In nod to Startup Nation, ivory towers foster entrepreneurs
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In nod to Startup Nation, ivory towers foster entrepreneurs

As Israel boasts the greatest number of startups per capita globally, academic institutions open their doors to offer hands-on help

IDC speed-dates students with startups (Courtesy: Adi Cohen Zedek)
IDC speed-dates students with startups (Courtesy: Adi Cohen Zedek)

The co-founders of InovyTec, a maker of portable emergency medical devices, both previously worked for the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, but didn’t know each other. Then, as a perk, they were both sent to take entrepreneurship courses at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“The entrepreneurship studies gave us the opportunity to meet, first of all,” said company chairman Dror Matalon in a phone interview. “They also allowed us to take a pause from work and think, giving us the relevant economic knowledge that is the basis of what we do today. In brainstorming sessions in the classroom we discussed what we think are unmet needs, and the kernel for our company was formed there.”

InovyTec has just started sales of their airway collar, which allows the opening of patients’ airways noninvasively, and hopes to get European regulatory permits early next year for another product, a portable device that can treat both cardiac and respiratory failure. The company has raised $4 million to date, including $2 million from Germany’s RHON-Innovations GmbH.

As Israel boasts the greatest number of startups per capita in the world, garnering the title of Startup Nation, entrepreneurship courses have been sprouting at universities and colleges throughout the country, meeting a grassroots demand. These programs aim to arm students with much needed theory along with a toolbox of mentorships, networking and tips on how best to approach investors for funding.

InovyTec's SALI that can treat cardiac and respiratory failures on site (Courtesy)
InovyTec’s SALI that can treat cardiac and respiratory failures on site (Courtesy)

“Can someone talented manage without university studies? Anything is possible. But in life, a lot depends on chances. What are the chances of entrepreneurs succeeding if they don’t have mentors who want to push them forward, if they don’t know how to build a business model, if they don’t know how to build a team and when is the right time to approach the right type of investors?” said Dr. Yossi Maaravi, deputy dean at Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, in an interview. “Eighty percent of success stories can be pinned down to lessons learned, 20 percent on the person itself. Studying, in most cases, can significantly propel you forward.”

IDC's Yossi Maaravi, deputy Dean at Adelson School of Entrepreneurship (Courtesy Adi Cohen Tzedek)
IDC’s Yossi Maaravi, deputy Dean at Adelson School of Entrepreneurship (Courtesy Adi Cohen Tzedek)

IDC’s recently inaugurated Adelson School of Entrepreneurship (ASE) has become a hub for all of the private college’s entrepreneurial activities, both academic and extracurricular.

The school offers a variety of activities including courses, minor programs, different majors and special programs for outstanding students at the undergraduate and graduates’ levels. IDC’s flagship offering for undergraduates, the Zell entrepreneurship program, is one of the world’s most renowned venture creation programs within academia. In its 15 years of activity, 298 students have graduated and generated 85 ventures, according to Zell’s website. IDC also launched this year another honors entrepreneurship program, IDC Beyond, targeting graduates from Israel and abroad.

“All our programs have a hands-on element, in which students learn through projects they set up, alongside the studies of theory and relevant case studies,” said Maaravi. “We have a strong relationship with the industry and the entire Israeli high-tech ecosystem — our teachers are academics but also industry experts and we have a network of mentors and former alumni — all keen to help advance Israel’s high-tech sector.”

IDC students at a "speed-dating" with startups event in Nov. 2016 (Courtesy Adi Cohen Zedek)
IDC students at a “speed-dating” with startups event in Nov. 2016 (Courtesy Adi Cohen Zedek)

Thirty-one-year-old Yoav Zurel is CEO of the Israeli startup FeeX, which has developed a free crowdsourcing financial intelligence platform to help reduce hidden fees in investment accounts. He graduated with a BA in computer sciences at IDC, where he also attended the Zell program, and that is where FeeX was conceived.

Zurel’s co-founder David Weisz, FeeX VP of products, also attended the Zell program. Entrepreneur Uri Levine, also a co-founder of the startup, was their mentor. Levine, who sold his company Waze to Google for an estimated $1.3 billion in 2013, is the chairman of FeeX and one of the startup’s investors.

Yoav Zurel, CEO of FeeX (Courtesy: Sahar Rott)
Yoav Zurel, CEO of FeeX (Courtesy: Sahar Rott)

“In my second year at IDC they started recruiting students for the Zell program,” said Zurel, who was included in the 2015 Forbes’ 30Under30 ranking of Israel’s most promising entrepreneurs. “David, my best friend at IDC, told me he was applying for the program. I wasn’t even considering it, but after some deliberation I did. The program provided me with a variety of experiences and knowledge: from how to set up a company from scratch to choosing what challenge to tackle; how to raise money and how to reach out to investors. We met investors and we met our mentor, Uri Levine. That relationship led to the setting up of FeeX.” The company has raised $12 million to date.

