Many Israeli startup founders are veterans of famed IDF technological units 81 and 8200.
Israeli Navy SEALs, on the other hand, are more likely to work in security after their service. Same goes for US Navy SEALs. (SEAL stands for Sea, Air, Land.)
Version Bravo was established with the understanding that operational veterans of these two elite naval units have unique untapped entrepreneurial potential.
“The name ‘Version Bravo’ encompasses our core mission: To help former special operators take their military skills into the business world,” says Global Director Nuri Golan, who leads the program as a volunteer.
Golan served six years in the Israel Navy SEALs (Shayetet 13), earned an MBA at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and moved back to the United States, where he was raised. He took on Version Bravo as a voluntary sideline to his own successful startup career.
“Bravo is the military phonetic word for the letter B. Similar to how a ‘beta version’ describes the next version of a product, Version Bravo is a first-of-its-kind entrepreneurship program that helps our special operators to become the most impactful civilian versions of themselves as innovators, job creators and entrepreneurs,” Golan tells ISRAEL21c.
“We saw that a lot of veterans of both communities don’t find their way quickly in civilian life. But the skills you get in special forces training and service – leadership and management, working under stress, making and assessing tough decisions on a daily basis — are directly translatable to the startup and entrepreneurial world,” Golan explains.
“All these soft skills are there and the guys just need a little boost to put them to use in business.”
10-week binational accelerator
Version Bravo also aims to raise investor awareness of these vets from both countries.
“Someone coming out of 8200 or Stanford can walk into a VC and walk out with a check. Our goal is to have a similar status for Navy SEALs because the probability for success coming out of these units is just as high,” says Golan, noting that Sunbit and Melio are examples of Israeli unicorns founded or headed by former Shayetet 13 operators.
The 10-week accelerator runs from January to March and includes two weeks in Israel and two in California for all participants.
Founders pay nothing to Version Bravo, which is funded by private investors. Neither do they get seed money. What they do get is mentorship, entrepreneurial tools, a network of investors and advisers, and follow-on resources.
The 37 startups accepted into the 2022 and 2023 cohorts of Version Bravo were diverse, ranging from sports tech to movie production to cancer detection to green energy and more.
Matt Libby was discharged last October after 10 years in the US Navy SEALs. He heard about Version Bravo through the SEAL Future Foundation.
Having just set up a travel-tech company, he applied and was accepted to the second cohort.
“I looked at other accelerators but I knew how fast SEALs around the world work and so it was a perfect fit. With that work ethic and rapid prototyping, I knew it would be a success,” says Libby, whose Fwego startup is based in Maine.
Version Bravo helped Libby evaluate and improve the product he’d created for the travel industry and taught him that storytelling is the most important skill for fundraising.
“SEALs are a hypercompetitive group and are extremely good at giving and responding to critical feedback,” Libby says. “SEALs are not afraid to upset you. As a founder you kind of get stuck in your own little loop and being in a group of these guys creating companies was a huge advantage.”
He felt an immediate camaraderie with the Israelis in the program.
“There were no cultural differences to overcome because we communicate on a whole different level,” Libby tells ISRAEL21c.
Indeed, says Golan, American and Israeli SEALs regularly participate in joint training exercises and discover a natural affinity because their personalities are cut from the same cloth.
The vets in Version Bravo therefore feel comfortably fraternal despite an age range from 20s to 60s.
“I expected the two communities to get along. But still I was surprised at how they connected so quickly and how willing they were to help one another,” says Golan.
“One guy was struggling a bit with his company and he told us he was going to shut it down. The others — Israelis and Americans — helped him in 24 hours to get a plan in place and he’s still at it.”
Boots on the ground
“The US and Israeli guys just clicked; we all have crazy similarities,” agrees Adam Ran of CleanCoin, who served active duty in Shayetet 13 from 2005 through 2012 and graduated from Version Bravo’s second cohort that ended in March.
CleanCoin is a gamified app that organizes thousands of users to map, collect, sort and transport trash. They earn points exchangeable for cash, discounts or charity.
“When you are building a startup there is a lot to do, and you sometimes forget the basics,” Ran tells ISRAEL21c.
“What I learned in the program is that I had to rethink everything. I felt I did a lot of things wrong. I wish I’d done Version Bravo before; it would have simplified so much,” he says.
“We had great lecturers who helped us build connections in both countries, took us to a lot of startups and well-established companies, and introduced us to a full spectrum of successful and failed startups. It was a real eye-opener and it helped us open the North American market for our product.”
The personal connections he made with Navy SEALs will also be helpful, he says.
“We can be boots on the ground for each other. If I were to open another company, I have amazing guys in the US I want to work with and it could speed things up in terms of market penetration to have someone you can trust over there. We are all still discussing and working together for our mutual success.”
Version Bravo is a project of American Friends of Israel Navy SEALs (AFINS), founded seven years ago as the American nonprofit partner to the Atalef Foundation, a 39-year-old Israeli NGO that, among other things, assists Shayetet 13 veterans’ transition to civilian life.
“Social entrepreneurship is in the DNA of the Atalef Foundation, which created the first mentorship program geared to IDF reservists,” says AFINS Executive Director Robbie Brenner. “This is also in the DNA of Version Bravo.”
Brenner tells ISRAEL21c that Version Bravo “brought together an incredible coalition of partners” from both countries.
The initial curriculum was co-developed by Gali Einav, head of the International Undergraduate Program in Entrepreneurship at the Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at Reichman University in Herzliya, with Prof. Thomas Knapp of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.
Yotam Dagan, Version Bravo’s Israel director, was a Shayetet 13 commander and unit psychologist, and headed the international team of NATAL – Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center before becoming an entrepreneur in digital mental health.
The US director is Special Operations Chief Petty Officer (ret.) Andre Gomez, a graduate of the first Version Bravo cohort. Gomez, a small business owner, teaches cyber and identity management security classes to SEAL teams and their families.
“Part of AFINS’ mission is to strengthen the US-Israel bond,” says AFINS Board Chair Eric Zoller, who co-led the design and development of Version Bravo.
“We looked at the needs of the Israeli and American special forces communities, at our strengths and those of our Israeli-partner Atalef Foundation, and found there was an opportunity to support US-Israel collaboration in how we serve our veterans. Version Bravo harnesses the strengths of Start-Up Nation and Silicon Valley, of two academic leaders in entrepreneurship, and AFINS’ and the Atalef Foundation’s experience successfully addressing both the personal and professional needs of warriors.”
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