Can Israeli innovativeness be taught?

"We’re trying to expose them to the emerging trends, challenges and skills of the entrepreneurial environment," says Yeshiva University professor visiting country with his MBA students.

July 8, 2013 23:35
3 minute read.
MBA students from Yeshiva University pose with Prof. Steven Nissenfeld.

MBA students from Yeshiva University 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Yeshiva University)


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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.

One 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.

Indeed, says 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 innovative ways.

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 research).

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.

What “innovation learners” can gain from “innovation leaders,” the report continues, is how to develop “specific strategies relevant to their local Innovation eco-system.”

In other words, there is no such thing as a cookie-cutter approach; policy-makers have to be daring to produce innovation- fostering policies.

“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 up.

Part of that must come through greater global integration.

“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.”

Manuel Trajtenberg, 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 realities.

“Innovation means change all the time, sectors rise and sectors decline. Society has to support that change,” he says.

“You can learn much more from the failures and mistakes than from the successes of countries.”

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 strategies.

“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 provocative thinking.

“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.”

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