Bringing innovations to ‘the most first-world third-world country’

Ilan Regenbaum was 23 when he moved to Israel from Atlanta, Georgia. By law, he was required to do six months of military service. He wanted more.

Ilan Regenbaum, 29 from Atlanta, Georgia , TO Jerusalem, 2014 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ilan Regenbaum, 29 from Atlanta, Georgia , TO Jerusalem, 2014
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ilan Regenbaum was 23 when he moved to Israel from Atlanta, Georgia. By law, he was required to do six months of military service. He wanted more.
“When I was 18 and learning in yeshiva here, I really wanted to be Rambo and join a combat unit, but my family wanted me to go to university first. So when I came back at 23, I networked to try to find an interesting place for myself in the army.”
Eventually he connected with the head of the Israel Air Force Innovation Unit at a start-up conference and drafted straight into that unit in February 2016. He would extend his service multiple times.
Regenbaum became interim commander of the unit and founded the Air Force Accelerator, a sub-unit that works with soldiers and officers to solve challenges that the IAF faces.
“In total, I served in the air force for just over two years, and then moved to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit as chief innovation officer for about eight months.”
In other words, he did as much military service as the average 18-year-old, except he wasn’t the average 18-year-old.
“In basic training, I was 25 and my direct commander was 19. The cultural and language gaps made for some funny interactions,” he relates.
One time he was told ratz l’mitvach, and ran to the kitchen (mitbach) instead of the firing range (mitvach). (“I learned that mixing up the two words can be dangerous, disappointing, or both,” Regenbaum wrote in a blog post in April 2016.)
“For me, basic training was a monthlong mix of Jewish summer camp and prison,” he says. It did, however, teach him lasting lessons he would take to the start-up world.
He found an almost paradoxical tension between the requirement to follow rules and the requirement to break them in order to do his job in the innovation unit.
The entire experience, positive and negative, paid off well for Regenbaum. Following his release in March 2019, he spent two months visiting start-ups and lecturing in Silicon Valley about innovation in Israel. Upon his return, he became the new managing director of Siftech: The Jerusalem Entrepreneurship Center.
Siftech was founded by two students from Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2012 as the first start-up accelerator in Jerusalem. Regenbaum is now in the process of closing the accelerator and launching a new program that works with Hebrew University and researchers across Israel to help launch science-based start-ups around their research.
Entrepreneurship runs in the family
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Regenbaum lived in Atlanta since the age of three. Following a typical Modern-Orthodox trajectory, he attended a Zionist-leaning Jewish day school and then earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and business management from Yeshiva University in New York.
“I first went to Israel on an eighth-grade trip,” he says. “It was cool and fun but still just a trip. I grew to love Israel much more when I spent a year-and-a-half after high school in yeshiva. I came back on Birthright Excel while in university and interned at a venture capital fund. I loved meeting entrepreneurs and CEOs and seeing the ‘Start-Up Nation’ firsthand. That was the final thing that pushed me over the edge in terms of aliyah.”
FOR REGENBAUM, the appeal of Israel isn’t only about religion, history and Jewish nationality. It’s also about the start-up culture. Entrepreneurship runs in his family; both his parents started businesses after emigrating from South Africa.
“The first company I founded, at 13 or 14 was a green-screen photography business funded by my bar-mitzvah money,” says Regenbaum. He created photo magnets at events, offering a choice of backgrounds that varied from the Western Wall to a sports field. He sold the company after high school.
“Today I love walking around with my camera. Being in Jerusalem there is always something interesting to take a picture of,” he says.
Like any start-up entrepreneur worth his salt, Regenbaum had some failures, too. While in university he tried his hand unsuccessfully at a photography business for youth sports leagues and an online prescription-eyeglasses venture.
“What I am doing at Siftech is also a new venture,” he notes. “Hopefully it will grow into a successful new model in Israel, working to solve major problems in areas like food technology and sustainability, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and more.”
His passion for business is matched by his passion for activities such as running, martial arts and what he describes as “tinkering/making.”
At least once a week, Regenbaum goes to Tel Aviv – not just for work but also to teach at the gap-year program Torah Tech, which combines Jewish studies with internships matching the students’ professional aspirations.
“I teach a class on the evolution of technology in the face of halacha [Jewish law] and how it will change Judaism and religion. Having a dati [religious] outlook on life grounds me and makes me think about technology through that lens.”
Regenbaum fondly considers Israel “the most first-world third-world country. It’s a country of extreme efficiency and extreme inefficiency. But overall, I love the culture here.”
The main thing he misses from America – aside from two-day shipping with Amazon Prime, he jokes – is his family. “My parents are in Atlanta, my brother is at Georgia Tech, and my sister is finishing her master’s degree in Miami. I really miss them.”
However, he has come to consider Israelis in general to be his extended, if somewhat dysfunctional, family.
“One Friday when I was in the army, I went to the shuk in uniform and went to buy falafel. The owner said ‘Chayal, alai’ [‘Soldier, it’s on me.’] Then I bought rugelach and the bakery gave me a 90% discount. And then I bought whiskey and the man in front of me in line paid for it without even saying anything,” he relates.
“It can get annoying when people are too much in your face – but you know they’re always there and are willing to help.”