CJN Spotlight On Einstein Gala’s Uri Levine

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CJN header - Uri Levine

by PAUL LUNGEN

Uri LevineUri Levine might just be the prototypical Israeli entrepreneur, the fleshand- blood incarnation of start-up nation. Co-founder of Waze, the world’s largest community-based navigation app, he went on to invest in other high-tech startups after Google bought the Israeli company for a reported $1.1 billion. Levine will be the featured guest at the third annual Einstein Gala, which will be held on May 24 (Jerusalem Day) in Toronto and hosted by Canadian Friends of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The gala will celebrate Jerusalem and Hebrew University as places of innovation, creativity and discovery, while proceeds from the event will go toward building the Einstein Research and Visitor Center in Jerusalem.

One of your bios describes you as an “expert in innovation and entrepreneurship,” and cites your creativity. How does one become an expert in these areas?
I wouldn’t define myself as such, just a serial entrepreneur and disruptor. I look for problems that are worth solving and try to solve them.

In business, is creativity something a person is born with, or is it something that can be learned?
Creativity is one thing, entrepreneurship is another. The difference between entrepreneurs and other people is their attitude towards change. Other people are afraid of change. Entrepreneurs are looking forward to change. You are born with some and life either empowers it or discourages it.

We hear that Israel is a successful start-up nation because of its human capital. Many of the country’s innovators attribute their success to the training they received in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) intelligence services. Were you a part of one of those IDF units and, if so, how did it prepare you for the world of business?
Yes, I was part of one of the more famous special units. I would say the IDF brings a lot of benefits in your preparation for real life, with a can-do attitude, never give up, the ability to solve problems, the ability to form teams, leadership. They are all critical in the journey of a startup. In that sense, any meaningful IDF service will provide you with the tools and skill set needed to face reality later.

What would you say are the most necessary characteristics of a successful start-up entrepreneur?
Understanding the problem we are trying to solve, focus and determination.

How do you measure success? Is it in the number of companies that become successful, or is it in the big payday?
How about the number of people for whom you’ve created value, or the sum of the value you’ve created for your users?

You are perhaps most well-known for co-developing Waze. How and why did you come up with the idea?
Waze’s main thing is to help people reduce their commute time, in particular on your drive to places that you do know, rather than places you don’t know. And I hate traffic jams.

Is it true that despite selling Waze for $1.1 billion, you exited with “only” $38 million? If so, who got the rest of the proceeds of the sale?
I actually think it was less than that, and after taxes, it was much less than that. The investors at Waze had the lion’s share of the shares and therefore got most of the money. Founders and employees got the rest. All the employees at Waze had share options at the time, so they all were rewarded.

Did you splurge after getting $38 million for your share of Waze?
Again, the amount was much smaller than that and I’m spending most of it on investing in new startups that I build.

About the start-ups: are you putting your own money into the companies, and what do you look for in a company?
I mostly build my own startups (FeeX, Engie, FairFly, SpamOff), invest or serve on the board of some others (Moovit, Zeek, Roomer) and plan to build few more this year and next year.

I look for a real problem that is worth solving; that will create a lot of value for a lot of people. I start with the team (mainly the CEO) to see that they have what it takes in terms of leadership, understanding the market and ability to make hard decisions.

FeeX describes itself as helping people reduce hidden fees in their financial transactions. How does FeeX do that? Don’t the fees buy better advice and enhanced returns for investors?
Really? Do you even know how much fees you’re paying on your retirement plan? Do you even know what you are trying to achieve in terms of returns?

Financial fees are the biggest secret in the world. There are probably about $70 billion in fees in Canada every year and the scary part is that people don’t even know they are paying them.

If your fees on your retirement are just one per cent a year, it means that during your saving period of many years, you will be paying in fees about one-third of your lifetime savings. This is how bad it is.

FeeX built a system that analyses your fees of all sorts and tells you how much you are paying in dollars, not in basis points, and how much it will be accumulated during your saving period.

FeeX essentially establishes transparency and therefore forces everyone to play fair.

How is Canada seen by Israeli entrepreneurs and business people when it comes to finding a place to put their money, or to find partners, or to raise money from wealthy investors, or to sell their products?
To be frank, either the United States will be their first market, or other markets like Europe, Asia, Latin America. No one will go to Canada first. Only once a U.S. GTM (Go To Market) is making traction will theCanadian market be considered.

Does Hebrew University’s role in promoting Israeli entrepreneurs and the high-tech sector have special importance to you?
At the end of the day, entrepreneurs are changing the world into a better place, and nearly all the amazing large companies we are seeing today used to be a startup (Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle, Uber, Facebook, Waze). There are two factors to accelerate it, entrepreneurs and academic research. I support them both.

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