A drab building in Rishon Letzion’s industrial zone hides one of Israel’s most surprising and innovative enterprises. The offices of this startup company are stashed away at the back corner of the second floor, and the lack of any signs showing the way doesn’t make it any easier to find it. Not far away, in a dilapidated industrial building between a row of workshops is the company’s showroom. It is hard to believe that this spot, as far as possible in terms of geography and buzz from Silicon Valley, is the home of some of the most fascinating technology of our time: Manufacturing water from air.

Since founding Water-Gen in 2009, Arye Kohavi has preferred to operate from Israel with a very low profile. He does not avoid the media limelight, but it has come mostly from the public relations side of his biggest customer: The Israel Defense Forces. Unlike Israel’s most innovative high-tech entrepreneurs, Kohavi has stayed well under the radar even after the magazine Fast Company named Water-Gen one of its 50 most innovative companies in 2014. Water-Gen also received the European Technology Innovation Leadership Award for 2014 from market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

But one week in November everything changed. Foreign Policy magazine chose Kohavi as one of its 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2014. “It was a bit of a shock,” he says.

‘Global Thinker of 2014’

A few days earlier Kohavi received a no less important show of support for the future of Water-Gen with Mikhael Mirilashvil investing tens of millions of dollars in Water-Gen via his Be’er Isaac Energy firm. The Jewish Georgian billionaire now owns half the company.

Kohavi looks askance at publicity, pointing to the fall of the alternative energy entrepreneur Shai Agassi and his failed Better Place startup. “I’m not interested in it, and I don’t need it for my ego. Look at the case of Shai Agassi. Everyone loved to raise him up and then enjoyed knocking him down. I didn’t want to play that game. In addition, we didn’t have a business interest here. But now two things have happened, this prize, which was too big to be kept under [media] control, and Mikhael’s joining the company.”

The more you hear about Water-Gen, the more it captivates you. The equipment it has developed manufactures clean drinking water from the air and from polluted water quickly, efficiently and cheaply in almost any climate and with a minimal use of energy and electricity. The company originally aimed its products at the military market, but its technology could one day solve one of the greatest threats facing mankind: A growing shortage of water.

Some 80% of the world’s population lives in regions with inadequate supplies of water. Water pollution and the diseases it transmits are the single largest cause of death in the world, based on data published in the scientific journal Nature. Many experts predict that the worsening water shortage, especially in Africa and Asia, will lead to violent conflicts in arid regions. Even in the developed world and places where water is abundant, global demand for water for industrial and home use will grow rapidly between now and 2050, forecasts the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The process by which air is turned into water is not new — it’s one of the ways air conditioners and dryers work. But Water-Gen has succeeded where no one else has in making the process of extracting water from air efficient enough to allow new and unprecedented uses.

More water for your money

“We provide 10 times more water for the same kilowatt unit, and five times more than any similar device that ever existed,” says Kohavi. It’s the efficiency factor that makes it a real solution to the world’s water problems, he says.

Water-Gen manufactures devices that rely on condensation of water from the air. “The energy can come from a dedicated generator or electrical energy from any source. I think there’s huge potential for civilian uses,” says Prof. Daniel Rosenfeld of the Institute of Earth Sciences at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “If Water-Gen knows how to lead the way into the world market then it has a great future. For now it seems it is moving in the right direction.”

A soldier’s idea

Kohavi came up with the idea of producing water from the air while he was still a soldier: “When I was a company commander in a reconnaissance unit in the Israel Defense Forces, the issue of supplying water to front line forces interested me a lot. You’re in Lebanon or Gaza and you have no water, so they have to supply you with it by convoys or by helicopter. The problem weighed on me for over 20 years until a solution started to take shape.”

After finishing his studies in economics and business administration, Kohavi was the CEO of Meitav Underwriting, chairman of e-learning company Composica, a director of a number of firms and worked in mergers and acquisitions.

One of these M&A deals led to the founding of Water-Gen in 2009 with Avi Peretz, a friend from the army who became his partner and co-CEO. He had arranged the acquisition of the air conditioning division of Electra by a company named Orris, and approached the buyer with his idea. They sent him to an engineer, Eli Meir, who is now the chief engineer at Water-Gen. Orris built the first prototypes in return for a small stake in the company.

Kohavi managed all this without any engineering training — and very quickly. The first contract with the U.S. military was signed less than two years after the company was founded. Kohavi is grateful to the Israeli government, saying it would not have been possible without its help, citing the Defense Ministry in particular.

“There are a lot of things I don’t know, in the area of engineering, too, but I do know how to think clearly and out of the box, to define what I want well and cause things to happen,” says Kohavi. “The company hired some of the best engineers in the world.”

Seven armies use the products

Water-Gen works with some of the world’s biggest consumer product companies, none of whom Kohavi will name because of confidentiality agreements he has signed with them. “We sell our devices to seven armies, without a competitor in the world, and much of that is to the credit of our engineers.”

Kohavi is keeping the financial details secret, too. “We made a decision not to release numbers. I can tell you there are 15 engineers and developers working here. Sales to the military are in the range of millions of dollars and we expect to move to sales of tens of millions of dollars [in 2015].”

Water-Gen has three main product lines designed for both military and civilian use: Large machines for condensing water out of the air, devices for producing water from industrial air conditioners such as in buses and trains, and a mobile unit for purifying water that can be carried by a person on his or her back.

The Gen-350G, the first product the company developed, looks a bit like a cross between an industrial air conditioner and a water cooler. Used by a numer of armies, its internal generator can produce 450 liters of water a day. The process is rather simple and energy efficient. The device condenses water taken out of humid air, filters it and then adds minerals. The water is cooled, giving troops in the field a constant supply of cold water to drink.

A similar unit is designed to be mounted on tanks and other combat vehicles in conflict zones, providing them with water and eliminating the need for supply convoys.

The smaller Water Treatment Unit filters water released by air conditioners, using software that manages the operation of the air conditioner so that it provides maximum water production under changing weather conditions.

The third device, called the Spring, was developed together with Israel’s Ministry of Defense. Designed to be carried on a soldier’s back, it weighs 12 kilograms and uses the same battery as a military radio. It can purify any water source in the field to excellent quality, including water poisoned with chemicals such as cyanide. The device can purify 200 liters of water, providing weeks of water supply for troops operating behind enemy lines or for emergency teams responding to a major disaster.

Disaster relief, too

The IDF’s disaster relief team took a Spring with them to the Philippines after an earthquake a year ago to help provide water to the local population, showing the possibilities for civilian use, notes Kohavi.

“If soldiers are conducting an operation out in the field that takes 24 or 48 hours, they’re limited by how much weight they can carry. We want to make them independent; it’s better for the supply chain and logistics,” Maj. Alisa Zevin, head of the IDF’s facilities and specialized-equipment department in the Logistics Directorate, told the magazine Fast Company.

“Water-Gen weighs 33 pounds and can be carried on the back, but soldiers have said that’s a lot. So we’re trying to make it weigh less. Two 12-volts purify about 200 liters. The quantity is fine, but we want to make the battery last longer so a soldier doesn’t have to carry other batteries. But the quality of the water was good; the taste was good. None of the soldiers complained about that.”

After signing a number of military contracts, Kohavi has his sights set on the civilian market, where he thinks the products have enormous potential. India, with its more than one billion people, is the ideal country for the company’s next big moves, he says. The climate is hot and humid all year round, and the country’s poor water structure is decrepit. Most drinking water is polluted.