Seeking: Science students

Even as the universities churn out entrepreneurs, Israel’s high-tech sector, which has been a growth engine for the economy, is facing an acute shortage of engineers and programmers as students shy away from studying computer science, math and statistics.

This lack of a pool of skilled workers is highlighted even more by the burst of activity in the sector, which has almost doubled the number of companies operating locally in the past decade. Workers often also want the challenge of starting their own company rather than joining an existing one, and successful entrepreneurs tend to return to the market with new ventures.

In addition, companies from Google to Apple, Deutsche Telecom to Bosch have set up research and development centers in Israel, with 278 multinational companies operating a total of 327 R&D centers around the country today, compared with about 250 such centers three years ago, IVC data shows.

Israel’s government must encourage science and engineering studies at a young age, said Nobel Prize winner Professor Dan Shechtman in an interview last month with The Times of Israel. Shechtman, who has been running a course on technological entrepreneurship at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology for the past 30 years, has developed a plan for innovation studies for Ort Israel Sci-Tech Schools, a network of vocational schools. In addition, Israel’s Council for Higher Education is planning to allow universities to increase the quota of students it enrolls for relevant science oriented faculties to help stem the shortage.

Students take part in 30-hour development hackathon at Ben-Gurion University in Nov. 2015 (Courtesy: Dani Machlis)
Students take part in 30-hour development hackathon at Ben-Gurion University in Nov. 2015 (Courtesy: Dani Machlis)

 

The programs offered at Israel’s universities are not very different from those offered by educational institutions in the US. What makes Israel different, said Prof. Dafna Schwartz, chair of the Bengis Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is the ability of Israeli students “to network with the industry so easily. Israel is a very small country and everything and everyone is very accessible.”

“Israeli universities used to be ambivalent toward entrepreneurship specialization programs,” said Schwartz. “They wondered if there really was a methodology that could be learned, if a full program should be dedicated to it and if there are theories and models that back up the entrepreneurship studies.”

Prof. Dafna Schwartz of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Courtesy: Dani Machlis)
Prof. Dafna Schwartz of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Courtesy: Dani Machlis)

“Studies show that entrepreneurship can be learned,” she said. “Our message has always been that entrepreneurship is a skill that one must have in today’s working world, in which things are always in a flux and where you need to constantly identify and analyze opportunities, whether for your company or for the company you are working for. The awareness for this need is growing. This is a skill that is a must for all those who study, I believe. ”

The university offers an MBA in management headed by Schwartz with a special track in entrepreneurship, high tech management and innovation, which teaches students to set up and advance a project, how to stay competitive, and how to promote innovation.

Vera Gutman, 32, is a mechanical engineering graduate from Tel Aviv University who joined the IDC Beyond program this year. She is surrounded by people from a variety of backgrounds, she said — a pilot, a doctor in physics, entrepreneurs who have already had exits. “The studies are significant and expose me to worlds I didn’t previously know,” she said. “It was important for me not to come here with an idea for an enterprise, but to come open to new ideas.”

Not a cookbook

When Hebrew University launched its Entrepreneurship Center, which provides the practical education, support, mentorships and connections needed for HUJI students and Jerusalem community members to become effective entrepreneurs, university administrators were initially skeptical.

Prof. Niron Hashai, vice dean for Innovation and Development at the School of Business Administration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during a lecture (Courtesy)
Prof. Niron Hashai, vice dean for Innovation and Development at the School of Business Administration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during a lecture ( Courtesy)

The initiative, launched in October 2015, is open to all students, alumni, faculty members and Jerusalem entrepreneurs and offers pre-accelerator programs and accelerator programs, access to lab facilities for biotech firms, mentorships and academic seminars among other things. In addition, in November this year, the university began a “Start Up 360” track as part of its executive MBA program, which aims to give students the necessary tools to manage and invest in startups with legal mentors and those from the VC industry.

But the Hebrew U program started as a bottom-up initiative based on demand, as the university was fearful of fully embracing a hands-on approach that seemed inconsistent with traditional research, Prof. Niron Hashai, vice dean for Innovation and Development at the School of Business Administration of the Hebrew University, said.

“Academia has not traditionally been a place for startups, but times are changing. To be able to attract the best of minds — if this is what students want and need today — then we must be able to offer them tools to work with to set up a startup,” Hashai said. “A degree in computer sciences will serve them well during their lives, so we as a university must offer students both pure scientific and theoretical learning as well as practical experience. Deep theoretical learning is essential in opening the horizons of students. After all, we don’t just want to be a cookbook of how to do things.”

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