Could the next ICQ, Amdocs or Waze be built by an Arab-Israeli? This is what Fadi Swidan is hoping.
With government support, industry sponsorship and mentors on board, Swidan is launching what appears to be the first true high-tech venture accelerator for Israel’s Arab community.
Based in Nazareth, the new Naztech Accelerator is currently screening a couple of dozen companies to fill 10 to 15 spots in the five-month accelerator program starting early this year.
Swidan is hoping the chosen Arab startups will help kick-start a revolution in Israel. Thousands of high-tech engineers graduate from institutions such as the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, but there is little framework for helping new Arab-run companies get off the ground.
“They don’t have success stories as a magnet for them to try their ideas on, and they don’t have the seed and pre-seed funds available to them for their early stages,” Swidan tells ISRAEL21c.
“We also have in our culture what we call the family business. All good businesses that are big here are family businesses. The [Arab community] doesn’t believe in the community [model] and partnerships, while in high-tech you need partners all the time. Like investors and VCs sharing the company with you.
“Here in this area we have to make a social impact to change these basic ideas so our entrepreneurs can have partners,” says Swidan, who works for the Nazareth Business Incubator Center, a two-year mentorship program for Arab high-tech companies. This is where the new Naztech accelerator program will be based.
Filling a gap
Naztech aims to fill the gap between basic ideas and funding, giving young Arab entrepreneurs the skills to pitch their product with confidence to investors. They will be partnered with mentors from Israel’s booming high-tech community, and new mentors are encouraged to apply.
Swidan is also hoping to help the Arabs in Israel access funds from natural partners nearby in the Middle East North Africa region, known as MENA.
“Turkey, Qatar, Lebanon are all the potentials in the MENA region,” he says. “We can build new technologies close to what the Jewish population has, and we can do this in the Arabic language. Looking at the research: if you look at the Arab countries there are a lot of users going into the Internet and using mobile applications but there is no content. There are no materials in Arabic, like Amazon.
“One of our entrepreneurs, for instance, is making electronic books in Arabic. So you can read Arabic books on your iPhone. There is a big potential in having Internet applications programs that are in Arabic with good content, and taking it to the Arab countries.”
Swidan is aiming that some 20 percent of the young ventures will get funded by the time they leave the accelerator, citing industry statistics.
He comes well prepared for his new job, with an MBA degree from Clark University in Boston and a bachelor’s in industrial engineering and management from the Technion in Israel. He has a background in consulting for startups, helping them write business plans and go-to market propositions.
Backed by government and industry
For funding, Naztech is supported by Cisco, MATI Nazareth and the Arab Economic Development Department of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.
Seminars will be run by PresenTense, a social entrepreneurship program that has boosted the profile of Jewish startups in Israel and around the world.
Organization CEO Guy Spigelman told a local paper: “Start-up Nation must be accessible all around Israel, not just the privileged 15% of the population. We call upon the brightest minds in the community of Arab technology entrepreneurs to submit applications, and take part in the accelerator’s first round.”
While it might be too late to apply for this round of the accelerator, it’s never too late for Arab entrepreneurs to turn to Naztech for advice. The organization joins a blossoming spirit in the high-tech community in Israel where accelerators, workshops and mentors abound.
Some of the better-known ones include the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Support Program meant primarily for graduates of the military’s 8200 intelligence unit, and the Microsoft Ventures accelerator program.
University programs through Tel Aviv University such as StarTAU have specialized workshops for minorities, including the We Dream Israeli Women Entrepreneurship Program.