Lavish praise for Israel’s tech sector is coming from an unexpected place — Turkey. Unexpected, because Turkey’s leaders have become among the most vocal and strident critics of Israel during the Gaza conflict. Less unexpected, perhaps, because of the rule that tech people don’t pay attention to politics.
The burgeoning Turkish tech entrepreneurial community admires Israel and sees Tel Aviv as a source of start-up inspiration, according to Gizem Koç, a Turkish entrepreneur with her own industrial design start-up — and a leading force behind Startup Istanbul, set to be the first major event for start-ups, both local and international, in Turkey’s biggest city.
Investors, speakers, and entrepreneurs from 40 countries will be attending the September event, as will representatives from corporate giants like MasterCard, PayPal, Intel Capital, Google Ventures, 500 Startups, Accel Partners, and Simile Ventures — and Israelis are cordially invited. “Israel has a great start-up ecosystem, and we see it as a great role model for our own start-up community,” Koç told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “Our entrepreneurs are very interested in building a good relationship with Israeli start-ups.”
You couldn’t blame Israelis for finding it hard to believe that they have admirers in Turkey, given Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemingly endless litany of anti-Zionist — some would say anti-Semitic — invective. In his latest screed last week, he accused Israel of “genocide” and “Hitler-like fascism.” Turkey, of course, is where the ill-fated 2010 Gaza flotilla sailed from turning into a major international black eye for Jerusalem after nine Turks were killed after Israeli commandos boarded the main ship. It seems that not a day goes by without mass protest of some sort against Israel in some big Turkish city.
According to Koç, it’s just politics — even now, when tensions between the two countries are high because of the Gaza conflict. “You have to look beyond politics,” says Koç, and she has a point. Israel and Turkey do a lot of business with each other, and 2014 is so far setting a record in trade between the two countries — on the way to breaking the previous record, set in 2013, which broke the record set in the year previous. Israel and Turkey did some $50 billion in business in 2013, and in the first quarter of 2014, both Israeli imports from Turkey, totaling $956 million, as well as exports, at $949 million, were up over 20% from the same period a year earlier. Some 70% of exports to Turkey are chemicals, while Israel imports a wide range of industrial products from Turkey, including cars, ceramics, textiles, and food.
Even so, there is almost no tech trade between the two countries, and that puzzles Koç. “It could be that the people working in industry who have a longer history of working together feel more comfortable working with each other even during tense times,” Koç said. “I think if entrepreneurs got to know each other a little better, they would also begin working together and look beyond the bombast and noise set by the politicians.”
With a potential market of 74 million people, Turkish tech entrepreneurs have plenty of local opportunity to sell their wares — but they have been unable to make it abroad, which is where they seek Israel’s help. “There are very few Turkish start-ups that have made a name for themselves abroad, even though we have a lot of good talent with unique ideas,” said Koç. “Israel, on the other hand, has become an international tech powerhouse, selling its technology abroad because it doesn’t have a local market.” Turkish tech entrepreneurs are interested in borrowing some of Israel’s magic, and would be happy to partner with Israeli firms to sell abroad.
There would be advantages in such a relationship for Israelis, too, giving Israeli companies access to markets they might otherwise not be able to penetrate in the Arab world and the developing world, said Koç. And even if an anti-Israel group started railing against such partnerships in the Turkish media, calling for a boycott, it would be irrelevant; because the companies would be selling abroad, so there would be nothing for Turks to boycott, said Koç. “In fact, I could imagine such products doing very well in the US and Europe, where the idea of a Turkish-Israeli partnership would probably be seen very positively.”
But Koç believes that those partnerships won’t be in jeopardy from boycotts. “The media here, like everywhere else, picks up on the most shocking things, and you never see positive stories about Israel.” That is especially the case now, Koç said. Turkish media has been endlessly bashing Israel, portraying the IDF as the bad guys, while ignoring Hamas missile launches and tunnel terrorism. “Emotions are very high right now, but I have spoken to many colleagues here about this, and we all believe that those emotions will subside once the conflict is over.”
Koç also predicts that a lot of that anti-Israel shouting will die down after Turkey holds its elections later this month. “Israelis think that Turks on the whole are angry at them, but it really is just specific groups,” many of them Islamist ideologues who even in times of peace have a hard time stomaching the idea of relations with Israel, she said. “They get the most media time because they shout the loudest, but they do not represent most Turks, and certainly not in the high-tech community.”
That’s why Israelis are likely to find themselves welcome at Startup Istanbul. The one-day gathering will be Turkey’s first truly international tech event designed to attract investors and entrepreneurs from around the world. “We have actually been holding an event called Startup Turkey for the past seven years in a hotel in the resort city of Antalya,” said Koç. “About 1,000 people generally attend, but it’s invitation only, and many of the attendees come as much for the vacation aspect of the event as for the business aspect. Start-Up Istanbul will be all business.”
And Israel should be a part of that business. “I am really hoping some Israeli companies will attend,” she said. “Those that do come will find a lot of interest among Turkish entrepreneurs. I think the relationships that will result from the event could become the basis of a cooperative group that will facilitate tech ties between our two countries — to become a tech bridge between Israel and Turkey. In my opinion, it’s been the politicians and mistrust on both sides that have prevented that bridge from being built, but the Turkish tech community is more than ready for it.”