My First-Hand Experience with the Start-up Nation

Frequent migraines in my childhood made me use other sources than reading books. And the eye-to-eye meetings have always been the first in the line. I need to see and hear things with my own eyes. Ideally beyond the borders of our country. You are free from stereotypes and beliefs of your own culture: what is possible, and what is not, how should it be done, and that it can never be done differently.

“We are going to see what the core magic of the Start-Up Nation is about,” Pavel Csank (MSIC) noted one nice morning. I haven’t read the book so let’s skip this part and begin with my own experience. As usual.

Sunday – Flight to Tel Aviv

Leaving Ostrava at 3.30 a.m. when the temperature is 5 °C below zero. Vienna airport, tea, trying to find my way, a little confused. The Tel Aviv Gate, plane, microsleep No. 155. And a crucial moment comes – the plane is about to land and, seeing a completely different landscape and town tells you that you are coming into a truly different world.

Still, all airports look more or less the same. However, a palm and 20 °C above zero. Really? The last thing I remember from the Czech Republic is a frosty February morning. All of us are kind of surprised and a little out of our minds after all that travelling. Looking out of the taxi window, I can’t hide how different everything is compared to my expectations. What did I expect. It is the Middle East after all. The first brush clearing the stereotypes from your head.

In the first place, we – particularly Jan Meca who is the headmaster at the Bruntál vocational school was in disbelief for two whole days – wondered how underdeveloped the public infrastructure was. Almost non-existent sewerage system on road, electric wires leading in all possible directions… No safety regulations or standards. Damaged roads, pavements, and the general state of cleanliness far from what we know from home. How can the people from that place inspire us?

Monday – the Smart City acceleration and the “Start-Up Nation” brand

Our first steps led to the HAC (not “hack”), i.e Herzliya Accelerator Centre. It is a city-operated accelerator for start-up in the area of Smart Cities / Smart Mobility, aimed at the needs of city inhabitants. Such accelerators are supported not only financially, but they also have access to the city’s data and infrastructure. The first thing that came to my mind after entering the building was that it was quite a few office buildings and schools in the Czech Republic would be far more representative than this. A loose handle, shabby, battered walls, visibly used tables, and a cheap-looking tablecloth with holes in it. Where have we got after all? I can feel the German drill inside and long for cleanliness.

Indeed, as soon as the presentations started, the differential factor appeared. The almost invisible guy who “crept” into the room in the middle of the opening, was the first presenter: Ori Mendelevich. As soon became obvious, he is far from the usual “invisible” Joe. He was behind a successful start-up that is known even beyond Israeli borders: The Right Cup – it motivates people to drink water, which is a huge problem everywhere in the world. He introduced his brand new project called Connectoo. It is an app for preschool teachers that solves a lot of bureaucratic and administrative tasks for the teacher, e.g. Attendance. It also interconnects teachers and parents instantly and securely so that parents can play a more important part in their children’s lives. As a result, teacher get 20 % more time to dedicate to children. Ori came up with such a sales pitch that is rare to be seen anywhere. And more guys followed suit – invariably a great pitch, none of them too young, rather about 40 on average, and if they didn’t have some start-ups under their belts, they could boast 10–15 years’ career in the corporate sector. This is a huge difference compared to the Czech Republic where a start-up owner means something like a hipster – start-ups are somewhat trendy, for the young generation that is too naive to start real business. Why is that?

We are going to another place. It’s 27 degrees outside, the sea is blue, and the beach is empty. Still, we are more interested in another meeting that would help us uncover the secret behind all these surprises.

The new stop: The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. The building hosts Taglit. It present the “Start-Up Nation” as such, i.e. The greatest innovations that have been created here and what is the reason of Israeli companies’ success, at one place. They have the presentation/exhibition here both for visitors from abroad who are building their nation brands, and for the younger generation of Jews born abroad that can build on their roots , or even get inspiration for the return to Israel here. We could build something of that kind in the Lower Area of Ostrava – in cooperation with MSIC, MSK, SMo and other relevant partners as this is the place where the science is presented at the moment. Still, we need to build our identity.

