Secrets of the Startup Nation

by Brian on February 5, 2018

in Only in Israel,Technology

As thousands of high-tech executives and investors gathered in Jerusalem for this year’s OurCrowd crowdfunding summit, the question of how Israel became the Startup Nation was never far from discussion.

How did Israel, a tiny nation, with no natural resources of its own and surrounded by enemies, come to have more companies on Nasdaq than India, Japan and Korea combined? How did we become no. 1 in the world in both R&D spending and venture capital investment per capita?

Why does every major technology company – Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Intel, General Electric and more – have an office here, developing some of the most cutting-edge technologies in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, autonomous driving and medical devices?

There’s no shortage of answers – heck, there’s even an entire book (Saul Singer and Dan Senor’s bestselling “Start-up Nation”) dedicated to the subject.

I’d like to offer 5 reasons of my own.

1. Innovation army. This is probably the most cited way that Israel is “different” than other countries, and for good reason. Israel’s mandatory conscription gives 18-year-olds incomparable responsibility.

Critical decisions that have changed the direction of wars can – and have – been decided by soldiers in the field. Hierarchy in the IDF can be surprisingly informal and privates who speak up are often rewarded not punished.

That’s something Ilan Regenbaum wants to see more of. The 27-year-old immigrant from Atlanta is serving in the Israeli Air Force’s “Innovation Unit,” which has as its goal transforming the army from a bureaucratic machine to something more Google-like.

Regenbaum’s unit runs an in-house “accelerator” (the first internal army accelerator anywhere). Think Y Combinator or MassChallenge but for military entrepreneurship. While it’s just Air Force for now, the aim is to eventually change the culture of the IDF as a whole.

2. Immig-tech. From its very start, Israel has been a nation of immigrants and that has contributed immeasurably to the proliferation of new ideas, increased economic demand, and brought an infusion of tech talent looking for a home.

Immigrants have played an especially strong role in Jerusalem, my hometown. According to Startup Genome’s 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem Report, Jerusalem startups have the 7th highest rate of immigrant founders in the world, at 34 percent. That’s double the percentage in Tel Aviv. It makes sense: Immigrants don’t fit neatly into Sabra-led organizations, so they create their own.

3. Chutzpah. When you live in a neighborhood like the Middle East, and especially when you’re young and idealistic, nothing seems impossible and Israeli entrepreneurs will try just about anything, fail and try again. Sometimes this leads to great success. But chutzpah can be a double-edged sword.

Israeli electric car startup Better Place, the subject of my recent book TOTALED, is a perfect example. The company’s CEO, Shai Agassi, was truly motivated by a desire to wean the world off oil. His often brash behavior helped the company raise nearly a billion dollars. But Agassi’s audacious style also alienated many of the partners Better Place would eventually need to succeed.

Still, even though the company has now gone to a better place, Yaron Samid, who founded the TechAviv Founder’s Club, told me when I spoke to the group in December that we need more people like Shai Agassi, not less, and now more than ever. “Only people who dream so big can truly change the world and inspire others to do the same,” he said.

4. Argue like an Israeli. Roey Tzezana is a futurist and author of the Israeli bestseller “Guide to the Future.” To solve the world’s biggest problems, tech leaders and entrepreneurs need to “argue more like Israelis,” Tzezana says.

“We need to create a culture and a society where people aren’t afraid to disagree” like they are in much of the overly polite West, Tzezana told me; “where they aren’t afraid to fight over intellectual dominance, and will really shout at each other – and later get up, shake hands and give each other a hug.”

5. People of the fix. Jewish sources are full of apparent contradictions, where it says one thing and then later another thing entirely. Sometimes that’s a story that doesn’t make sense. (Did the Flood described in the book of Genesis last for 150 days or for 40 days and 40 nights?) Other times it’s a minuscule interpretation of Jewish Law. (When can one eat from the new harvest? From the height of the day or only after a sacrifice is brought?)

The rabbis in the Talmud can’t stand cognitive dissonance. And so much of their back and forth bickering is really working over areas in dispute, until they come to some type of harmonic resolution.

