Scaling down the start-up nation

Tel Aviv seeks to brand itself as the start-up city in its technology-focused festival

DLD conference in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Photos courtesy Hubert Burda Media)
DLD conference in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Photos courtesy Hubert Burda Media)
When Taiwanese entrepreneur Jason Hsu was handed a copy of Startup Nation, the ubiquitous innovation bible that preaches the gospel of Israel as a mecca of hi-tech invention, his instinct was not that he needed to establish a connection between Taiwan and Israel. As someone who had focused on developing local urban working hubs, co-founding a Taipei chapter of TED talks on innovation, the pairing of places he was drawn to was more targeted: Tel Aviv and Taipei.
“I work in various capacities with cities around the world,” explains Hsu, whose work has included an urban hackathon called Future Map, which attempts to solve urban design challenges in 72 hours. “I thought it would be great to establish some sort of Taipei-Tel Aviv exchange network where the entrepreneurs and designers can meet and collaborate.”
When he arrives to speak at the Tel Aviv Cities Summit on October 14, Hsu will find a slew of events designed to market, develop and sell the White City as the capital of the start-up nation.
“Global cities are the next thing,” says Hila Oren, who heads the municipality’s Tel Aviv Global & Tourism. “It’s not Russia vs America, it’s Beijing vs New York, London, Taipei.” As part of Oren’s ambition to put Tel Aviv on the map, and make it “one of the top 20 cities in the world,” she has put together a series of events centering around the city’s third annual iteration of the Digital Life Design (DLD) conference.
DLD, a global conference series cochaired by famed Israeli entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, began in Munich in 2005 as a melding point for top designers, creative thinkers, business owners, venture capitalists and social leaders to come together and innovate.
This year, however, it will serve as the centerpiece of the first DLD Festival, a week of events to show off Tel Aviv’s techy side, deepen its international business ties and position it as a global city.
One of the events, Open Startup, is a citywide meet-and-greet with over 100 local start-ups and accelerators. The idea is to let both festival participants and the general public get to know the start-up scene “behind the scenes.”
The municipality has also sponsored a competition, Start Tel Aviv, to bring 13 international start-ups to the festival, meet with mentors at Google’s Tel Aviv campus, and present their businesses to angel investors. Among the winners already announced are start-ups from China, Ireland, Colombia, Germany, Korea and Latvia.
Other events outside the municipality’s purview have also popped up around DLD.
The first-ever Israeli Brain Technology Conference will kick off with a Brain hackathon.
Teams will compete to develop viable products that use brain-computer interface devices, which can interpret brain waves and use them to interact with computers.
“It’s futuristic, completely mindblowing stuff. When you see it work, when you try it, it’s like having a sixth sense or another organ,” says Hamutal Meridor, a tech entrepreneur and part of the management team at Israel Brain Technologies, the group organizing both the hackathon and the Brain Technology Conference.
But the event that is closest to Oren’s heart, and indeed represents the entire philosophy behind the festival, is the Annual Cities Summit.
Just as Spain’s Barcelona is known for the Mobile World Congress each year and Switzerland’s Davos for the World Economic Forum, Oren wants Tel Aviv to be known for its technology innovation, which is why she chose DLD as the anchor event for the festival.
“This is what cities all around the world are facing: how to make their city a magnetic city, to make a creative class want to live there,” she says. People no longer work in factories they want to live near, she says. Instead, they want to move a place that will offer them flexibility, fun and self-fulfillment. “They’re committed to themselves, their desire, their inspiration and creativity.”
Globally, cities have become ever more important. In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lived in cities. Cities are seen as efficient units for modern living, putting critical masses of people into local markets and centralizing businesses, workers, consumers and culture. A central pillar of China’s grand plan is to urbanize 250 million people in the next 12 years.
The idea of a global city requires that the urban center both represents the best the country has to offer and serves as an attractive destination on the world stage.
“The whole idea of Tel Aviv becoming a global city is pretty insane, given that it’s got just 400,000 people,” says Mira Marcus, international media director of Tel Aviv Global & Tourism. But, Oren noted, it has all the right ingredients for being a global city: It is young, with 35 percent of its residents falling in the 18-35 age range. Its residents are educated, a fact bolstered by the presence of the university. It has a thriving arts scene and an active nightlife. It houses the country’s stock exchange and major financial institutions. And of course, it has Israel’s signature chutzpah, which pushes people to break boundaries and try new things.
While geographically vast countries like the US house metropolises like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago that can compete with one another more effortlessly, Israel’s small size raises the question of how Tel Aviv, its economic and cultural capital, competes with Jerusalem, its political and religious one.
“Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are two great cities, but their DNA is totally different,” says Oren. Yet Jerusalem is not a source of competition, in her view. “I think Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are complementary products,” she explains. “They are two candies in the same bowl.”
In the hour it takes to get from one to the other, she says, you could not even cross from one side of Beijing to another. “Only here we think Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are in conflict. If global people come here for business, within an hour’s drive they have a beautiful, historic, spiritual capital of the whole world.”
“Unfortunately, we still have the geopolitical situation. People hear about Syria and think we are walking around with guns here. It’s an image problem. We have to show that Tel Aviv is a party city.”
On the other hand, the geographic location can be a draw.
“I’m curious to see a city positioned in the Middle East, and what innovation means to it and its people,” says Hsu. “I think that because of the geographical location of the city, it will be a lot more diverse. It will include a good mix of the East and West.
The Berlin [DLD] event was mainly European and North American, but the event in Tel Aviv, I expect, will be a lot more international and diverse in the spectrum and nationalities.”