Israelis and Palestinians joined forces for a Startup Weekend, to explore the possibilities of developing new technology businesses together.
Joining a worldwide trend, Israel last week hosted its second annual ‘Startup Weekend’ – an intense event when young entrepreneurs come together to pitch ideas and develop teams for new high-tech projects. They also vie for potential angel funding and free legal services.
What was different about the Israeli event is that it was attended by both Jews and Palestinians who join an international community of 15,000 entrepreneurs in more than 100 cities around the world.
The July 14 to 16 event was held on the Mediterranean Sea at the new Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. The meeting included 20 Palestinians from the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus, out of a group of 150 participants, all in their 20s and early 30s. Watching from the wings were sponsors and angel investors, scouting for the next big thing.
Yoav Stern, director of the Business and Economics Department at the Peres Center, tells ISRAEL21c that most of the 55 ideas for projects hinged on applications for mobile devices such as iPhones.
Open-minded and professional spirit
On the first day, ideas were pitched to the crowd and a jury chose 13 to continue to the next level. The 13 weren’t “next Google sort of ideas,” says Stern, but “practical things that can be used around the world.”
One participant presented an application that could help ease congestion and headaches for West Bank Palestinians passing through Israeli security checkpoints. Although the government has reduced the number of checkpoints in recent months, they are still a huge headache for Palestinians, many of whom travel long distances to work and school.
Another idea was a Bluetooth application that could help travelers to easily locate their suitcases at the airport. The ideas didn’t focus on any particular issue and the spirit was “open-minded and professional,” reports Stern.
“What I told them in my opening speech is that we believe that a strong PA economy through the IT industry is an Israeli interest, too. It is helpful for them and good for us. Then I said ‘this is the end of the politics for this event.’
“The field of high tech is a classic domain for cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians because in this field fences and barriers do not matter,” he also notes.
Transcending digital and political barriers
In the course of its short lifetime – the first Startup Weekend was held in 2007 – the idea has led to the creation of at least 500 companies and to financing in excess of $2 million. It relies on the skills of the crowd, those eager to work together and build high tech business ideas.
Held during the week in Israel, because of the religious significance that weekend days hold for Jews and Moslems, Stern stresses that high-tech and IT (Information Technologies) are the perfect field for cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. While it may be difficult for them to meet in person, due to border restrictions, they can easily build platforms and ideas virtually, online.
In the Startup Weekend framework participants had two minutes to pitch their idea, without using any audio or visuals. The best ideas become the foundations for new companies. This year, the Israel event’s judges and sponsors came from some of the world’s leading companies, such as PayPal, IBM, Deloitte and Google.
The Peres Center for Peace was involved because it is committed to building community projects in the Middle East through economics, art, culture, and the environment, all in the name of peace.
The founders of Startup Weekend in Israel are high-tech entrepreneurs Amir Harel and Eddy Reznik, who worked for Sun Microsystems, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Oracle Corporation. “Startup Weekend is an international event that combines networking of both the mobile and Internet community,” Reznik told the Israel News Agency.
“But this year, we are going to transcend all digital and political borders. There is no greater tool for peace and understanding than the Internet and Web 2.0 and as such we are proud to bring creative minds together from both Israel and the Palestinian territories.”
Sustainable IT for Palestinians and peace
“The young people are very enthusiastic,” Stern says. Referring to the Palestinian participants, who numbered both men and women, he mentions that a few went on to the second stage and “their ideas were very happily accepted.” He also describes the atmosphere when the Israelis and Palestinians were together as “very collegial and professional, despite their living worlds apart.”
On the second and third days of the event the participants formed working groups, where they experienced how co-existence could work – if their leaders could get their acts together. “Cooperation in IT is easy because there is no physical barrier,” says Stern. “And yes, I think the PA can enjoy fruits of the Israeli IT industry which is very successful.
“The Palestinian Authority lives no doubt in the shadow of Israel’s high tech industry. I think if Palestinians would be innovative enough and courageous enough this is potential for a very big growth in their economy – and definitely, cooperation [with Israel] would be beneficial for them,” adds Stern.
Despite what the numbers say – a nine percent growth in the Palestinian West Bank economy last year – Stern warns that the numbers should be examined carefully, especially since much of the West Bank economy still rides on foreign aid. “We should not be mistaken to think the PA economy [in the West Bank] is strong and stable.
“[The numbers] come from the fact that donor countries are pumping the Palestinian Authority with money,” Stern tells ISRAEL21c. “… It’s not a sustainable situation and it can’t last forever that donors support the PA economy,” he says.
Stern looks to long-term solutions for the PA economy, like mirroring the phenomenal IT industry in Israel in the West Bank. It’s good for the Palestinians, it would be good for Israel, and it’s good for long-term peace processes, he believes.