A brilliantly conceived tech tour, from the White House to the likes of Google and Yahoo, has generated tremendous buzz and possibilities for Israeli start-ups in the US.
A whirlwind two-week Tel Aviv Tech Tour to the United States netted one Palestinian and 10 Israeli young entrepreneurs an audience with a White House official; corporate officers at Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL and Plug & Play; and students and faculty at prominent universities.
Cobbled together in less than a month, the nearly-spontaneous November tour was a novel and surprisingly successful way to bring Israeli and Palestinian ingenuity to the attention of potential backers and consumers.
“I was sitting with a friend in a coffee shop in Tel Aviv and we were talking about the challenges of getting our consumer-based startups to the US without actually being there,” Yosi Taguri tells ISRAEL21c. Taguri is CEO and co-founder of fiddme, an iPad app that allows diners to upload photos and ratings of restaurant fare to share with other restaurant-goers.
“We thought, ‘Let’s do the craziest thing ever. Let’s go from campus to campus and pitch our startups to potential users.’ From there, it got the twist of meeting with potential investors, too,” he says.
A world-class creative energy capital
Elran Tsabag, an old friend of Taguri’s and a recent immigrant to Israel from Los Angeles, saw the Tel Aviv Tech Tour as a concrete manifestation of the concepts in the bestselling book Startup Nation. The former pro-Israel campus activist called US universities and businesses, organized meetings with “a ton of executives at Jewish organizations and ministries” and was rewarded with plane tickets courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – including one for him.
“We knew we had something amazing,” Tsabag tells ISRAEL21c. Meeting face-to-face with student and tech communities, the group reasoned, would give them a unique opportunity to discuss innovation, entrepreneurship and hot trends while branding Israel as a world-class creative energy capital.
Taguri found participants among his fellow GarageGeeks who meet regularly: Addy Feuerstein (iStreamer by allofme.com), Nir Ofir (ChatSq.com), Eyal Benishti and Gil Pal (DoNanza.com), Yoav Aviram (empeeric.com), Effi Fuks (Fribiz.com), Amit Lubovsky (tawkon.com), Eran Galperin (binpress.com) and Ido Gaver (loyalblocks.com). All in their early 30s, most are married and a few are fathers.
Eager to find a Palestinian to join them, Taguri sent out Tweets resulting in connections with start-ups in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Eventually he reached Fuad Hawitt, the California-based creator of a free virtual assistant iPhone app called (Monica) and son of a Ramallah businessman. The two became fast friends, even sharing a bed during the low-budget tour where the guys slept five to a room.
Doing serious business
“Fuad had no issues with bonding and was a fully-formed partner from day one,” Tsabag recounts. “We never got into any political discussions and never discussed religion. We went out together and enjoyed our meals and travels, and we doubled up in beds. It was kind of like a camp experience for 30-year-olds.”
Judging from the playful videos posted on the TLV Tech Tour Facebook page, it’s clear the “campers” had fun. But they accomplished some serious business as well. During a week on the East Coast, they gave guest lectures to graduate business students and spoke with students and faculty at universities including New York, Columbia, Yale, Maryland-College Park, George Washington, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
They described their start-ups to venture capitalists, reporters and corporate development teams, and met with White House deputy chief technology officer Scott Deutchman at the law firm Nixon Peabody.
On the West Coast, the Tel Aviv Tech Tour visited Stanford University, San Francisco State, two University of California campuses and the University of Southern California. Local Israeli consulates and foreign ministry representatives helped them to arrange meetings with potential investors.
Tech Tour Two coming soon
“Our last event was a meeting with investors arranged by the economic consul in LA at 7am at a Santa Monica law firm,” Tsabag recalls. “There were 70 people there; 70 big-wig investors. It blew our minds to see the support we got. Everyone walked away in amazement.”
As an unexpected bonus, the group was trailed by an Israeli camera crew filming a documentary on Israel’s start-up community.
Though the young entrepreneurs anticipated some confrontational scenarios on campuses, none took place. Tsabag speculates that this was due to Hawitt’s presence. “Having a Palestinian participate in the project… exemplifies how people from both sides of the conflict can work well together in such a passionate field of high tech,” he suggests.
Taguri and Tsabag are planning a second Tel Aviv Tech Tour for April, ideally with five Israeli and five Palestinian participants and additional high-tech companies onboard.