Our tradition – and our thinking today – is filled with this type of “fixing.” Indeed, the Jewish brain seems hardwired towards Tikkun Olam (“fixing the world”) from the very act of studying our foundational texts.

Do high-tech entrepreneurs think about this when they’re researching a cure for cancer or building an Iron Dome? Some do.

Prof. Zvi Bentwich founded NALA, an NGO that addresses “neglected tropical diseases” like schistosomiasis (snail fever) in Africa. “Tikkun Olam was very much a mission in our family,” he told me in a recent interview. “I volunteered early on as a student. So I feel that it’s kind of an obligation.”

Gal Salomon, the CEO of CLEW Medical, perhaps says it best. “The Jewish mind is always coming up with new ideas.” Israelis, he adds, “just won’t take no for an answer.”

I presented my 5 reasons Israel is the Startup Nation first at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

“I heard Ben broke up with his girlfriend. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

“They weren’t good together. They were always fighting.”

“Well, that’s a relief, I guess.”

“Not really. He’s got a new girlfriend. She’s even worse.”

“What’s wrong this time?”

“She’s not Jewish.”

“But do they get along?”

“Oh yes, they are very compatible. I’ve never seen Ben happier in fact. They want to get married.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I told you already. She’s not Jewish.

“But do you like her?”

“Of course. But I’d rather he was unhappy with someone Jewish than happy with someone who’s not.”

This is a composite of a real conversation I’ve heard many times over the years in the Jewish world. It’s always struck me as wrong-headed. If you were to substitute a different ethnic or religious descriptor for “Jewish,” you would be immediately (and rightly) called out for prejudice.

Just think of the 2017 hit movie “The Big Sick” where Kamil, a Pakistani Muslim, falls for Emily, who is white. Kamil’s parents, who spend much of the film trying in vain to arrange a marriage for their son, don’t approve. It’s not hard to guess which side we’re supposed to root for.

But in the Jewish world (and for other groups where tribal continuity is a key religious or national value), combatting intermarriage is so important we check the moral outrage we’d have for other groups at the door.

There’s a word for this: endogamy. Merriam-Webster defines endogamy as “marriage within a specific group as required by custom or law” and adds that the practice is “characteristic of aristocracies and religious and ethnic minorities in industrialized societies but also of the caste system in India and of class-conscious non-literate societies such as the Masai of eastern Africa.”

How is it, then, that highly-educated Jews in the 21st century still advocate for endogamy?

It makes sense when you’re in the thick of it. If you believe that Jewish tradition is beautiful and valuable, then sticking to “one’s own kind” may be the best way to ensure that continuity. And certainly, over the years, it’s been a highly successful ethnic strategy.

It’s less of an issue in Israel with its Jewish majority, but it’s not entirely absent either. An interfaith candle lighting at the First Station in Jerusalem for Hanukah last year was repeatedly disrupted by protests from Lehava, an extremist group whose name is a Hebrew acronym for “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land.”

Most Jews would agree that support for endogamy sounds outrageous when applied to other groups. Moreover, it’s totally out of sync with today’s Millennials where endogamy is an absolute no-go.

That includes Millennial Jews in the Diaspora where dating someone who’s of a different faith is not just a demographic reality but a politically-correct imperative.

Anti-endogamous Millennials can argue that, now that we know more than our ancestors did about genetics, in-marrying is a biological mistake, leading to a greater chance of propagating DNA mutations and depleting genetic diversity.

Endogamy conflicts with the liberal American values I grew up with. And yet, I’m conflicted. I love being Jewish so I married a Jewish woman.

But that muddled message is increasingly falling on deaf ears. You want to win the intermarriage battle among Millennials? You can’t – at least not without promoting what comes across as racism masquerading as religion.

Move to Israel like we did as a solution, where our children have a much more likely chance of marrying another Jew? That might work for some, although these days, most Jews making aliyah from Western countries are those already supporting endogamy.

Embrace both patrilineal and matrilineal descent where a child is considered Jewish if either the child’s father or mother is? That increases the pool of Jews but still doesn’t address the core liberalism vs. endogamy dilemma.

