Cooking up Israeli startups


This story originally appeared on israel21c.org

Amit Kochavi, an 18-year-old entrepreneur from Tel Aviv, did not want to wait until after his military service to get a foothold in Israel’s startup ecosystem. And he doesn’t think any teenager with high-tech ambitions should have to wait, either. 

Two years ago, he created a four-month startup accelerator called Tech Lounge (techlounge.co) at his high school, Gymnasia Herzliya. Now with more than 40 mentors on board, Tech Lounge expanded last year to Ironi Tet High School in Tel Aviv and the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa. 

About 120 students signed up this year, and he predicts 80 will complete the accelerator — a respectable percentage considering the heavy demands of high school.

“Students who participate in these accelerators get the tools, knowledge and experience that are needed to get started on their way in the Israeli innovation world,” said Kochavi, whose American mother, film producer Tammy Glaser Kochavi, made aliyah from Los Angeles in 1993. 

“During the four months, they meet twice a week with mentors from the high-tech world — investors, engineers, marketing and design people, the whole spectrum — and slowly develop themselves to the point where they have a business presentation and whatever they need to pursue it on their own. 

“By getting exposure to people who have done it before,” he continued, “they build great connections and have a lot of opportunities for access to professionals.” 

Bat Sheva Markovich, a teacher at Ironi Tet, and students Shay Dahan of Tel Aviv and Itay Forlit of Haifa have helped Kochavi develop and run Tech Lounge’s weekly meetings and periodic hackathons (multiday events at which programmers, developers and graphic designers work in teams to create apps or other types of software).

On March 3, Tech Lounge launched a four-month pilot program that will give about 50 chosen participants hands-on mentoring in programing, marketing, design and entrepreneurship from alumni of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) technology units. Kochavi designed this new program with Sharin Fisher, co-founder and former CEO of Gvahim (“Heights” in Hebrew), a technology and science program for gifted high school students. 

Though Israeli teens must serve in the military or national service between high school and college, Kochavi believes his accelerators can make a big difference to those who decide to enter high-tech entrepreneurship several years down the road.

“I think it’s important because if you don’t start before the army, you lose some traction. This gives them an extra three years of experience and helps them focus on what they can and want to do later in life,” he said.

Amit Ilan, a Gymnasia Herzliya senior, said he learned about Tech Lounge from his computer science teacher and joined with two friends in order to advance their idea for an app to help solve parking problems in Tel Aviv. 

“Every week, we had meetings with people from the high-tech industry and they told us how to build an idea and how to talk with investors,” Ilan said. “We had one meeting with [Tel Aviv] Mayor [Ron] Huldai and discussed our idea with him. He said it is not such a good solution because the technology would be too expensive. Still, my group learned a lot from this project for the future. I hope to do something with computers in the army and then get into a big company or a startup.” 

Kochavi, the son of an Israeli father, Doron Kochavi, maintains ties with his L.A. kin. He stayed with his grandparents, Herb and Sharon Glaser, in Beverly Hills while working on data encryption and anti-phishing software during a recent five-month internship at FastPay before going into the IDF.

“I have lots of extended family in L.A., and I always went there in the summers,” he said in perfect English. 

His maternal uncle, Jonathan Glaser, is a trustee of the Jewish Community Foundation Los Angeles, and his mom has been involved in communal and philanthropic organizations including The Herb and Sharon Glaser Foundation, JChoice, Women’s Campaign of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Israel Tennis Centers and the Buchman Heyman Foundation.

A startup entrepreneur since the age of 14, Kochavi graduated from Gymnasia Herzliya with a concentration in physics, computer science and computational science. He took university extension courses throughout high school and participated in the Tech Loft Incubator in Tel Aviv. 

He was one of 120 students chosen for Israel’s LEAD Ambassadors two-year leadership-training program, and it was in this context that he started Tech Lounge. In the future, he wants to take it off campus into one or several central Israeli locations, and establish Tech Lounge in the United States and other countries. He is working on a mobile platform to connect young entrepreneurs to mentors all around the world.

Kochavi also hopes to create a venture capital fund to invest in startups founded by high school students. 

One of the Tech Lounge mentors, Nathan Intrator — currently on leave from a professorship in computer science and neuroscience at Tel Aviv University to nurture his brain-health startup, Neurosteer — says Tech Lounge participants are of an age where they aren’t yet aware of limitations.

