Austin Scientist and Entrepreneur Publishes Memoir Detailing His Life as a Wandering Jew
By Tonyia Cone
When Zvi Yaniv was 10 years old, his cousin gave him a copy of the Jules Verne classic “The Mysterious Island.” The story of travelers stranded on an island who survive with only their clothes, their pocket watches, camaraderie and one person’s scientific knowledge inspired Yaniv, who in the wake World War II, vowed to learn everything he could about science so that he would be able to similarly depend on his scientific knowledge if he ever needed it to survive.
Since then, Yaniv moved on from his native Romania, to France, then Israel finally to Ohio, Michigan and Texas in the United States, where he built a career as a nanotech innovator and entrepreneur.
Yaniv recently detailed his inspiring experiences in "My Life on the Mysterious Island of Nanotechnology," a memoir about creativity, innovation, nanotechnology and entrepreneurship published by New York City-based Page Publishing.
“A lot of the book stresses the wandering Jew,” said Yaniv.
Jay Rubin, former Shalom Austin CEO, is quoted on the back inside flap of the book jacket. Rubin said, "I very much enjoyed reading the book. Zvi's extraordinary life and achievements place him at the center of the modern Jewish, immigrant, global, scientific and entrepreneurial experience."
Yaniv was born in Botosani, Romania, where he grew up in a large home with his mother, a pharmacist, his father, a success in the import/export business, his paternal grandparents, and aunts and uncles on his mother’s side of the family.
His mother and cousin influenced Yaniv academically; his uncle, a talented designer of household appliances that were not commercially available, was a major intellectual and creative influence; and his grandfather taught him to read biblical Hebrew, prepared Yaniv for his bar mitzvah, and sparked his love of Judaism. Yaniv’s father believed in him and encouraged him, saying, “Do whatever you want, but don’t make any mistakes.”
In 1960, when Yaniv was 14 years old, he boarded the Orient Express in Bucharest with his mother and father, bound for Paris, France. The family lived in a small room in an old building, with only a curtain dividing the bathroom from the rest of the living space.
Yaniv, who had attended the prestigious A. T. Laurian High School in Romania, enrolled at the Lycee Voltaire, a boys’ public high school specializing in general and technical education. He continued playing violin, studying at the Conservatoire de Paris, and studied math, physics and chemistry on his own. Every Sunday – the day when the museum featured free admission and presentations by teachers from the Sorbonne – he visited the Palais de la Decouverte.
A year after they arrived, the family was ready to leave France. The economy was terrible so Yaniv’s parents were unable to find work, and in the midst of Algeria’s fight for liberation from France, the National Liberation Front, an Algerian socialist political party, was setting off bombs all over Paris.
The family had two options, to go to the United States, where the American Jewish Committee had arranged their housing, or to go to Israel. Yaniv’s parents, who were in their mid-50s, asked him what he thought and what he wanted for his future. Yaniv opted for Israel, where they joined friends and family in 1962.
The family boarded the Theodor Herzl, the only passenger boat the Israelis had then, and on its last voyage moved to Israel, where they settled in Be’er Sheva, known as the Capital of the Negev.
“In my mind, I was so happy to see Bedoins and camels,” Yaniv said, “despite that there were no trees that I loved to climb in Romania.”
Yaniv continued studying violin, at the Tel Aviv Academy’s Be’er Sheva Conservatory. He played soccer and improved his Hebrew while telling the story of “The Mysterious Island.”
Yaniv enjoyed high school and friends he met there, including his high school sweetheart, Monica, who is now his wife. The couple will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this December.
Yaniv was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces in 1965 and served in the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, in which he lost his best friend from childhood, and the War of Attrition.
After his discharge, Zvi and Monica Yaniv enrolled at Hebrew University. Zvi earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics and a master’s in electro-optics. He remained at the university for years, until he decided to honor a promise he made to his mother before she died in 1973, to finish his doctorate.
At that point, Zvi was well positioned to ask for a sabbatical. Knowing he wanted to turn inventions into real-world applications, he chose to study liquid crystals at Kent State University in Ohio.
Zvi explained that when he decided to pursue nanotechnology, he was in love.
“I concluded that if you want to make new products, really breaking the glass of new products, you need to start from a molecular level,” he explained. “Go down to the molecular level to see how the idea of a product can be brought to life starting from the molecular level, which is basically nanotech. When you find the right answer, go further and eventually you’ll have a product.”
After earning another master’s degree and a Ph.D. in physics at Kent State, Zvi had offers to continue his career in academia and received applications for positions with Israeli companies. His wife and children had returned to Israel, expecting to remain there. But after he gave a lecture at Energy Conversion Devices in Michigan, the company recruited him, he convinced Monica and the children to return to the United States, and he says, “The rest is history.”
Zvi’s innovative, entrepreneurial career that followed spanned more than 40 years in flat panel displays, image digitizers molecular engineering – fields that became an integral part of what is now commonly known as nanotechnology. He has impacted the fields of liquid crystal displays, image scanner digitizers, flat-screen color TVs and digital advertising.
Zvi has founded several companies, published hundreds of technical and scientific articles, served on boards of directors, and holds more than 300 patents. Through these experiences, Zvi has perfected techniques for taking ideas from concept to commercialization, outlining an explicit road map for this process.
Zvi’s book not only shares his phenomenal stories and lessons he learned with readers, it pays homage to those who served as his mentors, people he says share his personal “mysterious island.”
Since Zvi’s career brought him to Austin in 1996, he and Monica, members of Congregation Agudas Achim, have become very involved in the local Jewish community as volunteers and philanthropists.
One of their visible projects is Gan Yaniv, a garden space on the Dell Jewish Community Campus created out of stone fragments that were once part of the original homestead’s landscape. Gan Yaniv is now an oasis-like space where people can gather for celebrations.
“I love the community here,” Yaniv said.
“My Life on the Mysterious Island of Nanotechnology” is available for purchase at bookstores or online at the Apple iTunes store, Amazon, Kobo, Google Play or Barnes and Noble.
For more information about Yaniv, his publications his other business and creative projects, visit www.zviyaniv.com.