ICONYC labs accelerator helps Israeli start-ups in New York City

They intimately understand the obstacles facing Israeli entrepreneurs in the US – particularly in New York – and use their valuable connections to open the right doors.

The ICONYC labs team: Tali Edry, principal, Eyal Bino, partner, Arie Abecassis, partner, Roni Livneh, head of platform. (photo credit: SHARON PULWER)
The ICONYC labs team: Tali Edry, principal, Eyal Bino, partner, Arie Abecassis, partner, Roni Livneh, head of platform.
(photo credit: SHARON PULWER)
About 350 Israeli start-ups are active in New York right now.
“There’s something about Israelis’ tenacity, their unconditional drive to get it right,” says Eyal Bino, co-founder of the New York-based ICONYC labs, a unique accelerator for Israeli start-ups looking for a foothold in NYC with the dream of going global.
Bino and his partner Arie Abecasis, who launched ICONYC [pronounced “iconic”] labs in 2015 with five start-ups, appear to have “cracked” the system for Israeli innovators in the big city. They intimately understand the obstacles facing Israeli entrepreneurs in the US – particularly in New York – and use their valuable connections to open the right doors.
“The role is necessary because it’s important to have the New York tech ecosystem embrace your idea,” explains Abecasis. “Eyal brings the authentic Israeli flavor to the table, while I bring the local essence to help them enter the US market.”
 “Israelis are proud and will do it again and again until they succeed,” Bino expands. “There are so many examples of Israeli companies who didn’t succeed at first until they got it right. They grow up as early adopters of technology and are very tech-savvy. Many served in top IDF units, which gave them a skill set their American counterparts lack – compare their experience with American college kids. Also, Israelis tend to think big – they have to, coming from a small place. To all this we add a bit of the finesse of the American entrepreneur.”
“Israeli founders are persistent – they won’t easily let go of their start-up,” concurs Abecasis. “If they failed, it’s not through lack of trying. I always feel confident with Israeli start-ups – the technology is great, but the reason many start-ups fail is the product’s market fit.”
ICONYC labs’ acceleration program is customized for early-stage Israeli tech start-ups, offering selected companies a small check to cover initial operations, a co-working space in Manhattan, and most importantly a real foothold in New York that opens doors. For four months they help to hone the start-ups’ skills, such as how to craft emails, pitch products, run investor meetings according to local cultural norms, hire talented people, talk with potential customers and bring in advisers.
“Young entrepreneurs need to take a long-term view on how to build a relationship. We’re planting seeds – some will grow, others not,” says Bino, formerly a Venture Partner at a global VC focused on leading growth rounds of game-changing start-ups.
“The word ‘accelerator’ means different things to different people. For some it’s sitting in a co-working space in a New York incubator until the demo day – but we select companies for the long term because it’s a marathon. After four or six months you should be able to figure out the product and its market fit, raise money and at least put down the foundation for something great.”
Of the 52 Israeli start-ups that have passed through the program, 36 are now beginning to see the fruits of their efforts with significant acquisitions, investments and mergers. Four more start-ups will be added in the first quarter of 2021.
“There are three or four things we look for in a start-up: Can the team execute? Is it complimentary? Can the CEO really communicate? Is the CTO more of a tech person? Do the team members know each other? We try not to invest in companies whose founders met a month ago,” says Bino.
“The other issue is the market – is it big enough for the product? We look for areas where the market is suitable and Israelis have the advantages. Israelis excel in certain fields such as Fintech, security, data analytics, AI, Health and Wellness – and now we also see Israelis going into B2C [business to consumers]. Until companies like Waze and Fiverr came on board we didn’t see this so much,” says Bino.
“Health and Wellness is a growing segment, and we have a bunch of companies involved in digital health, Alzheimer’s, clinical trials for cancer treatments, physical therapy, ADHD treatment etc.”
One such company is the artificial intelligence start-up MyndYou, which has developed an audio analysis system capable of remotely detecting physical and cognitive difficulties among elderly patients by monitoring their voices and speech patterns via their smartphones.
“Four years ago they had an idea but no real product,” says Abecasis. “Through ICONYC they achieved initial investment from an angel investor, Howard Morgan.”
MyndYou’s CEO Ruth Poliakine Baruchi says that ICONYC labs’ input has been key to their success. “It was very clear that the test market would be in the US rather than Israel, and we linked with ICONYC in our very early days. I met Eyal here in Israel, when we were at the idea stage and didn’t have a product yet. We started by identifying senior citizens’ need for care in their homes, which keeps them out of hospital and improves their quality of life and mental health.”
