It was a different kind of beauty contest and the competition to participate in it was fierce. Over 80 Israeli internet start-ups vied for 15 coveted places in a four-day tour in Silicon Valley to show the crème de la crème of Internet companies – including Google, Yahoo, Adobe and Ebay – that their innovations are “next big thing” for the World Wide Web.
The event, known as the Israel Web Tour, kicked off Nov. 6, and was the first event of its kind.
Organized by The California Israel Chamber of Commerce and The Consulate General of Israel’s Economic Mission in San Francisco, the 15 CEOs had the opportunity to strut their stuff and meet with investors, strategic partners and customers in the US. Their tour consisted of private one-on-one meetings, roundtable discussions with major US companies, and invitation only opportunities to attend company presentations.
California Israel Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Shuly Galili, said the decision to hold the first ever Israel Web Tour came about after discussions with many of the large Silicon Valley based internet companies, “We are seeing a renaissance of Israeli internet companies, and we realized there is a trend,” she said. “We decided that [holding the Web Tour] would serve both the Israeli and American community and it was an opportunity to bring them together.” Not only are large companies such as Google and Yahoo interested in Israeli internet companies, Galili added, but there is a great deal of interest from the local investment community too.
Gil Ben Artzi, a member of the steering committee who chose the Israeli companies and who works in corporate development at Yahoo said it was a successful experiment, “It was a great opportunity for Israeli companies to present their products to leading companies in the [San Francisco] Bay area.” He said that while many of the companies are nascent, several have a great deal of potential.
He noted that while Israel is an “incredible place” for all types of technologies, consumer Internet markets is the one area where being geographically distant from the US market can be detrimental to success: hence the need for the Web Tour. “People really need to be here to create the relevant buzz,” he said. “Having a presence in the US is very important.”
Yaniv Vakrat, director of corporate development for Adobe, concurred. “Israel is known as a large and high tech hub, but not in relation to Internet companies except for Shopping.com and ICQ,” he said. With most Internet innovation happening in the Valley, Vakrat said it’s a matter of being “plugged in with a generation of community and creators.”
As such, the experience, for the companies in Silicon Valley was invaluable, he said, particularly in helping them pinpoint exactly what companies are looking for in the US. “From Yahoo’s perspective, we’re really looking for high quality teams who can deliver on their vision,” said Ben Artzi. “We’ve been very active in the last five years in acquiring different companies.”
Ben Artzi added that the feedback received from the various Silicon Valley companies will help the Israeli 15 to focus on how they can succeed by understanding what their users really need and want, and ensuring they have a solid business model. “I’m hoping they take some solid connections [back to Israel],” he said, “and realize that this week was not a one-shot deal. By coming here they will be able to go back home and work on partnerships and look for funding here.”
Yaniv Bensadon, CEO of Fixya, a company chosen for the Web Tour, said he was impressed that the organizers managed to introduce the Israeli CEOs to the top firms in Silicon Valley. “I was impressed with the seriousness and the preparation they put in and the time they allocated us and helping us explore ways of cooperation.”
After only four days in Silicon Valley, Bensadon said he had already met with several venture capital firms who have expressed serious interest in his product. “In the US, venture capital firms are much more aware of the potential in Internet and community generated content than in Israel,” he said. Based on the Web Tour, Bensadon said he is already looking at potentially opening up a small office in Silicon Valley. “Shopping.com is possibly interested in using our content on their site and we even met with Microsoft to explore opportunities,” he said.
Vakrat said this doesn’t surprise him in the slightest, because despite Israel’s geographical distance from the US, his overall impression was that Israeli companies are still in the forefront of what’s happening in the global internet market. “That’s what I took away from this tour,” he said. “The distance does not seem to impact the type of companies emerging, because we see similar companies that exist here who pitch to me on a daily basis.”
Among the 15 companies, Vakrat said, “Many of them have a lot of passion to generate innovation. I hosted the panel about business models, and several panelists talked to the CEOs about how to actually make money from their businesses.” However, he cautioned that it was not a simple thing to do. “To be venture capital funded you have to have a viable business model and a really large opportunity.”
Nonetheless, Vakrat added that Israeli startups in the field shouldn’t be intimidated, because they tend to have a knack of succeeding. “I think it has a lot to do with the Israeli culture and their entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “We just don’t take “no” for an answer. Israeli persistence and focus is tremendous with an appetite for being aggressive and pushing businesses forward.”
To that end, Vakrat said while he wasn’t willing to name specific companies, he said several of the 15 had some very interesting innovations with the potential to succeed.
Bensadon said he would go home with a great deal of knowledge, that overwhelming desire to succeed and with a pinch of that necessary Israeli chutzpah. “I think that the biggest advantage of Israeli startups compared to American startups is that we come from a tougher environment,” he said. “That just gives us a bigger incentive to move forward.” And, he added, in addition to his recently acquired knowledge from the Web Tour, Israeli startups can give American companies a few tips too. “The key is to believe in what you’re doing and be willing to take the few extra steps. If Israeli companies can make it, and I think a few of us will soon be on the global map, so can Americans.”
[The following are the 15 companies chose by the Web Tour steering committee which included the CEOs from Shopping.com (Ebay), Google, Yahoo, Gemini Israel Funds, abazab, and Adobe:
BeInSync, enabling people to access their remote files from any Web browser, keep files in sync between laptop and desktop computers, and continuously maintain backup copies of all documents and photos, and access their data from any computer.
FixYa - which provides tech support, troubleshooting, repair and customer service on over 700,000 well-known products all on one site, with input from users themselves as well as the companies.
Foxytunes - a free browser add-on allowing people to control their favorite media players without ever leaving the browser
Gizmoz, - A multimedia communications company providing animated emotive icon that can be downloaded to all Instant Messaging services and text messages.
ILCU - An event sharing network covering the US, UK, Israel, France, Canada and Spain allowing people to find out not only what social events are going on in their city, but to also meet up with others who wish to attend the same events or who have similar interests.
Inter8ing - An advertising platform and better rating program for online blogs.
Kasamba - A live expert advice service where 30,000 professionals offer fee-based assistance, guidance, advice or help with a project.
MatchActivity - an activity-based site connecting people through one-on-one activities based on common interests including everything from bowling and concerts to movies and sushi.
MyHeritage - A community service combining Genealogy, social networks and face recognition technology enabling people to share their family trees and photographs.
RadarSync - a tool that allows people to keep their computers running and lengthen their computer's lifespan by keeping internal hardware drivers and software applications up to date.
Skylow - delivers the cheapest available price for any requested flight route around the world.
SpearCast - A service helping people choose the best local businesses in their area using a unique contextual RSS technology.
Trusted Opinion - patented a Social Recommendations Engine - that considers only your friends' opinions and, to a lesser degree, those of their friends. The result is Reliable and Uniquely Personal Recommendations for the best products and services, with everything from the best plumbers and mechanics to the best nightclubs.
ViewScore - a product search engine providing online shoppers with aggregated reviews of thousands of products, generating a single score for each product and helping people decide what to buy.
Yedda - a free Community Knowledge Exchange - a Web 2.0 service allowing people to ask any question on any topic and receive personalized answers from relevant people.]