Start-up Jerusalem

No longer a moribund backwater, the capital is coming into its own as a hi-tech hub – and not only in the parts of town you’d expect.

Jerusalem’s cultural and entertainment centers are blossoming, from the renovated First Station complex (above) to the brand new Cinema City  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem’s cultural and entertainment centers are blossoming, from the renovated First Station complex (above) to the brand new Cinema City
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied on Sunday, March 2, essentially against integrating into Israeli society, an event across town aimed to position Jerusalem as the “capital” of the Start-up Nation.
It was a striking juxtaposition of events: the massive haredi protest against “sharing the burden” – exiting the yeshivot and entering first the army and later the workforce – took place on the same day, and nearly the same time, as the festive launch event for JNext – a new organization meant to foster an interdisciplinary ecosystem for start-ups and entrepreneurs in the capital, including the creation of more jobs.
In fact, the rally almost prevented the JNext event from happening, as it blocked the entrance to the capital (Highway 1 from Tel Aviv was shut to private cars from 1 p.m.) and severely disrupted public transportation within the city, including the light rail. To get around that obstacle, the organization’s backers requested and received permission to run two free buses from the park-and-ride lot near Ben-Gurion Airport up Highway 1 – along with the nearly 2,000 buses going to the haredi event.
Even in their appearance, the two events presented a study in contrasts. Whereas the ultra-Orthodox rally was swathed in black and white, JNext had decorated the new Hansen visual arts compound in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood in spectacular color; spotlights bathed the former leper hospital in pinks and greens and yellows and reds. The central courtyard, once home to the region’s untouchables, was now hopping with hipsters, 350 of whom came out to eat fresh-baked focaccia and mushroom-and-creamstuffed pita pockets, and to drink hot soup and spiked lemon punch.
The Hansen center was a perfect location: Now the headquarters of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s graduate studies program, it has been transformed into a hub of creativity. The guests got their first public glimpse of the space, which included various rooms with comfy chill-out couches and video screens telling the story of a revitalized Jerusalem. Meanwhile, local success stories such as Bob Rosenschein (, now Curiyo) and Danna Hochstein Mann (of crowd-funding investment platform OurCrowd) gave 30-minute “inspiration” talks.
JNext’s Netta Frank did a bang-up job of producing the event.
The message was clear: Jerusalem is no longer a moribund backwater; it is coming into its own as a hi-tech hub.
Indeed, as Mayor Nir Barkat – who mingled with the guests and whom Start-up Nation author Saul Singer later interviewed across the street in the well-appointed auditorium of the Hartman Institute – pointed out, there is a refreshing sense of déjà vu in Jerusalem: The city has not been so alive with new hi-tech ventures since the 1990s, when a similar ecosystem of young creative entrepreneurs emerged.
That was all extinguished in the dot-com crash of the early 2000s, with the second intifada hammering a further, terrifying nail into the economic coffin. Start-ups fled to Tel Aviv and the central region, and Jerusalem was bereft of its entrepreneurial soul.
The city tried to promote biotech as the fuel for its resurgence, and to a certain extent succeeded, but at last week’s JNext event, it was obvious that there was more afoot.
Hanan Brand, an associate with Jerusalem Venture Partners Media Labs and co-founder of the nonprofit MadeinJLM, which aims to “brand” the city by affixing its logo to city startups and their websites, explained that of the 300 or so start-ups MadeinJLM has in its database, 150 are biotech; another 100 are in the Internet, media and games sectors.
And that’s not just in the parts of town you’d expect.
Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, the hi-tech coordinator at the Unit for Development and Entrepreneurship in east Jerusalem, was eager to share news about the first-ever hi-tech meet-up in east Jerusalem. The work of a newly founded group called Jerusalem Entrepreneurship Society and Technology (JEST), the event brought 110 east Jerusalemites out last month for a meeting on how to nurture and create a culture of hi-tech interconnectedness on their side of the city.
During the event, MadeinJLM projected a Google map on the wall in the courtyard showing the locations of the city’s resurgent hi-tech scene. None are in east Jerusalem... at least, not yet.
Stav Erez is the effervescent manager of the JNext initiative. Decked out in a black mini-dress that would have fit in perfectly with the Tel Aviv tech scene, she explained how her group sought to serve as the central body for the growing number of hi-tech launches that are building the new Jerusalem ecosystem.
These include investors like OurCrowd, JVP and Ben Wiener’s Jumpspeed Ventures; hubs and accelerators like Talpiot’s uber-hip PICO and the Hebrew University-backed SifTech (where Erez got her start); and community-promotion groups such as GameDevJLM, which aims to support the small but growing number of video game developers in town, veteran Anglo networking group the Jerusalem Business Networking Forum, and even UHF, a support group for haredi hi-tech workers (although other than Jonathan Caras, cofounder of the Jerusalem-based video-messaging app company Glide, the black-hat and velvet-kippa crowd was entirely absent).
These organizations regularly hold events. BeeraTech, for instance, is a monthly meet-up at local bars where participants can drink and learn from prominent guest speakers in the tech world (the name is a play on the word “bira,” which means both “capital” and “beer” in Hebrew). GameDevJLM does the same for gamers. There are breakfast networking meetings for techies, and all of the hubs sponsor frequent lectures as well. A look at the MadeinJLM calendar shows that there are events nearly every day now in Jerusalem. But the JNext launch last week was on an entirely different level, in terms of both the crowd size and the requisite buzz.
The scene today in Jerusalem is different from what existed in the 1990s in another way: As vibrant as the tech scene was then, the city never formally backed it. Today, JNext has a three-year budget of NIS 15 million, which comes from the municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry. Moreover, through JNext, the JDA has instituted a program providing grants of up to NIS 50,000 per Jerusalem resident employee (a maximum of NIS 500,000 per company). The authority is also providing NIS 250,000 per accelerator to help these groups establish a presence.
Bolstering this entrepreneurial renaissance is a city that is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was a few years ago. Cultural and entertainment centers are blossoming, from the renovated First Station complex to the brand new Cinema City (where, Barkat pointed out in his talk, he had seen a couple of start-up entrepreneurs sitting with laptops in Café Greg, presumably working on their business plans). The number of cultural activities in the city – such as the recently ended “Sha’on Horef” Monday night street parties – or environmental projects such as the soon-to-open Gazelle Valley urban nature reserve, make the city that much more attractive to young entrepreneurs contemplating staying in town after their university studies.
The JNext launch was originally planned for October 7, 2013. That day turned out to be the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the city was shuttered to the outside world as some 800,000 mourners poured in. The event was postponed until March 2 when, as Erez wrote to attendees in an email, it was almost canceled again. But this time, the organizers decided that the show would go on as planned, and based on the long lines to get in, it was obvious: Jerusalem isn’t waiting for anyone anymore.