Training the next generation of entrepreneurs at Tel Aviv University

TAU ranks seventh in the world in global entrepreneurship.

 TAU CAMPUS: University opening accelerator program in entrepreneurship (photo credit: TAU)
TAU CAMPUS: University opening accelerator program in entrepreneurship
(photo credit: TAU)

Entrepreneurship, according to the dictionary, is defined as the state of running a business with considerable initiative and risk.

In today’s hi-tech, high-risk economy, the ability to successfully develop and operate a start-up is one of the most valuable and sought-after qualities of business leadership, especially in Israel.

“We have very few natural resources in this country,” says Prof. Moshe Zviran, chief entrepreneurship and innovation officer at Tel Aviv University. “Our primary resource is human capital. Entrepreneurship is important for the Israeli economy and important for our existence.”

TAU RANKED seventh among the world’s top 100 universities in the number of alumni entrepreneurs who have founded venture capital-backed companies. (Credit: TAU)TAU RANKED seventh among the world’s top 100 universities in the number of alumni entrepreneurs who have founded venture capital-backed companies. (Credit: TAU)

It is for these reasons that TAU places a great deal of importance on the MBA programs in entrepreneurship that it offers, as well as its plans to expand courses in the subject to students in a wide variety of disciplines. TAU offers the Global Sofaer MBA, a one-year, full-time MBA in new venture creation, innovation and entrepreneurship for English speakers. The program for Hebrew speakers is in management of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship (MoTIE). It is a two-year part-time MBA for entrepreneurially minded professionals from tech-oriented industries.

The university’s success in this field was recently documented in the prestigious PitchBook ranking of the world’s top 100 universities, based on the number of alumni entrepreneurs who have founded venture capital-backed companies. TAU ranked seventh on this list, just behind elite US universities such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, Harvard and MIT, and it was the top-rated institution outside the United States.

PROF. MOSHE ZVIRAN, chief entrepreneurship and innovation officer at Tel Aviv University. (Credit: TAU)PROF. MOSHE ZVIRAN, chief entrepreneurship and innovation officer at Tel Aviv University. (Credit: TAU)

More than 800 entrepreneurs holding bachelor’s degrees from TAU have established 677 companies and raised a total of $26.5 billion. The PitchBook ranking noted the following large companies established by TAU alumni: Generate ($3.3b.); Fireblocks ($1.2b.); Trax ($1.1b.); Varo ($992 million); and Celsius ($948m.).

In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Zviran explains the special emphasis that TAU places on entrepreneurship and how the university plans to maintain its prominence in the field in the coming years.

Zviran asserts that true entrepreneurs are born and not made. “One can’t teach someone to be an entrepreneur. It is in your DNA. Either you have it, or you don’t.”

‘Entrepreneurship is crucial for the Israeli economy – and our existence’

He explains that students taking a class in entrepreneurship sometimes reveal an aptitude for the subject they may not have previously known they possessed.

“Some people have a talent for entrepreneurship,” he says, “but it is covered with rust. As soon as you shake it, they realize, ‘Hey, I have it.’”

Even those who are well aware of their entrepreneurial abilities from the start, says Zviran, will find their studies in the field at TAU to be helpful. “We know that the failure rate of start-ups is 95%. The question is how we can make it more successful. We are trying to provide them with the right management toolbox so that they can run their venture and succeed instead of failing.”

The most critical principle in educating entrepreneurs, he says, is to have clearly defined goals, understand the market, and know the purpose of what they are trying to do.

“It is most important to build whatever you are making for the client and not for the sake of technology alone,” Zviran points out. “We are trying to teach them to seek answers to some of the most basic questions. What is your goal? Is there a need for your technology? Are there any other solutions already available? Is there a need for the product? What is the unique proposition that you are bringing?’”

ACTIVITIES IN TAU’s multicultural accelerator. (Credit: TAU)ACTIVITIES IN TAU’s multicultural accelerator. (Credit: TAU)

Beyond training the next generation of entrepreneurs, Zviran says, the university wants to expand teaching the basics of entrepreneurship to those students who, though they may not be interested in becoming entrepreneurs and founding their own start-ups, will nevertheless be able to utilize these skills in their work.

“At Tel Aviv University, we have the ‘usual suspects,’ such as those studying engineering, computer science and management, who will likely create more start-ups,” he says. “Yet, with 15,000 students, we have the time to teach everyone the basics so they will speak the language. They may not become start-up leaders, but they may join a new venture and work in the second or third level around the entrepreneurs.” Such students, he explains, will learn basic terms and essentials of the subject.

'The most critical principle in educating entrepreneurs? Clearly defined goals, market understanding and keeping purpose of their aims central'

All students on campus may take courses in entrepreneurship. Those interested in pursuing the subject further can continue the experiential learning offered on campus or at the local entrepreneurship centers situated in different schools on campus, such as the schools of management, law, biomedical engineering and computer science.

TAU is planning to strengthen its position as a leading center of entrepreneurship with its new accelerator program that is being offered to students and faculty members. The program, established through a donation of NIS 50 million from Swiss entrepreneur and businessman Dan Holzmann, is expected to further increase the number of start-ups emerging from TAU. Eyal Benjamin, from the Coller School of Management within TAU’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem, will manage the accelerator.

Zviran explains that the TAU accelerator will differ from other commercial accelerator programs like Google’s and Microsoft’s in that it is being conducted exclusively on campus for university personnel, in a friendly environment, with mentors who provide guidance in helping them develop their projects.

The university’s entrepreneurial ecosystem also offers a start-up competition for new ventures in three different tracks – deep technology for innovation; foodtech; and digital transformation. Each provides a $100,000 prize for winners, which will be invested in the start-up; the TAU Venture fund, a venture capital fund that invests small amounts on projects and is geared to students, alumni and faculty; and the Ideas Emergent Program, which takes successful projects and provides candidates with the opportunity to travel to North America and meet with entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and other locations to bring their products one step closer to reality.

While Zviran recognizes the current economic downturn that has affected the hi-tech industry, he predicts that its effects are temporary and will end by the end of 2023 or shortly thereafter.“We need technology,” he says. “The world has become very hi-tech dependent.”

Israelis have a unique entrepreneurial spirit, says Zviran. He attributes it to the country’s cultural and educational makeup, where students are taught to challenge the system and question authority from a young age.

“Then, when they become soldiers in the IDF,” he points out, “they are involved in making critical, life-and-death decisions. And when they take their post-army trip for six months, they find creative ways to manage in unusual locations.”

By the time these students arrive at universities in Israel, Zviran explains, they have had more varied life experiences than the average 18-year-old undergraduate at US colleges and are oftentimes more independent-minded and more entrepreneurial.

“At Tel Aviv University, we provide them with a toolbox of information and the possibility of increasing their knowledge here – but the basis to their entrepreneurial spirit comes from their upbringing and their life experiences.”