Diaspora youth arrive for top-drawer Tech Challenge

A new program in Israel will provide a ‘Start-Up Nation’ immersion program for Jewish students and young professionals from the Diaspora

Members of the Tech Challenge group (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Members of the Tech Challenge group (Photo credit: Courtesy)

While serving in the prestigious 8200 IDF intelligence unit, entrepreneur Raphael Ouzan saw the power of innovation at work. “This is something very noticeable in elite IDF units,” he told the Times of Israel. “One person with a great idea, passion, and talent can make such a difference.”

Imagine, then, what 25 people with great ideas, passion, and talent can do, said Ouzan. “What I saw in Unit 8200 was very inspirational. We need more people like that over here. Hence was born the idea for the Israel Tech Challenge.”

The Challenge, three years in the making, is taking place this week, with 25 of the best Jewish college students in the world (chosen from some 500 applicants) in Israel for an intense insider look at how the Start-Up Nation does its magic. The Challenge — a cooperative effort between The Jewish Agency, the Government of Israel, and private investors — is designed to connect top students from the diaspora with tools and networks to enrich their careers in the hi-tech industry, and to develop connections with the Israeli high-tech industry, said Ouzan. He created  the program with Oren Toledano, whom he met during their service in the IDF and who presented the concept to The Jewish Agency. Toledano is currently the Challenge’s Executive Director.

Throughout their trip, the group will be visiting R&D centers of top global companies, like PayPal and Google. They will also meet with successful start-up entrepreneurs, participate in lectures by leading tech experts, have sessions with the industry’s top mentors, and more.

Participants hail from the United States, France, and Argentina. Some already work as interns at leading companies as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Dropbox, while others are students at such top institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, Stanford University, Columbia University, and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Accompanying the group are several young Israeli tech entrepreneurs.

The current 12-day program is being conducted in conjunction with Taglit-Birthright Israel, and is the first the Challenge is sponsoring. This specific program is titled the Taglit Tech Challenge, but Ouzan plans to run the program with other organizations, including Masa and Onward Israel. The next round of programs will be held next summer, said Ouzan, and will include a twelve-day program, as well as more extensive two and five month programs — essentially internship programs for students or graduates with top tech companies here.

Rapahael Ouzan (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Rapahael Ouzan (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The highlight of the current program, said Ouzan, will be a 36-hour hackathon to be held at PayPal’s Tel Aviv R&D center next week. “The participants will be split into teams and will attempt to come up with innovative technology to solve several important social issues.” Among those issues, said Ouzan, will be devising a system to use Twitter and other social media to figure out when major trends, such as diseases, are about to break. “With such a system, he said, authorities could take steps to limit the damage,” he said. Another group will try to develop a better way for the blind to get around. “Very often canes are not helpful in these situations, because users often come across objects they cannot identify with their canes, even if they are trained to do so,” said Ouzan. “Sensors may provide an answer to this problem.”

A third problem the groups will attempt to tackle will be a way for kids to easily call for help when they need it, such as right before someone attempts to abduct or molest them. “The solution may be providing a ‘panic button’ on devices, based on either hardware or software,” said Ouzan. The groups will present their solutions for these and other problems at the Hackathon’s closing session Tuesday night.

If there’s anyone qualified to run a program nurturing start-up and entrepreneurial skills for Jewish youth from abroad, it’s Ouzan, who is the founder and CTO of BillGuard, a hugely successful mobile phone app that helps users keep track of their spending, helping them to avoid “gray charges,” charges added to their credit card bills for services they didn’t actually order, want, or need, such as “upgrading” a service from a free “basic” level to a “premium” one (with a premium price, of course), unintended renewals of memberships or insurance, and so forth.

Ouzan came to Israel when he was 16, so he is quite aware of how non-Israelis can contribute to the tech infrastructure in Israel. “I came to Israel via the Naaale program, which provides opportunities for young Diaspora Jews to study in Israel, and decided to stay.” In the IDF’s Unit 8200, Ouzan said, he used his skills to help the army with several important (and of course, top-secret) projects. “I felt I was making a contribution in the army, and I was very hesitant to leave – but I did want to try some of my ideas in the civilian world,” he said. “With the Israel Tech Challenge, I feel I am making a contribution to Israel, so I don’t have to feel guilty about leaving the IDF.”

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