My colleague Dan Libenson has been thinking about this too. Dan co-hosts the podcast “Judaism Unbound,” which tries to imagine what the future of Judaism, particularly in North America, will look like.

Judaism’s deep-seated cultural attachment to endogamy has made Jews “who marry non-Jews feel ‘less than’ in the Jewish community and it makes them less likely to get involved,” Libenson says. It’s a self-fulfilling feedback loop that works against the Jewish community’s objective of increasing meaningful Jewish engagement.

If Judaism is defined around an idea “that intermarried Jews and their families cannot by definition achieve, they are going to be more likely to see it as something that is not for them,” he adds.

Libenson imagines that if Judaism adopted an anti-endogamous position, that message would eventually fall by the wayside. “It might take a few generations and we may see decreased Jewish practice in the children of intermarried couples in the meantime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay that way.”

More than that, Libenson doesn’t think the communal aim “should be ‘easy continuity.’ I don’t see ‘some Jewish practice continuing through the generations’ as a worthy goal. Endogamy is basically a way to avoid the hard work.”

The argument against endogamy is, for the Jewish Diaspora, much like the case I’ve made in previous columns for a Jewish future in Israel driven by datlashim (formerly religious Jews). Both involve extraordinary struggles for the soul of our people and will require intense creativity. But we can’t avoid either.

Can we wish Ben and his partner a happy life together? Can we afford not to?

I first put into words the case against endogamy in The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

What’s fueling the growing phenomenon in Israel of datlashim – the Hebrew acronym for formerly religious Jews? And how big is it in real numbers?

Based on surveys conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Chotam religious lobbying organization found that, among the national religious public, only 46 percent of those who defined themselves as religious in 2002 remained so ten years later.

Jewish educator Aryeh Ben David has been trying to make sense of the numbers – both on a personal and professional level. The director of Ayeka, a Jerusalem-based institute that offers training in “soulful education,” Ben David says that too often religious parents blame themselves. That includes Ben David, whose own sons have left the religious path.

“If only we had sung different songs, practiced different rituals, or followed different halachic opinions, maybe things would have turned out differently,” he writes in a recent soul-baring column.

But what is happening now among religious teens and twentysomethings “is way beyond any individual tweaks we think we should or should not have done,” he continues. “The issue is systemic. Traditional Judaism is not working for this next generation.”

Ben David says we are in the midst of a “radical disruption” prompted by the establishment of the State of Israel itself. Growing up as a ‘powerful majority,” he says, has been transformative. “For this generation, Jewish continuity has never been in doubt. Jewish existence is simply a fact. Individual Jews may slip away but the fear of the Jewish People not continuing is a worry of the past.”

That creates a new reality where “obedience is no longer a prized value.” Strict adherence to Jewish Law is all about sustaining, Ben David emphasizes. “This generation does not know from obedience.”

Aryeh Ben David is a friend; a deep and honest thinker and that rare religious educator who dares to confront his and his community’s core assumptions without having already defined a path to a future that gives him comfort. His analysis is precise and insightful. But it also misses the elephant in the room.

It’s not just that living as a Jewish majority gives young religious Israelis an “out” from following the traditions of their parents. It’s that Jewish Law hasn’t been speaking to Jews for a long while.

Indeed, as soon as the gates of the shtetl opened to the outside world, Jews rushed to drop observance. They set up secular Yiddish-speaking societies, opened theaters and made art. Some immigrated to Israel and became kibbutzniks and soldiers. Those who moved to America gravitated towards frameworks with less stringent forms of Jewish expression.

And while some did remain observant, it’s their turn now to drop out. In that sense, the modern datlash phenomenon is not unique. It is simply the second wave.

But there’s a fundamental difference between today’s datlashim 2.0 and their historical counterparts. Datlashim in 2017 are seeking to create their own forms of spirituality, just not those centered on “obedience.”

They may spend a decade smoking pot and eating treife, but eventually, as they have children of their own, they consider ways to fuse their pasts and presents in a way that looks foreign to their parents but may very well be the future of the Jewish people.

