July 11, 2012
Israel’s whiz kids
Mickey Haslavsky of Holon is only 18, but he’s already on his second startup.
“When I began my first startup at 16, I thought I was the only one creating Web sites at this age, but I was amazed to discover a huge community between [the ages of] 10 and 18 around the world, and I know of about 10 startups by Israelis my age,” Haslavsky said.
By invitation of Israeli high-tech godfather Yossi Vardi, Haslavsky recently gave a TEDx Youth@Holon presentation, “Teenage Nation,” about how he founded an online youth magazine.
One thousand people registered the day Haslavsky launched his second site, Machbesa (Laundry), this past spring. It’s a viral scheme for racking up genuine “Likes” on Facebook, pluses in Google Plus and views on YouTube.
“I want to bring the system to Brazil next because it has 51 million Facebook users and it’s spreading all the time,” said Haslavsky, who needs to find someone to run his enterprises come November, when he gets drafted for military service.
That shouldn’t be hard, as he is at the older end of the spectrum of Israeli teens helming a surprising number of high-tech ventures.
Tal Hoffman of Haifa says Israel’s designation as the “Startup Nation” has encouraged young business developers. “Israel’s entrepreneur community is really big among my age,” said the 15-year-old founder of Itimdi, a not-yet-launched site where teens can meet and interact based on their interests.
Another 15-year-old, Gal Harth of Herzliya, was interviewed at TechCrunch Disrupt last year in San Francisco about his Doweet Web site (motto: “So, what do you want to do?”), described as “a fun and easy way to create activities with your friends.”
Harth said he founded Doweet with his pal Nir Ohayon in reaction to all their friends playing Xbox and PlayStation instead of engaging in social and physical activities. “This is a way to get together easily to go to the gym, go swimming, play soccer. It’s an app that links everyone in one spot.”
Harth and Ohayon got initial funding from Israel’s Rhodium, the first venture capital firm they approached.
“My passion is startups,” Harth said. “My passion is to change the world.”
Nurturing whiz kids
Enterprising Israeli teenagers have plenty of role models. Gil Schwed, founder of Israel’s Check Point Software Technologies and one of the world’s youngest billionaires, is a prime example. Schwed was taking computer courses at the Hebrew University before graduating high school. Drawing on experience gained in the Israel Defense Forces’ Unit 8200 intelligence corps, he invented the modern firewall at just 26.
Many up-and-coming entrepreneurs are eager to follow the same path, knowing that their military service can pave the way to successful careers. It’s no coincidence that many Israeli startups are co-founded by former army buddies.
However, programs to recruit high school students for high-tech military units focus on top achievers and tend to miss a considerable number of kids whose tech abilities far surpass their grades. Finding and cultivating these diamonds-in-the-rough has become a priority for StartupSeeds, a 1,300-member community for entrepreneurial Israeli teens founded in 2007 as a private philanthropy-supported project of the MadaTech-Israel National Museum of Science in Haifa.
One of its original members, Ido Tal, created a wildly popular Flash video game at the age of 14, but — perhaps because of his addiction to video games, he said — wasn’t exactly a model student. Likewise, Haslavsky, whose math teacher once told Haslavsky’s mother that the boy wasn’t going to amount to anything.
“From our research, nobody is dealing with this population of kids,” StartupSeeds Director Saar Cohen said. The organization is hoping to fill that gap by reaching out to parents of teens who show a talent for coding, Web design, video editing, animation, social media, security and other needed skills.
Through contacts in the military and academia, StartupSeeds brings these teens out from under the radar for the benefit of themselves and their country. “Everybody wants their kid in a special unit because if you get in, you’re set for life.”
This is just one of the organization’s programs devised to nurture and encourage Israeli whiz kids, with support from Israel’s high-tech industry and academia. In 2008, StartupSeeds was invited to lead a panel on entrepreneurial youth at the prestigious Israeli Presidential Conference.
“StartupSeeds promotes excellence, entrepreneurship and innovation among technological youth,” Cohen said. “We believe in strengthening their existing strengths by giving them tools and a platform for them to reach their potential. We help them make connections through an online community as well as physical forums.”
Every two weeks, StartupSeeds hosts meetings and lectures along with social activities. There are periodic regional conventions and field trips to army units and high-tech industries. Members get access to events such as TEDx, groups such as MIT Forum and competitions such as BigGeek, a live broadcast from the Microsoft R&D Center in Herzliya where four teams of techies scramble to develop a working application within 24 hours.
What is special about Israel that seems to encourage what Cohen calls a technological youth phenomenon?
“Everything here happens fast,” Cohen said. “Kids are encouraged from an early age to think on their feet, ask questions, be curious and not be afraid to try anything. The high-tech industry and the startup industry in Israel are very strong, and they take great pride in that, so it’s contagious. The army helps, too, because a large percentage of those in high-tech startups went to these special tech units.”
Boys and girls together
StartupSeeds, as well as Israel’s military, academic and industrial leaders, are eager to get more girls into the high-tech mix.
“Research shows there’s an early age at which kids decide what to go into, and everyone wants to get girls to choose technological fields,” Cohen said. “We recently decided to target this audience by starting an all-girls forum, offering meetings with female leaders in industry, to see if we can create a community. Our goal is to get to 30 percent girls [in our membership]. We think they are out there, and we are approaching them at the perfect age.”
For now, most teen entrepreneurs are boys, including recent immigrants such as Ben Lang, 18, who co-founded the Innovation Israel community for startups, entrepreneurs and investors; and, most recently, Mapped in Israel, a Web site pinpointing Israel’s many startups.
In March, Lang and three young colleagues ran a successful Hackathon Israel event, sponsored by Carmel Ventures and ROI Community; their stated vision was “to share the incredible high-tech scene in Israel with the entire world.”
“Because Israel is so small, it’s easy to create a startup and give life to an idea,” Haslavsky said. “In the media you see every day how startups sell their companies for millions of dollars, and that also encourages us. Every young entrepreneur wants to be a CEO. I think Israel is amazing in this field.”