Hi-tech ulpan

Two new ‘incubator immersion’ projects provide start-ups with space, support, guidance, mentoring – and the morning coffee

Top Center's 'tech immersion space' in Haifa (Courtesy)
Top Center's 'tech immersion space' in Haifa (Courtesy)

Those who want to learn Hebrew are advised to attend an ulpan, an immersion course where they are required to speak, think, and study in Hebrew. For many immigrants, it’s the best way to make sure that Hebrew “sticks.” The same holds true for hi-tech entrepreneurs; if you want to learn how to run a business and make it succeed, you should immerse yourself in an environment where successful hi-tech entrepreneurs work.

That’s the theory behind several new hi-tech “incubator immersion” projects that have cropped up in Israel this year. One, started by no less than Google, is bringing early stage companies with promising ideas to work in a special section of its Tel Aviv R&D center, in the hope that entrepreneurs will be able to get inspiration from “The Google Way.” And a second program, recently started by Haifa-based incubator hiCenter, has the distinction of being both the only incubator immersion space in the north, and one of only two incubator spaces that serve later-stage startups who are already past the initial startup stage and have a proven product or technology.

Google, of course, has long had an appreciation for Israeli innovations, Yossi Matias, director of Google’s R&D center in Israel, said in a recent interview. Google’s Israel team has developed technology which is now part of some of Google’s most important products, including Google Trends, Google Suggest, Google Insights for Search, and others. Matias realizes that there are a lot more great ideas out there, and he would love to bring them into the “Google orbit,” he says. “We have been considering ideas to contribute to the developer community, especially to projects in their early stages, where we can have the biggest impact on their ability to succeed.”

Google won’t necessarily be supplying cash to new companies in the program, but they will supply free office space, infrastructure, network and server services, and so on. “Entrepreneurs will have an opportunity to work with Google engineers and programmers, as well as experts from outside the company, who will be able to inspire and help them,” Matias said. About 20 start-ups have been chosen for the program, which is set to begin operating early this year. Google is not committing itself to entering into any business arrangements with the selected entrepreneurs. Still, Matias noted that he would be more than happy to add a great idea or product to Google’s lineup.

Immersion is also the watchword at topCenter, a new incubator immersion space run by Haifa’s hiCenter. Of course, topCenter is no Google, but the space has its own vibe that works just fine, says hiCenter director Eli Kulas. “TopCenter is a place where young entrepreneurs from Haifa and the North can meet to work together, exchange ideas, and receive guidance from mentors,” Kulas said. The operation is similar to active programs in New York, London, and Silicon Valley, he added.

And hiCenter can offer the companies that set up shop in topCenter something beyond guidance and inspiration: The organization provides up to a million and a half shekels (about $400,000), or up to 75% of a start-up’s annual budget, to companies in its incubator program. Thus, topCenter will not only provide space to budding entrepreneurs; it will help hiCenter find promising later-stage startups that already have a working technology or prototype and are prepared to explore going to market.

That funding comes from investors that hiCenter works with, as well as from the Chief Scientist’s Office. Over the past three years, hiCenter says, it has invested in 15 startups in the areas of cleantech, networks, software development, and more. Among the companies in hiCenter’s portfolio are the innovative cellphone app Lexifone, which lets users speak to someone on their cellphone in one language, while the listener hears them in another. Thus, a user in England who wants to take a vacation in France can use the app and make reservations with a hotel while speaking English – while the agent on the other end of the line hears the request in French.

On the other hand, where Google is offering free space to its start-ups , those at topCenter will have to pay rent. But the rent is a reasonable 300 shekels a month, for which they get internet, support services, meeting rooms – and an all important “coffee area,” essential for any startup.

But the most important aspect of topCenter, said Kulas, was its location. While Haifa is a big city, northern Israel in general is not known as a cutting-edge hi-tech area, at least as far as infrastructure and services are concerned. “TopCenter is part of our efforts to turn Haifa and the north into an advance hi-tech zone.” In a statement, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said that he and the city appreciated the effort,and added that, “We will continue to support technology efforts that will ensure that Haifa retains its appeal and attraction to young entrepreneurs.”

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