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Benny Landa's invisible ink

Calcalist supplement exposure: Behind doors of secret and windowless labs, some 150 super-engineers and theoretical physicists are laboring to invent nanometric ink that will bring world HD revolution of print

Naama Sikuler, Assaf Gilad
Published: 01.24.12, 08:29 / Israel Business

The offices in Benny Landa's company, the ones that face a view, resemble interiors of high-tech firms – three cubicles to a room with printed art on the wall. However, rather than systems engineers, they seat chemists and particle physics researchers.

 

The real difference begins at the other end of the corridor where the steel doors conceal windowless labs which lend their name to the company – Landa Labs.

 

It has been nine years, and still no one has a clue of what's going on behind the steel doors in Benny Landa's labs. All that is known is that one of Israel's most successful high tech entrepreneurs, who chalked up 700 patents to his name – more than any other Israeli – and perhaps the most revered name in the world of print technology, is working on something really big.

 

Landa is gathering around him a growing number of scientists, material scientists, chip architects and programmers; he's purchasing the kind of lab equipment that is hard to come by even in university research labs and he is cloaking the whole operation under an impermeable shroud of secrecy.

 

His employees are bound by confidentiality agreements and new recruits haven't a clue what they're being hired to do. Even his partners and investors are not privy to the goings on at the company. Unlike most entrepreneurs and businessmen, Landa is reaching into his own pocket to fund the entire project; his expenses in the past two years amounted to at least $40 million a year.

 

Calcalist supplement's exposure of the ambitious technological projects underway in the secured building comes at a rather inconvenient time for Benny Landa. Not that it'll put a spoke in his wheels but still, it's a bit premature.

 

He planned to launch his labs' first development – the one that's set to change the face of printing forever – in only three and a half months' time. But his final, most ambitious project has no deadline yet.

 

In an interview with the Calcalist supplement, Landa refused to comment on specific projects but did offer some insights into several aspects of his work.

 

Ink droplet the size of a germ

The print technology that Landa plans to unveil in May is expected to do for printers what HD did for TV screens: Landa developed an ink made of particles which are smaller than a germ and a printhead that can use the micro-droplets to print on virtually any material, producing sharp and rich images unparalleled by any manmade machine.

 

Landa believes that his printing technology will be far more economical than any other technology and far more durable thanks to the ink's color pigments the size of which is several nano-meters to several dozen nano-meters, or in other words – between one tenth and one thousandth the size of the ink droplets of today's printers.

 

Landa's technology is predominantly aimed at industrial uses such as billboard signs and traffic signs, packaging and equipment surfaces. In the future, he plans on further developing the technology for non-invasive topical administration of medicine and for the cosmetics and hair dye industry.

 

Those who are acquainted with Landa know that the current development is far from being his most ambitious project. In fact, it's not that different from the revolution he effected three decades ago, which is his claim to fame and fortune. In the 1980s, Landa invented the digital printing which today is used in the production of 10% of the 2.5 trillion items printed annually throughout the world.

 

The technology developed by Landa when he was with Indigo was a quantum leap in terms of print quality and it afforded industrial printers the flexibility of home printing by eliminating the need for printing blocks and plates and enabling last minute changes in print jobs.

 

The technology eventually bred print-by-order products such as personalized calendars, printed picture albums or encyclopedias by demand, to name just a few.

 

Eventually, Landa sold Indigo to HP which is now one of the print giant's most lucrative divisions. HP employees who formerly worked for Landa mentioned to Calcalist the amicable relationship Landa had with the staff at Indigo.

 

Reinventing electricity

Yet print technology is not the raison d'être of Landa Labs – that technology was a fluke en route to Landa's real dream which seemed light years ahead of its time and way too ambitious for an entire research center, not to mention a single entrepreneur.

 

If it were not for the prestige associated with Landa's name, the resources he has been investing in the project for the past nine years and the cadre of scientist he put together, he would be hard pressed to find anyone who would take him seriously.

 

Sources knowledgeable of the company's activity divulged that on the seventh floor of the company headquarters sit more than a few researchers, chemists and physicists from leading academic institutions the likes of the Weizmann Institute and Berkeley.

 

Landa's ambitious undertaking is no less revolutionary than the invention of the light bulb in the sense that he too, is searching for a way to turn heat into electricity. Most of the 150-strong staff of engineers and researchers is burning the midnight oil to come up with the breakthrough which will enable printers to convert ambient heat to energy rather than use expensive electricity.

 

"Landa Labs is possibly the only company which employs theoretical physicists. They usually work in the academia," a source knowledgeable of the company told Calcalist.

