Jerusalem’s Bright Future: It May Be Different Than What You Think

Lisa Epstein and I met during Hebrew High School at Temple Beth Shalom in Haddon Heights in 1980. Lisa, a member of Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson, came from Moorestown and I from Chews Landing. Neither of us hailed from towns with many Jews, yet our families continued our Jewish education past our Bar Mitzvahs and we both became very active in USY.

Today Lisa Kainan nee Epstein lives across the street from me in Jerusalem and we recently celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of her daughter, Talia. As Talia read beautifully from the Torah with a native Hebrew accent, I could not help but beam with pride. I have watched Talia grow up from infancy to today. She is often in our home and has become part of our extended family. Sometimes it is easier to see the achievements of others even if they are parallel to our own.

On Purim this year, I celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of Eitan Simcha Aisenthal whose mother Rachel Berkowitz and I went to college together in New York. As a toddler, Eitan lived in our building and came to our house for home daycare. On Purim he read the entire megillah for his Bar Mitzvah. Again, I beamed with pride.

It probably is not so surprising that children born in Israel to American parents surpass their parents’ ability in reading from our sacred texts. However, as I take a step back and look at how Jerusalem is growing around me, there are some surprising developments. We are creating something very special in this holy place.

Israel has become well-known as “The Start-Up Nation” however most commercial enterprises and high-tech ventures are located in the center of the country, in the environs of Tel Aviv. Recently, however, Jerusalem has become the home not only to government and nonprofit organizations, but to high tech industry, incubators and venture capital.

The Malcha Technology Park and Har Hotzvim Industrial Complex are two well-established centers in Jerusalem which were specifically built to host high tech companies. The Malcha Technology Park has hosted such companies as which has been in the top 20 websites for the USA and was recently sold for $300 Million. Har Hotzvim hosts giants such as Teva Pharmaceuticals, Intel, Cisco and IDT.

Between these two islands of industry in Israel’s capital, more modest endeavors are gaining success and notoriety. Some of these are small businesses like Abe’s Market, an online marketplace for about 11,000 natural, organic and eco-friendly products which has raised close to $8.5 Million in venture capital (of which $5M was just raised in a Venture Round in January) . Abe’s Market is run out of a small office on Jerusalem’s trendy Emek Refaim Street.

My company, J-Town Internet Services Ltd.,  is currently building websites for two Jerusalem-based companies each using technology in innovative ways. MX Biotech has a process for isolating cells. When isolating bad cells, for example, this can be used to harvest cancer cells from blood. When isolating healthy cells, the technology assists in stem cell research. This is the cutting edge of biotech.

Energiya Global is building large solar fields with the goal of providing clean, affordable energy for 20 million people within the next seven years. Each of their projects also has a social entrepreneurial aspect in addition to profit gaining for their investors. For example, the solar field in Rwanda benefits a Rwandan orphanage while the solar field in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador will provide clean energy protecting the unique species of the indigenous ecosystem.

Perhaps what is most exciting is not the individual companies that are popping up around Jerusalem, but the hubs of activity and investment which is creating a new subculture in the nation’s capital.

Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) established the Jerusalem Media Quarter by converting Jerusalem’s old mint into a home for venture capital and their companies.  JVP runs investments of over 900 million dollars and specializes in investments in media, Internet, mobile, communications, advertising and gaming technologies, enterprise software and semiconductors. They pride themselves on housing the Animation Lab which is creating Israel’s first full-length cgi-animated feature movie, “The Wild Bunch” and on housing over a dozen other start-ups. In addition JVP envisions creating an artistic center in Jerusalem, capitalizing on the students graduating from Bzalel, Israel’s national art school, and the natural diversity the city has to offer. JVP already hosts Jerusalem’s branch of “Zappa’s,” a national music venue for leading Israeli and international musicians, as well as  “The Lab”, an arts incubator for Jerusalem performing artists. It seems that in Jerusalem, there is always a community aspect to any venture and so JVP also gives back to the community through their program “B’Kehillah” (In the Community) which aids approximately 3,000 Jerusalem children through the placement and mentorship of teenagers doing a year of national service.

Within the last few months, three more players have emerged trying to foster investment in start-ups within the nation’s capital city. PICO Jerusalem (People – Ideas – Community – Opportunities) renovated a shell of an office in an old industrial building in Talpiot’s Industrial Zone and is renting out desks to individual’s with start-up ideas. In the same space, offices are rented to investors (both individuals and fund managers) with the hope that by bringing them together in co-working space, ideas will emerge and partnerships solidify. One of the founders, Elie Wurtman, is a former classmate of mine. While we both studied in New York together, today his daughter and my son, Maytav, are in the same elementary school class. Elie is the former CEO of JVP and a serial entrepreneur, venture investor and technology-company executive. Like other entrepreneurs rooted in Jerusalem, Elie is investing in the city with the vision of building something better for our children. He told me that he can envision turning the Talpiot Industrial Zone into a SOHO type of rejuvenated hot-spot. PICO is a vehicle through which he hopes to motivate Jerusalem’s young adults to stay in the city, fostering their ideas bringing them to fruition. Not only is PICO catering to young entrepreneurs, but it is also energizing the community through events, becoming a cultural hub focussing on more than business.

Similar in concept, is the newly opened Jerusalem Startup Hub in the city center which provides workspace, meeting rooms and events.  They also offer startups mentors and exposure to seed funds.

The third in the recently revealed Jerusalem-based projects to foster startups is Our Crowd. Our Crowd is “an equity-based crowdfunding platform, built exclusively for a select group of accredited investors to provide venture capital funding for Israeli venture capital start-ups.” It has recently raised $5.5 million in a series A funding round in addition to raising $6.5 million for Israeli startups through its platform. Based in Jerusalem, Our Crowd allows smaller qualified investors the opportunity to capitalize on the boom taking place on the ground here.

In only four more years, my son Shemer will be 18 years old. Talia and Eitan, his childhood friends will most likely follow him to a mechina (a gap year program which combines community service academics and pre-army military training). A year later, my son and Elie’s daughter will cross the threshold into legal adulthood. In the army, they will learn leadership, independence and the value of teamwork. One can only imagine what the city might look like when they look for their first full-time employment and what their talents will contribute to the world as they build upon the foundations laid by their parents today.

With office buildings going up all around and rented out to capacity before completion, it seems like there are many more ventures brewing in Israel’s capital. The time is ripe to invest in Jerusalem and to play a part in shaping the bright future of the Startup Nation’s capital.

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