Hundreds of investors and corporate tech executives previously unfamiliar with the ultra-Orthodox community got a pleasant surprise last Wednesday in New York when over a dozen Haredi entrepreneurs presented their advanced products and technologies, said the co-founder with Zika Abzuk, a senior manager at Cisco, of an Israeli accelerator that specializes in helping ultra-Orthodox Israelis bring their high-tech ideas to life.
That took place at the Kamatech Demo and Investor Day, in which members of the accelerator prepared presentations to show off their technologies in the hope of building funding and business relationships.
“There was an unprecedented response in the investor community for this event,” Moshe Friedman, CEO of Kamatech, said. “It was standing-room only at the Microsoft Technology Center in Times Square. The guests were just amazed at the quality of the technologies presented by the six start-up firm members of Kamatech that attended the event.”
Well-known in the Israeli investor community, Kamatech decided to try its luck in New York and to appeal to new investors – who responded enthusiastically, said Friedman. “Both investors and large tech companies, including Microsoft and others, expressed great interest in the technologies presented by the Kamatech start-ups. There are definitely going to be a number of business deals coming out of the event.”
There are several accelerators and incubators for ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs, but Kamatech was the first, and so far the most successful, said Friedman.
“Over the last four months in the program, the companies have already raised $3.5 million from various investors, the Chief Scientist’s Office in Israel, angel investors and venture capital funds. In addition the eight companies in the accelerator have hired 44 employees, demonstrating that they are building great start-ups with tremendous potential. Beyond developing fantastic technologies, each of these entrepreneurs serves as a great example of bridging the gap between Haredim and other parts of the Israeli society.”
Once unthinkable, the idea of an officially sanctioned tech accelerator that is supported by the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community has become more accepted in recent years as the community realizes it needs to develop business leaders in order to maintain its lifestyle.
“There is definitely much more support for this than there was in the past,” said Ariel Finkelstein, one of Kamatech’s leading mentors. “Breadwinners who have to feed their kids have found tech to be an excellent way to earn a good living, and the demand is growing.”
The members of Kamatech say they have had no problem being accepted in the secular world. “Sometimes people give me a second look, as if they are surprised to see me in a business setting wearing modest clothes and with covered hair,” said one of the female entrepreneurs at the Kamatech inauguration day event in Tel Aviv last May. “But as soon as they hear what we are offering” – in her company’s case, a platform for corporate communications – “we get right down to business, and there are no questions as to my lifestyle. Nobody cares.”
Friedman, Finkelstein, and other figures in the Israeli tech world decided that the time was right for an accelerator like Kamatech, and after much discussion with the leading lights of the Haredi community established the project in 2013. As they began recruiting backers and participants they met with unprecedented response.
Among the volunteers who helped establish the program were Israel’s “grandfather of tech” Yossi Vardi, MobilEye inventor Professor Amnon Shashua, disk-on-key inventor Dov Moran, Wix co-founder and CEO Avishai Abrahami, and Adi Soffer-Teeni, Facebook Israel CEO.
Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Google, Citi, PWC, and many more have has also been major sponsors of the program, providing facilities, mentors, and business connections. A coalition of angels and VCs – among them Pitango Venture Capital, Vintage Venture Partners,I zhar Shay, managing partner of Canaan partners Israel, and others – are funding the program.
The project has received massive support from the Chief Scientist’s Office and the UJA Federation of New York. the Kemach Foundation, which for years has provided employment counseling and training, as well as scholarship assistance, for members of the ultra-Orthodox community who want to get into the job market.
The eight firms accepted into Kamatech when the program began last spring (chosen out of over 200 applicants) run the gamut of the tech industry, from big data to artificial intelligence to financial technology. Among the graduating companies are Cognilyz, which has developed a product recommendation tool for e-commerce based on theories of behavior; Pojo.me, a drag and drop website builder platform for professional web designers; WorkCapital, which provides immediate working capital relief for millions of underserved and overcharged small and medium businesses; and ProgUp, which developed an online marketplace for all types of freelance work in the field of visual communications.
Two of the firms were unable to make the trip to New York, said Friedman. “In one there were family issues, and the other was celebrating the bar mitzvah of their eldest child over Shabbat.” But they, too, will get their chance to present to investors; a second demo/investors day is planned for New York early next year.
With the first round of Kamatech closing, the accelerator is gearing for its second session, and Friedman anticipates a far greater response.
“We are extremely proud of this group of entrepreneurs and truly believe that they represent the future of how we should be approaching the integration of the ultra-Orthodox population into our workforce,” he said. “There is a lot of great talent in our community, and Kamatech is proud to be the vehicle that brings it to the world.”