Israeli tech companies have long looked to the U.S. for inspiration, funding and expansion, but the March 18 opening of HaCantina, a Tel Aviv branch of Paris entrepreneurial hub “La Cantine”, could signal the start of a new era. The Tel Aviv tech community is increasingly connecting with French enterpreneurs in areas such as open source software and mobile TV and the new center is expected to rachet up collaboration.
La Cantine, which opened two years ago in a Paris neighborhood known as “Silicon Sentier” , is a loft-like meeting place and collaborative working space for Web developers, entrepreneurs and researchers. It is supported 50% by public money from the Ile de France region plus funds raised from the more than a dozen events which take place there each month. It also receives aid from sponsors such as French mobile operator Orange.
European countries are slowly recognizing that they can not recreate Silicon Valley. Instead of copying the Americans they are relying on local approaches to help spur innovation and collaboration, creating a buzz and an ecosystem that breeds success. Week- long festivities held in Paris earlier this year to celebrate La Cantine’s second birthday attracted about 1,000 people, underscoring the fact that France’s tech scene is not as sleepy as some in Silicon Valley would have the world believe. Stephane Distinguin, president of La Cantine and co-founder of faberNovel, a Paris-based “innovation agency” which develops products and incubates young companies, says he is convinced that not only Israel but other countries could benefit from the La Cantine model.
To be sure, Israel already have a strong tech community , one that has captured more global attention than France’s own community and has more Nasdaq-listed companies and success stories. But the Israelis lag behind other markets in open source software development and are looking to Europe to help expand their local movement. Lior Kesos and Zohar Stolar, the two local entrepreneurs behind the Tel Aviv branch of La Cantine, are the founders of a Tel Aviv-based software company called Linnovate which builds web sites in Drupal, a free software package, for businesses and communities such as non-governmental organizations.
Businesses and government offices in Israel have been heavy users of Microsoft software but the open source movement is gaining traction, thanks in part to the help and encouragement of the French tech community, says Stolar. ” We hope HaCantina will create the necessary ground for collaboration and development and new innovation,” he says.
HaCantina does not yet have a building but Israeli enterpreneurs hope to have one soon. March 18, HaCantina’s official launch date in Tel Aviv, was marked by meetings between Israeli entrepreneurs, Distinguin, who was in Israel for the kickoff, Israeli government officials and Nicole Guedj, a former French government minister who now heads Fondation France-Israel, a Paris-based group which organizes non-political exchanges between the two countries.
Israel already has a meeting point for entrepreneurs. A group called “Garage Geeks” shares a dilapated warehouse in Holon, a city near Tel Aviv. The site is used as a place for entrepreneurs to build robots and other contraptions, play video games and meet visiting tech stars, primarily from Silicon Valley. Google’s Marissa Mayer and Sergey Brin are among those who have visited. Distinguin says HaCantina will be different because it will be used everyday as a “coworking” space for budding entrepreneurs and have collaboration with France as a central goal.
In an interview, Guedj says the Fondation France-Israel will help organize regular exchanges between the French and Israeli tech communities. She has already started, bringing Israeli tech guru, Yossi Vardi, one of the most prominent and well connected Israeli enterpreneurs and investors, to Paris’ La Cantine, to give a talk to French entrepreneurs in February. The whole idea of open source is to collaborate and exchange contacts, says Guedj, who sees the ties between the two centers benefiting both tech communities.
Open source is not the only area where French and Israeli tech companies are collaborating. In October French mobile operator Orange opened a new developer center in Israel which is serving as an experiment for an “open innovation” program. At the center, Israeli developers can carry out last mile testing of mobile content and applications. It is also serving as a way for Israeli developers of a variety of communication technologies to connect with Orange. If it works well, the program may be exported to other countries where France Telecom Orange does not already have research labs.
At the same time, Streamezzo, a spin-out of France Telecom Orange, which makes software that allows mobile applications to be published on all mobile devices, has been working closely with a vareity of Israeli companies, including Israel’s Orange (which is not related to France’s Orange), to develop mobile TV applications. Olivier Avaro, Streamezzo’s chief executive, says it makes sense for Israel and Europe to work together on mobile TV because the market is less developed in the U.S. and the biggest demand for the service is currently in Asia. “We find very good and smart partners in Israel,” says Avaro. “Israel is a good place for French start-ups because it is an environment which is interested in new things.”