For example, Trybe is a new age Jewish group in Los Angeles and New York that sponsors lavish Friday night “parties” that mix challah and blessings with haute cuisine (think honey-roasted kabocha squash dolloped with ricotta, braised short ribs and cauliflower rice). Its Yom Kippur services are pitched less as prayer and more as “spiritual restoration and communal vibes followed by a superfoods menu.”

My initial thought when I read about Trybe was: “How is this Jewish?” Or as Mattie Kahn, who wrote about Trybe in BuzzFeed News, asks, “Is ‘Shabbat Shalom’ the new ‘Namaste?’”

But that was the old religious me talking. My datlash self could imagine that if I were a Millennial in America, I might really dig a Trybe Shabbat.

Closer to home, the “Shalom al Lechem” project of the Jerusalem Village organization describes itself as a “social concierge and strategic matchmaker,” placing young Jews of differing practices at the same Shabbat table. Don’t know how to cook? No worries. Shalom al Lechem provides its own gourmet chef and a portable kosher kitchen, all expenses paid.

Yet, there’s another elephant in the room, and it’s one that threatens to spoil the post-denominational party. That same Chotam survey also found that the number of pupils in ultra-Orthodox schools had tripled in the last decade, seemingly offsetting any gains for datlashim.

Do the haredim hold the key to the future of religious Judaism? I ask Ben David.

The comparison isn’t fair, he replies.

“It’s hard to survey the haredi world because no one there is honest,” he tells me. “I personally know families who have exiled their children from their homes when they became non-religious. It’s ironic: Judaism was the first religion to get rid of child sacrifice. Now we are bringing it back. Families are sacrificing their children in the name of religion.”

Ben David isn’t haredi and he would never dream of kicking out his non-observant kids. Still, “I thought that God wanted my sons to be a continuation of myself,” he writes.

For Ben David, his family’s new reality is a painful realization. For me (and for my own datlash children), it’s the energizing start to a transformative, authentically Millennial and radically Israeli dialogue.

I wrote about the future of datlashim first at The Jerusalem Post.

Picture in article from a Jerusalem Village event.

{ 0 comments }

Driving past the “Buds and Roses” storefront on Los Angeles’s Ventura Boulevard, you’d be forgiven for surmising this must be a fan shop dedicated to all things Axl Rose. The friendly but firm armed guard out front, however, suggests that what’s behind the locked door might be somewhat more circumspect.

Which it is: Buds and Roses is one of hundreds of medical cannabis dispensaries now dotting the California landscape, all in plain view and entirely legal. On a recent trip to the U.S., I decided to pay a visit. I had a legitimate medical need: to determine if any of the vast array of tinctures, vapes, pills and edibles on display could help me with my chronic insomnia.

When I walked out of the store an hour and several hundred dollars lighter, I had also gained first-hand insight into how different California’s medical cannabis business is from Israel’s – and how those differences will be even more glaring in the near future.

To gain entry into a California cannabis dispensary, you first need a medical cannabis card. It’s shockingly easy to get one. You simply go online to a website like HelloMD, enter your credit card details and a doctor promptly calls you back.

“How can I help you?” the voice on the line said.

“Well, I suffer from insomnia and I wanted to try…”

“You’re approved,” the doctor cut me off.

“Wait, don’t you want to hear about what I’ve tried in the past and any medical history?”

“Nope, you’re all set up,” the doctor continued, clearly eager to move on to the next call. “I’ve already sent you an email with your certificate. Anything else today?” he added, like he was selling me a pair of pants at the Gap.

It was frustrating but also liberating, especially compared to Israel where, while it’s possible to get a medical cannabis license, you have to jump through so many hoops that too often patients just give up. And insomnia is not even on the approved list yet.

Once my card arrived in the mail, I drove to the Buds and Roses, where I was ushered into a windowless back room filled with what looked like clear glass jewelry stands – except that instead of diamonds they were filled with all kinds of cannabis.

I explained to Jen, my “budtender,” what I needed.

