Turkish tech pro seeks to build bridges with Israeli start-ups

Political rhetoric seen unlikely to obstruct what may to turn into a major relationship between 2 improbable partners

TheHive Ashdod participants speaking with Ashdod mayor Yehiel Lasri at the Ashdod office (Photo credit: Courtesy)
TheHive Ashdod participants speaking with Ashdod mayor Yehiel Lasri at the Ashdod office (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel’s newest start-up partner is one of the unlikeliest – but according to Turkish businessman Cagdas Onen, there is no reason that this country and Israel can’t get along, at least on tech.

“My vision is to create a bridge for start-ups and investors, each coming and going in each direction for the mutual benefit of both our countries,” Onen told The Times of Israel.

In recent years, Israelis have come to think of Turkey as a hostile entity, or at least one Israelis would be advised to stay away from. A decade ago, Turkey was one of the top tourist destinations for Israelis but that tourist trade – and many other aspects of the Israel-Turkey relationship – came to an abrupt end after the 2010 Turkish flotilla incident. While tourism has recovered somewhat since then, Turkey is still seen by many Israelis as a place to avoid.

And yet trade between the two countries has remained constant. In 2014 an all-time trade record was set, with $5.44 billion in imports and exports between the two countries; Israel exported slightly more to Turkey than it imported. Some 70% of exports to Turkey are chemicals, while Israel imports a wide range of industrial products – cars, ceramics, textiles, as well as food — from Turkey.

But most of that trade is in commodities and industrial supplies, sales of which are direct and to the point – a quick phone call or an Internet order is all it takes to get the goods on their way. Tech investments and start-up cooperation, however, requires much more intimate relationships, more of the “human factor.” Given the tension between both countries, are those kind of relationships even possible?

Cagdas Onen (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Cagdas Onen (Photo credit: Courtesy)

“I can’t answer for the Israeli side, but I don’t see it as a problem for Turks,” said Onen, who for over two decades has worked as a business consultant with dozens of Turkish companies.

“I don’t want to give the wrong impression,” said Onen. “There are people with very strong opinions. But Turkey is a big country, and has a very diverse set of opinions about a lot of subjects. Many people in Turkey have read the book ‘Start-Up Nation,’ and Saul Singer, one of the book’s co-authors, even spoke in Istanbul recently. The event was sold out, and participants said that they really enjoyed his talk, and looked forward to hearing from more Israelis.”

Onen is in Israel this week to participate in unique tech event – Startup Fusion 2015, in which Onen is teaming up with Israeli accelerator TheHive and Japanese tech incubator Samurai Incubate to hear over a dozen Israeli, Japanese, and Turkish start-ups that will compete for a $100,000 seed investment to be provided by Samurai Incubate.

The goal of the event, said Patricia Lahy-Engel, director of TheHive, is to bring Turkish, Japanese, Israeli startups and investors to pitch their ventures to the global start-up community and to create an international synergy between Japan, Israel and Turkey based on entrepreneurship, collaboration and innovation.

Patricia Lahy-Engel (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Patricia Lahy-Engel (Photo credit: Courtesy)

“TheHive, which is sponsored by Gvahim, a nonprofit organization that helps new immigrants and is a subsidiary of the Rashi Foundation, is one of the most ‘international’ tech accelerators in Israel, so it’s appropriate that we sponsor an event like this, which brings together entrepreneurs and investors from very diverse backgrounds,” said Lahy-Engel. “Three start-ups from Turkey will be participating, and that is due to the hard work of Cagdas Onen, who has been trying to develop tech relations between Israel and Turkey for years.”

Like Onen, Lahy-Engel believes that tech can be an important bridge between Israel and Turkey. “I used to manage the Israel office of the Disney corporation, and we were part of the Europe-Middle East-Africa division, which included the Istanbul office,” she said. “I used to travel to Turkey on a regular basis, and was always welcomed by my colleagues there. Politics were always kept out of the office, and it’s clear that entrepreneurship is stronger than politics.”

It was the book “Start-Up Nation” that set Onen on his career of building bridges with Israel, he said. “It’s on the top ten list of books entrepreneurs are supposed to read, and after I read it I decided to come to Tel Aviv and check things out for myself.” He met with entrepreneurs from some of the big multinationals in Israel, as well as colleagues from the Israeli R&D facility of Yandex, the Russian search engine, where Onen works at his “day job.”

Meeting Israeli entrepreneurs, Onen came away impressed by their drive, abilities, and intelligence, and made it his mission to spread the message of tech relations with Israel in his home country.

That message appears to be getting through.

“There is much more awareness of Israel as a start-up destination nowadays, and recently the Turkish Foundation of Entrepreneurship sent 40 students to Israel to tour companies like Wix and Google, and to meet with entrepreneurs in Israel. These young people, most of them college-aged or just beyond, had no problem with the idea of working with Israel. The new generation looks at Israel differently – and much more positively – and politics is unlikely to put an end to that.”

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