It’s only six days into the new year, but pundits are already touting 2015 as a banner year for startup investments in Israel.
The momentum picks up from the past several months, when leading Israeli venture capital firms closed, or began the process of closing, new financing to the tune of an estimated $825 million, according to Israeli financial daily Globes.
In October Magma Ventures – which invested in such successful companies as Waze and Onavo – completed its $150 million fourth fund, and Jerusalem Venture Partners closed two funds worth $160 million. In November, Carmel Ventures – which has invested in Kontera, PlayBuzz, ironSource, myThings and other standouts — closed its own fourth fund totaling $194 million.
During the first week of January, outgoing Greylock Israel partners launched a new $200 million fund to invest in Israeli and European startups, according to Globes. Smaller funds are in the works from Glilot Capital ($70 million), Canaan Partners (at least $30 million) and First Time ($40 million).
The financing flurry is partly fueled by the fact that Israeli startups set a record for exits in 2014. End-of-year reports indicate that 52 Israeli companies were acquired for some $15 billion, nearly double 2013′s exits worth $7.6 billion.
With a string of international literary awards and bestselling novels to his credit, Assaf Gavron has earned his place alongside his accomplished friends Etgar Keret and Nir Baram as a foremost Israeli author under 50.
The Hilltop, his seventh book — recently published in English translation by Scribner — took five years to research and write. It paints a rare portrait of fictional personalities populating an unauthorized settlement in the Judean Hills, and has won Gavron a Bernstein Prize, critical acclaim and worldwide speaking engagements.
The 46-year-old writer tells ISRAEL21c that he did not consider himself “a proper writer” until his books started getting translated from Hebrew.
“I was 28 when my first book was published, but didn’t have the confidence to call myself a writer until much later,” he says in a conversation from Omaha, Nebraska, where he is teaching Israeli and Jewish literature and creative writing at the state university this year.
“When my work was first translated into German and I was invited to speak in Germany, I was treated as a writer — and that’s when I decided that’s what I want to be. That was only in 2008,” he says. “I was never an overnight hit. It was always a slow-burning kind of process of getting more recognition and readers.”
Meanwhile, he built a reputation as a translator, rendering into Hebrew 20 works of major authors including J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, J.K. Rowling and Audrey Niffenegger.
Gavron also dabbled in high-tech.
“I was in a startup called Valis for four years, two in Tel Aviv and two in London,” he relates. “We started in the year 2000, creating a mobile social-media platform for teens, but the phones were not advanced enough at that time. I was brought in to create the language and later headed the creative department. It was a lot of fun and I liked the daily routine, but the company eventually closed.”
In addition, Gavron is in a three-man Israeli pop band, The Mouth and Foot. His absence this year doesn’t matter because the trio agreed from the start, in the late 1980s, to release an album only once every six years.
“We released our latest album at the end of 2013, so that means we’re off for a while,” he explains. “The two others in the band are the musicians. I am the singer and I write most of the lyrics and play a little keyboard.”
Not lost in translation
Gavron was born in the southern city of Arad in 1968, but lived in the Jerusalem suburb of Motza Illit from the time he was three. “It was not a suburb like Omaha. For me, especially as a child, it was like a moshav,” a cooperative village. “Jerusalem was the big city and we went there on buses to watch movies or do our chugim [afterschool clubs].”
His parents were British immigrants, and he earned college degrees in London and Canada. So although he writes in Hebrew, he does not feel his works lose anything in translation.
“I’ve been reading English books all my life, and in a way my writing lends itself to English. I sometimes see the translation as an opportunity for improvement,” he says. “In my writing, the poetry of the Hebrew isn’t as important as it is for other writers. I’m more interested in story and character.”
The Hilltop has been translated into English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swedish; some of his previous books also appear in Bulgarian, Greek and Russian.
Gavron’s two young daughters are picking up English quickly during the family’s year in Nebraska. “Some of the ways of living here I’m not really used to, like being in a car practically all the time,” he confides. “In Tel Aviv, I like to bike and walk around. But it’s an interesting place to experience.”
When he returns after this year of teaching and traveling to several countries giving author talks, he will work on the next book already taking shape in his mind. Gavron stresses that his books are meant to be entertaining, fun and thought-provoking rather than political.
“I don’t set out to present Israel in a certain way,” he says. “But to be honest, there is a side of me that wants to take advantage of this opportunity to show something about Israel that I believe in. Mostly it will be different than the official hasbara [public diplomacy] of Israel but for me it’s no less supportive of Israel to show contradicting viewpoints.”
