Back in November 2018, I wrote up an event that I attended, that was held at the Psagot Boutique Winery and Visitor’s Center. That event was a test the water type of thing to see if there was interest in setting up a WE WORK type space in the Binyamin region, which is the area of the West Bank (Judea) that is North of Road 1 and the Jerusalem – Jericho main road. This municipality covers 46 Jewish communities and includes the area from the Jordan valley in the east to the Samarian foothills in the west, and from the Shiloh river in the north to the Jerusalem Mountains in the south. This area includes some 60,000 Jewish residents, excluding those living in the towns of Bet El, Kochav Yaakov, Maaleh Adumim and Ariel, and the Northern Jerusalem suburbs of Pisgat Zeev, Ramot and so on.
To complicate matters, the same area includes Ramallah, Jericho and many Arab villages.
On Wednesday 17th July I attended the launch of the Binyamin Region Entrepreneurial and High Tech Hub. Thus in less than a year, and despite the government falling twice, the organizers have managed to build a high techy concrete-and-glass red aluminum window frame modern building that awkwardly stands out contrasts nicely with the Jerusalem stone clad more typical wedding halls, shopping malls and stores in the Shaar Binyamin industrial zone.
25 years ago, the debate was between open space and private offices. There was a period where work areas were divided into cubicles by 140 cm partition walls giving a feeling of semi-privacy until one stood up. Here, in the high tech accelerator tradition once can rent a cubicle with floor to ceiling walls in an array of similar cubicles that are each about the size of a toilet stall having access for the disabled. This cupboard room is equipped with a table and chair and has internet access. There is the obligatory bar at the entrance and there are conference rooms of different size and shapes available. Although not yet finished, I have no doubt it will have arm chairs around a coffee table in one area, bar stools around a bar table in another corner, table football and perhaps a basketball hoop.
The area is on the first floor and is reached by external staircases. However,, I suspect there will also be an internal staircase, in the immortal words of Tevyeh “there would be one more leading nowhere, just for show”.
So entrepreneurs from the region no longer have to travel to Jerusalem, Hertzliya, Petach Tikveh or Tel Aviv to find a trendy high tech environment. No longer is the choice between working from home with the well-stocked fridge, television, bed, children after school, or to travel for upwards of an hour in traffic jams. This will develop into a high tech community of freelancers, start-ups and small businesses.
It is possibly that some of the tens of thousands living in the Pisgat Zeev and Neve Yaakov neighborhoods of Jerusalem will decide to commute against the traffic. It will certainly be quicker for them to get to Shaar Binyamin than to Har Hozvim, Talpiotת Givat Shaul or Malcha which are the Jerusalem high tech and industrial zones.
Whether or not this will result in successful companies and billion dollar exits is anyone’s guess, but a very large percentage of the high school graduates in the area go on to serve in elite army units and then on to study in universities. My 19 year old, who having done most of a computer degree whilst in high school, has his final exam next week, and is graduating with distinction. He is following a trickle of young adults from our village who have chosen the same demanding route. There are technical brains and business people living the area, and no shortage of potential mentors. There is no reason why a software or other start-up in Shaar Binyamin cannot be hugely successful. It has happened elsewhere.
The launch of the accelerator and hub was attended by over 150 people. This included start-up wannabees, various politicians that had run for regional council, mothers with babies, potential investors, and inquisitive pensioners.
We were treated to pitches from the first 17 companies to enter the accelerator. As a patent attorney who has been meeting inventors and wannabee entrepreneurs for 15 years, I was not surprised that some of the projects were variations of themes I had patented or done patentability searches for over the years. For example, there was a solution to the problem of parents forgetting their baby in the car. This hardy perennial is something that all Israeli patent attorneys in private practice seem to have worked on at one time or another, as every year, tragically children are forgotten in vehicles and succumb to overheating. In this particular instance, the solution looked surprisingly promising to actually work and save lives, but based on my fairly extensive knowledge of the prior art, would be a difficult idea to effectively patent and block competitors in what is a rather crowded field.
There was an interesting drone idea that was patent pending in Israel. I happen to know that the patent application is surprisingly robust given their total lack of budget, as I wrote and filed it for them in 3 1/5 hours for $1000. Will it fly? According to their simulations it does. I’d like to see the prototype in action.
The presentations were all very competent and clear pitches delivered with confidence. I did note minor typos in the slides, but this happens when Israelis don’t run their slides past someone with English as a mother tongue, who works as a proof-reader, marketing writer, technical writer, or patent attorney. Still, not to worry. I have seen a typo in a slide of one of Israel’s Nobel Laureates. It happens.
What was clear was that the people behind the accelerator had not only managed to get the infrastructure in place within 9 months, and selected some companies as pilot projects, but had coached the entrepreneurs about giving effective pitches and making attractive posters on laminated boards.
The government overseer from the Ministry of Industry is a cousin of mine, Avigdor Factor, who get his first taste of High tech and start ups when working for me not long after I set up independently as a patent attorney. In addition to getting exposure to my varied clientele, he saw the flotsam and jetsam of Israeli creative thinkers from all walks of life, ethnicities and demographies, that came in for a coffee and some free advice. These included serial inventors with billion dollar exits, Ultra-Orthodox with little secular knowledge, Druze, Russian immigrants, pensioners and school kids. I am prepared to give anyone a coffee and a free consultation because it breaks up the monotony of real work. I also sent Avigdor on a fairly intense course. After leaving me, he went on to launch a company providing telephony services and then gained experience in different aspects of project management and start-ups.
Avigdor and the local team have done a good job. I don’t think any of the current projects will be the next Waze or Mobileye, but a couple of dozen companies with 2-3 employees each, the barista and the sandwich maker, the management of the hub and the office cleaners add up to 50 – 60 employed people. Some of these projects may make a profit. Those that fail with give those involved experience so that their next attempt will be better. In many ways the incubator is less impressive than some of the others I have visited, but for something that seemed a pipe-dream less than a year ago, it is shows what can be done with determination.
I think the management would do well to understand which projects are likely to result in patentable inventions and which, if successful, will be difficult to capitalize on because stopping copy-cats will be difficult because of problems of IP protection. I further think that the start-up initiatives themselves have to understand the need and challenges of adequate protection. However, I enjoyed the evening as something informative and well-run.
The refreshments were, of course, sushi and beer.
A decade or so ago the visitors would have been treated to burrekas, rogelach and soft drinks.
‘The times, they are a changin’…’