Tel Aviv boasts 2,500 tech startups in a city of only 435,000 inhabitants. Let that sink in for a minute. Only China and the U.S. – which dwarf Israel in size and population – have more firms listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a CEO or coder to get a taste of Tel Aviv’s flourishing startup ecosystem. With new and innovative tours exploring the scene, alongside tech-focused museums and urban co-working spaces, visitors can now delve into the mainframe of Israeli innovation.
From the fourth floor of Start-Up Nation Central’s HQ, Tel Aviv’s skyline takes on a unique perspective. The white Bauhaus buildings and gleaming glass offices are speckled with dozens of brightly-colored dots. They shift and multiply with every turn of the head. Fortunately, I’m not hallucinating; just wearing one of the company’s virtual reality headsets, which map the startups populating neighboring buildings – over there is Blockchain-based digital property marketplace WeMark, a few doors away cannabis farming innovator Indorz, and in the distance, Amazon’s natural language processing R&D lab.
Ten years on from Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s groundbreaking book Startup Nation, Israel is still clearly streaking ahead in high-tech advances. It boasts the world’s largest number of startups per capital, despite being the size of New Jersey, and the highest investment of GDP in research and development. And in the latest boost to this tech titan status, Tel Aviv University recently announced a partnership with three major U.S. universities to establish an innovation and entrepreneurship hub in Chicago. Dubbed the Discovery Partners Institute, the plan is to offer labs, workshops and resources for tackling the cutting-edge of cyber security, artificial intelligence, big data and food security.
But while Israeli innovation is well-known to anyone working in the relevant industries, it doesn’t normally register much for mainstream tourists – until now. Joining the already popular street food and architecture walking tours, new startup-focused itineraries are allowing curious outsiders to get a taste of this buzzing scene.
The Making of Silicon Wadi
The Taglit-Birthright ‘State of Mind’ Innovation Center is a great starting point to clue up on Israel’s high-tech heavyweight status. Located within the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, the Center’s interactive displays showcase a staggering number of devices developed here in ‘Silicon Wadi’. There’s Watergen’s stainless silver cooler that conjures drinking water out of nothing but electricity (or solar power) and the air’s humidity, Given Imaging’s camera pill for non-invasive medical exams and the ReWalk bionic walking system, not to mention apps such as Waze and Viber, which have respectively disrupted the transport and telecoms sectors.
So how did this small nation, founded only 71 years ago, swiftly rise to become the startup nation? “We don’t have a lot of natural resources, so we rely upon what we do have: people, education and, from this, technology,” explains Taglit Center guide Shirley Rahav. “We’re encouraged to be critical and question everything from a very young age. Also, our approach to failure is a little different to many other cultures – we’re not really afraid of it, often expect it, even – so it’s easier to thrive in fields that are riskier, like high tech.”
For Omry Ben David, a partner at venture capital firm Viola Ventures, the investment and support available to startups in the city makes it a unique “nurturing ecosystem for any tech startup.” “In fact, Tel Aviv itself is an evolving ‘startup’ – a vibrant, multicultural city that changes constantly and experiments with new things. In general, the Israeli government is encouraging foreigners who want to join our tech scene with work permits,” he adds.
“This is ground zero for the tech scene,” declares Amir Mizroch, Director of Communications at Start-Up Nation Central (SNC), gesturing at LilIenblum Street through the glass walls of number 28. Positioned on the symbolic intersection of Rothschild Boulevard (“which is kind of the Sand Hill Road of Israel, the venture capital alley”) and Herzl Street (named after the founder of modern Zionism), Lilienblum is one of the oldest streets in the city, pre-dating the state of Israel, and was home to the first banks; these days, it’s “slap-bang in the middle of the startup engine,” Amir says.
This specific building, given a sleek renovation in 2018 by Kimmel Eshkolot Architects, has serious startup pedigree: its previous occupant was the app monetization unicorn (aka a startup valued at over $1 billion), ironSource. An apt location, then, for SNC to carry out its mission as matchmaking Israeli startups with global companies. This philanthropist-funded NGO keeps its upper level reserved for business meetings, lectures and hackathons, but on the first story it has a public-facing accelerator dedicated to the most accessible and enticing of subjects: food. Dining destination L28 is conceived as a talent incubator for emerging Israeli culinary talent. “Every six months a new chef comes in and creates a new menu,” Amir explains. “They get mentorship and a top-class crew. In return, they work on their interpretation of Israeli cuisine.”
