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

A Closer Look at Start-up Nation: Prologue

The author’s copy of the text (feat. half a pad of mini post-its)

Fifty MBA students from Columbia and Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya met up tonight in Tel Aviv to kick off a week-long intensive course, “A Closer Look at Start-up Nation”. Inspired by Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s 2009 book, “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle”, the 5-day course will introduce students to individuals from all areas of Israel’s innovation ecosystem – from start-ups and research and development (R&D) divisions of multinational firms to venture capitalists (VCs) and business-focused non-profits. We hope to take away valuable learnings about the genesis of Israel’s start-up culture, how to work with Israel’s high-tech industry, and – more broadly – how a cluster of factors can lead to innovation-rich geographies such as “Silicon Wadi” (the Israeli “Silicon Valley”).

Israel leads the world in per capita R&D spending – benefitting from both the R&D divisions of large multinationals such as Intel, Google, and Microsoft as well as a high concentration of start-ups. Outside Silicon Valley, Israel claims the top spot in per capita start-ups and is also the world leader in per capita VC investments. Not confined to early-stage ventures alone, Israel has more companies listed on Nasdaq than Korea, India, and Japan combined.

The book, for those who have not had the chance to read it, does a wonderful job of weaving together the aspects of Israel’s history and sociopolitical structures that contribute to this innovation-rich environment. As an example, the book explores the non-hierarchical nature of Israeli society and how a willingness to challenge the status quo leads to more innovative thought and design. Mandatory conscription in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) serves to enshrine egalitarianism as a societal value and instills a mission-driven culture amongst citizens. Lastly, on a cultural note, failure is not viewed as shameful but rather as an aspect of growth and development in life. While each of these conditions may be found in a number of societies, the book argues that it is the union of these factors that has allowed Israel to become the high-tech powerhouse it is today.

This blog will view the course through the lens of Senor and Singer’s text – providing updates on the latest decade of Israeli start-up development as well as supplementary learnings related to the themes found in the book. It is our hope that, through careful evaluation of this confluence of factors, we can identify the most crucial aspects necessary to build a culture of innovation – and what competitive advantage, if any, can persist for Israel’s high-tech sector in the long-run.

Casey Buckley is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School