Written by Amit Lang, Director-General, Israeli Ministry of Economy
The vast array of innovative Israeli companies at this year’s Mobile World Congress attests to the fact that the “Startup Nation” is well on its way to becoming a premier “Start App Nation” as well. Add that to the recent number of billion dollar exits coming out of Israel – such as the headline-grabbing Waze deal and the Wix IPO – the announcement of new major R&D centers in Israel established by such multinational giants as IBM, Lockheed-Martin and Facebook, and the huge influx of major investments from around the world, and it’s no surprise that more and more people are looking to Israel as one of the world’s leading centers of innovation.
120 Israeli companies were represented at the MWC, 70 in mobile technology and 50 app developers, from an enormous variety of sectors – from satellite technology to cyber-security to mobile gaming to fintech to wearable tech to adtech and much more.
To offer just a taste of some the innovative Israeli companies at our pavilion this year: eyeSight Technology, whose gesture recognition technology aims at making all devices “hands-free;” LifeWatch whose medical smartphone app lets you take crucial, often lifesaving measurements (ECG, Temperature, Blood Glucose, Saturation, Blood Pressure etc.); Facetune whose powerful portrait photo editor allows every user to achieve the magazine-style results previously reserved for professionals; and Lexifone, the world’s first automatic in-call interpreter which allows users to dial someone in Brazil, Mexico or Russia and converse in English with simultaneous translation.
To what do we attribute our country’s spirit of innovation? The “secret sauce” behind the Startup Nation’s success has been well documented. There’s our tiny domestic market which forces our startups to think global from the get-go. Israel’s small size also lends itself to creating fertile innovation hubs, where startups and multinationals interact, developing a collaborative environment which generates new, ground-breaking ideas. There’s also our conspicuous lack of natural resources, forcing us to utilize the only resources we do have in abundance: ingenuity and brainpower. And there’s the fact that Israel is a nation with a large percentage of immigrants – themselves “human startups” – who begin their lives from scratch and thus are not opposed to risk-taking.
Our mandatory military service offers our youth formative experience with cutting-edge technology and multi-million dollar systems, combined with the character-building that comes with early leadership roles and with making fateful decisions with imperfect information – exactly the skills a startup needs to succeed. Our world-renowned universities are leaders in commercializing innovation developed in the laboratory for the real world. Their interdisciplinary approach to discovery also lends itself perfectly to broad-based fields such as mobile. And crucially, Israel differs from many other countries where failure is viewed as an “end of the road” humiliation. Israel’s cultural embrace of failure as a necessary stepping stone towards success has become part and parcel of our triumphs. And then there’s that X-factor we call “chutzpah,” that never-take-no-for-an-answer attitude which keeps Israeli entrepreneurs driving forward no matter the odds.
Finally, I’d like to add another key factor that has played a surprising role in making the Israeli high-tech ecosystem the global powerhouse it is today – the government. While conventional wisdom would suggest that governments, so often plagued by bureaucracy and red tape, would be the last thing catalyzing innovation, the partnership between the Israeli government and the high-tech sector has actually been a model of innovation itself, one which many other governments continue to emulate to this day.
For example, in the 1990s, Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) in the Ministry of the Economy created a highly innovative incubator program called “Yozma,” offering funding to offset risks in the development of early stage technologies and encouraging foreign investment. The groundbreaking program is widely credited with sparking Israel’s vibrant venture capital industry.
To this day, Israel’s Ministry of Economy specializes in funding those high-risk initiatives and R&D projects which the private sector would be wary of touching – often, the riskier the better.
This model of public-private partnership has led to the establishment of dozens of successful Israeli businesses which have become leaders in global markets. That includes Waze, the navigation app which, as mentioned, was scooped up by Google recently in an acquisition which put Israel squarely on the consumer-based mobile-apps map.
At the MWC, Israel’s Ministry of Economy was not only responsible for creating the exceptional Israeli pavilion, but the ministry’s Foreign Trade Administration also succeeded in orchestrating some 3,000 meetings for Israeli companies with corporate and government representatives from over 40 countries, including top executives from companies such as Amazon, France Telecom, LG, Facebook, Huawai, IBM, Yahoo!, and Verizon. Just another example of the way public-private partnerships in the Israeli tech ecosystem can and do work.
And this partnership will only grow. Under the leadership of Israel’s Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett – himself a former successful high-tech entrepreneur – our ministry will continue to help fund and support disruptive initiatives in mobile technologies so that our Israeli delegation will be larger and even more impressive at next year’s MWC, showcasing many more innovative apps and solutions.
Who knows, you may even get to meet the next Waze at next year’s congress in Barcelona… or perhaps you already met them at MWC 2014.