Many people have commented on the physical similarities between Haifa and San Francisco, both cities with white buildings built on a gradually rising mountain.
But a physical similarity isn’t enough for newly reelected Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav. Speaking at an event at the city’s high-tech accelerator, Hi-Center, Yahav said that his city and San Francisco “are twin cities, and one thing we have in common is our desire to develop a high-tech economy in downtown Haifa, emulating the high-tech scene in San Francisco.”
San Francisco is famed as the home of many tech start-ups, including Twitter, and Yahav sees no reason why its Israeli twin can’t grow its own tech giants.
Yahav was speaking at a breakfast event featuring entrepreneur/investor Jeff Pulver, who had come to check out the Haifa high-tech scene in general and his investments in particular (Pulver has put money into two companies at Hi-Center, said the accelerator’s director Yael Mittleman). Pulver, a pioneer in commercial voice over IP applications, co-established and successfully brought to an exit in 2006 Vonage, one of the first VoIP companies. Since then, he has invested in promising tech companies and ideas, and recently established Zula, a communications app geared to business users.
Besides tech, Pulver has become an expert in another area — fitness. A newly slim Pulver told entrepreneurs at the event that he had lost dozens of kilos through hard work and exercise using the kind of laser focus needed for tech success.
Yahav is counting on the success of Haifa start-ups. “We are revitalizing the entire downtown area, and plan to make tech start-ups a critical mass in the city,” as they are in central Tel Aviv, the mayor said. Besides Hi-Center, which was established in 2008, the city is also home to the Matam Scientific Industries Center, where over 8,000 people work at Israeli R&D branches of companies like Intel, Elbit, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo, Philips, and others.
But Matam is located at the modern, prosperous southern entrance to Haifa — a world away from the city’s dusty downtown neighborhoods of Kiryat Eliyahu, Wadi Nisnas, and the German Colony — and it’s this area Yahav hopes to revive with a start-up scene.
It’s not just a way to perk up downtown; brinhing tech into the area will help the immigrant and Arab residents of Haifa’s older neighborhoods by providing them with jobs and opportunities, said Yahav.
“Chemi Peres, the brother of President Peres, recently bought a building downtown for a new project where Arabs and Jews will work together on tech projects,” which will be funded in part by Pitango Venture Capital, he said. “We plan on populating the area with lots of start-ups, and we in the city are ready to do whatever is needed to get that done.”
For Hi-Center director Mittelman, it’s not just about making sprucing up Haifa. “It’s a way to strengthen northern Israel,” she said. “Bringing more people and diversified industry to the north is a major objective of the government.”
The Hi-Center accelerator for late-stage start-ups (the organization that sponsors it, Top Center, also runs an incubator for early stage start-ups) currently has about a dozen companies. Among its alumni is Lexifone, which has developed a technology that lets people speak in their own language on the phone or via an app, with the listener hearing the words in their own language. Canada-based Intertainment Media recently invested $2 million in Lexifone.
“There is no other center in the north that helps late-stage start-ups come to market,” said Mittelman. “We want to expand and serve more communities in the north. The more companies we can help, the more opportunities there will be in the north, and the more people will move here,” she added.
Pulver sponsors breakfast networking meetings around Israel several times a year, and the entrepreneurs were there to network and to garner some tech wisdom from Pulver, which he delivered, based on a recent a personal experience.
“Since the last time I was here in Haifa, I have lost a considerable amount of weight,” he said, describing an exercise and fitness program he has been involved in for the past year. “It’s about exercise and changing the way I eat, and it reminded me a lot of working at a start-up,” he told the entrepreneurs. “As hard as it was, I had to remain focused on my goal. I couldn’t let my lack of experience get in the way of success.
“The biggest cause of failure in fitness, and in start-ups, is giving up,” Pulver added. “Just because you didn’t get an investment it doesn’t mean you don’t have a good idea. Never give up.”