April 4

With everything going on in Israel these days, it is hard to escape reality, even in an immersive experience such as SXSW — South by Southwest, the annual fusion of innovation, culture and entrepreneurship every March in Austin, Texas. 

Since October 7 and the subsequent war, every event has felt the impact of the war in Gaza and that includes attendees having to deal with protestors and hostility. This has been especially true in the arts and in film, which make up a large part of the SXSW experience.  

But many SXSW festivalgoers did express pro-Israel sentiments. And while there were fewer Israeli startups than in years past, the entrepreneurs and investors who did attend made the best of the experience. 

Photo by ranimiro via Shutterstock.com
Photo by ranimiro via Shutterstock.com

The Startup Nation is still prominent on the international stage, exemplifying what other countries seek to emulate from an economic development perspective when they attend SXSW. Moreover, Texas is one of the states that has been highly supportive of Israel since October 7.

Despite the rise in antisemitism across most of the United States, Texas is not just talking about keeping Jews safe, but actually doing it. That means collaborating with Israel, embracing Israelis, and partnering with Israeli tech at SXSW.

Supportive, friendly environment 

SXSW Interactive was a more welcoming place than the controversy around the protests may have indicated, when a number of bands pulled out of the music part of the festival due to one of the sponsor’s connection to Israel. There was no sense of worry from the attendees, and as everything is in Texas, it was big. Many Jewish attendees proudly wore Stars of David around their necks.

Photo by Never Settle Media via Shutterstock.com
Photo by Never Settle Media via Shutterstock.com

Programing at the festival featured Friday evening happy hour into Shabbat hosted by Austin local Shawn Ullman and the TLV-ATX Founders Club, which brought together the SXSW tech community, Israeli entrepreneurs, and supporters of Israel. 

Right after that event was the annual #openShabbat meal hosted by Tech Tribe, which fosters cultural exchange amidst hummus and challah.

David Yaari. Photo by Ohad Shary
David Yaari. Photo by Ohad Shary

Managing Partner of Texas Venture Partners and one of the founders of the Tel Aviv-ATX Founders Club, Tal Shmueli reflected on the support the local Israeli community has received in Texas: “After October 7th and the fallout, it was clear that Texas is a safe place for Jews. You are welcome, and you are appreciated. You don’t have to hide who you are; it’s a good place to be Jewish or Israeli, as an individual or when raising a family.”

David Yaari who is working with the Texas Association of Business on a new initiative, mirrored that sentiment. 

“Since October 7th, I have seen a notable increase in interest from Israeli companies that want to do business with Texas. There’s a greater emphasis on exploring business opportunities, especially in the tech sector,” he said.

Yaari attended the Texas Association of Business Policy Conference in December, which featured keynotes from Israeli businesswoman and philanthropist Dr. Miriam Adelson and Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.

From left, Glenn Hamer, Dr. Miriam Adelson, and Massey Villarreal. Photo by Jeff Emerick
From left, Glenn Hamer, Dr. Miriam Adelson, and Massey Villarreal. Photo by Jeff Emerick
From left, Texas Association of Business CEO Glenn Hamer; Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and Special Envoy for Innovation Diplomacy for Israel Fleur Hassan-Nahoum; and Texas Association of Business Chairman Massey Villarreal at a TAB Policy Conference. Photo by Jeff Emerick
From left, Texas Association of Business CEO Glenn Hamer; Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and Special Envoy for Innovation Diplomacy for Israel Fleur Hassan-Nahoum; and Texas Association of Business Chairman Massey Villarreal at a TAB Policy Conference. Photo by Jeff Emerick

Moving forward despite October 7

RetiSpec CEO Eliav Shaked. Photo courtesy of RetiSpec
RetiSpec CEO Eliav Shaked. Photo courtesy of RetiSpec

One Israeli entrepreneur at the festival was Eliav Shaked, cofounder and CEO of RetiSpec, a medical startup focused on enabling the early and accurate detection of neurodegenerative diseases.

Shaked was invited by VSP Vision, the largest insurance provider for vision in the United States, to speak on the “Future Eye: 10 Vision Trends That Will Transform Healthcare” panel.

