A new Arab-Israeli innovation hub has joined the local high-tech landscape and leading experts in the field have high hopes for the project’s success.

The TRI/O Tech advanced high-tech entrepreneurial hub in the hilltop Israeli Arab city of Kafr Kassem, about 20 kilometers east ofTel Aviv, includes the first Arab-Israeli school of entrepreneurship and a startup accelerator.

TRI/O Tech is a joint venture of Tsofen, an Arab-Israeli integration non-profit,andMIT Enterprise Forum of Israel, the Israeli chapter of the global non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the growth and success of high-tech entrepreneurial ventures.

The initiative – expected to cost $23 million over three years – is primarily supported by the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) of the US State Department.

“The whole operation in this hub is focused on integrating Israeli Arabs into Israeli high-tech, making the entrepreneurial world more accessible to the Arab community, creating jobs for Arabs in their towns so they do not need to travel to Tel Aviv or Haifa for work, and at the same time fostering and encouraging entrepreneurship through the school and accelerator,” Hans Shakur, consultant for Tsofen and project manager, tells ISRAEL21c.

New accelerators, incubators, high-tech hubs and shared working spaces are popping up all the time. However, TRI/O Tech stands out because of its niche in the Arab-Israeli sector.

Taking a cue from Nazareth’s flourishing high-tech center, Kafr Kassem hopes to lure more high-tech companies to its Lev Haaretz Industrial Zone that would then employ more local talent from the Triangle area of Israeli Arab towns in the eastern Sharon plain.

“TRI/O Tech will encourage young entrepreneurs, bring businesses and create badly needed jobs for the area and create an entrepreneurial ecosystem for the Triangle,” Ambassador of the United States Dan Shapiro said at the opening ceremony on February 10, 2016.

“Once we have successful models of Nazareth and Kafr Kassem, within a few months we’ll see other cities or towns wanting to duplicate this experience of building high-tech in their towns. And this will accelerate by itself. The Arab mayors know of the economic miracle of the startup and high-tech nation and all of them want to be part of it,” Shakur tells ISRAEL21c.

School of entrepreneurship

On Tuesday, classes for the first cycle at the TRI/O Tech School of Entrepreneurship will begin. The school will offer three-and-a-half month-long courses five times in the coming three years.

The school will take students out into the field and put them in touch with Israeli companies and entrepreneurs. At the same time, guest lectures by entrepreneurs, investors and specialists in IT will bring knowhow into the classroom.

“There are at least five other Arab-Israeli accelerators but this is the first tech school of entrepreneurship for the Arab-Israeli community,” says MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel Executive Director Ayla Matalon.

The first cohort at the new school of entrepreneurship will comprise 15 to 20 students. Shakur says Tsofen mapped the Triangle area and found a thriving pool of talent of some 1,500 potential candidates.

At the opening of TRI/O Tech hub were, from left, Paz Hirschmann, Smadar Nehab, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Ayla Matalon and Sami Saadi. Photo from Facebook
At the opening of TRI/O Tech hub were, from left, Paz Hirschmann, Smadar Nehab, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Ayla Matalon and Sami Saadi. Photo from Facebook

Both the school and accelerator will teach entrepreneurial skills.

“The school will give the participant a tool set of how to transform an idea into a project and a project into a company. And the accelerator will focus much more deeply on how to do it and how to be a sustainable and scalable company,” says Shakur.

Matalon, who has lectured about high-tech entrepreneurship and business development at six academic institutions, says it is important to offer Arab Israelis entrepreneurial lessons in their home community.

“We are going out of our way because we believe they can make it and it’s a step forward for all of us. We understand the potential,” she says. “The second thing is a lot of these companies will market to the global Arab market. They need to learn the special aspects of the Arab world, what the trends and challenges are, what has been done and what could be done.”

Moreover, Matalon says it’s crucial to tailor a program for the Arab-Israeli high-tech community.

“We know that when you take girls and put them in a STEM class without boys, you’ll see their grades are much better than if they’re part of a girls and boys class,” she says. “So, sometimes taking a minority group and letting it work within its own group, you get better results.”

Arab-Israeli innovation

It makes sense that Kafr Kassem was chosen for this first-ever school of innovation: It has a growing industrial zone and its mayor, Adel Badir, is eager to build an Arab-Israeli startup community.

“Adel Badir is incredible and an entrepreneur himself,” says Matalon.

Tsofen relocated its Tsofen High Technology Centers in Tira to Kafr Kassem because of Badir’s shared vision to replicate Tsofen’s Nazareth model of attracting high-tech companies to the city.

“Bringing the entrepreneurs and starting this accelerator and entrepreneurial school is part of a wider program led by the municipality to bring high-tech to Kafr Kassem. It is a cornerstone to create an ecosystem in Kafr Kassem, as was done in Nazareth,” Tsofen co-CEO Paz Hirschmann tells ISRAEL21c.

MEPIoffers assistance, training and support to groups and individuals striving to create positive change in society, currently running programs in 18 countries in the Middle East.

Hirschmann says that although the Kafr Kassem initiativeis officially being funded for three years, “we see it as a long-term project.”

He says the change in the Arab entrepreneurial scene and in the industry has been “dramatic in the past three to four years. You see it in the number of Arab students in STEM at universities. The numbers grew in the last two years by 30 percent.”

“At any given time there’s a shortage of engineers for the high-tech industry,” says Shakur.  “If leaders of the industry in Israel are saying that right now we have a shortage of 5,000 engineers, in two years we’ll need 10,000 engineers. The Arab society has a large pool of talent and we are working hard to get the most out of it and to get jobs in high-tech industry.”