MassChallenge accelerator lands in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is home not just to revolutionary startups, but to companies that have proven themselves across the globe.

Efarm co-founder Epafred Minuifuong and programmer Eyong Kevin are one of the 48 start-up teams accepted to this year’s firstever group of finalists in Israel (photo credit: SOPHIE ASHKINAZE-COLLENDER)
Efarm co-founder Epafred Minuifuong and programmer Eyong Kevin are one of the 48 start-up teams accepted to this year’s firstever group of finalists in Israel
Calling itself the most “start-up-friendly accelerator on the planet,” MassChallenge was founded six years ago by John Hawthorne and Akhil Nigam in Boston, Massachusetts. Today, it operates in five locations around the world, including Israel.
A company designed to foster innovation and help start-ups succeed, MassChallenge invites all budding entrepreneurs to apply for participation in its four-month program model, which includes mentorship, free office space, education, a vast network and the possibility to win equity-free cash prizes.
Now that the company has made aliya, entrepreneurs and innovators have the opportunity to learn and grow in the startup nation.
“Israel is an outstanding and growing hub for entrepreneurship,” says MassChallenge CEO Hawthorne. “Launching a new accelerator in Jerusalem will provide those in Israel and all over the world better access to global resources.”
According to Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, the decision to establish MassChallenge in the capital, and not in hi-tech cities like Tel Aviv or Herzliya, will make the city more attractive to start-ups.
“This is a welcome step that will contribute to the positioning of Jerusalem as a global hub for technology, entrepreneurship and the development of advanced industries,” Elkin said.
MassChallenge settled into its new home on Kiah Street, right next to Mahaneh Yehuda in the heart of the city, this past January.
“You expect this super hi-tech building from a company like MassChallenge, and you get here and it’s a building from 1899,” says Hillel Fuld, CMO of Zula App and a well-known startup advisor. “That’s part of the magic of it being in Jerusalem.”
Approximately 500 startups applied to MassChallenge’s Israel branch this past April.
Some 150 were from abroad. Of the 500, 48 became finalists, six of them from abroad.
Entrepreneurs send detailed applications to MassChallenge, which then outsources them to hundreds of judges from the area. Those applicants make it past the first round, the semifinalists, then present their ideas to the judges in person. The few selected as finalists then participate in the four-month program and receive the benefits of one-on-one mentorship and cultivation.
“We are a global network, so you can apply from anywhere,” says Tom Bar Av, director of marketing for MassChallenge Israel. “In the coming years, we plan to have over a hundred startups. The accelerator is our product, but we aim to create a community to create more jobs, optimism and innovation.”
Vegan entrepreneurs Daniel Bareket and Elya Adi applied to the program to turn their local dream into a global reality. The two friends, now a couple, desired a way to satisfy their craving for chocolate while maintaining a plant-based diet; thus their company, Panda Chocolate, was born.
What began as chocolate recipe experimentation in their homes has turned into larger- scale production at their factory in Givat Shaul, where eight different flavors of vegan chocolate are now manufactured.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
“We tried using plant-based baby formula, but it tasted really bad,” explains Bareket of the recipes. “It took about two years, but we read books and articles, and over time developed a good recipe that tasted better than the real thing.”
The couple then set up a crowdfunding page to finance the purchase of one machine and basic ingredients. They established a goal of NIS 30,000, and in only 15 hours met their target. By the end of their campaign, contributions had increased sevenfold.
“We raised NIS 200,000 from over 2,500 people. It was a huge success. It was absolutely unexpected,” Bareket says.
Panda Chocolate products are currently available only online, but will be making their way to natural and health-food store shelves this September.
“The question of how to make a leap from small shops to something international, we cannot answer ourselves,” Bareket says. “We already have the right connections in the Israeli market and a good brand. We don’t need MassChallenge for that. We need MassChallenge to go global.”
Yehuda Elram, a corporate lawyer who works with entrepreneurs, applied to MassChallenge in Israel to accelerate his company, Eggxyt. He co-founded it with Prof.
Daniel Offen, head of the neuroscience laboratory at Tel Aviv University, to revolutionize and humanize the chicken industry.
The concept began when Offen phoned Elram after having breakfast with a friend, who told him that they were eating eggs at the expense of male chicks.
Chick culling is the process of killing off the male offspring of egg-laying hens, for which the industry has no use. Male birds can’t lay eggs and don’t have the necessary body structure for meat production, so they are killed via electrocution, gassing or being ground up alive in an industrial grinder.
“He asked me if I knew about this problem, which I didn’t, and said, ‘I think I have a solution,’” Elram states. “Now we are working to save over three billion male chicks annually by preventing their birth.”
Eggxyt is currently designing the proof of its concept and hopes to go global soon with the help of MassChallenge.
“As of now, the only way to know what is inside an egg is to let it hatch. We’re working to prevent something from materializing, rather than allowing it to grow, and then killing it,” he says.
Jerusalem is home not just to revolutionary startups, but to companies that have proven themselves across the globe.
“If you open the US app store, the top five apps are Jerusalem companies,” says Fuld. “There’s so many innovative companies in this city and they’re just growing and growing, to the point that there are venture capitals investing solely in Jerusalem.”
The four-month program model began just under a month ago, but the finalists, most of whom are Israeli, are already reaping the rewards of working in the Middle Eastern start-up world.
“It’s a great environment of people, of creative, innovative people, which I think is important to be surrounded by,” Elram says. “For me, being Israeli and living my professional life here, it is definitely the better ecosystem to be a part of.”