Lifting the Curtain
Fueled up on Chef Shuli Wimer’s Galilean-inspired farm-to-table dishes, I step just across the road to The Vera Hotel to meet local guide Rei Dishon for Be Tel Aviv’s Start-Up Nation Tour. The boutique hotel’s lobby is packed with remote workers tapping away on laptops while sipping glasses of Israeli wine from a complimentary enomatic dispenser (even here is a reminder of Israel’s pioneering drip irrigation technology, allowing agriculture to flourish in arid earth). Any concerns the tour could be too nerdy and niche for a slight techno-phobe like myself are quickly dispelled when Rei conjures a series of conversation-starting props out of his backpack – including a locally-made card game and today’s newspaper, from which he translates a column critiquing the sharing economy. “When you disrupt the economy, how do you transfer value?” is the first challenging question he throws my way for debate.
It sets the tone for a stimulating, multi-faceted deep dive into local start-up culture, drawing on Rei’s background in sustainable engineering, cultural entrepreneurship and visual art (yes, he’s something of a polymath). Monuments along Rothschild Boulevard are woven into the talk, giving historical context about how the start-up mindset is hardwired into Israeli culture. “Starting a start-up is about reconciling a vision and resources, and the same is true of starting a city. It’s about reshaping the boundaries, not relying on the same assumptions,” Rei suggests. The tour then delves into some of Tel Aviv’s many co-working spaces, which range from accelerators run by huge corporations, such as Google’s Campus Tel Aviv, to small, accessible boltholes like Misanthrope, offering desk rental from 10 shekels an hour.
There are two co-working hubs within the Shalom Meir Tower alone: municipal co-working space, The Library, focused on start-ups tackling today’s urban challenges; and the privately-owned Urban Place, replete with an art-filled nap room, happy hour drinks and inspirational wall quotes. Here I get to pick the brain of Noa Muzzafi, a graduate of the army’s elite cybersecurity squad Unit 8200. She’s now applying Israeli innovation to developing countries as a director of the Pears Program, whose start-up accelerator has given birth to potentially life-saving innovations such as the Keheala disease management tool launched in Kenya, and Soapy’s self-sustaining hygiene stations.
For Noa, the ‘hive mind’ of coworking hubs like Urban Labs helps to drive Tel Aviv’s innovation culture: “The peer-to-peer community here is very special, it’s a flourishing sharing economy. We utilize the community’s knowledge to help each other out. For instance, I was hosting an Indian delegation recently and [one of the other start-ups] gave them a guest lecture in robotics.” Besides Be Tel Aviv’s tour, The Carlton Tel Aviv has introduced a ‘White City x Start-Up Nation’ package, combining a three-night hotel stay with a municipality-run tech-themed excursion. Guests are introduced to leading entrepreneurs and start-up companies in their workspaces, as well as visiting Independence Hall and the HerzLilienblum Museum of Banking.
Its target market may primarily be business travelers, but as The Carlton’s General Manager Yossi Navi points out, there’s a much broader attraction: “The young and dynamic start-up scene of Rothschild Boulevard is more than just a successful business center; the scene reflects the history and the values of Tel Aviv-Yafo.” For those wanting to go beyond the obvious visitor trail, it’s an essential part of the curious traveler’s agenda – after all, you don’t really know Tel Aviv until you delve into the high-tech hubs that form such a core part of its identity and energy.
Be Tel Aviv:
Be Tel Aviv offers bespoke private Start-Up Nation tours and plans to launch weekly open tours on the theme in spring 2019. For more information visit: betelavivtours.com
Carlton Tel Aviv’s White City x Start-Up Nation package starts at $1,495USD for a single occupancy room and tours/activities for up to two people. It is available until March 29, 2019. Contact Mr. Feinschmecker VIP Tours at firstname.lastname@example.org or +972-52-821-9286 to book.