‘Start-up nation’ Israel and Massachusetts find common ground in innovation

By Susie Davidson/JNS.org

BOSTON—What do Israel and Massachusetts have in common? Many recent comparisons have centered on the fact that, when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, Bostonians got a taste for the kind of attack Israelis endure on a regular basis. To that end, Israeli trauma teams were called upon to lend their expertise in Boston following the marathon bombings.

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli entrepreneurs Eyal Gura, with microphone, and Yosef Abramowitz are pictured during their recent panel discussion in Boston, where they hosted by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The entrepreneurs discussed how Israel has earned the nickname "start-up nation." Credit: Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

But Israeli environmental entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz stresses a different area of common ground, explaining that both Israel and Massachusetts have few natural resources, but ample know-how and ambition.

The president of pioneering Israeli solar energy companies Arava Power and Energiya Global, Abramowitz—named one of the top six “Green Pioneers” in the world by CNN, which on May 11 aired a half-hour documentary on Arava’s solar work in Israel—recently spoke on a panel with fellow Israeli entrepreneur Eyal Gura as part of the Innovation Exchange series of Boston-based Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP).

Abramowitz, who also presented in New York and Los Angeles while in the U.S., told JNS.org after his talk in Boston he doesn’t “have much time for speaking engagements” due to his companies’ solar work. But when CJP calls, the former Newton, Mass., resident, who graduated from Brookline High School in the Boston area, says yes.

“I respect [CJP’s] leadership,” Abramowitz said, describing that his family has “a long and productive relationship with CJP, as my father served for a quarter of a century as the Vice President for Planning.”

CJP held its event at the headquarters of MassChallenge, a startup incubator in Boston’s seaport district that opened its first overseas office in Israel.

“MassChallenge may be the world’s largest incubator and Israel is the [incubator’s] first location outside of Boston, so I came to learn about their important work and give them a boost,” Abramowitz said. “I believe that CJP is usually ahead of the national community on innovative programming, and I liked the concept of a reverse Israel mission, bringing a diverse group of Israelis to Boston to blanket the city with a positive view of Israeli innovation.”

Abramowitz told JNS.org that Arava, “after closing successfully on $300 million, is proud to be building nine commercial scale solar fields in Israel this year.”

“Energiya Global, our sister company developing solar fields in poorer countries (including Rwanda), is conducting a Friends and Family Round to raise $2 million, and I was pleased that many people have approached me on this [U.S.] tour to ask for information about investing in something that provides both a financial and mission return,” he said. “Eighty-five percent of Africa doesn't have any electricity, so we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Abramowitz and his wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman, adopted two Ethiopian Jewish children and have three biological children. They moved to Israel in 2006. Elected to the Israeli Green Movement Knesset list in 2008, he was named “Person of the Year” last year by the Israel Energy and Business Convention.

“I came to hear Yossi, who is a bit of a superstar,” Andrew Fischer, a Boston attorney specializing in bicyclist advocacy whose son is an environmental engineer, told JNS.org. “I am a big supporter of the Arava Institute and of conversion from fossil fuels to solar energy.”

Gura, a venture partner at Pitango, which with $1.5 billion is Israel’s largest venture capital company, is a Wharton MBA and a graduate of the Zell Entrepreneurship program of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel.

“I come from a family of entrepreneurs,” he said on the panel. “When we see friction in the world or something wrong, we want to fix it.”

Gura, who helps portfolio companies realize investment opportunities in technology startups, founded IEC, the first Israeli club for entrepreneurship, and was named as one of Israel’s “40 under 40” leaders by The Marker Magazine and Globes Magazine. He serves on the Advisory board of Tmura, an Israeli public service venture fund that, with a portfolio of 275 Israeli startups, has created $7 million in cash from equity donations for socially responsible initiatives in education and youth opportunities.

Abramowitz said on the panel that his solar energy ventures “want to make it so that the poorest people on the planet aren’t paying the highest energy bills.” He said, “1.6 billion on the planet live with no electricity. 85 percent of Africa has no electricity. The poorest people virtually become part of the problem, as opposed to part of the solution. We want to help nations work their way out of poverty.”

When discussion moderator Alexandra Adler, northeast regional director of the nonprofit startup accelerator Cleantech Open, asked what has made Israel a “start-up nation,” a term that originated in the 2009 book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, Gura cited the Israeli educational system and the Israel Defense Forces experience of risk-taking and technology.

Abramowitz said that because of the book by Senor and Singer, Israeli entrepreneurs don’t need to do their own marketing. He defined four kinds of capital—social, financial, intellectual and reputational—all of which Israel is rich in.

“When Haiti was going to develop solar energy, they wanted an Israeli company because of the IDF’s setting up hospitals following the earthquake,” Abramowitz said.

Gura said that lately, many Israeli companies have established themselves on the East Coast of the U.S.

“Israeli companies must turn into global companies, and apply their prototypes,” he said, adding, “Anything that works in Israel can be applied here.”

CJP, though its Innovation Exchange event, aimed to “connect some of the brightest minds in Boston to people doing the most exciting work in Israel right now—entrepreneurship, the environment and education,” Daniel Seligson, CJP’s assistant Director of Israel advocacy marketing, told JNS.org.

“MassChallenge clearly understands the amazing idea engine that is the start-up nation, electing to have their first overseas office in Israel,” said Seligson, who described that CJP had funded a 2011 Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) environmental mission to Israel, and took a delegation of water industry professionals to Israel this past December to see the Jewish state’s advances in desalination, wastewater recycling and filtration.

Abramowitz told JNS.org that through CJP, he was able “to meet some of the political leadership in [Massachusetts] to encourage them to advance more ambitious solar energy goals.”

“I think we are going to see real progress in Massachusetts on solar,” he said.

Gura told JNS.org that it was “great to discuss Israeli tech and innovation in front of the Boston audience.”

“Israel is very unique in that sense, and CJP is doing a great job of bringing delegations to Israel and having industry leaders form Israel come to Boston,” he said. “We are here to tell a different story about Israel, and we are happy to host any visitors to Israel as well.”

A possible impediment to Israel’s success in the global marketplace, according to Gyra, involves “the preconception of Israel” as no different than the unstable Middle Eastern countries it borders. In that sense, Bostonians—who recently endured the terrorist bombings at the marathon and their aftermath—can identify with Israelis.

“It hampers interest,” Gura said, regarding how preconceptions about Israel’s stability and security can potentially impact outside interest in the country’s economy. “But it is not unlike my mother-in-law asking me, ‘Why are you going to Boston? It is a dangerous place!’”

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Posted on May 13, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S., Business.