Floretta Mayerson is cofounder of the Mexican startup Violetta, a digital safe space where domestic violence victims can get psychological and legal assistance anytime via a chatbot.

After a year of local mentoring, Mayerson applied to the MassChallenge  network of zero-equity startup accelerators – not its Mexican branch but its Israeli one.

Floretta Mayerson, cofounder of Mexican startup Violetta. Photo courtesy of Floretta Mayerson

“We believe big opportunities come from big challenges, and this happens once you step out of your comfort zone,” she explains.

“We have always admired the Israeli startup environment. The growth potential of questioning and re-thinking our project through its lens is huge.”

The 42 startups accepted to MassChallenge Israel’s 2021 cohort, running from April through July in Jerusalem, hail from Germany, Ghana, India, Mexico, Norway, Rwanda, South Africa, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, in addition to Israel. Nearly 400 candidates from 30 countries applied.

“The internationalism of the program is core to what we do. Our Jerusalem location was always meant to serve startups from around the world,” says MassChallenge Israel Managing Director Yonit Serkin.

“In our first few years, beginning in 2016, 15 to 20 percent of our cohorts were companies from outside of Israel. Now it’s 34% — 28 Israel and 14 international.”

More than a third of the mentors for MassChallenge Israel companies are from outside Israel, too.

“It’s an interesting and exciting movement of expertise going in both directions,” Serkin says.

All corners of the world

The MassChallenge locations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas, Mexico and Switzerland also draw applicants from outside of their geography. But not from as far afield as the Israeli branch attracts.

“Here it’s truly from all corners of the world,” Serkin tells ISRAEL21c.

“When I ask foreign entrepreneurs, who are building a company that is not selling to the Israeli market, what drives there to come here, I hear that this is one of the premiere entrepreneur ecosystems in general. They apply to MassChallenge Israel because of the prestige of the Israeli high-tech scene and its connections within the larger global innovation ecosystem.”

Yonit Golub Serkin, managing director of MassChallenge Israel. Photo courtesy of Yonit Golub Serkin

Serkin also points out that “the incredibly density of entrepreneurship here doesn’t exist elsewhere. We can connect with the best minds at some 400 multinational R&D centers within an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. You don’t have this density of innovation professionals in any other place. It’s an incredibly efficient way to connect.”

Another factor is that Israelis have always had to target markets outside their own small country, forcing them to think differently and creatively and often in terms of social impact.

Mayerson elaborates: “The fast-paced startup environment in Israel is what we are looking for, to hear success and failure stories, and to gain new perspectives. We want to be challenged and think out of the box,” she says.

“We are looking to immerse ourselves in Israel’s tech hub and leading areas such as ‘tech for good’ and social entrepreneurship. The tools and mentorships in these areas will allow us to take Violetta to the next level, to come up with greater solutions that might not be available within the boundaries of our context.”

Making a virtual community

The Covid-19 pandemic, of course, forced MassChallenge Israel into a virtual space during 2020.

“We worked hard to create community among people who don’t get to see one another in person,” says Serkin.

A MassChallenge Israel cohort in pre-pandemic Jerusalem. Photo by Ricky Rachman, courtesy of MassChallenge Israel

“This year, we still operate with that level of uncertainty and not everyone can physically come to Jerusalem. So we do many sessions virtually and augment with in-person meetings when we can, in keeping with restrictions.”

Some of the foreign entrepreneurs were already in Israel and others hope to arrive when travel restrictions lift, she says.“We are hopeful we’ll see as many as possible in the coming months.”

The global needs that became clear during the pandemic had an impact on the types of startups that applied.

About a third of the 2021 cohort is focused on general sectors including aerospace, agriculture, entertainment/media, food, beverages and restaurants, materials and travel/tourism. Another third is in healthcare and life sciences.

The remaining startups are in cyber, ecommerce, high-tech, ed-tech and fintech (17%); social impact (10%) and energy/clean-tech (5%).

English for all

With MassChallenge Israel’s network of mentors, experts and investors focused on the European and US markets, English is the accelerator’s common language.

“English is the official language we run our sessions in, and we expect all the interactions to happen in English,” says Serkin.

“It’s not just about comfort for the startups; working in English is also critical to their growth and ability to market their products around the world,” she adds.

“We see English as a really important tool in an entrepreneurial toolkit. Someone on the team needs to be able to present in English even if the others are not fluent, and that’s why we encourage a team approach.”

Staff Sheehan of Air Company in New York, a 2017 MassChallenge Israel alum. Photo courtesy of Staff Sheehan

English isn’t an issue for Staff Sheehan, a 2017 alum of MassChallenge Israel.

Sheehan is CTO of New York City-based Air Company, which uses proprietary technology to transform carbon dioxide from the air into high-quality consumer products. The company’s Air Vodka was featured on TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2020 list.

