Reporter's notebookFallen pieces of Iron Dome and Hamas rockets are on display

Sderot ag-tech incubator becomes an unlikely oasis in the Gaza border warzone

NatureGrowth creates free public coworking space amid post-October 7 chaos, providing quiet respite for IDF soldiers, police officers, reservists and civilians

NatureGrowth COO Ben Friedman, pictured with IDF soldiers using NatureGrowth's SafeSpace in December 2023 (Ben Friedman)
NatureGrowth COO Ben Friedman, pictured with IDF soldiers using NatureGrowth's SafeSpace in December 2023 (Ben Friedman)

As rockets rained down on the city of Sderot in the weeks following the October 7 Hamas invasion, police officers, IDF soldiers, and foreign press correspondents found an unlikely oasis amid the chaos: the NatureGrowth agriculture tech incubator.

Just prior to the onslaught that hurled the country into war, NatureGrowth’s founders, COO Ben Friedman and CEO Oren Heiman, were all set for their company’s October 15 launch.

They had established their offices in the center of Sderot, aiming to create a global agriculture tech hub in the Gaza border area. They were equipped to provide management support, lab space, and offices to promising ag-tech startups primarily focused on food security and climate change.

Then, one week before the incubator was to open its doors, Friedman and Heiman suddenly found themselves with a piece of property in the center of an active warzone, and nobody was willing to work there.

On October 7 — when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel, murdering some 1,200 civilians and kidnapping 252 into the Gaza Strip — over 100 Hamas gunmen roamed throughout the city of Sderot, shooting people on the streets and in their homes. The police station, just a few minutes’ walk from NatureGrowth’s building, was reduced to rubble by a fierce battle between security forces and gunmen holed up inside that lasted over a day. At least 70 people were killed, and in the days following the attack, rocket fire continued to rain down, with several homes suffering direct hits.

Undeterred by the circumstances, NatureGrowth pivoted from its original plan and launched its SafeSpace initiative with donations from Bank Hapoalim and the Chicago-based Crown Family Foundation.

“[We wanted] to open a place for whoever wants to come and have a few hours of quiet,” Friedman told The Times of Israel in early May.

NatureGrowth ag-tech incubator, located in central Sderot, currently being used as a coworking space during the Israel-Hamas war (Maya Zanger-Nadis/Times of Israel)

Friedman and Heiman used the first two weeks of the war to fully furnish the first floor of their building and turn it into a publicly accessible coworking space.

The result is a high-ceilinged, sunlit cafeteria with a full kitchen and high-speed Wi-Fi, surrounded by well-appointed office spaces and meeting rooms.

“When we opened the place, it was much louder,” recalled Friedman, looking around at the calm, quiet office. “There were a lot of red alerts [for incoming rockets]. We got hit twice.”

The building’s air conditioning unit was hit by rocket shrapnel multiple times, as were the front glass windows. All of these things were swiftly replaced, and the pieces of Iron Dome interceptors and Hamas’s Qassam rockets were put on display behind glass in the main cafeteria for everyone to see.

Remnants of rocket shrapnel that impacted the NatureGrowth building are displayed inside the coworking area, alongside a police vest from the Sderot Police Station battle (Maya Zanger-Nadis/Times of Israel)

At first, SafeSpace primarily served IDF soldiers and police officers, with some 90 percent of Sderot’s approximately 27,000 residents having left town in the days after the October 7 massacre and only beginning to return home en masse in late February.

Friedman joked that until businesses began opening back up in late January, NatureGrowth’s SafeSpace boasted “the best cup of coffee in Sderot.”

The soldiers, many of whom were reservists with responsibilities outside of their military obligations, eagerly took advantage of the Wi-Fi to do remote work. Others used the space as a quiet, clean escape from the school building they were living in. Eventually, Friedman and Heiman downsized the kitchen’s refrigerator to install a washing machine and dryer for the soldiers to use as needed.

As April came and went, the number of soldiers and police officers gradually subsided, and life in Sderot began to return to normal. Now, the most regular users of the space are nonprofits who felt a push to set up offices closer to the war front, such as Brothers in Arms and Hitorerut, or civilian-focused groups like Atid Laotef and Venatata.

NatureGrowth’s SafeSpace also serves as a community event space when needed, with different activities taking place daily. On May 7, for example, SafeSpace hosted a local Teachers Union workshop and a presentation for IDF intelligence corps soldiers by a police superintendent from Dimona who fought at Kibbutz Re’im on October 7.

People use NatureGrowth’s SafeSpace coworking area and cafeteria on May 7, 2024 (Maya Zanger-Nadis/Times of Israel)

Friedman added that tour groups use the SafeSpace as a pit stop on their way to and from tours of the kibbutzim on the Gaza border.

Although they intend to keep SafeSpace open until the end of 2024, NatureGrowth’s founders have not given up on the dream of putting the Gaza border area on the map for global ag-tech.

“The goal is, for the next 10 years, to invest in 80 different companies dealing with agriculture — mainly dealing with food security and climate change,” Friedman said.

Friedman referenced the company’s “Ten Commandments,” prominently displayed throughout the building. These commandments include promoting the city of Sderot and surrounding area, Israel’s ecosystem as a whole, and cooperating with Israel’s regional neighbors to broaden the ag-tech landscape of the Middle East.

NatureGrowth’s ‘Ten Commandments.’ (Maya Zanger-Nadis/Times of Israel)

“The idea is to just give hope and be a migdal or [beacon] for people to see the day after the war, without judgment,” he said. “If you want to come, just come. No obligations.”

Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.

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