“I love talking with very young, enthusiastic, serious, unbiased, bright kids. Sometimes they don’t know there are things that are considered impossible to be done and they just do them,” he said.

“These kids are mastering the wave of new technology and simply utilizing it. It’s fun and exciting,” Intrator continued. “The goal is to drive their curiosity and enable them not to be afraid, to really explore new directions even if it looks very hard and at the same time not make novices’ mistakes in the business aspects of the project.”

The women of startup nation


Kira Radinksy, co-founder and chief technology officer of Israeli startup SalesPredict, is something of an anomaly among the leaders of Israel’s proud “startup nation.” And not just because she was a child prodigy who started her computer science career at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology at age 15. Rather, it’s that she’s a woman.

At 26, the dark and stunning Russian-Israeli entrepreneur has locked down a doctorate in computer science from Technion, built an award-winning data-mining system for Microsoft Research and started her own company, a cloud-based application that helps other companies predict customer behavior. In August, the MIT Technology Review took notice, recognizing Radinsky as the youngest of 10 women in its annual crop of “35 Innovators Under 35.”

In person, she’s petite and ultra-chatty, trading the hoodies and jeans of her eight male staffers for a ripped T-shirt and capris held up by a chunky white belt. According to Radinsky, it hardly ever crosses her mind that she’s a woman in a sea of men — but there are always those odd moments of self-awareness, like when someone assumes she’s the SalesPredict secretary or human-resources girl, or when, during a photo shoot for Israeli magazine Lady Globes, she’s dolled up in thick makeup and Dolce & Gabbana and told to “look powerful.”

“Here in Israel, no one really talks about” the absence of women in high tech, said Ranit Fink, vice president of business development for hot Israeli startup Cellrox — another rare female success story in the startup nation. “It’s just not on the agenda.”

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, women make up about 35 percent of the nation’s high-tech workforce, a statistic that hasn’t budged for the last decade. (It also doesn’t illustrate how many of these women are filling low-level and nontechnical positions within the high-tech sector.) And although Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor could not provide more specific data on the male-to-female ratio within the nation’s high-tech startups by press time, various company heads and investors in Israel — when interviewed by the Journal — agreed that they very rarely see a female face within the upper ranks of the Israeli tech world. 

“I see very, very, very few,” Fink said. “I go to conferences; I go to meetings — and it’s very rare that I see women.”

A review of the management teams for “20 Israeli startups to look out for” — published this spring in Israeli economic journal The Marker — shows that a mere 8 percent of team members are female. A representative for the Israeli venture capital firm The Trendlines Group said that of its 60 current portfolio companies, only about three are run by women. And over the last five years as a senior associate at Israeli venture capital firm JVP, Evelyn Rubin, now a vice president at crowd-funding venture OurCrowd, said that she “could probably count on one hand” the total number of women who have passed through the JVP offices. 

“I remember this crazy sense of having seen almost zero female entrepreneurs,” Rubin said. “Of course you’re not going to see 50/50, but you would expect to see at least 15 percent.”

At OurCrowd, too, Rubin guessed that in the last six months, the deal flow team has encountered only about seven female entrepreneurs, out of the 80 to 100 startups it sees per month. (OurCrowd, though it boasts three women on its management team, has yet to fund a female-run startup.)

Some encouraging steps for women in Israeli high tech have made the news in recent months. Thousands of female Charedi Jews, for example, are being employed as coders and software testers across Israel, and are — as touted in a Haaretz headline — “closing the high-tech gender gap in Israel.”

“The Charedi education system is geared toward encouraging women to pursue lucrative careers,” said Rubin, who works with women in the ultra-Orthodox community. (However, she added that “it’s a bit of a different model. These are mostly software development businesses, not your typical high-risk companies like Waze,” the navigation app company recently purchased by Google.)

In addition, more life-science-oriented branches of the tech industry in Israel, such as biotechnology and medical technology, are actually dominated by women: According to the online news magazine Israel21c, a full 65 percent of Israel’s biotech workers are female. 

“When I first took a position in med-tech, women felt more comfortable to come and to try, because it was dominated by females,” said Nitza Kardish, who now runs Israeli startup incubator Mofet Venture Accelerator. “It created this ecosystem where we were comfortable.”

