Jerusalem accelerator harnesses city's diversity to boost innovation

MassChallenge Israel has set itself an ambitious target: to find the best innovators in Jerusalem, no matter their background.

MassChallenge Israel Managing Director Yonit Golub Serkin (C) with program award winners Sharon Barak of Solutum (L) and Talia Cohen Solal of Genetika+ (R) (photo credit: SIVAN LAHAV)
MassChallenge Israel Managing Director Yonit Golub Serkin (C) with program award winners Sharon Barak of Solutum (L) and Talia Cohen Solal of Genetika+ (R)
(photo credit: SIVAN LAHAV)
Jerusalem’s bustling and diverse Mahaneh Yehuda market is an apt location for a startup accelerator that prides itself on harnessing talent that’s hidden away in the capital’s many communities.
MassChallenge Israel, a branch of the Boston-based global non-profit accelerator founded by John Harthorne in 2009, has set itself an ambitious target since its Jerusalem launch in 2015: to find the best innovators in the city, no matter their background.
“We are trying to bring the best of the best from all communities to accelerate, and to watch the magic that happens from innovators that connect with each other and grow their businesses,” Yonit Golub Serkin, managing director of MassChallenge Israel, told The Jerusalem Post.
Serkin instructs her team to make the extra effort required to connect with innovators from a range of communities offering untapped resources, including female entrepreneurs and innovators from the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors.
“We just need to make the extra effort to bring them into the pipeline,” said Serkin. “Ultimately, that’s what we’re here for – to get the best and highest impact start-ups from every background and every experience level.”
The first hundred early-stage companies backed by MassChallenge Israel have enjoyed considerable success. Together, they have raised over $115m. in funding and are responsible for the creation of 4,000 jobs. Of those, almost 30% are located in the city of Jerusalem.
Serkin has a deep understanding of the importance of innovation in advancing economic development, having previously served as deputy chief of staff for economic development at the office of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and as spokeswoman for the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
“The great opportunity, particularly in Jerusalem, is the incredible synergies that happen from a lot of people connecting with one another, sometimes unplanned,” she said. “By growing businesses from small and finite to being global in nature, you are creating opportunities that literally didn’t exist before. That’s a driving force for us.”
MassChallenge has developed a worldwide reputation for its no strings attached approach to assisting startups. The accelerator platform brings together high impact innovators with mentors, investors, academia, government and multinational strategic partners to build relationships.
Cash prizes worth up to NIS 500,000 provided annually by MassChallenge Israel are not dependent on the transfer of equity to the program.
Although uncovering local talent is a hallmark of the project, MassChallenge Israel also has global horizons and is one of only a few programs bringing foreign entrepreneurs to spend four months of acceleration in Jerusalem.
“Why would a start-up from India with access to over a billion consumers in their back yard choose to come to Jerusalem and grow their startup from here?” Serkin asked. The answer lies, she said, in Israel’s worldwide reputation for being a premier location for early-stage innovation.
Efforts to reach out to a diverse range of entrepreneurs are already paying dividends for MassChallenge Israel. 40% of founding teams involved in the latest round of the accelerator program include at least one female founder, and there have been both Arab and ultra-Orthodox winners of the accelerator’s cash prizes.
“One of the most exciting days for me was when we were able to announce that one of our Arab entrepreneurs raised her first round of funding based on introductions and connections that she made through us. That’s incredibly exciting,” said Serkin.
Later this month, MassChallenge Israel will welcome applications for the fourth series of its accelerator program, and Serkin is optimistic that both new innovators and program alumni will continue to flourish under its guidance.
“We ultimately know that the employers of tomorrow are people who are today dreaming about something big. As they execute that vision, that is when we will see more jobs and revitalize our cities,” Serkin said.