High-tech diplomacy puts Israel and UK on the same page

The UK is very keen to promote relationships betwen Israeli start-ups and British entrepreneurs, ignoring the politics that usually frame the relationship between the two countries

Britain's Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, presents the 2012 TeXchange winners (Photo credit: Mati Milstein/British Embassy)
Britain's Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, presents the 2012 TeXchange winners (Photo credit: Mati Milstein/British Embassy)

Israel and Britain may have their differences, but there’s one issue that both sides enthusiastically see eye-to-eye on: making money, specifically in the area of high-tech. To that end, the UK has set up a technology center at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, with six full-time employees — the only such facility sponsored by any government at its embassy anywhere in the world — that is dedicated to encouraging partnerships between Israeli and British high-tech companies.

The center is called the UK-Israel Tech Hub. Established a year ago, the Hub last week culminated its most ambitious project so far: the selection of 15 Israeli start-ups to participate in its TeXchange program, which entails a free trip to London to become familiar with the London high-tech scene. There, they will meet other entrepreneurs involved in a variety of start-ups, and have a chance to check out incubators and other programs sponsored by the British government to help out young companies.

There has been a fair amount of tech cooperation between Israeli and British companies, especially in the areas of biotech and environmental technology, but the TexChange program is concentrating on spaces where new start-ups are likely to be working — gaming, adtech, mobile, e-commerce, social media and video, said Lucy Blechner, digital manager of the Tech Hub. “Israel is small but has a vast amount of knowledge and experience in high-tech and in start-ups,” she told The Times of Israel. “We believe that the innovation in Israel will help push forward the British economy and help us to develop new industries.”

What’s in it for Israeli companies? “We offer access to markets in the UK and Europe that Israeli companies would probably not have had access to,” said Blechner. In addition, the British government is prepared to provide help to Israeli companies in finding affordable office and development space, connections in industry, and so on. And the Tech Hub is not just a project of a small group in the British Embassy in Tel Aviv; the outreach to Israeli start-ups has wide support in the British government, to the extent that Tech Hub was inaugurated by no less than George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, on his visit here last year.

The 15 TexChange winners will visit London next month on a three-day trip, where they will participate in “Meet the Customer” and “Meet the Investor” events set up with leading British firms, attend tech networking events, experience mentoring sessions with industry gurus, and participate in a tour of London’s “Tech City,” where many of London’s new start-ups are located. The program also brings British entrepreneurs to Israel to meet their entrepreneurial counterparts and identify collaboration opportunities, a Tech Hub official said.

A group of 50 British entrepreneurs, members of the ICE (International Conclave of Entrepreneurs) group, visited Israel last week to participate in the many tech events surrounding the DLD (Digital Life Design) festival in Jaffa. Leading the group was Alex Hoye (CEO, Latitude Digital), who said that the group was “overwhelmed” by what they saw here. “We wanted to see what drives Israeli innovation,” he told The Times of Israel. “Israel has always had that edge.” The UK has a lot of advantages, at least on paper — but it has been nowhere as successful as Israel in developing high-tech companies. “We have a lot of innovation in areas like media and design, but we don’t push ourselves like the Israelis. We want and need more of the Israeli innovative spirit in Britain,” he said.

British entrepreneurs “don’t give a fig about politics,” said Chris, one of the members of the ICE delegation. “The bottom line for all of us entrepreneurs, Israeli and British, is the bottom line — how to make money, how to promote our technologies.” Perhaps surprisingly, Chris wasn’t even aware of the large BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction) movement against Israel in the UK; when asked about the politics of having a relationship with Israel, he focused on the possibility of war between Israel and Iran, saying that “I personally am not scared of that. But regarding the politics of the Palestinian issue, most of us in the tech community don’t even think about it. “There are two sides to every political story,” Chris told The Times of Israel, “and the governments are the ones who are involved in the politics. We in the business world are involved in business.”

With the goal of bringing together Israeli and British entrepreneurs, the Tech Hub organized an event that had the ICE delegation, the TexChange winners, and dozens of Israeli entrepreneurs meet and greet, with the event presided over by Britain’s Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould. And out of all the things he does as ambassador, Gould told the entrepreneurs, “promoting tech cooperation between Israel and Britain is the thing I care about most.

“Why are we investing so much time and effort into this? Because, when I first took this post, I saw what the ICE group saw — that Israel is full of innovative and disruptive technology,” said Gould. Israeli companies would certainly benefit from their relationship with London-based start-ups, said Gould. “Britain has so much to offer a start-up, including research facilities and access to markets,” as well as the fact that “we are both practically in the same time zone, an important factor for the young families that are usually involved in start-ups.”

But it would be Britain that would be the big winner in this relationship. “If we could just persuade a portion of the Israeli companies that see their future in Silicon Valley to come to London, it would be great for the British economy,” the ambassador said. And it would make his own job much more pleasant. “In the high-tech world, the relationship is not about the differences between our countries, but about building a positive relationship — to do something that helps both Israel and Britain.”

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