 

"The moment they sign their non-disclosure agreements and realize what they got themselves into, they grab their head and say 'what did I do? What kind of a crazy place is this?' But within a couple of weeks they become firm believers. This is a company which employs people who feel they're on a mission."

 

Enter the patent lawyers

The first to become privy to the activity in Landa Labs were five patent lawyers from a small law firm in London called Harrison IP who were asked to come to Israel without being told why.

 

Even when the limousine made its way from the airport to the company's headquarters, they still knew precious little aside from the fact that something big was brewing and that the client who paid their airfare is the father of digital printing.

 

Landa promised them they would not be disappointed; "You'll fall off your seats," he told them on the phone, "but after that, you have a lot of work ahead of you."

 

They met Landa, three members of his senior staff and three representatives from the Israeli patent law firm Erlich & Fenster. Their first order of the day was to file for the registration of a patent for Landa's first fully developed technology – the nano-pigment ink for which Landa allotted an entire floor at Landa Labs.

 

Landa, together with his staff, explained the technology to the lawyers in a meeting that lasted two days and put forth his request: the attorneys were to pen 50 detailed patent applications that would impenetrably protect the technology, and file them all at once on a seemingly impossible deadline in terms of the technology world.

 

"Benny Landa habitually delivers a blitz of patent applications," says a source knowledgeable of the company, "Even when it comes to complicated projects that last for years, the deadline is always rigid and tight and the patents are registered all together."

 

The reason for waiting for the last moment stems from Landa's demand for confidentiality. He doesn't take any risks, which is why he hardly registered patents in the nine years since he founded Landa Labs.

 

He preferred to develop and improve the technology deep in the bowels of his labs without legally protecting his intellectual property just to prevent outsiders from getting so much as a whiff of what was going on behind the closed doors, even the patent registrar.

 

The timing of the patent application was set by constraints: the quadrennial international print exhibition, Drupa 2012 will be held this May. The event hosts the world's largest print technology companies which take pains to unveil revolutionary developments at the show which is the print world's equivalent of Apple's conventions.

 

Sources close to Landa say that this is a onetime opportunity to unveil the print project that is intended mainly to finance the company's energy research. Landa even rented 1,500 square meters in the show grounds in which he plans to erect a 200-seat amphitheater and hold five daily presentations of his printer during the 13 days of the show.

 

He is thoroughly convinced that the innovative ink will be the only thing that the visitors will remember from the show and that the printing revolution will begin shortly after.

 

"HP Indigo is poised to become the world's leading printing company within three years. I'm very proud and don't feel that I'm competing with HP," Landa told Calcalist. "Regardless, digital printing is still marginalized on the global printing market and that's the market I'm aiming at. I want to take nano-pigment printing into the printing mainstream.

 

"All these years I would tell the guys at Indigo that we have the best technology but one day someone will come up with a better technology and that someone has to be us."

 

Landa and Soros sell high

Ben Zion Landa is the type of businessman Israel needs more of. He's different than you're run of the mill speculator – he did not inherit his fortune; rather, he turned rags into riches and from the sale of his company he made an empire.

 

"I'm a manufacturer that deals in exports, not a serial entrepreneur. Selling Indigo was not an exit for me but the sale of a dream to enable it to continue growing. That was my condition for the sale.

 

"Indigo has 2,500 employees in Israel and indirectly provides the livelihood of about 40,000 people; one company providing for a half a percent of the country's population. It's astounding and it's my vision with Landa Labs as well – to establish an industrial enterprise that will create more jobs in Israel."

 

Landa is the son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada where he developed his passion for printing while working at his father's photo store. He went to the London Film School and made his living in the print industry and began specializing in research and development.

 

He founded Indigo in 1977, the same year he moved to Israel, with a vision that was considered unrealistic at the time: the invention of digital color printers that would enable printing directly from computers.

 

The first PC was born only two year before. In those years, Landa established his signature method of operation: develop groundbreaking technology, protect it with a fortification of patents registered all at once and present it in a surprise unveiling after years of development. He employed this strategy with his Electro-Ink and the E-Print 1000 – the first computer-to-press printer.

 

After unveiling the E-Print 1000, George Soros acquire 14% of the company for $50 million, catapulting the company's market value to a whopping $350 million. A year later, Indigo became one of the first Israeli companies listed on NASDAQ.

 

In 2000, negotiations with Scitex fell through and HP stepped in to acquire 13.4% of the company for nearly $150 million, more than doubling its value to $750 million. Within a year, HP took over the company and HP's stock price doubled, probably increasing Landa's fortune to billions of shekels.

 

"Today I don’t take public money, not even from the Chief Scientist" Landa told Calcalist. "All of my funding comes from equity capital and even in Indigo we brought in investors only when I could no longer fund the company's activity. The employees sense my commitment and they are loyal to me as well."

