Editor’s note: Lightricks, based out of Hebrew U, recently received additional funding and their valuation skyrocketed: “Israeli app start-up Lightricks raises $135m, valued at $1bn”.
Inbal Gottesman loves Jerusalem. Her unadulterated enthusiasm for the city is as evident when she speaks about being a born-and-raised Jerusalemite, as it is when she waxes poetic about her position as Start-Up Nation Central’s Jerusalem Ecosystem Manager.
Gottesman began her professional career in informal education and activism. Although seemingly different from her current work, making an impact on the world coupled with a sense of responsibility has always been her driving force.
“I grew up very privileged in a way; I had two working parents who were always pushing me to succeed,” Gottesman says. “When I went to the army, I was a soldier/teacher and I met Israeli society in its toughest moments. I was in a boarding school where I saw kids from low socio-economic backgrounds taken out of their homes because their parents were not functioning. That’s when it clicked that I had the ability to help others change their lives in many ways. That has motivated me ever since through my different paths.
“My first 10 years of professional experience were in the nonprofit world. At some point, I realized that while that world is great, I believe in social businesses – a way to actually create impact in this world that is sustained is through building businesses that have a double bottom line.”
Gottesman made a significant shift in her career and decided to move into the start-up world. As the Jerusalem Ecosystem Manager at Start-Up Nation Central, she is dedicated to creating impact, helping grow professional communities, and thinking strategically about how to continue to elevate Jerusalem around high-tech innovations and entrepreneurship. SNC does all of this as a part of a strategic work plan, with the goal of building bridges for Israeli innovation by connecting business, government, and NGO leaders from around the world and offering Israeli innovators access to high-potential and previously inaccessible markets. They do this through highly customized business engagements and through their free online platform for discovering and connecting with the thousands of relevant innovators. They also identify latent sectors and help them grow and develop, with a current focus on Digital Health, AgriFoodTech and Industry 4.0. This includes attracting investors and increasing collaboration.
As Gottesman explains it, SNC’s work in Jerusalem is a little different than their work in the rest of the country (headquarters are in Tel Aviv). In many ways, Jerusalem is a “beta site” where they try out new ideas and projects. If they work, they are then taken national. SNC aims to strengthen the Jerusalem ecosystem from within. Given the recent leap in terms of the number of start-ups in Jerusalem, it’s an exciting time for this kind of work. In 2012, there were fewer than 200 start-ups in the city – not exactly a vibrant scene.
“There was just not much here and not much money coming in,” Gottesman recalls. “People who were here had very to much do things for themselves, which is the Jerusalemite mentality anyway. These innovation change-agents started holding events where they were pitching for and to themselves.”
Jerusalem is both the largest and the poorest city in Israel. In addition, it constitutes the largest ultra-Orthodox, Arab and secular city, with approximately 900,000 people. This creates many complexities when attempting to address pretty much any issue in the city. All of this led the government to open the Jerusalem Development Authority, which in 2012, decided to invest in hi-tech in Jerusalem. They created government incentives that would draw start-ups here and help those that were already here to stay. Some of these incentives still exist, such as help with rent for Jerusalem-based start-up accelerator alumni and things of that sort.
That, together with all of the community work that was done, helped to grow and strengthen the city’s start-up landscape, so that in 2017 the number of start-ups rose to 450 – more than a 100% increase in five years. Jerusalem is now a rising star in the tech scene, which is a fact that Gottesman shares proudly. It was also in 2017 that SNC decided to more actively enter the city; conducting research to identify the biggest challenges, strengths and opportunities.
“We realized that academic institutions are one of the strongest assets this city has: Hebrew University, Bezalel Academy of Art & Design, and then six other institutions that all offer higher education,” Gottesman adds. “In many ways, Jerusalem is an academic city. If you look historically, a lot of innovative ecosystems are connected to academia. There is a constant flow of talent coming out of these incredible universities, who graduate and then think, what’s next for me?”
The most famous Jerusalem start-up is MobilEye, a vision-based advanced driver-assistance systems providing warnings for collision prevention and mitigation. Founder Amnon Shashua was a researcher and professor at Hebrew University who taught machine learning and artificial intelligence. At some point, he realized that what he was working on had significant commercial potential.
Hebrew U-based Lightricks, the team behind the award-winning and hugely popular application, Facetune, was founded by four students who were all studying to get their doctorates in machine learning and image processing. Again, they realized that their work was not just theoretical, but rather, that there was a real demand for it. Today, Facetune is one of the largest image-processing applications in the world. They decided to stay in Jerusalem, even after they became so successful, which is another feather in the hat of Jerusalem’s growth as a start-up city.
