Israel’s famous startup ecosystem, centered firmly in Tel Aviv, is rapidly spreading to the capital city.
A growing number of startup hubs, co-working spaces, venture capital firms and networking meet-ups — 12 such events were held in 2012, and 110 in 2013 — signal Jerusalem’s growing presence on the startup map.
Against this positive backdrop, the first and only startup workspace-accelerator-incubator is opening soon in heavily Arab East Jerusalem. It has the backing of various local and international NGOs and governmental agencies, as well as advice and mentorship from Cisco Israel.
Hani Alami, 44, an East Jerusalem resident and telecom pioneer in the Arab sector, was pleasantly surprised when representatives of 95 East Jerusalem startups came to a February 2014 meet-up to express their interest in the project.
“There is no IT sector in East Jerusalem, and we have to build one,” Alami tells ISRAEL21c. “A [high-tech entrepreneur] living in East Jerusalem is going to work or live in Ramallah or Tel Aviv or Dubai, and at the end of the day he has left Jerusalem.”
To get a clearer sense of the size of the community and its needs, Alami and his colleague Yazeed Ghandour founded Jerusalem Entrepreneurs - Society and Technology (JEST) and began inviting people to brainstorming meet-ups.
“I want to connect the startups to the big companies and incubate them, so as soon as we find a place to rent that is easily accessible to East and West Jerusalem, we will start as a hub with an incubator and accelerator,” he says. Five startups have been identified as the first tenants.
“Many of the startup hubs in West Jerusalem are very supportive and interested in connecting their projects and our projects,” Alami adds, citing as examples the Jerusalem Startup Hub-Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation in Jerusalem; PICO shared workspace and art gallery; and the Jerusalem Hub workspace.
“Between east and west, our projects will develop Jerusalem as a whole and hopefully will be a big success.”
Cisco providing its knowhow
Gai Hetzroni, director of corporate social responsibility at Cisco Israel, was one of the featured speakers at the first JEST meet-up.
He explains that Cisco CEO and Chairman John Chambers has actively supported development of the Arab high-tech sector since 2008. Hetzroni is instrumental to this effort as head of Ma’antech, a Cisco-funded organization promoting Israeli-Arab high-tech ventures such as the NazTech accelerator in Nazareth.
“I was asked by Hani, an entrepreneur I know from my previous work, to get involved,” Hetzroni tells ISRAEL21c. “There are a lot of entrepreneurs and talented people in East Jerusalem but many of them work in Ramallah because that is where they have the ecosystem to support them. This is something we are trying to change.”
He readily agreed to bring Cisco’s high profile, knowhow and networking power to the table. “We are there to help and support, and if needed we’ll give some funding to this initiative to help make it happen.”
Hetzroni notes that the hub will be “very good for the middle class, and that’s very important for both Palestinians and Jews, because eventually everybody will benefit.”
The next Waze?
Ahmed Shawish, 19, an East Jerusalem alumnus of the MIT-sponsored MEET (Middle East Education through Technology) program, tells ISRAEL21c: “I’m pretty sure there is huge potential for a startup hub in East Jerusalem, perhaps to launch the next Waze. I know that for many startups, one of their biggest challenges is finding a space to work in.”
He hopes the hub will encourage business partnerships in both halves of the city.
Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) investment associate Hanan Brand is optimistic about the project as well.
“For a long time, our founder Erel Margalit talked about Jerusalem as the future startup capital of the Middle East, and I think it’s interesting that Jerusalem is becoming known as a place of cooperation rather than conflict,” Brand tells ISRAEL21c, noting that Palestinian venture capitalist Saed Nashef recently held a startup “pitch night” at the Notre Dame Cathedral in East Jerusalem.
“JVP is active in the Arab-Israeli entrepreneur communities in Nazareth and Haifa, while we don’t see a lot of investment opportunities in East Jerusalem. The fact that Mr. Alami and Mr. Nashef are promoting the ecosystem is appealing to us as a Jerusalem-based VC and we’ll be happy to invest once they’re ready,” says Brand, who is also a cofounder of Made in Jerusalem, a voluntary umbrella organization for Jerusalem’s innovation ecosystem.
Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, a consultant with the government-funded Unit for Development and Entrepreneurship, East Jerusalem, points out that the unemployment rate in East Jerusalem is the highest in the country. “We wholeheartedly support and embrace Hani and Yazeed’s initiative to develop a high-tech startup ecosystem here,” she tells ISRAEL21c.