Ronak Kumar Samantray, co-founder and chief software architect of NowFloats.com, a Hyderabad, India-based start-up, has only been in Israel for three days. But says he never wants to leave.
“The best part of Israel is how open it is. I just love this country. I wish I was born here,” says Samantray — whose business helps small companies get online — during a meet and greet at the annual DLD Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv. He was rushing between conferences and thrilled, he said, because later in the day he had landed a face-to-face meeting with the CEO of Wix.com, the free website software company that is lauded as one of Israel’s most successful examples of a start-up. “It’s just brilliant,” he says of the culture of the city. “I can just pick up the phone and call a CEO, and they’re so approachable.”
NowFloats was one of 14 global companies selected for this year’s Start Tel Aviv program, which brought the company’s founders to Tel Aviv this week for a free, five-day boot camp of sorts alongside Israeli entrepreneurs.
The winners — in addition to India’s NowFloats — who hail from the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Latvia, India, China, Korea, Sweden, Mexico and Colombia, were hosted thanks to a joint project of Tel Aviv municipality’s Global and Tourism Initiative and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Wix and Google Campus also provided funds.
The goal of the program, says Avner Warner, director of International Economic Development for the Municipality of Tel Aviv and head of the Start Tel Aviv program, runs deeper than just showing off the epicenter of the Start-Up nation, where 700 new and tiny companies are clustered in a corridor along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. It’s about attracting international brainpower, he says, and luring free thinkers from abroad to come and set up shop here in Israel for good.
“They’re going to learn about the strengths of the local ecosystem, the energy that the local tech community has to offer,” says Warner of the Start Tel Aviv winners. “The idea is to expose Tel Aviv’s strengths, not just as an exporter of technology but as a location, as an ecosystem, that can attract entrepreneurs from abroad to open their start-ups here.”
Warner is hoping that the municipality’s strategy will create more stories like that of Daniel Buchuk, 28, a Peruvian-born London expat who left a plum job at the BBC two years ago to take a risk as head of brand and business strategy at a fledgling Tel Aviv company. That business, SimilarGroup, has now ballooned from eight employees to 40 and in 2013 launched SimilarWeb, one of the most popular and highly utilized Web analytics companies in the world.
Asked what prompted him to give up the security of a corporate London life for a start-up in the chaotic Middle East, Buchuk says that Israeli entrepreneurship offered him a fresher way of living. “It was the role, but also the lifestyle that came with it,” he says, noting that he walks to work and can also stroll from his apartment to the beach in 10 minutes. “There was the professional, personal and financial growth that you can get in Tel Aviv.”
Indeed, while Tel Aviv has also been a hotspot of social justice protests in the past few years, with thousands of young citizens bemoaning the inflated cost of living and skyrocketing rent, it is also home to a disproportionate concentration of gusty, young businesses that, if one gets in early, can offer both a relaxed corporate environment and a very comfortable paycheck.
“There’s a really young, fresh vibe here, and it really is about delivery and work and performance,” Buchuk says. He first came to Israel on a five-month MASA program after deciding to take a short sabbatical from his grueling schedule in London, and while he was here SimilarGroup offered him an internship. That internship soon turned into a full-time offer, and Buchuk says he realized that if he was ready to work hard, he could also play very hard in Tel Aviv.
“I was really lucky,” he admits, “but at the end of the day, it’s about what you bring to the team.”
Part of the Start Tel Aviv program includes bringing the foreign companies together with potential angel investors from Israel, a move that Juan David Rumpf Luna welcomes. Luna is CEO and co-founder of idbooster, a Bogota, Colombia-based venture that helps entrepreneurs to find funding, and he says that Tel Aviv is one of the best places in the world for a young start-up to be bankrolled.
“Really, it’s a great city,” says Luna, another of the Start Tel Aviv winners. “If you want to get investing, you want to get funding, here is the place. Silicon Valley or here is the best place to do that.”
Luna’s sentiment has some research to back it up. Tel Aviv, which is affectionately referred to as the Silicon Wadi, using the Arabic word for “valley,” was ranked No. 2 in the world for start-ups by the researcher Startup Genome.
Much has been made in recent weeks of Israel’s persistent brain drain, or the fleeing of its best and brightest to more lucrative shores. When it was announced last week that one of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was Israeli born, and another one had lived here, but that both had been compelled to shift their research abroad, newspapers around the world published reports on the critical lack of funding and broken infrastructure for Israeli academics working at home.
For the Tel Aviv municipality, however, the focus this week was not on academics but on entrepreneurs. Looking to counter brain drain with its own form of brain gain, they are hoping in the next few months to announce a Start-Up Visa — a joint project with the Ministry of Economy to make it easier for eager entrepreneurs from foreign countries to cut through much of government’s red tape and bring their businesses directly to Tel Aviv.
“In the past, Israel has been known as a great exporter of technology,” Warner says. “Now what we’re trying to do in Tel Aviv is to leverage our strengths… and bring them together as an offering to entrepreneurs from all over the world and say to them, ‘Tel Aviv is a great place to open your start-up.’ ”