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Journey to Jerusalem (III): The historical city turned into an innovation hub

Jerusalem is not only about multicultural environment or religious, archaeological and historical meaningful sights, but has also become an attraction for entrepreneurs and cutting-edge innovation programmes. Getting beyond any religious or cultural disagreement, the city’s authorities have understood that above all, science and business can bring all under the same roof. And indeed, Jerusalem is in process to reinvent itself as a “startup city”, focusing on the entrepreneurship and the force of the hi-tech innovation.

Five years ago, the Ministry of Jerusalem, together with the city municipality and Jerusalem Development Authority launched Jnext, a programme meant to maximize the city’s technology potential, creating an environment for the start ups to set up their businesses, to come up with new entrepreneurial ideas, in a word, to innovate. The investment so far in the Jnext initiative has mounted to USD 20 million, and the forecast is the figure will climb up to USD 100 M in the upcoming five years. First results are already visible, with the city becoming one of the fastest growing startup scenes, among the top 30 leading startup ecosystems worldwide, according to Startup Genome. Jerusalem ranks first in the top five emerging tech hubs in the world, as Time Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine say.

How does the Jnext work? It functions as a “one-stop shop” for hi-tech and life science companies, by actively looking for gaps and challenges in the city’s startup ecosystem and helping these companies interact with research institutes, the scientific community of the universities, connecting to multinational or national companies’ knowledge, providing assistance in finding office HQs.

570 hi-tech and life-science companies, 18 accelerators and innovation labs are currently active in Jerusalem, with a total amount of investments raised by Jerusalem-based companies mounting to USD 1 billion from 2012 to 2017.

One of the startup accelerators based in Jerusalem is MassChallenge, a global innovation group that chose to open an office here in 2016 due to the attractive entrepreneurship and innovation prospects of the city.

Our goal is to help entrepreneurs win and achieve their dreams. We believe that start ups, entrepreneurs are the key to changing the world,” Masschallenge partnership manager, Josh Gottesman told us. How is Masschallenge different from other major accelerators? They are non-profit and they are “sector agnostic”, meaning they have startups from every background. First of all they are non-profit, they don’t take any money from the startups, being funded by a joint partnership between the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Development Authority, but the bulk of their budget comes from multinational corporations. Among their sponsors are IBM, Hapoalim bank group, or Rafael, one of the top defense contractors in Israel.mass challenge

In Israel we have 52 companies in a cohort, a number about five times larger than any other accelerator in the country. In our future location we’ll have space for 85 companies, we are the largest and we continue to grow,” Josh said, adding that they rejoin various startups, from the profit to non-profit ones, from those that have social impact, to startups on education or biotechnology, with 15% of the companies coming from abroad, 40% from Jerusalem, and the rest from other places in Israel.

He said they have a startup that is teaching science, technology, engineering and maths to girls, another one from India addressing the local micro-greenhouse farming or one that developed the self-cleaning toilet, as there still is a huge sanitation issue in India. One startup under MassChallenge has developed the motorcycle that turns into car and vice versa.

So, MassChallenge is mainly focused on those startups that have a real social impact, that impacts large communities, but it also help the multinationals or national companies connect to the innovation ecosystems.

We help connect companies to relevant investors or help their employees be better connected to innovation and that’s we do for Rafael, for instance, a company that really helped building the state of Israel. Historically, everything they did was done internally, as defence contracts were a highly confidential, secret issue. But they realized that for the past ten years the top engineers who used to be very excited to go to Rafael are creating their own startups instead of going to one of these big companies. And so, they need to connect their very employees to the innovation ecosystem. We help them create innovation strategies,” Josh explained.



To manage to be a startup under Masschallege umbrella is not an easy task, as not everyone with a brilliant idea can reach here, the accelerators only accepts 8 to 9 per cent of the applicants.

When picking up a startup, we are interested if the startup is designing a real impact and if this is the team that can pull it off. So far, we have accelerated 1,211 startups, but it will be 1,600 startups soon generating over nine hundred million dollars in revenue and have raised over 2 billion dollars in equity investment, we have created over 65,000 new jobs, direct and indirect jobs,” Joshua said.

I love Jerusalem, and with so many people from various backgrounds, and above all, it’s important for them to be employed to be able to support their families,” he added.



Original devices, apps that can be real life changing, groundbreaking

Many original ideas took shape from the startups based in Israel, such as the one the developed a firewall functionality to prevent car hacking, a company worked on a business that removed the sugar from natural juices, the motorcycle that can turn into a car, but there are new ones under way, such as the device helping the visually impaired people convey vision through sound or the app that can help parents track down and address the bullying messages against their children.

This year we particularly focused on the future mobility and visual technology areas, which have a particular interest and relevance locally, as well on medical technologies,” Josh disclosed.

One of the startups with work in progress seeking for finance is RenewSenses, also ranked among the top ten startups this year, which is tackling the issue of visually impaired people, which conveys vision through sound by combining sensory augmentation and computer vision in a wearable device. These IP-protected technologies were tested and validated in the lab of Prof. Amir Amedi at the Hebrew university (co-founder) recruiting the visual cortex of blind people and enabling a new form of sensory experience.

More precisely, the device practically takes the objects and colors and converts them into musical notes so that blind people should be able to identify the objects and even to know where they are located.

So, after training, the visually impaired will be able to interpret language from sounds and get new abilities of independence in their daily life, like reading, recognizing faces, shapes and precise objects. The authors say it is groundbreaking from the neuro-scientific perspective. The device is still a prototype, still needing about USD 3-4 million to hit the market.

Keepers is an application dealing with the child’ safety. It’s practically an anti-bullying device that can be placed in the child’s cell phone, without the kid even knowing it’s there, and track down any problematic language that might be a potential bullying factor for the kid. Keepers goes down on the phone and sits there in the background and is able to take a picture of any problematic language whatsoever, to all platforms, sms or social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat). When it sees problematic language, it takes a screenshot picture and sends it to the parents, who choose to act or not to prevent his kid from being bullied.

The app has a tragic story behind it, its creator came up with the idea of designing such a tool after the son of one his neighbors committed suicide after being horribly mistreated online.

The app goes in different languages, Hebrew, English, Italian, Spanish and more others on the way.

Jerusalem has high prospects to expand its innovation and entrepreneurship potential, after all it has the necessary elements to turn into a leading tech hub. The existing background is a driving force, 100 multinational companies already have offices in Israel, mainly based in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, which are at about one-hour drive anyhow, so, as our host from MassChallenge, Joshua Gottesman said it, “you can be exposed to 100 multinational in less than an hour.”

Besides, Jerusalem has the advantage of housing a fertile academic environment which is crucial for the innovation, such as the Hebrew University and other leading engineering colleges and art and design academies, and also a diverse, strong startup community given by its multicultural population.

About Alina Grigoras Butu