Sylven Landesberg at the Nokia Arena. Photo by Deborah Danan/Headline Media
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the Maccabi Electra basketball team is wrapping up a home-court practice at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena. The night before, Electra guard Sylven Landesberg tipped the scales against Ironi Nahariya with 16 points and six rebounds. Tomorrow night he and his teammates will be victorious over Alba Berlin, in Germany.
But right now, he’s taking a few minutes before hitting the showers to talk to ISRAEL21c about what it’s like for a high school and college all-star from New York City to play for the Israeli Super League.
When he arrived at age 20 to join Maccabi Haifa in 2010 – after playing for the Sacramento Kings in the NBA Summer League — Landesberg had never visited Israel and didn’t know the language.
“When I finished college and was considering my options, I sat down with my parents and we agreed that Israel was a good choice,” says the 6-foot-6, 205-pound player, whose mother is Trinidadian. Because his father is Jewish, he chose to exercise his right to immediate Israeli citizenship.
Landesberg was not short on options. He was a star player at Holy Cross High School in the New York borough of Queens. He was named 2008 New York State Mr. Basketball and 2008–09 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Freshman of the Year for the University of Virginia Cavaliers. He set a freshman record with 12 20-point games and was named ACC Rookie of the Year.
Since signing a three-year contract with Electra in July 2012, Landesberg has been a standout scorer. He was pivotal to the Tel Aviv team winning the Euroleague basketball championship last season.
US and Israeli basketball aren’t identical. “For a lot of Americans, when they first come here it’s tough to adjust to the slower-paced games, and some of the rules are a little different,” Landesberg explains.
In America, for example, when a player gets his hands on the ball he can take a “first step” without violating the rule against “traveling” (moving the ball without dribbling).
“Here, if you do that it’s a travel, so in my first game in Haifa I had six, seven travels and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. They made me watch films so I could understand what I was doing. It took me five or six months to get used to it. But I still play like an American.”
Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv 2014-15 (Landesberg is No. 15). Photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv BC
Rules aside, he adds, “Israel is the easiest place to adjust to. All my teammates say the same thing. Professionally, the way the organization handles us is amazing — not every country and team is like that. Personally, I like that the food selection is amazing and the weather is great all the time.”
Maccabi Electra currently includes eight US citizens. Like Landesberg, two others — forwards Jake Cohen and Alex Tyus – have dual citizenship.
Landesberg is the only one among them who is also an Israel Defense Forces soldier. He completed military training last year and now serves his adopted country as manager of an IDF gym — not a basketball gym, he clarifies, but a “pumping iron” gym.
With no known relatives in Israel, Landesberg’s basketball teammates and army buddies are his surrogate family.
“When I first came at 20, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be Israeli,” says Landesberg. “Doing the army made me feel closer to the country. I made a lot of friends in [army training] and still keep in touch with them. Some of them served in Gaza last summer and told me about their experiences.”
Most of his everyday conversation is in English; there is no need for Hebrew on the Maccabi Electra court. “That’s a blessing and a curse,” Landesberg says with a smile. “Next week, I’m starting private Hebrew lessons.
Though his big-picture dream is playing for the NBA someday, he likes where he is now. “The competition is great, the league is strong and I enjoy competing in Europe.”
Landesberg resides in seaside Herzliya Pituah, home of ambassadors and diplomats. “I didn’t expect Israel to be so beautiful, and when I got here it was just jaw-dropping,” he relates.
His mother and sister have come to visit, and he saw the whole family in October when Maccabi Electra took on the Brooklyn Nets in an exhibition game during its pre-season Euroleague US Tour. The Israelis lost the match, and afterward a Brooklyn Jewish community leader was assaulted outside the arena. Landesberg says he and his teammates nevertheless feel their foreign appearances are important and appreciated.
“I’m proud to represent the team and Israel,” he says. “We get so much support from Israelis and from fans around the world. They all want us to do well.”
Brayola and 24me – two Israeli startups led by women.
At the end of 2013, Forbes magazine highlighted “10 Female Founders to Watch out of Israel”. One year later, ISRAEL21c checked in with them to see if the early hype helped or hindered their paths to success.
Joining Viva Sarah Press in the TLV1 studio were Orit Hashay, founder and CEO of Brayola – who was also on the Girls in Tech Network’s “Top 100 European women in tech” list in 2012 – and Liat Mordehay Hertanu, co-founder of 24me, recently chosen by Apple as one of the best apps of 2014.
Listen to the program here.
Music: Tamir Grinberg - I was made to love her
To listen to other ISRAEL21c shows on TLV1 click here.
Dr. Yehuda Shoenfeld of Israel’s Zabludowicz Center of Autoimmune Diseases.
