November 17, 2018

Tel Aviv University MBA Students Pitch Ideas in Silicon Beach

EARLIER THIS MONTH, STUDENTS from Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) International MBA Program descended on the Santa Monica offices of Philosophie, a digital innovation firm, to present their high-tech ventures to a panel of experts. 

Under the banner “Demo Day,” the event was the culmination of their three-week IDEAS (Israel, Digital, Entertainment, Arts and Sciences) Immersion program.

Over the past 10 years, TAU — the largest Jewish University in the world — has become a powerhouse when it comes to creating startups and venture capital-backed entrepreneurs. 

“Pitchbook has ranked us the last eight years in the top 10 schools globally,” IDEAS Immersion Founder David Dorfman told the Journal at Demo Day.

The group of 10 TAU students, which included participants from Israel, Turkey, Switzerland, South Africa and North America, spent four days in San Francisco and Silicon Valley and the rest of their time in Silicon Beach. 

While Silicon Valley has been incubating startups for around 40 years, “I think there’s more opportunity for a startup [in Los Angeles] in that it’s a little less expensive to run your company here than it is in San Francisco,” Dorfman said. “And because L.A. County and the Southland territories have 28 million people, there’s a big market [for testing] ideas.”

Designed to engage and encourage a new generation of innovators, Immersion  started out as a conference in Southern California in 2015. Within two years, the organization realized it could create something more substantive for participants. 

Students from TAU’s MBA program who apply for Immersion “go through interviews to make sure their ideas are doable and we can actually work with them,” said Inbal Sason, manager of  TAU’s student affairs at the international Sofaer Global MBA program. “My favorite part is getting to know the students and working with them,” she said, “because they transform so much throughout the year.”

Of the 46 students in the program, where the average age is late 20s, 10 students representing five early-stage (pre-investment and pre-revenue) projects were selected for the IDEAS program. 

“We bring them here and we do tons of workshops that deal with legal issues, marketing issues, design issues and financial issues,” Dorfman said. “[These are] all the issues that startups face and that a lot of the times can wind up setting them back months, if not years, if they don’t navigate them correctly.” 

The Immersion program, Dorfman added, is an opportunity to give back to the students, create a strong alumni network and enable them to avoid some of the pitfalls that a typical entrepreneur, especially one coming from Israel, isn’t always aware of.

“We bring the students [to California] and do workshops that deal with all the issues that startups face that can wind up setting them back months, if not years, if they don’t navigate them correctly.” — David Dorfman

At Demo Day, three of five student teams pitched the panel of founders and venture capitalists, including Eran Gilad of Scopus Ventures, Behzad Kianmahd and Daniel Nazarian of TAU Ventures, and Ben McMaster of Philosophie. 

Itay Lotan and Oren Blank presented their project called BrightPaths, designed to help prevent employee turnover through a system that helps companies collate employees’ skills, competencies and goals, then maps out development possibilities with the organization.

PlantOptics, an integrated greenhouse control system that utilizes image processing and machine learning algorithms to increase yield for greenhouse cultivators, was presented by Alex Joseph from New York and Elif Kara from Turkey.

Viibe, presented by Ron Biton and Shiran Shmerling, is a dating app that enables matched users to select from a collection of curated activities.

The two companies that did not present were GoldBuzz, created by Richard Kampel and Maya Lazarovich, and WeStream, created by Avi Forcheimer and Tamar Purdize. GoldBuzz’s mission  is to alleviate the loneliness that millennials feel in the workplace, while WeStream is a single online platform for content production.

“There’s probably a reason why the majority of entrepreneurs these days are 40  years old,” Lazarovich said. “There’s a lot of learning and experience that goes into these great ideas that turn into strong, healthy businesses.”

Lazarovich said he was grateful for the opportunity provided by Immersion. “We were given a lot of tools to figure out how to get to that [next] level,” he said, “but that also comes with the understanding that right now we might not be in that place and that’s OK.”

“Creating a business is three steps,” Kampel added. “Identifying a problem, creating a value proposition around that problem and then building a sustainable model to support it. And we’ve correctly identified a problem but not fully how to address or how to create a viable, sustainable model.”

Armed with knowledge from their Immersion experience, they will go back to Israel and continue to work on their project, which, Dorfman said, is the point of the Immersion experience. 

“Our mission is not to have the students move to the United States. It’s more to give them an idea that they can do it and keep part of it in Israel and also set it up in North America.”