The word Connectedness was the one of the whole presentation that I underlined three times. The small nation’s life is about the feeling of community and connection to a great extent. Our host demonstrated it: “While there are usually ‘Six degrees of separation’ elsewhere in the world, there are just three, or even two of them in Israel…” If you have an idea, or need some help, you can get to the resources and the right people very fast and easily.

It is a beautiful example – they gained an advantage from the same what we use as an excuse (a small country, a tiny market, a little nation). It is the attitude that matters.

Tuesday – the fastest-growing city of Yokneam, and a billion-dollars-worth Mellanox

Tuesday kicked off… well, quite strangely. Being honest, disciplined Czech, we were waiting for a bus a good 15 minutes in advance. Alas, no bus in sight after 15 minutes, even after 30 minutes – it arrived about an hour late. Thanks to several funny bus driver’s shenanigans on the way from the city, the delay only got longer. In other words: send an inexperienced driver on the way, give him Waze without optimization for buses and… Voilà – the result is 90-minute delay.

We arrived at a little town of Yokneam that is situated about 80 km from Tel Aviv. Our international delegation of about 50 people sat right in front of the town’s representatives. Mayor Simon Alfassi took the floor: “When I was growing up in the town, it had a few more than 4,000 inhabitants. It was fully dependent on two factories. When I was elected mayor in 1989, the town was in the middle of a crisis after the bigger of the two factories had gone bankrupt. The unemployment rate reached almost 50 % then. My vision was to turn the town into a hi-tech area. With 30 years gone, the town has got over 22,000 inhabitants, and 90 % of the locals are working right here. The unemployment rate is under 5 %. Two hi-tech parks host 160 companies, and their export is worth 6 billion USD a year.”

A strong story based on a strong personality. Each sentence that he uttered was about him, in fact. It reminded me about a situation in a small or middle-sized Czech company founded by a strong owner who is, unfortunately, just about to retire, and therefore needs to solve the succession. “Have you got any questions?” the interpreter asked. I had to: “And what will happen after you leave or retire?” Everyone froze, and the mayor smiled. “I have prepared a plan for the upcoming 30 years. Anyone who will come after me can follow in my footsteps.” Still, we all know what it is like with such plans.

It was my honour to meet the mayor in person and have lunch at the same table as himself. So I need to ask how he can know what will happen in 15–30 years, how he can plan anything when anything can change direction even tomorrow. His answer was: “One needs to have a vision and adjust the journey to reaching goals, When I was elected in 1989 and came up with the idea of building hi-tech parks here, there were rallies in the streets, people protested, carried banners like ‘We want work, not visions’. My vision was that this town would grow on the presence of tech companies. This vision has materialized, and you saw it yourself.”

What followed was a visit of two companies: Dexcel Pharma Technologies, a pharmaceutical company, and Mellanox, and IT company. After coming to the Czech Republic, we learned that Mellanox was acquired by Nvidia for 6.9 billion USD, but we had not idea about it at that moment. The CEO and founder came up in front of the delegation of 50 people from all corner of the world – a guy in a jersey and Nike trainers, emanating aura of the just contracted 7 billion as well as a huge natural personal charisma. To be honest, I can’t remember the contents of the presentation or the numbers. Simply put, I felt that the whole universe materialized there.

“Has anyone got any questions?” Of course, I had to ask if they used Agile methodologies. The answer was: “Yes, we use Scrum.” It was just a preface. In the first place, I wondered how they tuned up the SW and HW development. Answer: “We use Agile in our HW division, too. Before starting a new version, I create a task force consisting of the SW and HW architect, PO and a few more people. They agree on a common interlayer so that both layers are as independent as possible.” This means dependency elimination.