 

Competitor across the road

Since the highly publicized exit, Landa has kept a low profile but remained highly active. He founded a VC investment fund called Landa Ventures and began investing in creativity-intensive developments such as hydrogen engines and silicon baby bottle nipples which gauge the amount of milk the baby consumes.

 

Landa is also one of Israel's 10 leading philanthropists and he dedicates nearly 1% of his fortune to the Landa scholarship fund.

 

Landa Labs began as a small nanotechnology lab and in time, developed into a company that occupies two highly secured floors in the heart of the Rehovot science park. His original dream was to develop the technology that would convert ambient heat into energy, joining the global quest for alternative energy sources.

 

In 2008, Landa uncharacteristically applied for a patent for Landa Labs, revealed here for the first time. The patent, that seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie, was for a chip that could be integrated into any electrically operated device and convert ambient heat into electricity.

 

The impression his associates had at the time was that Landa was determined to change the face of the electricity, automobile and battery industries.

 

Landa was rejected at first by the European patent registrar because his patent contradicted the second law of thermodynamics according to which heat will always travel from a cooler body to the warmer one. Since chips heat up, they would invariably give off heat rather than absorbed it from the air around them.

 

Finally, after an in-depth examination on part of the European Patent Office, Landa's patent was registered. During the examinations, the company stumbled upon a discovery that would lead to the invention of the new nano-ink.

 

"Without patents, I would not have had Indigo," says Landa after registering more than 700 patents. "My patents poured $200 million into Indigo but I no longer sell licenses. Nowadays, I have a different purpose which is to protect the technology. The process is well thought out. It's a strategy – I no longer run to register every idea that comes to mind."

 

Just before the 50 patents are registered, he decided to transfer the printing business to a company in his name, Landa Corporation, and to refocus Landa Labs on its original purpose. "Landa Labs is a better name for a research laboratory whereas commercial activity should carry a different name," he told Calcalist.

 

I'm still here

Three years ago, Landa uncharacteristically held a reception to inaugurate his new offices and thereby got the attention of the local business community. A source from the technology industry told Calcalist that he attended the reception in which the employees showed the guests some of the company's work stations.

 

"It seemed that Benny was trying to convey a message saying, 'I'm here. I'm researching and inventing. I haven’t fallen of the radar.' But it was clear that he's hiding far more than he had revealed. In fact, aside from explaining that they are working on nanometric developments and the application thereof, they divulged nothing. Landa kept on reiterating that he was a long distance runner."

 

Following that reception, Landa's counterparts in the business world learned that he registered no patents at all. Despite the shroud of secrecy, he held the reception and risked someone putting two and two together and beating him to the patent, but no one did. In the meanwhile, the decision not to bring in new investors and lawyers paid off.

 

Calcalist supplement also revealed that Landa offers his 250 employees conditions that are far better than those received by their counterparts in the industry, including high pay and a cafeteria that serves three meals a day. He knows the employees by name.

 

HP Indigo workshop employees recount that he was the only one who treated them kindly and knew them by name. Others say he was very strict and demanded weekly reports and follow ups.

 

Education and energy are the same

Landa Labs are gearing up for the May exhibition. New employees are being recruited and the company leased additional space at the industrial zone.

 

Over the recent months, the company has brought in dozens of engineers and developers, among them HP employees and employees from the foundering Kodak, including senior executives Koby Waldman from HP and Nir Zarmi from Kodak who were appointed VPs at Landa Labs.

 

"People switch over to Benny because he gives them a dream; he makes them feel they are about to be part of a creation on the scale of Indigo", says a company employee.

 

Right now, the company is focusing on the miniaturization of the nano-pigment. Several companies have already developed ink pigments the size of 200-300 nano-meters. Landa Labs are striving for a single digit number of nano-meters or several dozen at the most. Such ink would not clog the printhead nozzles and absorb light more efficiently yielding better results with fewer resources.

 

Landa plans to dub the launch of the new ink at Drupa, "The rise of nano-graphics". He truly hopes to scale heights that Indigo has not reached, succeeding as an exporter rather than as an entrepreneur.

 

In interviews to the media, Landa always preferred speaking of Zionist ideas and his philanthropic activity. Even when asked directly by the Calcalist supplement about his energy enterprise, he elegantly ties the answer into his contribution to education.

 

Perhaps it is the evasive reply that reveals his true intentions: "So far, thousands of our students – talented youth with scant means, have gained their diplomas thanks to our focus. Investment in education resembles investing in energy research – it's a big investment but eventually, it pays off."

 

Click here to read this report in Hebrew

 

 

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