Start-up generation

Young American entrepreneurs see another side of Israel and get a firsthand experience in Zionist ingenuity.

Students on Science and Start-Up Initiative 521 (photo credit: Avi Siegal)
Students on Science and Start-Up Initiative 521
(photo credit: Avi Siegal)
At a bustling university campus, on the second floor of the visitor’s center, a confident, energetic teenager in jeans and a checkered shirt clicks away at a remote, gliding through the presentation he’s worked on for the past three-and-a-half weeks. As the images shift on the giant screen suspended from the ceiling, a business product is unveiled to a four-judge panel of entrepreneurs, investors and experts watching from the first row.
The slideshow features an invention called the Infinity Bag, a backpack which can be customized for every occasion – its attachable, velcroed compartments can hold anything from a pencil to a water bottle to a lunchbox.
The team on stage is part of a four-week entrepreneurial program dubbed the Science and Start-Up Initiative (SSI), which brought 21 9th-11th graders to Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The university partnered with Jewish Journey, an educational company that organizes trips to Israel, on an innovative pilot program for modern-Orthodox high school students from the US.
Queried by the judges, the students set out their business plan. It begins with market research: “We went out to the streets and asked people what they want to see”; then marketing strategy – promoting their product online through social media, blogs and popular platforms like Tumblr; and finally, selling points – the bag is “comfortable, organized and reasonably priced.”
Will Bernstein, the 15 year old who presented the Infinity Bag, is on the robotics team at Shalhevet High School in Pacific Palisades, California. He recalls “hours of brainstorming, writing up 100 different ideas and throwing them out, and eventually narrowing down the lists to the bag.”
“I’ve always wanted to be in the Technion; for four years now it’s been my dream,” he tells The Jerusalem Post. “Going forward from now, knowing what I can do and what I want to do, that’s what I’m taking away. Working as a team and going through the steps that any other start-up company would go through is what inspired me.”
Bernstein and his team of entrepreneurs exit to a round of applause, and the next group takes the stage with their invention: the O-Planner, an electronic wall calendar that syncs with your computer, cellphone or other gadgets.
“Today, there is a problem of planning in an efficient manner because information is scattered and disorganized,” says the head presenter. The physical calendar display – which comes in two sizes, the 32-inch version and the 14-inch – is “energy efficient. It doesn’t consume much electricity and the battery lasts for a very long time, as opposed to an LCD screen.”
The Kindle-like calendar, made out of flexible e-ink technology, can be used in schools to update schedules for exams and assignments, or in offices to display events, meetings, birthdays and even parties. These can synchronize with personal calendars at the workplace or at home, keeping everyone efficient and up-to-date.
According to a straw poll conducted by the team at a Haifa mall, 63 percent said they use a wall calendar, and 59% would prefer a physical calendar to the ones on their smartphones.
One judge played devil’s advocate: “What’s new here, or unique to this product?” he demands. “The iPad has a calendar and a million other things.” Unfazed, the teenager asserts: “This syncs with other calendars and hangs there for everyone to see.”
While it may not be rocket science like the space shuttle, the next start-up, the Spaceshift, displays some down-to-earth ingenuity. “This is a college dorm beanbag that transforms into a coffee table/foot rest, without wasting too much space. It helps college kids who have very limited space to have seats for everyone,” says Dina Raab, 16, of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in New Jersey. “This helped me understand the process and challenges of entrepreneurship.”
Divided into groups of seven, these tech-savvy kids from the Northeast had to come up with a business start-up that would compete in today’s hi-tech global market. Each week, the teams presented a progress report to the experts, as they accumulated hands-on experience from the entrepreneurial world. They visited Israel’s “tech clusters” along the Mediterranean coast in Tel Aviv and Herzliya, including Google, IBM and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and spoke with venture capital managers.
“This program in itself is a start-up,” explains Taire Shraga, marketing and programs director of Jewish Journey. “This is the first time that the kids who come actually get to meet people and make connections. We really want to show different stories and the people of Israel.”