RetiSpec’s focus has been on Alzheimer’s as the first indication, and they’re doing this with an AI-driven test that provides an accessible, affordable, scalable solution. 

The company is planning to start the regulatory and commercialization process this year, having recently formed a partnership with the largest player in the field and closed a Series A round.

RetiSpec is working toward detecting Alzheimer’s disease via an eye exam. Photo courtesy of RetiSpec
RetiSpec is working toward detecting Alzheimer’s disease via an eye exam. Photo courtesy of RetiSpec

Shaked said he has never been more empowered in his network, and that Israel advocacy is now part of almost every conversation he has. 

“I’ve also changed my LinkedIn profile to have the Israeli flag so that everybody knows where my heart is and where I am from and that this is part of me.” 

Another entrepreneur at SXSW was Alexandra Shamir, a local Israeli-American who founded Yofi, a customer intentionality platform that protects profits and enhances data integrity by identifying and preventing bad actors like resellers, bots and return abusers.

Her company name, Hebrew for “beauty,” reflects how strongly she feels about Israel and her identity. 

Yofi CEO Alex Shamir. Photo courtesy of Alex Shamir
Yofi CEO Alex Shamir. Photo courtesy of Alex Shamir

“I think the Israeli community here is tightknit,” Shamir reflects. “It’s definitely grown in the last 11 years with more tech coming to Austin. And especially after October 7th, we’re all finding each other as a community. This means growing with each other and leaning on each other. It’s a quieter, smaller community than you expect — small but powerful.” 

Spotlight on investors 

Mike Basch, active investor in Israeli tech. Photo by Shannon Surratt
Mike Basch, active investor in Israeli tech. Photo by Shannon Surratt

Michael Basch, founder and general partner at Tulsa-based Atento Capital, is an active investor in the Israeli ecosystem. “We are continuing to invest in Israel as before October 7th, showing steadfast support for the community and tech ecosystem there through this difficult time,” Basch told ISRAEL21c.

Before SXSW, and after October 7th, local Israeli entrepreneur-turned-investor Tal Shmueli already knew that he was going to have to close his startup. Some investors retracted their investments, and finding new ones under the circumstances proved impossible. 

Together with Lorne Abony, a Canadian entrepreneur based in Texas, Shmueli started looking for ways to help the Israeli economy and support other Israeli startups. 

Entrepreneur-turned-investor Tal Shumeli. Photo by Grace Dupuy
Entrepreneur-turned-investor Tal Shumeli. Photo by Grace Dupuy

Abony suggested a novel idea: joining the innovation of the Israeli tech ecosystem with the power of the Texas economy by starting an early-stage investment fund, at a time when the world is facing dramatic geopolitical changes and the investment landscape is changing. 

The partners believe that nations and corporations will have to spend more money on defense, energy and health in order to overcome these challenges and that, given its position and capabilities, the Israeli tech ecosystem will produce many of these innovations.

So, with the ending of one chapter, they started another.

“It was a devastating period. Professionally, of course, it’s minuscule compared to what other people have experienced, but professionally, the war set me back to square one,” says Shmueli. “Partnering with Lorne and building a platform that will help others is an exciting, restorative avenue.”

Shared values

Massey Villarreal, chairman of the Texas Association of Business. Photo by Jeff Emerick
Massey Villarreal, chairman of the Texas Association of Business. Photo by Jeff Emerick

Massey Villarreal, chairman of the Texas Association of Business, said he been on an “eye-opening” trip to Israel in January. 

“Apart from our shared Judeo-Christian values, what sets the Israel-Texas relationship apart is the combination of Israel’s ‘Start-up Nation’ mentality combined with Texas’ status as a ‘Scale-up State.’ 

“Israel is known for its innovative startup culture, while Texas offers a robust environment for scaling those innovations into successful businesses. This synergy creates a unique opportunity for collaboration, bringing together the best of both worlds to drive economic development and innovation,” Villarreal said.

Jonathan “Yoni” Frenkel is a LinkedIn ghostwriter, content marketing strategist, creator and founder of YKC Media.

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