Israel’s latest export to South America is the high-tech incubator, and it’s proven a very popular item in Argentina, said Ryan Fain, director of HiLabs, a tech incubator run by Hillel Argentina. HiLabs took applications for its latest program in Israel – a two-month learning and working experience for students interested in becoming entrepreneurs – for a total of ten days, after which it had to stop accepting requests to be part of the program. “We already had 300 applications for 30 spots,” said Fain. “It was much more popular than we anticipated.”
Argentina’s economy is down in the dumps; the peso has lost 20% of its value against the dollar in just two months, and inflation could reach as much as 30% this year. What the country needs is a good shot of entrepreneurship, said Fain, and in its small way, HiLabs is trying to bring the message of the Start-Up Nation to the South American country’s 200,000 Jews.
HiLabs, located in Buenos Aires, aims to duplicate as much as possible the vibe of an Israeli start-up incubator, giving participants the tools and mentorship they need to develop applications and technologies to build businesses. For inspiration, the program brings participants to Israel, where they spend time working as interns at high-tech companies, as well as study entrepreneurship skills in the Lahav program at Tel Aviv University’s Recanati School of Business. “They have a chance to meet successful entrepreneurs, asking questions and getting inspiration to develop their own ideas,” said Fain.
While Fain expects most program participants to return to Argentina, not all do – and Fain is fine with that. “We also want them to see what it is like to live and work in Israel, to get to know people here.” The program is now in its second round, and about a quarter of the participants from both this and last year’s group decided to stay in Israel, Fain said.
For those who go back, applying the lessons they learned in Israel represents a challenge. “Argentina is not really a society of start-ups and entrepreneurship,” said Fain. “Here, the participants will speak to an entrepreneur who will tell them he ‘only’ raised $500,000 for his start-up, which as an Israeli he considers a small amount. But in Argentina, getting $500,000 for a new business is a major accomplishment.” HiLabs has been in contact with the Argentinian government, which has expressed interest in the program and, said Fain, is intent on expanding entrepreneurship among the country’s young people.
Fain, a 26 year old from Argentina, is no stranger to social entrepreneurship. He was a founder of an organization called Dar Es Dar (“To Give is To Give”), a social service group which works with disadvantaged groups to alleviate poverty and hunger in Argentina. Over the past seven years, Fain has recruited more than 300 volunteers, including pediatricians, social workers, and teachers, and developed a breakfast program to help feed children under age five who do not get enough to eat at home.
Although the United States is closer, Israel offers a better role model for entrepreneurs, said Fain. “In the US, the market is large enough to allow developers to concentrate on serving local needs, and often they do just that. But in Argentina, the local market is not developed or sophisticated enough to justify a major effort to develop services for the local market. The best option for entrepreneurs here is to think global.” In Israel, too, entrepreneurs are forced to think globally and concentrate on exports, because the local market is too small to earn serious money.
The Argentine government knows it needs to do something to foster innovation, and Fain has been in touch with government officials, who were very positive about the program. “Just like the entrepreneurs we bring over, Argentina could learn a lot from the Israeli way of doing things in the tech sphere,” said Fain. “Exporting its incubator management ideas could be a new growth area for Israel, in Argentina and elsewhere in South America.”