At the Technion, they visited the aeronautics lab, research units and Technology Museum; had brainstorming sessions; and attended classes and workshops on product definition and development, industrial design, company planning, patents and business law.
“I realized that you can go into so many different fields that stem from engineering,” says Noa Bendory, 17, of Rae Kushner. “Let’s say I have an idea as an engineer – now I know the entrepreneurship side, so I can design the product based on what I learned here.
“This program really gave me the resources,” Bendory continues, adding that she is considering studying here for a semester or a year. “I love it here!” Her principal, Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, spearheaded the project, encouraging many of his colleagues at other religious schools in the New York area, as well as one in Los Angeles, to sign up.
“We wanted to create an opportunity for innovative students in the States to go and do something more with it, specifically in the Orthodox community,” says SSI director Sepha Sheinbein. “I believe that throughout Jewish history, and especially in the State of Israel, everything was started up – literally – by young kids. If you look at the birth of this country, it’s all from young people who are impassioned and so energized by a belief. And it’s amazing to see 21 kids who have that same excitement and energy of being in this nation.”
In their time off, the “techies” got to see another side of Israel, from nature to current events to holy places. They kayaked on the world’s most famous river, the Jordan; they got a glimpse of Syria from the northern border on the Golan Heights; and, of course, they visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. They also found time for some good deeds, volunteering at Pantry Packers in Jerusalem, a charity that provides food and pantry staples to the poor.
“There were cut-out times to work and cut-out times when we would visit businesses, and sometimes we’d go on trips, we’d go hiking,” says Jack Bibi, 16, a student at the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn. “It was an all-around trip with a little bit of everything.”
Jared Kulak, an 11th-grader from Solomon Shechter School in Westchester, New York, has traveled to Israel several times, but this trip brought a new perspective: “It was nice to have something a little bit different this time, by focusing on more of the educational culture aside from just the tourist attractions. Now, I feel more like an Israeli kid my age instead of just a tourist.”
It was a journey that highlighted Israel as an ultra-ancient and ultra-modern nation, from its biblical roots dating back more than three millennia to its current role as the “start-up nation,” so coined in the bestselling book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Israel, a 65-year-old country of 8 million people on a territory the size of New Jersey, has more companies on the hi-tech NASDAQ stock exchange than any country outside the US, and more than all of Europe, Japan, Korea, India and China combined.
Indeed, Israeli inventions are part of our everyday lives, including flash drives, Intel computer processors, instant messaging and the firewall. In the annual Global Competitiveness Ranking by the World Economic Forum that came out in September, Israel ranked third in innovation. The Jewish state also has the highest level of R&D spending relative to GDP in the world.
“I think that entrepreneurship and innovation are the best things that we can show of Israel,” Ariel Geva, director of the International School at the Technion, tells the Post. “We give them a sense of something we’re good at.”
While the Technion offers many programs in English, including semesters and summer programs for undergrad and grad students, this was the first innovation project for high schoolers. “As an international school, we see this youth program as a strategic project for us,” explains Geva. “This is a great opportunity for the kids to study something beautiful about Israel and about the start-up nation.”
The Technion cemented its role as an international institution in 2011 when it won a competition to partner with the Ivy League university Cornell in New York to establish a hi-tech campus on Roosevelt Island. It competed against 40 top universities from around the world, including 10 outside the US. In a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this year, the Technion came in first among the world’s top 500 universities (from Shanghai’s ARWU rankings list) in the category of overall excellence, entrepreneurship and innovation, “despite a challenging environment.”
Technion Vice President for External Relations and Resource Development Prof. Boaz Golany notes that these challenges include defense, security and finances. “One of the features of the Technion and Israel as a whole is that we never had enough resources to do what we need to do,” Golany told the young Americans at the graduation ceremony, where they received a certificate and a signed copy of Start-Up Nation. “In Israel we have a niche: improvisation.”