Business Monday

Israel’s tech and startup success: What can Miami learn?

MIAMI DELEGATION IN JERUSALEM: From left: Leandro Finol, Brian Siegal, Benoit Wirz, Felecia Hatcher, Nico Berardi, Laura Maydón, Matt Haggman, Susan Amat, Stonly Baptiste, Jaret Davis.
MIAMI DELEGATION IN JERUSALEM: From left: Leandro Finol, Brian Siegal, Benoit Wirz, Felecia Hatcher, Nico Berardi, Laura Maydón, Matt Haggman, Susan Amat, Stonly Baptiste, Jaret Davis. AJC’s Project Interchange

The ecosystem supporting Israel’s globally recognized tech and innovation sector, dubbed “Startup Nation,” helps fuel and sustain rapid economic growth in the country. Are there takeaways for Miami as it tries to build an ecosystem? If so, 2015 is shaping up to be the year to learn.

A delegation of leaders in the Miami tech-startup community spent the past week in Israel with Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee, to learn from the country’s thriving tech and innovation sector while sharing best practices and making connections. The knowledge exchange was supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The group was based in Tel Aviv, the hub of Israel’s tech corridor, but the delegation also visited technology and innovation centers throughout Israel, including Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheba. Delegates visited the world-famous Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, as well as incubators and community programs as well as historic and cultural sites, and met with entrepreneurs, academics and investors to learn about policies that foster and encourage innovation and practices that can be replicated in Miami. Although Project Interchange has led delegations for 30 years, this was the first focused on entrepreneurship.

“Israeli’s world-class research and innovation, its unique academia-to-technology transfer programs, and its emphasis on integrating immigrants into the country’s society, are key areas for collaboration and sharing of best practices that can truly benefit the greater Miami community and beyond,” said Robin Levenston, Project Interchange’s executive director.

But that’s not all: The Israeli Consulate and eMerge Americas have been working together to showcase Israeli innovation and bring about 10 Israeli startups to Miami to participate in the homegrown tech conference in May. A speaker series featuring Israeli entrepreneurs is also in the plans, and other projects are in the works to promote collaboration between the regions.

There is certainly a lot to learn from Israel.

Today you will find almost every big-name tech company in Israel — including Google, Apple, H-P and Intel (one of the largest tech employers in Israel) — as well as a number of world-ranked research institutions, hundreds of promising startups and a thriving ecosystem to support them. The technology industry is one of Israel’s biggest economic drivers; more than half of Israel’s exports are high tech.

Although it seems like overnight, Israel’s high-tech ecosystem has been building over the past 50 years.

“If you ask anyone where the high-tech sector in Israel started, everyone would say ’69 in the Technion,” said Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion. “This is where they started to teach microelectronics, this is where semiconductors were produced, this is where it all started. … In ’69, the Technion also decided to open a faculty of medicine. It was again prophetic – the decision was made because in the future medicine and technology would work hand in hand. This is why Israel now is an empire of medical devices.”

So what are the ingredients of success in the Startup Nation? “Everyone wants to know what is the secret,” Lavie said in an interview with the Miami Herald when he was in town for an American Technion Society board meeting. (See Q&A with Peretz Lavie at MiamiHerald.com/business.)

Lavie said two of the major ingredients are characteristics of Israelis. First, it’s their risk-taking behavior — “the Army service teaches you how to take risks,” he said. And second, acceptance of failure: “There are many countries where failure is not an option. In Israel, failure is part of the learning curve.”

Another key ingredient, Lavie said, is the emphasis on education, a Jewish tradition. “We don’t teach the materials, we teach them how to learn; it is a lifelong experience. I hear this a lot from our alumni, ‘we are taught how to learn … There is not a situation where we cannot cope.’”

Lastly, he said, the government in the 1960s had the right policy when it started to support research in companies: “These ingredients are what created the ecosystem.”

Lavie just recently completed a study on compananies established in the last 20 years by Technion graduates. Technion graduates have founded 2,000 companies; all but 169 of them are in Israel. “The number of jobs was 100,000, merger and acquisitions [activity generated] was $28 billion, the total money raised was $6 billion,” he said. “And if you ask them why they are doing it, they want to change the world; it’s not the money.”

