Being the small country it is, Israel is world leading in the field of entrepreneurship. But what makes the nation a true startup nation? And how can others learn from the israelis?
In Israel, everyone is a CEO,” he says with a big smile and one of his loud bursts of laughter, a cartoonish “Ha” emitted in short breaths.
I laugh with him. It’s funny because it’s true.
He, himself, is not a CEO though. He is our guide. But he has been in a startup before, and his network is that of an entrepreneur. Wide. Diverse. Everyone in the shuk greets him when we go out to have gin tonics and hookahs one evening. So I guess the statement still stands. Or he’s the exception to the rule. Never the less, the entrepreneurial spirit is strong in this old, diverse, divided country.
Everyone I meet either is part of a startup, founded their own, know someone who is the founder of a business, or is self-employed in some way.
Good tech starts in the military
I speak with Tarek Issa over a beer and lunch at the local Haifa brewery Libira. He’s the founder of Lofic, a music app connecting people with bands they love for co-creation. Like a music studio on your phone. He points to several reasons why Israel stands out as a startup nation – which is the nickname the country got in 2009 when the book of the same name was published – and those reasons are education, military, and export.
“A lot of good tech starts in the military. That counts for all places. Israel is surrounded by hostile countries that don’t want to trade with us. We have to think bigger. To the USA or Europe,” he says, while plate upon plate of eggplants, tahini, hummus, crisp chicken wings, and cauliflower with yogurt are served. We eat. I savor the Israeli hospitality, the openness. It is true what they say – the entrepreneurs I have spoken too – there is not very far to the top. But then again, if everyone is a CEO, everyone is already at the top.
Billions of dollars and R&D mekka
We leave Haifa downtown to go to Technion. One of the top technical universities in the Middle East.
“If you get a weird sensation when we go through the gates to the Technion it is the waves of IQ and intelligence coming out of the buildings,” our guide tells us as we are nearing the campus.
Like everything else in this country, the history is grand and troublesome. The building of the university was commenced in 1912. In 1924 it was finished. They like to call themselves the Israeli MIT. Youngsters with glasses and backpacks cross the road in front of us, a dude on a skateboard overtake us as we make our way to the parking lot overseeing the plains and roads leading to Lebanon and the sea to the west.
We are treated to a patriotic movie about Israels 100 years of science and technology here at Technion. ReWalk took it’s first steps here. So did Teva and Novocure. There are 698 patent families and 90 spin-off companies from here. It’s ranked 6th worldwide in entrepreneurship and innovation. It is notable achievements I must admit.
Time and again I am impressed. The exits the Israelis complete in a month here are what we dream of doing a year in Denmark. They have a massive amount of R&D centers here from all the global companies from Microsoft and Toshiba to Apple and Cisco. In 2017, the total exits amounted to 24 billion dollars – helped enormously by Intel’s acquisition of Mobileye of 15 billion dollars – 5,2 billion dollars were raised, and 600 new startups companies saw the light of day.
There is no silver bullet
Israel is the country with the highest venture capital investments as percentage of GDP in the world, tells Amiram Appelbaum, chief scientist and chairman of Israel Innovation Authority.
“Then you ask, what makes Israel the number one startup nation,” he says looking at us sitting at the rows of chairs in the headquarter of the Israel Innovation Authority with plastic cups of coffee and biscuits in our hands, “I would tell you, there is no silver bullet. It is a full ecosystem. It starts with what society you are born in to, but there are also many decisions that people in that society make. For me, the most important part is the government. Second is academia. But you also need a lot of startups, and we have many of those in Israel. You need private funds to grow the companies and the multinational corporations for knowledge and management capabilities. And last but not least is the Israel defense force,” Amiram Appelbaum says.
“It is something unique to Israel. Instead of sending 18-year-old kids to school, drinking beer and having fun, for the first time outside their parents home we put them in boot camps and give them extensive training. They deal with life and death situations. And they learn how to work in big units. They operate advanced machinery going into cyber, drones, and satellites. Three years later, they are very mature when they start school. I would argue, the Israel defense force has a significant impact on how Israel looks and why it looks like it does,” he says.
“At 21, we don’t have any degrees”
To Ben Peres, Business Development Manager at Bitemojo, the military has been a huge part of molding him into the entrepreneur he is today.
“We use our experience from the military to be successful. At a very young age, we’re used to be in charge of a division. For a year and a half, I was a commander, so it’s much easier to be a manager for your own company. At 21, we don’t have any degrees. It’s time to go to college. But even without a degree, we know how to manage a company,” he tells me when we walk around Tel Aviv trying out the Bitemojo app.
In Denmark, we care more about the degrees. But I do notice a change here, too; that you can become an entrepreneur without extensive schooling; that it is okay to try and fail. It is still widely frowned upon, not as accepted as in Israel where all your failures go on your resume. In Denmark, we still tend to hide them. We like to compare ourselves to small nations like us, like Israel. But we still have much to learn. Not everyone in Denmark is a CEO. And they don’t need to be. But the thought of taking responsibility for your future and not be afraid to chase your dream is tempting. We can learn a lot from other nations, and we can achieve great things. If we dare to think bigger and think outside our borders.
The trip to Israel was paid for by the Israeli Embassy in Denmark