Start-Up Nation I: The IDF

Doron, our classmate and instructor

We’re back from Israel after an intense week of classes, company visits, and group exercises. We connected the lessons of “Start-Up Nation” to the realities of the Israeli start-up ecosystem and learned even more about what makes these ventures so special. In each of the next three posts, we’ll explore an aspect of the book and its relevance in present day Israeli start-up culture. We’ll then connect those aspects to individual company visits. In our last post, we’ll examine the start-up nation as it stands today – a decade after the publishing of the original book – and hopefully make some informed predictions about what lies ahead.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)

Featured prominently in the book, omnipresent in daily Israeli life, and mentioned at nearly every company visit – it would be impossible to discuss the start-up nation without discussing the IDF. Israel’s mandatory conscription (3 years for men, 2 years for women) is an incredibly formative experience for so many who will go on to become start-up founders.

In most of the world, an individual can travel through life without meaningfully engaging with people outside of their social strata. While of course minor interactions are inevitable, this is likely true when considering deep, sustained interactions over a period of time.

IDF units, however, select individuals on the bases of merit and ability – not family background. This meritocratic staffing system, combined with mandatory conscription, ultimately leads to a relative lack of social hierarchies – as are found elsewhere in the world.

This is furthered by the lack of hierarchy within the IDF. Young soldiers are given leadership positions early and are free to challenge the orders of their commanding officers. Israel realized early on that it could not afford to let its military get bogged down in unnecessary formalities and bureaucracy – so it simply did away with them. As a result, IDF soldiers aren’t trained to simply accept things as they are given – it’s paramount that ideas are tested, and alternatives considered.

As it turns out, this mental framework is quite useful when considering innovation in business. Inability to see past the status quo and formalized rules of society are some of the most common barriers to ideation in business. Israel didn’t set out to create super-innovators in business – rather, it has been a naturally occurring byproduct of the IDF.

Beyond flat hierarchies and a knack for innovation, the IDF also builds the mental toughness necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur. We got a taste of just how much mental toughness is required in the IDF – as we underwent an afternoon of training (edit: light training) with former officers. Running with stretchers on a hot Israeli beach is no easy task – and we weren’t even in uniform. We can only imagine what boot camp would actually feel like.

Running stretchers full of sandbags down the beach in Herzliya

SpacePharma and Zirra

Challenging the status quo can be simple or can really stretch your mind of what is possible. For the latter, two company visits stand out in particular.

Yossi Yamin at SpacePharma has a vision of democratizing access to space. More specifically, he aims to expand access to research and development opportunities in orbit for scientists in a variety of industry. As it turns out, the microgravity conditions of space can have curious and unexpected results in the fields of pharmaceuticals and biochemistry. SpacePharma provides a vehicle through which a multitude of compounds can be launched into space as one package – allowing the various compounds (and their respective researchers) to share the cost burden of accessing orbit.

Examining a model of the SpacePharma boxes sent into orbit

Moshit Yaffe of Zirra, on the other hand, has her eyes set on Wall Street. A lawyer and former investment banker, Moshit has led Zirra as it pioneers AI-driven data analysis of company data shared across the internet. Rather than relying on technical financial data, Zirra will scrape the web for press releases, job postings, and other text-based data sources that can be fed into an algorithm that ultimately renders a buy or sell judgement. Initial results indicate that Zirra is onto something, with a sample portfolio outperforming the S&P 500 over the past 2 years.

Next Time

In our next post, we’ll examine civilian life in Israel and the socio-cultural forces that help drive a successful community of ventures. Check back soon!

Casey Buckley is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Final Thoughts on Japan

Final Dinner in Kyoto:
For our final evening in Kyoto, our organizers were able to invite a Geisha over to our last dinner together. To provide context, foreigners can’t book Geishas for events (such as dinners). This was a big deal for all of us. The Geisha introduced herself, sang us a few songs for us and even taught us how to play a few games that date back eras. We ended the night with our usual photoshoot but, this time, included our new lovely Geisha friend.

Bonding and Nightlife:
With half the people on this trip being form the J-termers and the other representing Fall termers, the evenings presented the perfect opportunity to bond over sake and karaoke. From the clubs of Tokyo to the tiny pubs of Kyoto to the riverside hangouts in Kanazawa, we made the best of our evenings and met with so many locals who were kind enough to get to know us.

Final Thoughts on People and Culture:
Japan was unlike anywhere we had been to before. When I ask my Chazen buddies now about what they miss the most about the country, answers ranged from the clean streets to the kind locals to the exciting baseball games. Personally, I miss the level of respect that is deeply knitted into the Japanese culture. The way an airport worker bows to the bus filled with tourists as its leaving. The way special needs workers would lift themselves off their wheelchairs to bow to us and welcome us to their facility. It’s a different nature of respect. One that is more defined by action than words. And it positively affected us, individually and collectively, on a daily basis during out trip.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School