Birthright Excel Ventures program teams young Israelis and Americans

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A Birthright Israel program brought together Israeli and American entrepreneurs — graduates of elite units of the Israeli Army and leading North American universities — for 10 weeks this summer to come up with ideas for joint projects and startups.

These initiatives ranged from creating an app for increased safety at construction sites to monitoring employee engagement. The six teams, part of the new Birthright Israel’s Excel Ventures program, spent time working, brainstorming, hanging out with local entrepreneurs and soaking in the startup scene in Tel Aviv.

Last week, they presented pitches for their products to CEOs, mentors and leading members of Israel’s tech community in a closing ceremony for the program.

Bringing Americans and Israelis together “makes the most sense in the world,” said Adam Lazovsky, co-manager of the Ventures program. “The Americans bring in the business savvy, marketing and sales skills, maybe finance a little bit, and the Israelis bring the technology side and the chutzpah.”

Lazovsky came up with the idea for adding an entrepreneurial component to Birthright Excel, which pairs its 30-40 participants with internships in Israeli businesses, in 2015. One team tackled the problem of employee turnover by creating a platform to monitor employee engagement, while another tried to increase safety and productivity on large construction sites by devising a tracking system for workers.

The teams’ presentations illustrated the technology they developed and set out polished business models that demonstrated their potential market success and described how the company would make money with their development. Different skill sets make for good stuff.

This creates “a very big gap” for young entrepreneurs who are just getting started in the market, as well as an opportunity for Ventures.

“I thought — this is a market failure where we can provide value,” Lazovsky said.

Ventures began last year as an entrepreneurial track within the Birthright Excel program. Instead of working at a structured internship, participants on Ventures work in teams to build their own products.

Entrepreneurs on Ventures were given both an educational program and the support of Israeli mentors along the way, including Waze founder Uri Levine and Adi Soffer-Teen, CEO of Facebook Israel. Each team also worked six times this summer with individual mentors through a matchmaking process, Lazovsky said. The 10-week program started with setting up the teams, creating the idea and outlining the end customers. The teams then built models of their products and finally did a little bit of marketing and fundraising.

Working Smart, Working Fast
Not every team stuck to this model, however. The ideation stage often lasted longer than intended, with some teams beginning with one idea and then completely scrapping it to work on something new. Tori Seidenstein, 21, Or Cherfas, 24, and Darren Jacoby, 22, created their app only in the last five days of their program.

They set up Sapiyen, a plug-in that saves news articles from social media websites for its users, adds them to a read-later list, and then reminds users about the articles when they are procrastinating by browsing Facebook or YouTube. The app aims to prevent its users from missing out on a news piece because they didn’t have time to read it before. It also allows readers to set reading goals and track their progress.

In their presentation, the Sapiyen team outlined the rollercoaster process they had that summer, which included scrapping two ideas. After hitting their “lowest point,” when they sat in their office with no product and only five days left, they rallied and decided they wouldn’t give up. So, they spent the final five days building Sapiyen from scratch.

Jacoby said at this point he saw the value of working with his Israeli partner, Cherfas.

“Americans can’t lock in and build from nothing,” Jacoby said. But Cherfas, an Israeli who previously served in the IDF’s elite 8200 signal intelligence unit, coded the entire platform for Sapiyen in only 120 hours.

“The military develops different attributes than you get from school,” said Cherfas. While he brought the coding expertise to the table, his American partners were more business savvy. “In general, the business mindset is American. Everything [for Americans is] about how you can connect it to business and not the product,” he said. Despite their initial struggle, by the end of the program, Sapiyen was downloaded more than 100 times from the Chrome store, Jacoby said.

Lazovsky said he pitched the idea for Ventures to Mark Gidi, international CEO of Birthright Israel, two years ago, because he envisioned the meeting of the mindsets between Americans and Israelis would lead to entrepreneurial success. The expansion into entrepreneurship was fitting for Birthright, Gidi said.

Although Excel Ventures is just the beginning for these young entrepreneurs, two teams from last year’s program have already turned their products into running businesses, said Noa Meir, executive director of Birthright Israel Excel. The Sapiyen team hopes to continue working on their project in the future, they said.

This year’s cohort of Birthright Israel Excel Ventures entrepreneurs.

Anna Kuritzkes Times of Israel

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