Wednesday – Israeli Innovation Authority and positive deviation

A visit at the Israeli Innovation Authority (Israeli Innovation Authority). All ends have finally met. The state provides grants for starting enterprises through incubators at (seen through Czech eyes) incredible conditions: if a start-up fails, the state takes it as an OK situation – it was worth trying, go on and come up with something else. If a start-up succeeds, it pays the interest of 2–5 % from its profit. The aim of the agency is to secure a higher percentage of R&D activities in the economy as these have a much higher export potential. As Israel is a small country, i.e. a small market, the business thinking there is automatically oriented outside the country.

They have measure that each shekel invested that way returns to the economy 5–10 times.

The afternoon visit posed another contrast, and it was and extreme experience from the beginning. The taxi driver took us to the “ghetto” – we found ourselves in the middle of the Tel Aviv’s most troubled quarter. Desolate house, scared black people on benches, masked-up drug-addicts. The ambassador needs to clear it up with the driver if the address is correct. Our colleague Adele is convinced that there must have been a sort of mistake. I take a photo quickly before we set off for the right place. A “lady in red” begins to shout at me in Hebrew from the other pavement – she apparently lost her appeal some 25 years ago, before she had her first dose of heroin. Alas, she’s approaching and still yelling. I’m trying to look as if I wasn’t there. The driver comes in aptly and makes a barrier between her and me. He tries to show her the way back. She shouts at him, makes an attempt to kick him, but her body is like made from the jelly. She leaves unwillingly, showing him a finger-gesture. The taxi drive just smiles and utters: “Don’t shoot photos here. All ‘personalities’, you see?”

It is the right place in the end, he says. We need to find the entrance. I feel as if I was about to enter an enclosure of wild animals in the zoo with all these predators walking around me freely – both them and me trying to look that we don’t know about each other, and looking for the way out. Pressure. A redhead comes out of the iron door, apparently from a different world. Yes, this is the right place. The Platform – Smart City Innovation Accelerator.  

“We are an island of positive deviation”,” director Shana Krakowski explains while showing us the interior of the building. We didn’t get out of the cage, we entered a completely different world. “It is our intention. We built the accelerator deliberately in the worst area of Tel Aviv that has absorbed the homeless, immigrants, prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts. We want to show them that the life is basically not as bad as they can see everywhere around. We want to show them an example so that they understand that it is just their current life that is poor. But that it doesn’t have to be like that.” Wow. This is exactly what David Logan said (Tribal leadership) – you can’t short people from Level 1 (the homeless, gangs) shift right onto Level 4 (collaboration); you need to show them Level 2 “My life is full of shit”, etc. This practical example made me understand it.

Another crucial factor was uttered: “Only Tel Aviv hosts some 20 meet-ups every evening.” Really? Well, we have been focused on networking for the past five years (BusinessConRed ButtonTechMeetup Ostrava), and we are happy to see a good number of participants at several events a year. Twenty every evening? I can’t believe my ears. “Did you really say twenty?” Shana thinks a little, and answers: “Maybe a few more.” I immediately check the app, and…. It is true! I can see over 20 events in Tel Aviv for that evening.  


Thursday – autonomous vehicles and the Boston accelerator

Jerusalem. Thursday morning. Raining. Raining a lot. We walk on the street that has turned into a fast-flowing river. “You we laughing, and you can see it here.” Jan Meca was right. We can see only now that the working infrastructure that we know from out home is about and why they need to invest into it here… “How many days are rainy days here?” we ask the taxi driver. “One, maximum two a year. You are lucky!” Well, it depends on the angle of view. This “once-a-year rain” makes us cancel the tour of the old town.

Anyway, it way well worth to get safely to another meeting at Mobileye. The company was bought by Intel for 15 billion USD in 2017, and its technology is used by 25 million cars. About 1.3 million people die on roads every year, which means 3.287 deaths a day on average. 20–50 more million people are injured or end up on a wheelchair. Most of these deaths are due to human errors. And the killer No. 1 of these days – using a cell phone during driving.