However, one of the challenges Jerusalem faces in this area is office space – there isn’t enough of it. Once a company is bigger than about 10 employees, they need their own office. The Jerusalem Development Authority recently built a complex inside Hebrew University called Kfar HaHi-tech in what was once the old dormitory buildings of the 1970s. Originally built as temporary housing for students, they were re-purposed in 2000 to become high-tech offices.
“I’m also a life coach, so I really believe that the way to solve challenges is by identifying strengths and understanding how you can use them to overcome the challenge,” Gottesman states. “We’re not going to have hundreds of office spaces overnight, so re-purposing spaces that are not in use anymore is using what we have. Although there are plans in motion to build more office spaces that will be amazing, both at Hebrew University’s Innovation Center and elsewhere.”
With revitalizing winds blowing through Jerusalem, SNC is focused on rebranding the city. For many people who have never been to Israel, thoughts of Jerusalem conjure up images of the Old City at best, and at worst, scenes of ultra-Orthodox protesting or terrorist attacks. SNC wants to change that and encourage those who have not yet been here as well as those who call Israel home, to think of Jerusalem as a hi-tech city.
“That’s one of the things we want to overcome here; changing the way people think about Jerusalem,” Gottesman says.
In this vein, SNC hosts Tech Forums a few times a year, attended by the leadership of Bezalel and Hebrew University, the Jerusalem Development Authority, CEOs of large companies in the city, and Tech Transfer Organizations (which commercialize the IP coming out of academia). After meeting at an academic forum that SNC hosted, the Azrieli College of Engineering, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and Hebrew University decided to join forces and apply for an NIS 20 million grant from the Higher Education Committee to build innovation centers within their institutions. They competed against universities such as the Technion and Tel Aviv University and won first place. These institutions understood that applying together as a coalition might be better than competing against one another. “I think that’s why they won,” Gottesman explains. “All of them working together is a game-changer. That’s just one example of the impact that is born from the type of convening that SNC does.
In terms of strengthening Jerusalem from within, SNC also hosts an HR Managers Forum and a CMO Forum. In their 2018 research, an element that stood out was a lack of professional development opportunities in Jerusalem, as well as a lack of connectivity between position-holders in different companies. This means, practically, that the CEOs know each other but the HR managers don’t. SNC created a series of professional forums with 10 to 15 HR managers, who meet once a quarter to discuss and learn. The most recent event was on July 18, with the theme of “Super Tools for HR.” This encompasses a plethora of Internet productivity tools that can greatly improve their jobs.
SNC also supports communities that already have an active base, but need help increasing their outreach to the community. With SNC’s help, those who already manage professional communities in Jerusalem can hold events and bring content to those communities. The best example of this is the machine learning community, called JerusML, which is the largest at about 1,000 people. These high-caliber monthly events help deepen knowledge in the field and bring more of those who are interested into the community; ensuring that they have the best tools and the best support.
“A report done for former mayor Nir Barkat a few years ago found that the creative class was one of the most important growth engines in the city,” Gottesman recalls. “Investing in the creative class is of paramount importance to Jerusalem so that they stay here. Another theory from that research was the cluster theory – identifying clusters or sectors of excellence and supporting them by strengthening them. This is similar to the community model that SNC is utilizing. What we identified from this is that there is a really strong creative class around design, connected to places like Bezalel. So we started a program called Tech Meets Design, where we create a nexus point between this amazing design community and the flourishing tech sector, in the hopes that it will help increase business connections and collaborations. What you see is that many tech companies bring in design into their products pretty late in the game. This could help change that.”
On June 13, SNC held a “Tech Meets Design” event at the Israel Museum, featuring 15 speakers from around the world with approximately 350 people in attendance. The participants broke down to 40% designers, 20% engineers, 10% academia, 10% CEOs, and 20% investors and others. The event was a real boost for the Jerusalem’s burgeoning hi-tech and design scene. Two months prior, on April 11, SNC held a “Tech Meets Design” event centered around what was expected to be the Beresheet Israeli space shuttle landing on the moon. SNC provided live streaming and hosted the former administrator of NASA, Daniel Goldin.
“We had really high-caliber people there and then the spacecraft crash-landed,” Gottesman shares. “Suddenly, we’re in this amazing event that we organized, where everyone was there to celebrate the landing, and it didn’t work. I was the emcee of the event. I went up and said, yes, we failed, but at the end of the day, you don’t succeed without failing. That’s the key message that came out of the crash landing. You can’t succeed if you don’t try and if you try, you’re most likely going to fail on your first or even your second and third attempts.
“But if you continue and don’t give up, that’s where the magic is – that’s where you can create products and companies that really change the world. I think that’s really an Israeli notion.”
For more information on SNC: www.startupnationcentral.org