One of the world’s most spectacular tech investor conferences took place over a few days in Jerusalem, making clear what makes successful innovation economies thrive
Last week I attended the OurCrowd investor conference in Jerusalem. OurCrowd is one of the world’s fastest growing investment platforms – a great example of the so called ‘democratization of venture capital' – and focuses predominantly on Israel, but also invests across the globe in the planet’s most promising start-ups.
The conference and activities spanned three days and I joined the group that on day one toured Jerusalem’s tech sector visiting the city’s key start-ups, the Mass Challenge incubator as well as the Alyn Children’s Hospital. The latter brought back the point that whatever we do as investors, it is not just about making money, creating a better society for all is an essential part of our journey. Under the guidance of Arie Melamed Yokel the hospital runs an active innovation center developing new technologies to help children and our tour of the facility was both moving and inspiring. Ensuring all participate in the benefits from innovation was the key message also from Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who we met for a longer discussion during the tour. She illustrated how the city’s underprivileged populations will need a hand and be given an opportunity to participate in the growth generated by tech, and bringing these groups into the fold is a priority of the city.
And growth in Israel of course has been spectacular due to a unique mix of circumstances. While the world at large has benefitted from the venture and innovation boom, Israel has been one of the most successful ones. The need for innovation driven by its need for security, the high level of maturity that young Israelis have because of time spent in the army (as opposed to most of their Western counterparts), the typical Israeli traits of chutzpah and impatience and the mission oriented nature of solving the impossible have combined to fuel the start-up economy. This is not exactly a new story, Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book on this was published in 2009, but the notable thing is how Israel is now moving from start-up to scale-up and building larger firms in IT, AI, Lifesciences, Agri and Cleantech in a way not seen before.
Part of the success is also the Israeli government which has fairly generous, but also incredibly effective funding programs. Over the years I have met with Canadian and Dutch officials, all of whom keep tinkering with start-up funding models and then you wonder why they just do not copy the way Israel has done things as it works, spectacularly.
Having twenty years of venture activity under my belt, I think I know what works and what does not. In the end it’s a people’s business and during one of the conference’s panels VC Judah Taub put it succinctly when he said that, ‘at a first meeting, an entrepreneur is selling trust, that’s all’. Well, there was no shortage of local entrepreneurs selling their business and their trust to me, it was amazing to see what incredible ventures are being built all over Israel and all are addressing real issues the world is struggling with. OurCrowd’s CEO Jon Medved was able to weave all these pieces together in some pointed talks during the summit day and highlighting again how tech has a social obligation and can be an agent of good as he proudly put up a slide of all the Arab nations tuning into see what was going on at the packed convention centre in Jerusalem. Medved expressed the hope that at the next conference they could be there in person. At the same time the Coronavirus got a lot of attention with beamed in video messages from China and Medved pointing to the companies in the room that were already working hard on helping to find vaccination solutions. Israel more than any nation understands the geopolitical forces pulling the world today and the need to be strategically positioned between the various superpowers. Leveraging both the USA and China relationships is something Israel seems to have mastered, and no, I am not endorsing any candidate in the upcoming Israeli election.
It was towards the end of the summit day that author Saul Singer pointed to the long and productive life of his father as evidence of what works in life. He had asked his father about it and the old Singer indicated that finding the balance of being rooted in the past while fully embracing the future was the right formula. It echoed Shimon Peres’ words in his book, ‘No Room for Small Dreams’ where the late politician’s longevity was driven by that very same quest for overcoming all possible barriers.
Now, I have lived and travelled all over the world and I agree, there is practically no nation on the planet that is so confident in being defined and attached to its past, but also so fearless in building a radically different and better future. As the attendees spilled over to Jerusalem’s central market (‘the shuk’) for food, beer and dance I reflected and said that if I were thirty years younger I’d move to Israel to be part of all of this to which someone said, ‘nothing to do with age, you can go anytime’. And maybe I will.
The conference inspired and provided a template on how to drive innovation and investment towards success. A lot of countries should take a note and see how they can learn from Israel. At the same time the insanely good Israeli food and energized crowd should give all of us good reason to go to next year’s edition of this truly incredible event.