Universities need great students and faculty, but they also need a mission, Lavie said. “We serve the country, we serve mankind,” he said of Technion, which is partnering with Cornell University to bring a tech-focused campus to New York City. That mission-driven approach was not lost on the Project Interchange startup delegation during its visit to Technion. “One participant said that even more amazing than the technological innovation at the Technion is the support for entrepreneurs and the efficiency with which they have partnered with the commercial world to get products to the market,” said Brian Siegal, AJC Miami director, who accompanied participants on the trip and blogged about the experiences daily.

Members of the startup delegation included Matt Haggman, Miami program director of Knight Foundation; Susan Amat, founder of Venture Hive; Laura Maydón, managing director of Endeavor Miami; Jaret Davis, co-managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig; Stonly Baptiste, co-founder of Urban.Us; Nico Berardi, managing director of the AGP angel network; Benoit Wirz, director of venture investments for Knight Foundation; Leandro Finol, executive director of Miami Dade College’s Idea Center; and Felecia Hatcher, co-founder of Code Fever.

Amat said learning in the field — quite literally — plays a big role in Israel’s rapid pace of development. The role of the military and military service is at the core, she said. Israeli technologists learn to test and iterate on innovations on the ground for a couple of intense years before going to college, giving them a confidence and “learning by doing” not seen elsewhere.

“It’s now a country full of trained leaders with crisis management skills who know how to problem-solve and work on a team. This experience has made me even more focused on immersive experiences for middle and high school students — everything hands-on and empowering them to lead, work in teams, and focus on excellence,” said Amat, whose nonprofit Venture Hive runs tech-entrepreneurship programs for K-12 students as well as adults.

Haggman shared this: “For me, the biggest takeaway is the belief and sense of possibility that we've come across. In conversation after conversation with entrepreneurs, there is such a focus on solving problems and thinking ahead to what’s next.… ‘We're a startup nation,’ said Enon Landenberg, an entrepreneur behind an incubator called Small Factory Big Ideas outside Tel Aviv, when I asked him what drives the startup community here. ‘From the beginning we've been focused on solving problems – that's what drives things.’ ”

Haggman said that another takeaway is the huge focus on the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Maydón, who is building the Miami Endeavor network for high-impact entrepreneurs, agrees. “As one speaker said, ‘you need an ecosystem that continuously answers questions for entrepreneurs’ and it’s just not based on bursts,” she said. “I believe that’s what we’re all trying to accomplish in Miami.”

The collaborations will no doubt continue. At eMerge Americas, Israel will have a large booth showcasing Israeli innovation. Israel is aiming to to include about 10 companies in a variety of areas such as communications, technology and biomed, said Revital Malca, deputy consul general of Israel. Among the companies: “We are working very hard to bring Mobileye.”

Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor will participate in the eGov summit with other world dignitaries as part of eMerge America. Malca also said the consulate has been working with the Office of Enterprise Florida in Tel Aviv to recruit companies.

Meital Stavinsky, an attorney and shareholder with Greenberg Traurig, co-chairs the region’s Tel Aviv University alumni chapter; the firm also has a Tel Aviv office. In a recent study, Tel Aviv University ranked ninth in the world for VC-backed entrepreneurship, she said. “What we are looking to launch as part of eMerge Americas week is a series named Entrepreneurship On Tap, an informal networking opportunity that will be social, fun and in a cool venue, where successful entrepreneurs from Israel will come to speak and share their journeys.”

It’s a program that has been done in Israel for a number of years successfully and then spread to other cities; the alumni chapter wants to host at least three a year. “It’s a great way to showcase Israeli innovation and spirit,” said Stavinsky, who as a focus of her practice, advises innovative Israeli technology companies, particularly in cleantech and agtech, on government law and policy matters.

Other efforts are underway to continue to build connections with Israel’s ecosystem. Before the end of the year, Amat plans to host a group of Israeli entrepreneurs at Venture Hive, an entrepreneurship education company that includes an accelerator and incubator.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

More online

See Starting Gate for an interview with Peretz Lavie, the president of Technion.

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