Row after row of young entrepreneurs fill the Shalom Tower’s Tel Aviv Library,
fidgeting in front of their computer screens, occasionally glancing out the
windows at the magnificent views of the Startup city below them.
group works on an Amazon-type website called Do-morrow that promises to deliver
any service to users within a day. They chatter excitedly about their plans to
build their entire start-up in 24 hours. Another young company, Zeekit, tests
the latest version of their photo app that can flawlessly change the colors of
any particular object in a picture, from dresses to furniture. Ambling between them, 15 excited mid-career Executive MBA students from Yeshiva University's Sy Syms School of Business throw out question after curious question, hoping to tap into the secret sauce that has made Israel famous as an innovation center.
“We’re trying to expose
them to the emerging trends, challenges and skills of the entrepreneurial
environment,” says Steven Nissenfeld, a professor at Yeshiva University who
coordinated the trip.
With stops at Microsoft’s accelerator, the JVP New
Media incubator, Given Imaging, Delek energy and even the Recanati winery, they
were bound to find the magic ingredient somewhere.
Nissenfeld, “They were blown away.”
But can Israeli innovation be
studied, copied, and learned? “What I find in my travels around the world is
that a lot of countries are trying to become Start-Up Nation,” says Saul Singer,
whose book Start-Up Nation has been translated into over 20 languages,
ostensibly because its international readers hope to learn and mimic Israel’s
Some aspects are clearly replicable, though many of them
come at a policy level.
According to the 2013 Global Innovation Index
(GII) – an annual measure compiled by Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World
Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) – Israel ranked 14th overall, but came
in the top five in areas such as Gross Expenditure on Research and Development,
investment, and innovation linkages (such as ties to university
Political instability, lack of competition and public
expenditure on education were notable weak points.
According to the GII
report, fostering innovation requires strategies that are specific to the
locale, with its unique history and culture.
“One key message is that too
many innovation strategies have been focused on trying to replicate previous
successes elsewhere, like Silicon Valley in California,“ it says.
“innovation learners” can gain from “innovation leaders,” the report continues,
is how to develop “specific strategies relevant to their local Innovation
In other words, there is no such thing as a cookie-cutter
approach; policy-makers have to be daring to produce innovation- fostering
“There’s nothing genetic about what’s happened in Israel. It’s
an environment and it’s developed and it can be created in other places,” says
Avner Warner, Tel Aviv’s director of international economic development. A lot
has changed since the 1990s infrastructure- focused policies that let innovation
flourish, he says, and Israel has to continue innovating if it hopes to keep
Part of that must come through greater global
“Today, Israel is nowhere near an international
system. It’s a closed system,” he says, noting that marketing, corporate
scaling, management and user experience are notably lacking fields. “Innovation
needs diversity, and if Israel remains a closed-circuit ecosystem and we’re not
challenged by new paradigms, we’ll be left behind.”
the chair of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher
Education, says economic policies can’t be stable, and must comport to new
“Innovation means change all the time, sectors rise and
sectors decline. Society has to support that change,” he says.
learn much more from the failures and mistakes than from the successes of
But is the innovative culture itself something that can be
learned? Janet Sarnack believes it is.
Her company Imagine Nation does
corporate training premised on the notion that it can learn Israel’s innovative
“I’ve been able to identify what are the intrinsic
motivators, what are the mindsets, what are the behaviors and skills to
replicate the successful disruptive hi-tech innovation model,” she says. “It’s
all about modeling what works. It’s a set of mindsets and skills, and all
of that can be taught.”
In Sarnack’s view, innovation requires
“Israelis do that really well. When we
debate – we’re an argumentative culture – what we debate toward is not right and
wrong and black and white, but to debate the possibility. We’re willing
to challenge what is with what could be.”
Or, as Yeshiva University’s
Nissenfeld puts it, “There’s an element of Israeli chutzpa that can be learned.”