Mobileye allows the driver to see the danger where he actually cannot (dead angle) or where he is not aware of it. These are the so-called advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). I know of such a tragic situation from my family when Milan, who is a professional driver with zero accidents in the whole life, knock down an old lady who appeared in front of his car in such a way that he had no chance to see her. A year of investigations, stress and uncertainty followed as the car factory claimed that there was no dead angle there. It became clear that he had had no chance to see her indeed. It will never bring her back to life, and it will not return the year of stress and uncertainty to Milan either. And these cases can be prevented.

Even though Mobileye’s vision is a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021, their method is incremental, or evolutional: first of all, they use and fine-tune the technology as a person’s assistant. Even in the presence of the human driver equipped with this technology, the shift is huge. The technology will be able to drive independently in a few years. Compare that to great visionaries like Elon Musk who invest huge amounts of money; the company is facing bankrupt, or the investors investigate if it hasn’t already gone bankrupt. We are talking about great lots of saved lived and achieving the same result, cashing up 15 billion along the way.

The potential is great – real-time data about the state of traffic and risk get to the local server so that such data can be subsequently used for improving the traffic and increasing safety in the smart city. “Who owns these data?” I asked. Answer: “It’s a good question – obviously, we own them. And we are prepared to provide them to the city or to anyone who will use them for a fee.” These data present a goldmine for the future. The business talent here is really something!

Looking at it through IT eyes, I wondered how important was a collaborating team of HW and SW engineers under one root for Mobileye’s success.

If you want to see the technology yourselves, I recommend: Founder Amnon Shashua presents at CES 2018.

Another visit and we are almost lost again – the taxi stopped at a busy road, and the driver just said: “It’s probably the house over there.” Really? This desolated one? Almost lost. We need to search. Heavy rain falls onto the pavement. Desperate and soaked through, we enter the first available door.

Believe it or not, we are in one of the most successful accelerators in Israel. The Masschallenge accelerator was founded in Boston in 2010. When the crisis struck, its founders went against the flow, and they created a place where running business would be easy. Nine years have gone, and we are sitting in its Jerusalem branch that has produced 500 (!!!) successful start-ups. They started with four.

A guy in the desolate building, wearing a jersey, is Shai-Shalom Hadad, director. He tells us the Masschallenge history engagingly. He needs just a few facts and arguments to have us on a hook, and we seriously think about sending a few Czech start-ups here: the start-up nation brand, connection to the international network of investors, the biggest world companies as partners, two steps from anyone in Israel, a chance to spend a week in Boston and network over there.

The trend of intentions distribution is also interesting: while about 100 start-up were involved in the energy topic in 2017, the number decreased to five in 2018 and to zero this year. What is most trendy at the moment? Innovations in education and health care.

Friday – bonus: Old town and the laughter diploma in a Lebanese restaurant

Friday is the day of our departure. It was also the first day of the weekend in Israel. Therefore, there were no meeting on schedule, just the postponed tour of the old town. And we can see the pro-customer approach in practice again: even though it was not planned, we ask the taxi driver if he could recommend us another driver who would take us back to Jerusalem and then to the airport: “You see… I’m leaving on holiday for three weeks tomorrow… Well, wait a second… You need to be at the airport at three. So I have three hours to pack my stuff and leave as well. We can make it.” He even found a guide of the old town for us. I can’t imagine that anyone else would change his plans on Saturday, and on the first day of his holiday at that. A differential factor.

We had lunch at a famous Lebanese restaurant on our way to the airport. It rather looked like a huge marketplace full of shouting people, with meals piling up on the table all the time. Suddenly, I began to laugh in the middle of the hubbub. My laugher was heard in the kitchen, too. The chef looked out and showed me his thumb up.

The lessons learned, the experiences, and getting to know things – the week brought about lots of them. In fact, it was so packed with all of these that it is well beyond my abilities to write them down and your abilities to read them. If you want to get more information, or if you have any queries, do not hesitate to contact me at