Jerusalem elbows its way into a spot on Israel’s tech scene

A weeklong initiative brings foreign entrepreneurs to Jerusalem to give them a feel of the holy city’s startup buzz

Foreign entrepreneurs attend a talk as part of the StartJLM program; November 7, 2017 (Times of Israel)
Foreign entrepreneurs attend a talk as part of the StartJLM program; November 7, 2017 (Times of Israel)

Move over Tel Aviv. It’s Jerusalem’s turn to take center stage on the startup scene.

That could be the slogan of a weeklong pilot program, StartJLM, that drew young entrepreneurs from 24 countries around the world to take part in an all-expenses paid insider tour of Jerusalem’s startup ecosystem.

The project is the result of a partnership between the Jerusalem Development Association (JDA), the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the Foreign Ministry, which collaborated to organize startup competitions run out of Israeli embassies worldwide, bringing the winners to Jerusalem. In Israel the entrepreneurs will attend workshops, meet potential investors, tour cultural sites and visit Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea.

On Sunday, the first day of the program, participants were greeted with talks by representatives of the startup scene, including Start-up Nation central executive director Wendy Singer and VC representatives from PICO Venture Partners and Jerusalem Venture Partners.

On Monday, the visiting entrepreneurs attended a series of workshops by players in the Jerusalem startup scene, zipping around the city by bus as the diverse crowd discussed their experiences and compared and contrasted the startup ecosystems of their countries of origin. Workshops included a talk with FreshBiz founder Simcha Gluck, branding startup Message Experts, DIY lifestyle firm Hometalk and social media image tool-builders Lightricks.

Foreign entrepreneurs chill out in Jerusalem during the StartJLM program. November 6, 2017 (Times of Israel)

The idea for StartJLM started when JDA director of Business & Industry Development, Itzik Ozer, told Ran Natanzon, of the Foreign Ministry, that Tel Aviv doesn’t always have to be the window to Israel. “You can show them Jerusalem,” Ozer said. That started the ball rolling:  expenses were split between the two bodies and Israeli embassies were tasked with coordinating contests to attract startups. The aim? To attract a major startup R&D center to Jerusalem in the next 2-4 years, Ozer said.

In recent years Jerusalem’s startup ecosystem has surged, in terms of companies — largely in the medical, pharma and biotech fields — and visibility, going from around 250 companies six years ago to more than 600 today. VC investment in the city hit $260 million in 2015, according to Ozer. The city is the home to automotive tech firm Mobileye, among others, which in March got acquired by Intel for a whopping $15.3 billion. Jerusalem will now be the seat of Intel’s self-driving vehicle developments in Israel. And Boston-based accelerator giant MassChallenge opened up in the city in 2016.

Ozer said that this startup renaissance reflects the ancient city’s intrinsic diversity, all the components of which — the Arab, Jewish, religious and Haredi populations — can both contribute to and benefit from the startup ecosystem.

From car-repair shacks to startups

“It’s a vibrant, new city,” said Ozer in a phone interview. The neighborhood of Talpiot used to be a rundown part of the city peppered with car-parts and car-repair shacks, he said, as an example. “Now, we have more than 60 startups based in Talpiot.”

For the startup entrepreneurs on the program, visiting Israel is an opportunity to learn, but most of all to network, with local counterparts and potential investors.

“Meeting other companies is always interesting,” said David Greenburg, of Eave, while being bused between the JVP’s media headquarters near Abu Tor and Hometalk’s sprawling rooftop offices. Greenburg’s startup is developing what he claims is the world’s “first intelligent ear-defenders,” a headset that in addition to protecting against sound pollution monitors the environment and the audio intake of the user.

Romanian entrepreneur Cosmin Pirvu, whose Denmark-based startup Intelflows tackles air pollution, agreed.

“First and foremost, the network,” he said.

For Niccolo Calandri, from Como, Italy, the trip was a chance to interact with a startup ecosystem that to him seems healthier than the one in his home country.

“In Israel it’s quite different, you have the opportunity to do something,” said Calandri, whose 3Bee startup is developing beekeeping “hive-tech” for use in agriculture.

“Maybe you’re going to fail, but you have the opportunity to do that,” he said.

Filipino entrepreneur Sean Mark Mira said he would like to learn skills not only for his company, but to be able to create a better startup ecosystem in his country.

“The startup scene within our city is really young,” said Mira, whose Wela School Systems startup develops school management systems, based in Makati City.

“I would like to get as much knowledge [as possible] and share it to our community.”

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