But Israel’s most prized economy — its buzzing collection of 1,000 or more trendy tech companies, all built from scratch — is overwhelmingly male. There’s a reason that Tel Avivians often jokingly profile the stereotypical “startup bro”: because so many of them fit the bill.

Experts have presented a few different theories as to why women like Radinksy and Fink are so rare. 

One common narrative is that women are less likely to take large financial risks or make big life changes for their job, which can conflict with the traditionally female responsibilities of family and home. “Almost 100 percent of the women entrepreneurs that I meet, if they’re married, will base their ability to do what they’re doing on support from their partner,” said Lesa Mitchell, a vice president at the U.S.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of a recent report on the challenges for female entrepreneurs. And Daphne Koller, the Israeli co-founder of booming U.S. startup Coursera, attested that: “For me, the biggest challenge is trying to juggle family commitments with an ever-increasing workload.”

Rubin of OurCrowd said that, in her experience, “It’s not a question of the actual time commitment, just an element of an appetite for risk. An ability to say, ‘I want to take $10 million to fund this business’ ” — not knowing if it will necessarily succeed.

Another theory is that from a young age, girls don’t see computer science and technology as subjects in which they are most likely to succeed — partly because of the low visibility of female role models in the field.

For men, Rubin said, “They see that a guy named Gil who lives around the corner was able to do it, so why can’t they do it? There are women who have built successful companies, but they’re not at the forefront.”

Radinksy, the CTO of SalesPredict, said she has observed other women shy away from the field because they are worried that they aren’t “technical” enough or as obsessed with gadgets as their male peers. She credited her own high-tech confidence with her upbringing in a Russian family that held more communist values of gender equality, wrote simple computer programs with her as a kid and valued computer science above other subjects. Radinksy said she never saw herself as less cut out for the field than any man. 

“Until I went to the army, I never knew I was a minority in anything,” she said.

Indeed, the male-dominated technological units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have come to serve as incubators for the cliques that eventually become Israel’s hundreds of tech startups, according to Radinksy and others familiar with Israel’s startup culture.

“[Israeli] men will not be shy to pick up the phone,” said Helena Glaser, former president of the Women’s International Zionist Organization. “Men will feel obligated to help one another — and it starts in the army. Women in general don’t have this network. And this is a network of getting jobs.”

According to statistics provided to the Journal by the IDF, as of last year, only 16.8 percent of soldiers serving in technological positions in the IDF were women. And that’s a huge step up from a decade before, when the IDF reported that “the percentage of woman serving in these positions had reached 7 percent at most.”

Said Fink of Cellrox: “In Israel specifically, people are recruiting people based on the army. And in my generation, women couldn’t do everything in the army.”

From a funding standpoint, investors might also be more likely to stick with the kind of startup that has worked for them in the past. 

“Part of the issue now in Israel, is that funders tend to fund experienced entrepreneurs,” said Rubin, an experienced investor in Israeli startups. “So, because there hasn’t been a first generation of women entrepreneurs, they’re up against that barrier against men who have already [seen success].” 

Even once a woman has networked her way into the high-tech bubble, the workplace environment isn’t always welcoming.

Fink said that as a female in Israel’s high-tech sector, she has received dozens of “horrible comments — really horrible things” relating to her gender, both from outside businessmen and her own colleagues.

On blogs and forums online, much has been written about a similar male-to-male network in the Silicon Valley — a “bro-grammer” culture that keeps men in tech’s top positions and sometimes makes the workplace uncomfortable for women.

Ellen Ullman, a high-profile U.S. software engineer turned author, said that in America, she has witnessed an unhealthy “boys in a treehouse” attitude propagate itself among the nation’s techies, both at the academic and industry levels. “A woman walks into this culture, and she gets the worst of it: She’s more visible, scrutinized more closely and will not feel welcome,” Ullman said. She added that from the perspective of many venture capitalists, “Everyone’s got to be a kid in a hoodie. If you don’t look like Mark Zuckerberg, maybe you’re not right for it.”

So what does high tech stand to gain from a larger pool of female leaders?

A Dow Jones report in 2012 surveying 20,000 startups across the United States, showed that “companies have a greater chance of either going public, operating profitably or being sold for more money than they’ve raised when they have females acting as founders, board members, C-level officers, vice presidents and/or directors.”

Mitchell cited the study, saying that in order to move forward, both men and women in high tech “need to acknowledge this data and create solutions themselves by changing the networks” of entrepreneurs and investors. 

