January 18, 2019

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.”