“Insomnia responds best to a formulation with a higher amount of the cannabinoid THC (the psycho-active component of cannabis) than CBD,” Jen explained.

“Really? That’s a surprise,” I told Jen. In my previous research, I’d learned that the more benign CBD, which addresses auto-immune and inflammatory conditions, was key to curing sleep problems. But who was I to argue with a certified budtender?

Jen recommended a high-tech disposable vape pen that automatically shuts off after delivering a precise 2.5 mg dose. It was named one of TIME magazine’s top innovations in 2016.

“Is this your first time here?” Jen asked as she was taking my money.

“Yes…” I answered, a bit hesitantly.

“Great, then you get a free gift!” she crowed, motioning me to a case full of edibles. Did I want the chocolate with hints of blueberry or a granola bar?

That night, I tried the vape. I quickly felt something – but it wasn’t sleepiness. I was nauseous and my stomach hurt. The next night was even worse: I was up until 3 am pacing, praying for the pain to pass.

Maybe so much THC was not the right mix for me.

By now we’d left Los Angeles for Berkeley. I easily found another dispensary where Rick, my new budtender, suggested I try a more balanced 1:1 THC to CBD tincture.

“Is it your first time here?” Rick asked.

“Yes,” I responded, this time more confidently. Out came the edible goodies.

The tincture didn’t make me sick but it didn’t get me to sleep the way I’d hoped either.

But it doesn’t really matter. This was more an experiment; an exercise in data collection. All that legal medical cannabis is in California. I’m now back in Israel where there are no dispensaries next to the Aroma on Emek Refaim Street.

Nor will there probably ever be.

Israel is going down a very different path. Instead of standalone shops, changes coming to Israeli policy aim to bring medical cannabis to the local SuperPharm.

Over the summer, 81 doctors completed an official medical cannabis course from the Ministry of Health in order to be able to prescribe pot for specific ailments.

The differing approach is not surprising: Unlike California, where come January 2018, cannabis will be available for sale to anyone – no plastic card required – there are no plans for legalizing recreational use in Israel. So the focus has been on utilizing traditional medical infrastructure.

On our last night in California, we were invited to a launch party celebrating the imminent legalization of cannabis sponsored by Atlas Edibles, a company founded by members of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue my wife and I used to attend when we lived in Berkeley.

An unlikely pairing? Not really. There’s already a new Jewish tradition emerging in the U.S. called Chai Havdalah (chai is pronounced “high”) where participants greet the new week by smoking and eating cannabis-infused cookies.

Me, I just want to get some sleep. And it would be really helpful if I didn’t have to fly all the way to California to do it.

I started my search over at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

I spent the night in the Emergency Room recently. I was expecting a nightmare. After all, Israel’s socialized healthcare system is supposed to be crumbling. There’s a shortage of doctors and hospital beds; waits for specialists can take months, physicians are allotted patients at impossibly tight intervals.

So when I woke up at 3 am with shooting pains just below my breastbone, my first response was: Do everything you can to suffer at home. Just don’t go to the hospital. It will pass. Watch a few episodes of “The Good Place.” Ted Danson and Kristen Bell will distract you.

But when the pain continued at a level beyond which I could tolerate, I had no choice. My wife Jody drove us to the nearest facility: Jerusalem’s Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center.

When it was all over, my verdict from our experience in the ER: surprisingly not bad.

I was hopeful when we got to the waiting room and found it mostly deserted except for this one guy in hand and leg cuffs. He was in a jovial mood, joking around with his posse of police; clearly it wasn’t the first time they’d been together.

Rachel, the English-speaking nurse took my blood and checked my vital signs within 15 minutes of arrival. Another nurse hooked me up to an EKG. Everything came out OK. But the pain in my upper abdomen was stabbing like a bad trip to Damascus Gate.

I was given a bed and hooked up to an IV where they put me on a drip of pain killers. It took another couple of hours but the misery finally subsided.

We chose Sha’arei Tzedek’s Emergency Room because we feel an awkward connection to the place. It was David Applebaum’s last job before his murder in the suicide bomb attack at the Café Hillel on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street, in 2013.