With a stronger female presence in high tech, the possibilities for modern technology are vast, said Weili Dai, co-founder of global semiconductor company Marvell Technology Group and a speaker at this year’s Israeli Presidential Conference: “We need more women to participate because technology is becoming part of our lifestyle,” she said. “I see this as a duty, to reflect the natural talent of women in the high-tech industry.”

And the startup nation may never reach its full potential without the talents of this untapped population. New research coming out of the Reut Institute, a widely respected policy group created to advise the Israeli government, suggests that the linear, non-inclusive model of startup nation as we know it — which has, up to this point, underutilized not only women but ethnic and religious minorities as well — may only succeed for so long. 

Orna Berry, famed Israeli venture capitalist and one of the original female entrepreneurs of startup nation, likewise warned that in order to remain competitive in the global market, the Israeli high-tech economy needs to see greater participation from a workforce made up of varying genders, age groups and backgrounds.

“If you team up with people who come from the same mold, and you’re choosing only people who you know what their path was and what their intellectual style is, it is somewhat restrictive in my mind … and it is a limiting factor in the scale-out element,” she said. “This is not just a matter of social justice.”

News Service Shows Israel’s Other Side


 

Bemoaning the way Israel is portrayed in the news is something of a favorite pastime for many American Jews. But rather than complain that Israel is depicted unfairly in its conflict with the Palestinians, two Silicon Valley executives are taking a different approach.

Eric Benhamou, chairman of 3Com, and Zvi Alon, founder of Netvision, wanted to get the focus off violence altogether and show Americans that there is much more to Israel beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Four years ago, they launched Israel21c, a nonprofit news feature service that covers human interest stories in Israel and pitches them to the media.

Take, for example, the group’s Sept. 19 story on a video game originally used to train Israeli fighter pilots that now is being used to coach college basketball players. The story was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in approximately 170 newspapers, according to Larry Weinberg, the group’s executive vice president and its only full-time staffer in North America.

“Israel, among the nations, is still fighting to justify its existence,” Weinberg said.

Stories about Israeli medical breakthroughs or social welfare projects help demonstrate Israel’s value to the world. It’s a “way of increasing knowledge of Israel that increases respect of Israel,” Weinberg said.

“In the end, public opinion will lead policy,” he added with the conviction of someone who worked in New York City politics on the staffs of three different mayors.

Israel21c is seeking to expand its market. The group recently hired Rubenstein Public Relations, a high-profile Manhattan firm, to bring its message to those between 16 and 25.

“Most young, non-Jewish Americans have almost no knowledge of Israel beyond the conflict they’ve seen in the news for four years,” the group said in a news release.

By pitching stories about Israeli fashion, music and sports to media outlets geared to youth, Israel21c hopes to build identification between U.S. and Israeli youth. Weinberg added that the push will aid pro-Israel efforts on campus, which have seen heated debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the intifada began more than four years ago.

Israel21c’s initiative comes after a report last year showed Jewish organizations were using outdated approaches that failed to interest young U.S. Jews to advocate for Israel. The report, “Israel in the Age of Eminem,” was based on research by pollster Frank Luntz, who found that Jewish groups face a “communications crisis” and were failing to attract the 80 percent of young Jews whose interest in Judaism or Zionism is only marginal.

Israel21c is not the only group to tackle Israeli hasbarah, a Hebrew term for advocacy. Israel has consulates throughout the world devoted to polishing the image of the Jewish state, although many say Israel’s efforts to make its case are inept, and private groups have sprung up since the intifada began, too.

According to Weinberg, the Israeli government is becoming more media savvy, realizing that “public relations and communications are as important tools in a war as soldiers, tanks and courage.” But Weinberg said his group can supplement the official efforts. Israel21c’s stories are used on the Web sites of more than 60 North American Jewish federations each week and are picked up by Israeli consulates and hundreds of Jewish organizations.

While government communications efforts focus on crisis management, Israel21c offers lighter fare, with a positive bent that often hits home. One recent example was an idea from Israel21c that resulted in Time magazine running an article about Israeli medical technology that can eliminate the use of needles, delivering medicine through the pores of the skin.

Anyone who has ever been to the doctor and suffered through a flu shot can relate to an Israel story like that — which is precisely what the founders of Israel21c had in mind.