this threat is?

"If the economy collapses, if we lose our exports, if we don't have industry that can find investors and customers, the defense of the State of Israel will also collapse. There’s no comeback for an army in a poor country. Therefore, what is happening now is an existential threat to Israel in economic terms. The root of the problem is that we don’t see the conflict the way the rest of the world does. We are so traumatized, and they don't identify with that at all. Why? Because the whole world sees what we don't see, which are the women and children in Gaza, the corpses, and children being buried. "

How do you solve a problem when you are always guilty whatever happens?

"Today, the antisemites have enough ammunition. They will have justifications and reasons, but we cannot continue to act they way we have till now. The fact is that, even without what happened in Gaza, we cannot continue to be occupiers of another people forever. This is not a small enclave of 100 thousand people; it’s 5 million Palestinians. If we continue to hold them for much longer, in the end there will be no way to separate the Palestinian national identity from the Israeli national identity - Israel will become a state that none of us wants it to be, which is a bi-national Palestinian-Israeli entity. The world will not allow us apartheid. There is no other solution but to recognize that the Palestinians should have their own identity, just as we sing in our national anthem, to be a free nation in their own land.

"There has to be a fundamental long-term shift in the way we perceive ourselves in this part of the world. There must be a separation. If there is no separation, there will be an Israeli-Palestinian state. Then what will we do? Compete over who can have more babies, and be the majority? That’s suicidal."

What are you doing about it?

"I used to be active in the organization BTI ('Breaking the Impasse'), which works for dialogue between the two peoples, but as soon as I realized that Netanyahu had backed out of his promises in his Bar Ilan speech, and was the Netanyahu of Smotrich and Ben Gvir, I gave up trying to influence the government. I’m not involved in politics, and I’m not involved in anything besides increasing the employment rate in high-tech and Israeli industry. My goal is to contribute 2% to Israel’s GDP, but the ability to grow has been damaged, so I don't know if we will reach that level in my lifetime."

"The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange lacks patience"

Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Landa is intimately familiar with global antisemitism. As someone who grew up in central Canada, he can testify that Jewish life was not easy. "The largest immigrant population in Edmonton was of Ukrainians, Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians - and they were all antisemitic. This is one of the reasons I could never relate to being Canadian. Every Easter, we saw swastikas and the Star of David on the windows. I'm not surprised that Canada is becoming an anti-Israel and openly antisemitic place."

Let's talk about the 3D printing industry. This is a large market in which you have never operated in any significant way, aside from with Exjet, which turned to it after not succeeding with its solar product. At the same time, we are seeing 3D printer stocks deflating, and the market is in a state of low-priced mergers and acquisitions.

"The 3D printing industry was over-valued. At first, people thought that it would replace large parts of manufacturing industry, which is estimated at $12 trillion, but the problem is that the basis of the technology as it exists today does not allow fast enough printing to be sustainable. These companies can’t compete with injection, machining, and casting, so they focus on exotic niches like ceramic teeth or rocket engines. They have not reached, and will not reach, the big markets like automobiles and consumer products. I too have sobered up from this dream."

Finally, some of your companies, such as GenCell and Highcon, are traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, but their shares have crashed. Is the TASE still the place for you to take companies public?

"I came to the conclusion that Landa Group companies were not suited to the Israeli stock market. Our companies develop products for ten to fifteen years. It takes time for them to mature, but the Israeli investor is impatient by nature, and wants to see quick results. If it doesn't happen within two or three years - they kill the stock. GenCell and Highcon can be giants in their fields, but the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange is not the most patient place."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on June 18, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Benny Landa  credit: Miguel Gutierrez
Benny Landa credit: Miguel Gutierrez
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