“We won an award from the United Nations to find global opportunities for our technology and chose MassChallenge Israel because it has a recognized brand internationally, and for synergies with organizations where we’re headquartered in New York City,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Peer support was the biggest benefit he saw from an Israel-based accelerator, Sheehan says.

“I found that having a startup is more accepted in Israel than in most other countries. In this environment, we connected with others on the same journey both inside and outside the program to learn from, grow with, and keep us motivated.”

2021 MassChallenge Israel cohort

Accesstravels (Israel) is an inclusive community-based travel platform enabling people with physical disabilities to overcome barriers to global travel.

Accounting Made Easy (South Africa) is a business financial literacy tool that uses a gamified, interactive web app to provide a full learning experience in seven hours.

Arcadia (Israel) uses gaming to lead children to intuitive discovery and mastery of math without any mathematical symbols or words.

Ayambe Talent Solutions (Rwanda) uses machine learning to match skilled technicians in Africa to clients in need of their skills.

EcoPhage (Israel) develops sustainable, effective phage-based crop protection against bacterial diseases.

EroeGo (United Arab Emirates) is developing an app allowing consumers access to soon-to-expire fresh groceries at affordable prices.

ExcelHERate (Israel) uses deep technologies to help companies hire a more diverse senior workforce.

EyeKnow (Israel) uses AI to enhance the safety and health of children and seniors under care 24/7.

Fabric (United States) brings geospatial experiences to mobile apps by combining real-time geolocation, augmented reality and messaging capabilities.

Fabriloo (Israel) develops an off-grid, compact, affordable and easily stored waterless sanitation system for disaster preparedness.

FlyWorks (Israel) is creating a benchmark tool for large-scale commercial grade drone operations.

Goaceit (Israel) empowers youth to achieve peak performance and enhance well-being using personalized digital solutions.

IMMA (Israel) plans to offer a remote, self-operated digital fertility device allowing women to perform their own follow-ups in the comfort, safety and intimacy of their home.

Kinoko-Tech (Israel) is harnessing fermentation to create a sustainable source of alternative protein.

Liposphere (Israel) develops water-based biomaterials to restore natural lubrication properties of cartilage for people with osteoarthritis of the knee.

Matricelf (Israel) is developing a platform for personalized 3D printing of tissues and organs that significantly reduce the risk of rejection.

Microfinance.ai (India) is simplifying micro-credit business with AI-powered mobile platform for less tech-savvy borrowers.

More Foods (Israel) creates novel, high-protein meat alternative products using side streams from the food industry, such as yeast.

Munevo (Germany) is working on DRIVE, the first wheelchair control using smart glasses as a joystick alternative.

Nymiz Software Company (Spain) anonymizes and pseudo anonymizes personal data from documents and databases to protect privacy and remain GDPR compliant.

Pacify Medical Technologies (India) has a patent-protected technology that sprays skin tissue on wounds for fast recovery.

Pickapp Farming (Israel) is a data-driven control platform for labor-intensive farm tasks.

RightHear (Israel) turns public spaces into accessible environments with its audible wayfinding system for the visually impaired.

SafeUP (Israel) is a community safety network that enables nearby women to protect and support one another.

SAYeTECH Company (Ghana) designs and builds smart agricultural machinery embedded with IoT suited for Africa.

SeaWise (Israel) is developing an AI-based fish biomass estimation for the aquaculture industry.

Serenno Medical (Israel) is developing a novel method to monitor, identify and avoid acute kidney injury and other common, life threatening complications in intensive care patients.

ShanenLi (Israel) helps learners achieve textual fluency using verbally interactive software based on proprietary teaching techniques.

SlitLED (Israel) is developing a telemedicine platform enabling eye doctors to perform real-time, remote, comprehensive examinations.

SunDo (Israel) is a marketplace for agricultural labor, aiming to fix the agri-labor crisis and farm-level food loss in the developed world.

ThermoTerra (Israel) captures a new source of renewable energy powered by natural fluctuations in humidity.

TikTalk (Israel) offers digital therapeutics for speech therapy offering shorter and better managed therapy cycles.

TioTech AS (Norway) is developing the next generation of titania for use in fast-charging, long-life batteries.

TrainPain (Israel) offers digital therapy for neuropathic pain.

Travaxy Accessible Travel Solutions (Israel) enables offline/online travel agencies to get the most accurate and timely services for disabled and elderly travelers.

V-Opt (Israel) is an eye-care telemedicine platform connecting patients with ophthalmologists from afar.

VenoVision (Israel) is a contactless, AI-driven, cardiopulmonary monitoring platform.

Violetta (Mexico) is building a safe space to identify acts of domestic violence through a 24/7 chatbot and connect users to psychological and legal help.

Voike (United States) is a music-streaming platform for emerging markets with limited mobile data and Internet connectivity.

WiDE (Israel) is an innovative treatment platform for children with autism.

Zeppi (Israel) is a floating video call device for people unable to use smartphones or tablets.