Arab entrepreneurs, IDF vets team up to promote start-ups
Hybrid accelerator program looks to nurture minority sector tech firms with graduates of the elite 8200 unit
Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter
A market place for horse breeding and a platform to ease the recruitment of new employees were just some of the projects presented at a demo day of the Hybrid program, an accelerator that aims to promote start-ups in the Arab sector.
The projects were the first ones to originate from the first cycle of the accelerator program, which aims to promote start-ups with one or more Arab, Druze or Bedouin founders. They work in cooperation with the 8200 Alumni Association, an organization that represents graduates of the top technology unit in the Israeli Army.
“In the Arab sector we have talented entrepreneurs but we have a lack of knowledge on how to take ideas and scale them up,” said Fidi Swidan, the director of the Maof Nazareth Business Incubation Center, part of Israel’s Ministry of Economy and Industry which is a backer of Hybrid. The aim of the program is to provide the necessary support to allow for these initiatives to grow, he said.
Eitan Sella, the director of Hybrid, said the idea is to expand the benefits of start-up nation from Tel Aviv to the rest of the country, to all of Israel’s citizens.
One start-up that took part in the program is Horse Mate. The company looks to create a horse breeding market place using data, breeding simulation, artificial intelligence and machine learning to enable horse breeders find the best match for their horses. Horse Mate is already in touch with five Arabian horse associations worldwide to compile an accessible pedigree database.
Skillinn, another start-up, wants to make use of crowd wisdom to match the right professional to the right job, using artificial intelligence. The company has tested its system with dozens of HR departments and is currently running its first paid pilot with one of the biggest IT companies in Israel, the entrepreneurs said.
Also to present at the Hybrid demo day was CleverPark, a company that has developed a screw-looking prototype that can be inserted into roads and combines hardware and software to enable cities and malls to get real-time data about parking lots to optimize parking resources. Each product can be built for under $10, about 80 percent cheaper than competing alternatives, the team said.
The participating start-ups underwent a meticulous selection process and, once selected, received a broad range of support, including workspace and professional support and guidance from entrepreneurs, investors and others in the field.
“I am happy to see that in the past few years we see more and more young people in the Arab communities develop and invest in the field of start-ups,” said Aiman Saif, who heads the authority for the economic development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian sectors in the Prime Minister’s Office. The aim of Hybrid is exactly what these entrepreneurs need to “make their dream come true,” he said.
Israeli Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population but their contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product is just about 8%, noted Saif. If the Arab population were better integrated into the workforce, the economy would grow at a faster rate, he said.
Since 2012, the Israeli government has set up a number of programs to help Israeli Arabs integrate into the labor market and the high-tech industry, in an effort to boost economic growth and reduce inequality. Just 5.7% of Israeli Arabs are employed in the high-tech industry and only 2% of those are employed in research and development, according to Israel’s Innovation Authority 2016 report.
Israel’s high-tech industry, which has been a major growth engine for the economy, is facing an acute shortage of skilled workers, something experts say could be resolved by tapping into the Arab and Ultra-orthodox populations, which are still at the sidelines of the high-tech boon.
Saif said he hoped to see by next year the first exit of an Arab-led start-up company. “This will boost other Arab entrepreneurs,” he said.
When the Hybrid project was launched, said Nir Lempert, chairman of the 8200 Alumni Association in an interview at the sidelines of the event, there were many raised eyebrows among both Jews and Arabs about this proposed cooperation, which matched Arab entrepreneurs with the alumni of an elite army unit who studied Arabic and Arab culture for intelligence purposes. “But for me this matching is natural, as the vision of the 8200 alumni is to give back to society what they have learned and to share the networks they have developed over the years.”
In addition to the Arab sector, Lempert also wants to see the ultra-Orthodox community get involved.
“The growth of this country depends on us bringing into the mainstream these populations,” he said. “Israel has reached a glass ceiling in terms of employment, and if we cannot bring the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox populations into the mainstream then we are in an existential danger.”