Applebaum, who was also our neighbor (our kids played together in the park) was already an icon in the Israeli medical world – he established the Terem Emergency Medical Centers network that now serves as first line care in many cities, taking a much-needed burden off the country’s overcrowded hospitals.

Applebaum was having coffee with his daughter Nava the night before her wedding when the bomb went off. Seven people were killed, including both the bride and her father. Applebaum was rushed to the emergency room he managed but it was too late.

Applebaum had left Terem a few years earlier to transform Sha’arei Tzedek’s ER into a model of efficiency and compassion in an era when Israelis were being blown up on a near daily basis.

Fourteen years later, it lives up to its reputation. But as well run as it may be, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s just not large enough for the number of sick people.

Not only was I not given a room (private or otherwise), my bed in the hallway next to one of the nurses’ stations wasn’t even temporary. There was a number on the wall that indicated this was a permanent space. I was taken good care of, but it wasn’t the place to recuperate or sleep, what with the lights on full blast while doctors, nurses and other patients streamed past me (and Jody, trying to rest in a hard plastic chair) for the next 7 hours.

A maddening beeping sound played unabated until the end of my stay, the audio replacement for the stabbing pains in my belly. I couldn’t figure out what it was until I saw a man being wheeled out of the room, his face encased in a breathing mask. The beeping was the indicator – for all to hear far and wide – that he was still alive.

So when my ER doctor suggested they’d like to keep me for an additional 24 hours hooked up to that IV, I asked, “Could I get a room if I stayed?”

“No,” the doctor shook her head.

“Well, if I stayed, would they at least run some tests to determine the source of my pain?”

The disheartening answer: you’re not sick enough. “Our job is to keep you alive. Diagnosis belongs to your HMO,” she said.

“Then, um, no thanks,” I said. “Can I do the getting better thing at home?”

The doctor nodded her approval. She wrote up some prescriptions and, an hour later, I was unceremoniously discharged.

I had another reason for wanting to get out of there: Hospitals are no place to get better. In fact, you’re more likely to catch one of those antibiotic-resistant superbugs terrorizing medical facilities.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one out of every 25 hospital patients contracts a healthcare-associated infection (HAI) and one in seven catheter and surgery-related HAIs is caused by an antibiotic-resistant superbug. Twenty percent of patients who leave a U.S. hospital return within a month.

I’ve been out of the hospital a few weeks now and I’ve taken my pills diligently. My HMO approved more tests; we’re still trying to get to the bottom of my pain.

My stay in the ER wasn’t exactly how I’d intended to spend the night, but everyone was remarkably pleasant for an Israeli bureaucracy, which was reassuring if something ever goes catastrophically wrong.

My only regret: that I didn’t take advantage of the “full experience” and receive the chauffeured ride to the hospital…in the ambulance.

I first described my ER experience in The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

Judaism’s epistemic crisis

November 22, 2017

Are we on the verge of an “epistemic crisis?” Vox Magazine’s David Roberts seems to think so. And it has implications for battles we’re seeing in the Jewish world, from the Western Wall to the army induction office.

Read the full article →

The price of memory

November 9, 2017

“We found Mom. She’s safe.” That was the text message I received from my brother in California. It came out of the blue.

Read the full article →

High hopes for medical cannabis from Israel

October 13, 2017

Israel may have finally figured out a way to stop BDS. We’ll get the BDS leaders so stoned they won’t be able to demonize us anymore.

Read the full article →

Rosh Hashana resolution: breaking my Facebook addiction

September 29, 2017

The period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur presents an opportunity to reflect on how the last year went and what we could do better in the year to come. In that spirit, I need to come clean: I’ve got an addiction problem … to social media. Sure, we all are hooked on Facebook and […]

Read the full article →

Agreeing to disagree: the value of religious doubt

September 18, 2017

This is the key: “I disagree with pretty much everything they’re doing when it comes to their Jewish practice. But that doesn’t make them wrong.”

Read the full article →