MyndYou’s flagship product, MyEleanor, is a voice bot that engages with seniors by speaking with them on the phone. Using AI, the system assesses brain activity and provides health-related insights. “MyEleanor engages in an old-fashioned way – with a five-minute conversation we can detect changes that otherwise would require intrusive approaches,” she explains.
“One of the advantages of working with ICONYC is that we can consult with them like very close partners if we’re not sure about something. They came in early, but it’s a long-term relationship.”
A good fit
“We want the company to have a good fit for New York so we can help it grow through our network and experience,” says Bino. “We don’t want to bring in a company dealing in, say, Greentech or Biotechnology where we don’t have the expertise or experience in these fields, because at the end of the day what differentiates ICONYC is our ability to help companies go from zero to 100, from pre-seed to seed, from no sales to initial sales, from figuring out what I’m proposing to knowing what I’m selling. That’s really hard when you’re away from the market.”
Israelis have to adapt their ideas to American culture,” Abecasis explains. “America is very much a marketing culture. How to pitch a product is wired into our culture from Saturday morning television shows as children. Israel is much more technology-centric.”
“Israeli entrepreneurs build a great product then wait for the buyers. A lot of US entrepreneurs start with the market opportunity and work their way back from there. Israeli entrepreneurs are very technical. Americans are more marketing and business-oriented.”
One often hears about the cultural differences between Israelis and Americans, yet New Yorkers are also renowned for brashness and straightforwardness. Is it really that important?
“Israelis and Americans have different DNA – they’re programmed differently,” Bino explains. “Israelis are very transactional and cut straight to the point, while in the US you first have to build trust and be more relationship-driven. Americans don’t just want to hear you talk about your company and your product – they’re interested in you as well. There’s a lot of value in having a good conversation, listening and not butting in, which doesn’t come naturally to Israelis. And of course, in Israel everyone knows everyone else.”
Having lived in New York for 20 years, Bat Yam-born Bino, 45, describes himself as “half New Yorker, half Israeli.”
“Culturally, I’ve been entrenched in New York for so long. After my masters at NYU I landed a job at an educational technology company, then in early 2010 I was approached for advice by an Israeli company and helped make introductions and addressed structural issues. I like to help people in general, so it appealed to me.”
“I came to New York from Philadelphia after college and have been here for 25 years, mainly working in tech and corporate and traditional venture capital,” says Abecasis, whose family moved from Israel when he was 4 years old. “About 11 years ago I started working directly with early stage tech companies and got involved with about 25 US start-ups. I met Eyal six or seven years ago, and he asked me to sit in on a couple of meetings with Israeli entrepreneurs passing through town. What I realized is that they have great ideas, skills and passion, but lack the structure to enter the US market.”
“We’ve raised about $3 million in capital from private investors since we started ICONYC,” notes Bino. “About half of them are Jewish. Let’s be honest – everyone is interested in returns and no one is not doing this for the profit. The companies themselves have raised north of $200 million in total so far.”
How has the COVID crisis affected your business?
“Crazy as it may seem, this has been a record year in terms of our start-ups’ performance. When the pandemic began everyone took a step back at first – but this actually worked to their advantage because they are involved in growing fields such as Health and Wellness and the Internet of Things.
“We started working virtually and all our business meetings and sessions with advisers moved to Zoom. It’s been a sort-of silver lining in the pandemic,” says Bino, who lives with his wife and three children in Westchester, 30 minutes from the city.   
“At first we went back and forth, and built the business infrastructure. A year and half ago we relocated to New York,” says Baruchi, who runs MyndYou with her husband, Dr. Itay Baruchi, whose Ph.D. is in Physics and Neuroscience.
The family is currently in Israeli for their son’s bar mitzvah. “It was known from day one that we would relocate when the time was right. It was one of the smartest things we’ve done – even with Zoom, you’re now in the same time zone.”
The COVID crisis made what we’re talking about a lot more sense,” she adds. “It’s helped to address social isolation and the business has accelerated this year. We closed a $4 million fundraising round in April 2020, the company has made $6 million so far and we expect significant growth in 2021. For this you need good partners, people who believe in your mission and support you on bad days too.”
“A lot of our entrepreneurs nowadays are Israelis who have already succeeded in New York,” says Bino. “It’s easier for investors and customers when they already live here. Now you see Israelis in so many fields: in banking, restaurants, MBA students... it’s across the board.
“There’s a growing community of Israeli company founders in New York. During the pandemic some start-up founders went back to Israel, which hindered their operation, but I expect the movement to resume once there’s a vaccine and New York opens again.”
To apply the upcoming program, go to http://bit.ly/iconyclabs_apply