Nazareth start-ups seek a place in Tel Aviv tech scene

12 Nazareth-based start-up companies pitch their projects to an audience of innovation-hungry Tel Aviv investors

Noor Afifi, the 16 year old CEO of Plan B, pitches his project to investors (Alan Weinkrantz)
Noor Afifi, the 16 year old CEO of Plan B, pitches his project to investors (Alan Weinkrantz)

A dozen Nazareth-based start-ups presented their technology to Tel Aviv tech investors last month in an event hosted by Thomas Genton, the public affairs counselor at the US Embassy, at his Herzliya home in order to introduce the relatively new Nazareth start-up ecosystem to its better established Tel Aviv big brother.

As an Arab town (with a mixed population of Muslims and Christians) far away from the center of the country, Nazareth’s tech scene doesn’t get top billing in the Israeli media. Hence the Herzliya event, designed to remove one of the main obstacles to “breaking through,” said one entrepreneur, Jamil Mazzawi from Optima Design Automation.

“We need to get people to know about us,” said Mazzawi, whose firm develops software that corrects “soft-error,” the technical term for dust particles that get into the air of the “clean room” fabrication areas of large companies such as Intel and Cisco and can short-circuit processors. “Our solution is 23,000 times faster than the ones offered by our competitors,” said Mazzawi.

The event was introduced by Fadi Swidan, co-founder of Nazdiv, the first technology start-up accelerator for the Arab community in Israel. During the program, representatives from the 12 companies introduced themselves in a one-minute pitch.

Among the start-ups, many were travel-related. The MemeThere team has created an algorithm to find an optimal destination for large numbers of people who are located in different parts of the globe and want to meet. “My girlfriend lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and I live in Haifa,” explained co-founder Wasseem Zaher. “Once, for her birthday, we decided to meet somewhere halfway in between to save time and money, and I realized there was no website that would help me find the ideal halfway point that was the easiest and cheapest to get to.”

Zaher, 30, was excited to be at the event, and said that he was part of a young generation in Nazareth that is “hungry for success. They hear many stories of success happening around them, so they start saying, ‘If they can do it, we can do it, too.’”

Although Zaher got the idea for his start-up from personal experience, MemeThere was created to meet the needs of large companies located in different countries or cities. The algorithm takes into account the location of each traveler and not only finds the best destination, but also provides information on the details of travel to all participants through an app.

Another entrepreneur, Leon Mazzawi, 31, had a social agenda in mind when he founded Glider. “There is a new, young community of travelers today, but it’s not connected or united,” he said. “Glider can create a synergy of travelers, connecting them especially during an emergency situation.”

A good example, said Mazzawi, was the recent earthquake in Nepal. Initially, dozens of Israelis were unable to call anyone because of damage to the many cellphone towers. GPS, however, was working, as it is satellite- not land-based – and Glider hooks into that system to provide location data for users of its app. With Glider, said Mazzawi, users would have been able to at least alert family members of their location.

Nazdiv's Fadi Swidan (Alan Weinkrantz)
Nazdiv’s Fadi Swidan (Alan Weinkrantz)

Nazareth is a relatively young town, and it boasts a group of teen entrepreneurs who have been developing their own innovative ideas. Among them is 16-year-old Noor Afifi, founder of social app Plan B.

“Let’s say I met a really nice girl at an event,” Afifi said, describing how Plan B works. “I may spontaneously decide to take her out on a date. An app like Plan B could help me find the closest restaurants, shopping centers, etc. to plan the perfect date.”

The app is still under development, and Afifi is constantly thinking of ways to improve it – but at the event, he was focused on one thing – his one-minute pitch in front of a hundred strangers. “I felt like during my first day of summer school,” he said afterwards, but observers said that he did just fine.

Until five years ago, the concept of a tech start-up was almost nonexistent in Nazareth. When the American Embassy decided to offer support to the entrepreneurs in the high-tech field, and the city experienced an immediate, almost radical change, many of those at the event said.

“We are trying to convince the people to believe in these entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneurs to believe in themselves,” said Genton.

To make it in Israeli tech, you have to make it in Tel Aviv, said Optima’s Mazzawi – and the Nazareth start-ups are determined to make sure that one of them make it big in the big city.

All the community needs is one success story to earn international attention – an that’s why the members of the ecosystem all support each other. “We have a double interest to succeed,” explained Jamil Mazzawi from Optima. “Our company’s interest and the entire community’s interest.”

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