Israeli Innovation: From Garage Geeks to a School that Seeks to Repair the World

Innovation is alive in well in Israel, despite predictions by tech columnist Sarah Lacy that China will eclipse it.  I side with the techaviv blog that new companies like Boxee, Kaltura, Outbrain, fring, Face.com, plaYCE, Gigya, Innovid and Dapper are ushering in a new, exciting era of Israeli high tech.  I saw a lot of cutting -edge companies when I was in Israel from March 26 to March 31, attending an invitation-only event called KinnerNet at a camp on the Sea of Galilee hosted by Israeli tech sector guru Yossi Vardi. From there I went to an annual Internet conference near Tel Aviv called Com.vention organized by the Marker, a daily economic newspaper distributed as a supplement of Ha’aretz. I also attended a separate gathering at a Holon warehouse where a group of Israeli tech entrepreneurs who call themselves “The Garage Geeks” gather. (This was my second visit to the grim-looking warehouse, which is filled with soldering irons, computers, and various engine parts, which are all used to tinker and dream up new projects.)

KinnerNet lived up to its reputation as a meet-up for some of the best and brightest minds in the tech sector, from Israel, the U.S. and Europe. The idea is to brainstorm and experiment. This year one of the activities involved mixing large amounts of corn meal and H20. If you walked fast enough you could literally walk on the water. If you didn’t, you sank. There were more than a few people walking around with caked corn meal on their legs. There were plenty of demos of robots and bizarre motorized contraptions. Not to mention flying objects.  (I was deeply engrossed in a conversation with Google’s Anil Hanjee when we had to move to avoid being hit by air-borne projectiles.) There were also serious discussions on interesting topics, including a few close to my own heart, such as the future of media and the power of social networking. (Discussion leader Jeff Pulver, who is known for pioneering VoIP and for his global networking events,  celebrated his 20,000 follower on Twitter during KinnerNet.)

There were lots of great Israeli entrepreneurs at KinnerNet, among them Avi Shechter from Fring, an Israeli  start-up launched in February 2007. Fring is an always-on, always-connected mobile Internet application that allows users to talk, chat, and interact. It runs in the background, without the need for a browser, continually updating itself and the details of a user’s community of friends and events as they happen.The company is adding a half a million customers every month Fring comes pre-installed on all Samsung devices running the Symbian operating system and also works on other major mobile operating systems and is available over thousands of mobile devices, including Nokia, the Apple iPhone and iPod touch, Microsoft Windows Mobile phones, Sony Ericsson, and phones based on Linux, Android, and Qualcomm’s Brew.

 I came across a number of other great companies while in Tel Aviv. I was one of the judges of an annual competition at the Marker conference which chooses the most promising Israeli start-up of the year.  The three finalists – Innovid, Kaltura, Gizmox were all terrific examples of Israeli innovation in new areas.  Innovid is a video marketing company whose technology  allows live, interactive pictures of products to be embedded inside videos during post-production. Kaltura  has developed an open source video platform and Gizmox is behind a web platform that allows secure deployment of rich Internet applications on the desktop without the need to install plug-ins (more on these companies later).

  At the Holon warehouse, which is funded by Israeli venture capital firms Giza Venture Capital and Carmel Ventures to give some of Israel’s best tech entrepreneurs a place to build non-commercial projects that might otherwise never come to life, I met other interesting companies, such as Bite2Eat.
Vardi, who has partnered in founding more than 50 Israeli high-tech companies, including ICQ, which was sold to AOL for over $400 million, regularly brings prominent tech sector executives to the garage to convince them that there is so much creativity and entrepreneurship in Israel that they need to do even more business there. Famous guests have included Google co-founder Sergey Brin,  and Marissa Meyer, who stood on a forklift to address the crowd.
Vardi himself is evidence of how Israel’s influence in the tech sector stretchs far beyond the country’s borders. ICQ was the world’s first Internet-wide instant messaging service and is today used by more than 29 million people.

But innovation in Israel is not limited to tech. The Tel Aviv municipality and Israel Ministry of Education have merged two existing schools to create a new school in a poor neighborhood in Southern Tel Aviv called Rogozin-Bialik, which brings together more than 700 children of more than 30 nationalities, including Israelis from low income families, refugees from Darfur, guest workers from South America, the Philippines and African countries such as Ghana, Arab Israeli citizens and new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

When I visited the school on March 30 kindergarten and elementary school children of all major religious faiths and skin colors  were participating in Passover seders. The teachers were explaining the story and the symbols of the holiday, which falls on April 8 this year and celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel. I could not help think of the symbolism. Each year, as part of the seder, Jews remember not only their own bondage but pray for all people to live in freedom and dignity. 

One prayer used in American Jewish seders goes like this: Each drop of wine we pour is hope and prayer that people will cast out the plagues that threaten everyone everywhere they are found, beginning in our own hearts.
The making of war
The teaching of hate and violence
Despoliation of the earth
Perversion of justice and of government
Fomenting of vice and crime
Neglect of human needs
Oppression of nations and peoples
Corruption of culture
Subjugation of science, learning and human discourse,
The erosion of freedoms.

Many of the students at the Bialik Rogozin campus are victims of such plagues. After making their own exodus from the horrors of places like Darfur they are struggling with poverty, discrimination, social exclusion and identity conflicts, as they are not considered part of the Israeli mainstream society. During the Passover seder, Jews are reminded that they were strangers in the land of Egypt  and say a prayer that says “ You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the strangers, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt… When a stranger resides with you in your land you shall not wrong him…You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The staff at Bialik-Rogozin and a select group of people from the tech sector (you know who you are)  have given the school financial support. They need no such reminders. They are walking the talk by giving the kids the emotional and educational support they need . This is what the Hebrew phrase  Tikkun Olam or “Repairing the World” is all about.

These days Israel is being attacked from many sides for being a cruel colonist power but the Bialik Rogozin school represents a different truth. When I met the librarian, a lovely young woman, she put it this way: “We know what peace is, we are living it.”

Visiting the school was evidence to me that Israelis are not just innovating technologies in areas such as alternative energy and clean water that can help make the world a better place but are also creatively experimenting with how peoples of all faiths and colors can live together in peace. That is the kind of disruptive innovation the world can really use.

Donors have built a cafeteria and basketball court for the students but the school is still in need of funds. If you are interested in helping get in touch with me by emailing Jennifer@informilo.com and I will put you in touch.

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