US, Israel hold first conference to boost Arab participation in tech sector

While Arab Israelis have become more integrated into the local tech ecosystem, they still hold just 3% of R&D jobs though they are some 20% of the population

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Tarek Issa, the founder of Lofic, a collaborative music platform (YouTube screenshot)
Tarek Issa, the founder of Lofic, a collaborative music platform (YouTube screenshot)

There has been a rise in the integration of Arab Israelis in the country’s high-tech industry, according to new data from the Innovation Authority, which sets out the nation’s tech policies.

Arabs fill about 3 percent of the high-tech research and development positions, compared with less than 1% three years ago, the data shows.

In addition, within the past five years, there has been an increase of about 50 percent in the number of Arab Israeli college and university students studying subjects pertinent to high-tech R&D. According to the figures, over 2,000 Arab graduates earn computer science and engineering degrees annually.

“We believe in the Arab sector’s enormous potential to further integrate into the high-tech industry, both as employees and as entrepreneurs,” the CEO of the Israel Innovation Authority, Aharon Aharon, said on Tuesday, at the first US-Israel Investor Conference for Arab Start-Ups held in the city of Nazareth.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, with Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel at the first U.S. – Israel Investor Conference for Arab Start-Ups in Nazareth; Dec. 11, 2018 (Courtesy)

The conference was organized by the Israel Ministry for Social Equality and the United States Embassy in Israel, in a joint bid to boost the participation of Arab Israelis in Israel’s booming tech scene.

The idea for the conference was born several months ago when US Ambassador David Friedman visited the Nazareth Business Incubator Center and the Nazareth Industrial Park, and encountered the creativity of the entrepreneurs as well as the challenges they face in attracting investors. Following that visit, the US Embassy teamed up with the Ministry of Social Equality to co-sponsor the conference, to spotlight the vitality of Nazareth’s startup ecosystem, inviting investors from the US and Israel to meet the next generation of Arab entrepreneurs.

The conference “represents a joint US-Israeli effort to advance integration of the Arab community into the hi-tech sector, promote economic growth and a more inclusive society in Israel, as well as to create new partnerships between US and Israeli counterparts,” the US Embassy said in a statement.

In 2018, the Israel Innovation Authority widened its program for supporting initiatives led by Arab Israeli entrepreneurs. The Authority decided to extend the program from one year to two, with entrepreneurs becoming eligible to get funding for 75 percent of their R&D expenditures in the first year and 70% of their costs in the second year.

The goal of the program is to increase the number of Arab Israeli entrepreneurs; to reinforce the success of existing initiatives and bolster the Innovation Authority’s ability to support the growth of companies led by Arab Israeli entrepreneurs in the periphery of the country; to encourage research and development within the Arab Israeli community; and to encourage further integration of Arab Israelis into the high-tech industry, the authority said in a statement.

At the conference, some 30 Arab Israeli startups pitched their technologies to US and Israeli investors, leading to what could be investments totaling a few million dollars, the organizers of the conference said in a statement.

Among the startups were Healthymize, a Haifa-based firm that offers an AI-based voice technology that turns smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and other devices into health-monitoring tools; Nazareth-based Mobility Insight, which uses smart sensors and analytics to give commuters real-time information about the quickest way to get to their destination; and Haifa-based Lofic, which uses artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms to connect musicians and allow them to collaborate in creating music together.

The aim of the conference is to integrate Arab entrepreneurs in the high-tech industry, to encourage economic growth and create new business partnerships between Israelis and Americans, the statement said.

Israel is facing a shortage of some 15,000 programmers and engineers a year as startups flourish and multinationals set up R&D centers in the so-called Startup Nation. To overcome this shortage, new populations must be brought into the ecosystem, mainly those — women, ultra-Orthodox men and Arabs — who have been sidelined from the tech boom.

Indeed, although Arab Israelis comprise more than 20 percent of the local population, they represent only 8% of Israel’s gross domestic product, and only 3% of its R&D workers.

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel said at the conference that in 2019, the government will invest NIS 75 million ($20 million) in industrial areas of minority communities, of which NIS 21 million will be invested in the high-tech park in Nazareth.

“In the long term, peace in this region depends on the economic development and cooperation of people like you, Arabs, Jews, secular, religious, Israelis and Palestinians,” US Ambassador Friedman said at the conference. “The more we work together, the more we strengthen the foundation for a lasting peace in a land that has longed for such peace for far too long.”

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