Karem’s aeronautical engineering degree is from Israel’s renowned Technion institute of technology. He remembers his professors as idealists, working together to build a society and secure its survival. Their attitude of selfless common cause stayed with him. Karem’s belief in the power of teamwork has been a trademark of his career.
“I built three wonderful teams in Israel,” he boasts. “I built two here.” On the first team he built in the United States, he adds, were several engineers who today are technical leaders and executives at Predator-maker General Atomics, including company president Frank Pace, who once “was the closest thing to my right-hand man.”
While at the Technion, and as an air force officer for nine years afterward, Karem learned to design and maintain real aircraft but also continued his childhood interest in models. He entered free flight model competitions and world championships, in which entrants strive for the longest flight under a complex set of rules. After the air force, Karem joined Israel Aircraft Industries, where he rapidly made his way toward the top. Within four years, and while still in his 30s, he was in line to be named executive vice president for engineering, he says, but decided to strike out on his own.
There were several reasons for moving on, but among them was an epiphany he’d had in late 1973, while working on an urgent air force request to design a radar-fooling drone decoy. The project came to naught because Israel ended up buying decoys from the United States, but by working on it, Karem came to see unmanned aircraft as unconquered territory. In early 1974, despite protests and warnings from higher-ups, he left IAI and started a company of his own to design UAVs.
Karem’s departure from IAI was the first major manifestation of a maverick streak that has been a source of lift to his career but also a source of drag. He has escaped corporate culture and holds more than 20 patents to show for it—on aircraft designs, mechanical devices, material production methods, and subsystem innovations—but his ability to see things in a new light has also made him impatient with those who fail to grasp his insights.
“Gentlemen, everything I see in this room is nonsensical,” one longtime associate recalls Karem telling a roomful of engineers at a major defense company who had invited him in to discuss collaboration on a project. Then he closed his briefcase and walked out. A Karem friend remembers a meeting where Abe called a group of defense acquisition officials “clerks.”
“Abe has no problem telling others what’s on his mind, that’s for sure,” says Martin Waide, who has worked for Karem more or less steadily since 1979.
The politics of defense contracting, along with his occasionally prickly personality, have conspired to keep some of Karem’s best designs from being accepted by the military. After leaving IAI, Karem spent three years offering the Israeli military one UAV design after another without making a sale. The government—sole shareholder in IAI, whose executives didn’t appreciate his departure—was never going to buy anything from Abe Karem, he finally concluded. Frustrated, he decided to try his luck in the United States, where he knew opportunities for entrepreneurs were far greater. His wife, Dina, whom he’d met when she was an engineering draftsperson in the Israeli air force, backed his decision, as she has supported other big risks he’s taken during their 46 years of marriage.
In 1977, to gain a foothold in the U.S. aerospace industry, Karem took a position with a tiny Los Angeles company called Developmental Sciences Inc., which had offered Israel a drone decoy in 1973 and was now working on projects that included a DARPA-funded UAV. Shortly thereafter, Karem set out on his own again. When he took Dina house hunting, she realized Abe was going to be working at home.
“I’m looking for a house with a garage attached,” she told him. “You’re looking for a garage with a house attached.”