It is common to make fun of men for acting like “big babies” when they’re even mildly sick. According to Dr. Yehuda Shoenfeld, who heads the Shlomo and Pola Zabludowicz Center of Autoimmune Diseases (eng.sheba.co.il/567/329.htm) in the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, there is a physiological basis for this behavior.
Indeed, says the world-renowned Israeli autoimmunologist, prolific author and founder and editor of the Israel Medical Association Journal, Autoimmunity Reviews and J Autoimmunity: “Women are literally the stronger gender, with a better immune system. Not only do they outlive men, but when a woman has a cold, she goes about her business, and when a man has one, he takes to his bed and cries for a cup of tea.”
But this stronger immune system is also why, explains Shoenfeld, “with a few exceptions, autoimmune diseases attack women more than men, and usually at childbearing ages.”
As he gives ISRAEL21c a guided tour of the 3,000-meter (nearly 33,000-foot) center, decorated by Israeli artists and sculptors, Shoenfeld delivers a fluid summary of autoimmune diseases and the breakthroughs being made on the premises.
There are 80 such diseases, afflicting an estimated 20 percent of the population. Among these are the ones most people have heard of — rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease and lupus. All are characterized by an immune system gone amok.
“Instead of doing its work to prevent outside invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, from attacking our body, it turns inward and becomes the attacker,” says Shoenfeld, likening the process to “friendly fire” in the military.
“If it attacks the brain, for instance, the patient suffers from multiple sclerosis; if it attacks the intestine, it is Crohn’s disease. When it attacks many different organs and tissues, it is considered ‘systemic.’ Lupus is an example of a systemic autoimmune disease.”
The innovation of the Zabludowicz Center is its holistic approach to researching, diagnosing, treating and finding cures for autoimmune diseases. It has brought together experts in every field of medicine (such as internists, immunologists, neurologists and gynecologists) to tackle what Shoenfeld and his colleagues call the “mosaic” of autoimmune diseases, which are always debilitating and sometimes fatal.
“Until recently, most of these diseases were diagnosed and treated by the individual organ specialists,” says Shoenfeld. “Over the last decade, we found that the causes of autoimmune diseases are the same, and that they include genetics, hormones and environmental factors such as the sun, pesticides and smoking.”
Through the work of more than 25 physicians and a research laboratory, the center has made strides beyond the first revolution in the treatment of autoimmune diseases — using biological drugs known as corticosteroids (such as prednisone) and immuno-suppressants. Shoenfeld describes both as “miraculous,” yet they cause multiple serious side effects and are very expensive.
Shoenfeld and his team studied regions of the world where there is a low incidence of autoimmune disease, and came up with the idea of “harnessing nature” in the form of helminth intestinal parasites – something that modern hygiene has largely eliminated.
In order to survive and thrive, helminths secret substances that suppress the host’s immune system.
“Wherever helminths thrive, autoimmune diseases are virtually non-existent,” Shoenfeld says. “We know from epidemiological studies that there is a connection between increased hygiene and increased autoimmune diseases and allergies.”
He relates that the Italian island of Sardinia was rife with malaria yet absent of autoimmune disease – until 1946, when the area was sprayed with DDT. Malaria was indeed curbed as a result, but the island’s population developed the highest incidence of multiple sclerosis in the world.
Hygiene theorists tried using helminths to treat autoimmune disease, having their subjects ingest the long parasites like spaghetti. The experiments were successful but “a bit disgusting,” says Shoenfeld. “So the next trial was to ingest helminth eggs — which are so tiny that they can’t be seen by the naked eye — and let them hatch in the patient.”
The problem is that the parasites are emitted in bodily waste, causing a public-health issue. The solution was to use the eggs of a pig helminth, which do not hatch in humans, or if they do, they die very quickly.
This method, approved by medical authorities, is currently sold over the counter via the Internet. And many patients who have tried it report beneficial effects.
Taking this a step farther, Shoenfeld and his team set out to mimic the helminth secretions that suppress a host’s immune system. The compound they patented, called TCP, is the basis of a startup they have established. They are seeking investors or pharmaceutical companies to mass produce the compound.
TCP is a mixture of two existing molecules in the body – phosphorylcholine, a non-immunogenic substance, and tuftsin, which is produced in the spleen and helps suppress the immune system. When introduced to mice in the lab at the center, via injection and orally, TCP completely eradicated lupus, colitis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Shoenfeld’s team is now expanding experimentation with TCP – which he believes can relieve almost all autoimmune diseases cheaply and without side effects — to tackle conditions such as hair loss and psoriasis. They are also starting a study on the connection between allergies and autoimmune disease.
“We believe that investors in this endeavor will get very rich,” he concludes.