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September 19th, Start Up Tel Aviv

by Marc Schulman


Tel Aviv is trying to return to normal. People here are working to forget the events of the summer, and once again return to being the innovation capital of the world (boasting more Start ups than anywhere – but Silicon Valley.) This week, Tel Aviv’s annual DLD Conference was held, with tech notable from around the world visiting to join in. True, this year there we're only 1,000 foreign participants (compared to the 2,000 who participated last year). However, none of the multi-national corporations (such as Microsoft, Yahoo, GM and more) pulled out. Furthermore, the selection of speakers was as distinguished as ever.

The city of Tel Aviv goes all out to highlight its role in technology, turning one of its grand boulevards into a robust tech fair for an evening. Exhibitors showed off some of their latest and greatest inventions in the middle of the thoroughfare, while, various technology meet ups took place in each of the bars and coffee shops along the avenue.

I attended one on digital tourism. Glenn Fogel, VP of Priceline who spoke, began his remarks declaring that in all his years in the travel sector, this was the first time he attended a public meeting in a cool bar – a tradition he thought should be continued. Ron Huldai, the popular Mayor of Tel Aviv, sauntered in, waved to the crowd and sat down to drink a beer, as he listened to the proceedings.

Guests arrived here from far and wide. Many came to learn from Tel Aviv, and to try to understand why Tel Aviv has become such a hub for innovation. I spoke to Martin Jensen, a young entrepreneur from Norway, who runs one of the few Norwegian start-ups. Jensen landed here to try to learn what makes Tel Aviv, (and Israel) so special. Part of it, Jensen thought was the fact that here, there is no choice. In Norway, he said, most people could easily live off of the nation’s oil wealth. In Israel that is not an option.

In a panel discussion including the heads of IBM, Microsoft, Google, Qualcomm and GM Israel, all of the regional directors agreed that their companies benefited greatly from their activities in Israel. All of these mega-corporation (except for GM), have been involved in and/or purchased numerous startups in Israel over the course of the past few years. The directors reported that in almost every case their new Israeli subsidiaries had grown substantially since the purchase. Politics intruded into the panel, when participants were asked whether the recent war had resulted in any negative feedback or concerns from the home office. The panelists were unanimous that that had not been the case.

Politics took a more significant role, when Tzipi Livini, Israel’s Justice Minister and former Foreign Minister participated in a fireside chat on the peace process with Steffi Czerny, Chairman of DLD conferences worldwide. The two of them had had a similar fireside last year. Steffi reminder the minister that last year she had been very optimistic that peace could be achieved, and she asked what happened. Livni could not give a good answer to that question – other than to talk about the fact that the process broke down (in her opinion, mostly due to Palestinian actions.) She stated Israel had accepted the framework agreement that the U.S. presented, while the Palestinians had not. Livni said it was a mistake on the part of the U.S. not to have published the framework proposals. When the discussion moved to ISIS, Steffi asked the big picture question: What is driving these youths to join ISIS, and what can we do to stop them? On this big question issue Livni was also unable to give a good answer and she admitted it. Livni is not alone. Since few seem to understand what is driving these Muslim youths to such extremes.

To me, the highlight of the conference was a session with former President Peres. I have heard Peres (who is now 91 years old) speak many times over the years, on a wide variety of topics – and I have never been disappointed. President Peres always brings new insights, and that day I was not disappointed, once again. This time, Peres spoke about innovation and change and Israel's role in embracing both. One of his comments that especially resonated with me was his call to allow all 16-year-old high school students to work a few hours each day in high-tech. According to Peres, students would gain much more out of hands-on experience in the high-tech industry than they would from their traditional studies. President Peres went on to suggest that the rest of us should only work six-hour days, but spend two hours every day studying – so we can keep up with the world. Without question, the true highlight of the conference happened a few minutes later – when some student from the Technion (Israel’s M.I.T.) demonstrated a virtual pinball machine to the President, together with the audience. Then, the former President was invited to play. We all got to see a 91-year play statesman play with the agility of a teenage gamer.

Tel Aviv residents wish that over the next weeks and months the stories of Tel Aviv will focus one of start-ups, buy-outs, and new investments – and not the story of the summer missiles and bomb shelters. As the season of the Jewish High Holidays nears, Tel Avivians hope, and some pray, for a return to quiet routine, but no one really knows what to expect.

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