Wednesday 21 February 2018

Israel shows the way for Irish hi-tech start-up scene

John Costello

THEY may share the same first letter but that is where the similarities between Ireland and Israel's start-up scene currently begin and end.

Indeed, while Ireland has struggled to produce large, home-grown hi-tech companies, the Jewish state boasts the highest number of companies listed on the NASDAQ outside of North America, the world's highest gross expenditure on R&D and highest level of venture capital as share of GDP.

However, five up-and-coming Irish hi-tech firms arrived in Tel Aviv this week hoping to rapidly learn the lessons from the small country that has been dubbed the 'Start-up Nation'.

The entrepreneurs behind Trustev, DataHug, Viddyad, FoneSense and Gotcha Ninjas met with local Israeli companies and investors and, in co-operation with Enterprise Ireland, took part in the DLD Innovation Festival, Israel's largest hi-tech gathering of start-ups, multi-nationals and investors.

But with the Government hoping start-ups will be key to creating thousands of much-needed jobs, can Dublin replicate the success of Tel Aviv, which is second only to Silicon Valley as a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity?

While a technology incubator programme established in 1991 provided funding and know-how to potential entrepreneurs, it was the creation of the Yozma Venture Capital Fund that is credited with helping fuel Israel's hi-tech boom.

Established with a budget of $100m in 1993, Yozma contributed up to 40pc towards the total capital investment for start-ups.

Enterprise Ireland (EI) has taken note and its annual budget ring-fences about €30m to invest in 50 'high performance' start-ups, while 100 early-stage start-ups get €50,000 as part of its incubator programme.

But EI's focus has not just been on creating a domestic version of Israel's Yozma. It has also raised €175m to attract venture capital businesses to Ireland by making fund-to-fund investments in firms that provide seed and early-stage investments.

"We have been able to get some very high-profile VC companies operating in Ireland," says Lisa Vaughan of EI. "You need people with offices on the ground. This increases their knowledge of the start-up environment and the amount of money they will be willing to invest."

Another key element behind Israel's success has been its engagement with the Jewish diaspora. This has provided not only skilled manpower, but also opened up investment opportunities and a reach that goes far beyond Israel's borders.

"Israeli companies are very active in getting embedded in the US scene from the beginning," says Ms Vaughan. "So that is something we want to try and help Irish companies achieve. As part of this strategy we started a Start Up Boot Camp this year, which offers intense mentoring on the East and West coasts of America."

Furthermore, to help further develop Ireland's start-up ecosystem a €10m fund was established to attract and provide funding to entrepreneurs moving from other countries.

But while EI's effort to replicate Israel's success is ambitious, there are elements that government policy is unlikely to impact upon.

"First of all the start-up environment in Israel is a cultural phenomenon," says Yossi Vardi, one of Israel's first high-tech entrepreneurs. "Sure, education, government policy and funding is important but the key thing is the culture here. And you cannot simply uproot that and replicate that in another place. It is difficult to ignite the passion of someone to develop their own business and take risks if it is not already there."

However, Mr Vardi believes Ireland can quickly learn from Israel's approach to foreign direct investment when it comes to fuelling its start-up scene.

"While we are also very keen on getting multinationals to invest in Israel, we are more interested in putting the emphasis on research and development and multinationals investing in local innovation with layers of finance and scaling it up," he says.

Just this week Facebook paid $150-$200m for Onavo, a mobile analytics start-up, which will lead to the opening of a development centre in Israel.

* For DLD Festival information see

Irish Independent

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