January 22, 2019

There’s no business like Israel business

Rob Anders, co-founder and CEO of software company Niio, said his company is poised to become the “iTunes of art” when it launches next year with a product that allows consumers to purchase and rent digital artwork and exhibit it on screens in their homes.

At the recent Israel Conference, the British-born, Israel-based businessman had the opportunity to turn others into believers.

“You’ll be thinking of us when you have digital art on the walls,” said Anders, one of hundreds of entrepreneurial business leaders connected to the Jewish state who turned out for the conference. 

He spoke to the Journal shortly before pitching his company to a panel of potential investors during a program at the conference that recalled ABC’s hit reality TV show “Shark Tank.” The panel included Audrey Jacobs, vice president of OurCrowd, a crowd-sourcing platform for Israeli capital startups.

Other companies pitched during the program included Lishtot (Hebrew for “to drink”), which produces a water-quality testing technology capable of detecting within a few seconds whether a glass of water is safe to drink, and Wispa, a Craigslist-like online marketplace for sneakers.

The Israel Conference is an annual networking event — this is its seventh year — full of panels and guest speakers focusing on companies that were “founded in Israel, have R&D in Israel, do business in Israel, or invest in Israeli companies,” according to the conference’s program materials. This year, it took place Oct. 21-22 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

An estimated 1,000 attendees turned out for this year’s edition, 40 percent of them CEOs of companies, according to Katherine Tempel, business development associate at the conference. 

“We make some really big introductions here. It’s a place for introductions, for growth and business. Deals are made on the spot. People don’t come here to learn,” Tempel said. “They come here to make deals.” 

Dozens of speakers lectured on technology, fashion, advertising and more over the course of two days, including Frank Melloul, CEO of i24 News, a Tel-Aviv-based international 24-hour news station. Melloul said he hopes his TV company will go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to report on news affecting the daily life of Israelis.

“Most of the people in my life don’t know anything about Israel,” he said during a 45-minute panel titled “In the News!” with Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik.

Inbal Baum, CEO of food-tour company Delicious Israel, spoke during a presentation about how high-end food has become big business in Israel. She went so far as to say that, in Tel Aviv, food was the “original startup.” 

Representing the entertainment sector was Gideon Raff, an Israeli writer and director known for his work on “Homeland” and the Israeli television show from which it was adapted. He participated in a panel titled “Mesmerizing Thrillers, Mysteries and Miniseries.” Additional panels examined cybersecurity, the comedy business and more. 

Producer Nancy Spielberg’s film, “Above and Beyond,” a documentary about the birth of Israel’s air force and the foreigners who served in it during the War of Independence, was broken into two parts and screened during lunch, half on the first day, the other half on the second.

The event has come a long way since its launch in 2009, when it was limited to small dinners and coffee, Tempel said. In 2014, the conference relocated from the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel to the Skirball. Yossi Vardi, chairman of International Technologies, is conference co-chair.

Beyond the panels taking place indoors, Israeli success stories such as ReWalk, maker of a robotic exoskeleton that allows people with spinal cord injuries to stand and walk, and SodaStream, producer of a home beverage-carbonation product, were among the 35 companies that were represented at booths outside in the museum courtyard. 

Lesser-known companies also turned out at the conference, hoping to make a splash. 

“We’re all trying to succeed. The only way we’ll succeed is [if we work together],” said Amos Angelovici, founder and executive vice president of business at Babator (“Haba bator” is Hebrew for “next in line”). His company monitors online video content viewing habits of consumers on behalf of video publishing websites. “In the Israeli community or the Jewish community, there is a lot of help here. You might say it’s a joint effort to succeed,” he said.

Sharona Justman, managing director at STEP Strategy Advisors and the conference co-chairwoman, said bringing together entrepreneurs who love Israel is her way of expressing Zionism.

“I’m known as a connecter, and I’m trying to increase engagement with Israeli companies at all business levels,” she said.

Guy Ruttenberg, an intellectual property attorney, said the conference’s strength is the variety of professionals and businesses it attracts every year.

“It’s a good conference. It really is a collection of entrepreneurs, financiers and general thinkers,” he said on Wednesday as attendees prepared to enjoy an evening reception of live music, cocktails and hors d’oeurves. “It’s pretty cool.”