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Ryan’s take on the Elevator World Tour – Tel Aviv

About 4 months ago when the climate in Montreal was still bearable, I was forwarded an email from Phil Telio, founder of the International Startup Festival, who was looking to develop a new idea called the Elevator World Tour. In his message, he described his ambitious project to “ travel to the most interesting cities around the world, and run elevator pitch competitions, in the most impressive elevators in each city.”

At the time I received his message, I was looking for a new challenge and Phil’s startup idea really captured my imagination with its interesting combination of Shark Tank style investing and rock band style world tour. After a couple meetings on vacation with Phil, I joined the Startupfest team on this crazy adventure.

Before I joined the crew, they had already tested the idea at the Startup Festival in Montreal and as a stand alone event in Toronto.The event in Toronto, which took place in Canada’s tallest structure (the CN tower) was a massive success, filled to capacity and widely covered by all the major Canadian media sources. It was clear the idea worked really well here in Canada, but there was still the big challenge of pulling it off outside our home turf.

The first big decision was picking a city in which to run the first international event, that would announce our world tour in a big way. We considered a variety of great startup cities in South America, Europe and Asia, but ultimately, we chose Tel Aviv. Even though Dubai may have the tallest tower in the world and Rio de Janeiro is getting a lot of attention globally right now, Tel Aviv was simply unmatched in terms of startups.

In reading more about Tel Aviv, I was amazed to learn how much Israel has accomplished with seemingly so little. For a nation that is only literally the size of the state of New Jersey and has a population of just 7 million people, they have the second highest number of startups in the world after San Francisco. Ourcrowd founder, Jonathan Medved claims that, on average, Israeli Startups have at least one exit per week worth $60 million dollars. Israel has also been home to some massively successful Startups, like recently acquired (by Facebook) mobile analytics company, Onavo, whose exit brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. Fun fact – Onavo won the highly coveted Grandmother Judge Award at the 2012 Startup Festival.

Zach Weisfeld from Microsoft Ventures explained to me that the decision for Microsoft to open an accelerator in Israel was a no-brainer. After all Intel, IBM and Apple all opened their first international offices for Research&Development in Israel. It’s just the place to be if you’re looking for the next important technological innovations. Ultimately, Israel was the perfect place for us as well, so we launched our first international event in Tel Aviv.

The downside of Tel Aviv’s bustling startup community is that there is, quite literally, a startup event every night of the week in Tel Aviv which makes it harder to stand out and garner attention and funding. Ultimately though we were able to prove the value of our event to the community with the originality of our idea, the sophistication of our production and the $100,000 investment prize we guaranteed to the winner of the competition.

David Azrieli- a fellow Montrealer guaranteed us exclusive use of the elevator in his Arieli circular tower which is the tallest tower in Tel Aviv. We got financial sponsorship from Bank Hapoalim, BDO and Microsoft Ventures as well as support from countless other accelerator and community partners. Even the mayor of Tel Aviv agreed to come to the event!

The whole team landed in Tel Aviv a few days before the event (December 18th,2013), having booked interviews with some of the leading figures in the startup ecosystem. Many of the meetings were eye opening, showing me the uniqueness of the Israeli startup community and the important effects it has had on the economy.

Back in 2008, I was working at BCA Research, a Montreal based firm that specializes in macroeconomic research for US credit products. Working in this area during the height of 2008 credit crisis, it was clear that so many of us missed what was happening during the crisis because the economic models being used were focused on the wrong things. In stark contrast to the financial deception and inflated asset prices that caused the bubble in most western nations, Israel was one of only two nations that did not contract during the financial crisis because it understood the importance of fostering a rich culture of innovation.

What was even more interesting to me though, was that Israel’s strength as an innovation hub stems mostly from intangible elements, like culture, that would be hard to ever fit into an economic model. When I walked into the office of successful early stage investor, Uri Weinheber, the first thing I noticed was a quote above his desk which reads “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. He explained to me that an important part of what makes Israeli culture unique is the Israeli attitude towards success and failure.

While in some countries failure means the end of an entrepreneurial career, and no hope for future funding, Israelis tend to view both success and failure equally. According to Uri, “only 10% of startups make it all the way, but the other 90% are often just as capable and their failure can be the result of so many external factors outside of their control.”

What matters more to Uri is that entrepreneurs learn from failure and reach their potential. A culture that tolerates failure means that entrepreneurs have time to learn from their mistakes, until they are ready to go the distance. Time and again, these entrepreneurs make good on their potential after a couple early stumbles.

It’s not only the attitude to failure, but to success that makes the culture so special. Yaniv Feldman, the founder of the Israeli tech blog Geektime, told me that the spirit of collaboration and openness has never been so alive in Tel Aviv. The city of Tel Aviv turned their libraries into public spaces for startups to work and along with other community spaces, they are bursting with energy, creativity and collaboration. Startups are realizing that it’s not a dog eat dog world, but that if their peers are successful, it means more angel investors, mentors and a more vibrant ecosystem for everyone.

The attitude towards success and failure are just part of what makes the Israeli culture unique. Other big influences are the roles of widespread immigration, mandatory army service and the international perspective of young Israelies who spend a year travelling the world after army services is over. These forces have turned young Israelis into a people who are willing to think globally, challenge authority and take calculated risks.

The night of the event turned out to be a wonderful success. There were over 300 people who attended the event and the excitement and anticipation from the startups was palpable…. 100 startups lined up to pitch in the elevator (49 floors up and down again), to judges and investors that were along for the ride. Impressed with the caliber of Startups, nine companies were shortlisted and moved to the stage where they pitched their company and were asked questions by the investors that had to narrow their decision down to one winning startup.

The 9 shortlisted companies included Bablic, Dove, Fitfully, Oggway, PassionAnt, Pushpic, Take&Make, Inpris and Mobile OCT. The investor judges which included Roy Oron, Jamie Ohara, Howard Stotland, Chaim Tessler and Jesse Kaplan asked each of the startups the most important questions they needed to make a decision. After much deliberation and a tight race, the judges chose Mobile OCT as their winner.

No one embodied the qualities of a great Israeli entrepreneur better than the winner of our Elevator Pitch competition Ariel Beery. Ariel founded Mobile OCT, a mobile phone based diagnostic tool/apparatus for detecting a variety of cancers. His technology leverages the widespread penetration of cell phones in developing countries, where they still struggle to diagnose treatable cancers for much of the population.

With his deep understanding of big global issues, he developed a highly relevant technology that has the potential to prevent 250,000 unnecessary deaths stemming from cervical cancer annually. International Startup Festival founder, Phil Telio, describes Ariel as being “incredibly well spoken, dynamic, serious, experienced, well connected internationally , and clearly passionate and smart about his business.”

Telio’s description parallels what it was the grandmother judges saw in Onavo (acquired by Facebook this year for $250+ million), and so if that’s any indication of where MobileOCT is headed, all signs point to going up.