Entrepreneurs, investors, executives and tech enthusiasts from around the world converged on the two-day Israel Conference at the Luxe Hotel on Sunset Boulevard for the same reasons: to learn more about Israeli businesses, to network and to discover the next big trend.
“This is basically the conference where the hottest Israeli tech companies are,” said David Soroudi, an analyst for wealth management firm L&S Advisors. “They have the potential to be the next biggest thing, and as an investor, you want to get in there before the company pops.”
The fourth annual Israel Conference, held May 31-June 1, drew a capacity crowd of more than 700 attendees and more than 70 guest speakers. Conference co-organizer Sharona Justman said she welcomed the growth in advance registration this year.
“The best compliment we get is when people sign up before the panels for the conference are even announced,” she said. “They just want to be here.”
The entrepreneur fest included panel discussions on “Israel in Hollywood,” with Howard Rosenman (“Sparkle”) and Jon Turtletaub (“National Treasure”); mobile entertainment and advertising, with Mandalay Entertainment Group CEO Peter Guber; Israel’s growing video game industry; and space and defense technology. American and Israeli speakers addressed the current state of business between the Jewish state and the United States. And while the conference largely focuses on Israel’s advanced technology sector, consumer-driven products and services played a larger role this year.
“The partnerships between small Israeli startups and American corporations are well known, but Israel’s innovation is not just in high-tech,” said David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles. “There is humanitarian and social innovation, and even in Hollywood, with productions like ‘Homeland.’ ”
While drawn by high-tech, L&S Advisors’ Soroudi said he was primarily interested in investing in the Israeli soda-machine maker, SodaStream, which raised more than $261 million in its secondary offering last year, the largest for an Israeli company on Wall Street.
SodaStream Director of Corporate Communications Yonah Lloyd spoke about how collaboration made the company’s success a global story.
“In Israel, they are used to pouring liquids into other liquids to make a drink. In America, we’re not used to this,” Lloyd said, referring to the SodaStream process, which mixes a concentrated syrup with ordinary water and adds carbonation to produce soda at home. “Israel is mostly big for technology, not for consumer products like us. This is why I’m here. I’m sitting beside coffee [Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf CEO Mel Elias] and chocolate [Max Brenner CEO Sam Borgese], and I’d love to collaborate and make some coffee or chocolatey drink for SodaStream.”
Video gaming was a new topic on the conference’s agenda this year, with appearances by Yahoo’s Head of Games Ross Avner; Blizzard Entertainment’s Chief of Staff Itzik Ben-Bassat; and Roy Bahat, president of IGN Entertainment.
GameGround Director Shaul Olmert says Israel is developing its own gaming ecosystem.
“Israel is not the global capital of gaming yet, but it’s growing, and technology is its point of entry,” he explained. “Teens in Israel want to create content and games and become entrepreneurs.”
Among the scores of startups and established companies pitching their products and services, two companies captured the audience’s hearts and minds, drawing rapturous applause: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Space IL.
Gidi Weiss, business development manager for Rafael, said that his company’s anti-missile defense system Iron Dome is instrumental in protecting Israeli cities from attacks.
“We had to find solutions, not only to deter the enemy, but to defend our country,” Weiss said. “The Iron Dome saves the lives of our enemies, too, as it eliminates conflict escalation.”
Although proud of his company’s contribution to the protection of Israel, Weiss also pays homage to his American counterparts.
“The Dome was solely developed by Israeli shekels, but we have to be appreciative of U.S. support. After Desert Storm, there was further development between Boeing, Raytheon and the Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael,” he said.
Tel Aviv-based company Space IL is hoping to land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon by 2015 to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Space IL Chairman Zohar Levkovitz says the plan is more than achievable, provided they receive the required investment.
Each Apollo moon landing cost about $18 billion, adjusted for inflation, according to the online publication Space Review. Space IL plans to do it cheaper.
“We’re going to do it with $27 million, so I think we’re quite good,” Levkovitz said. “We want to become the third nation, the third empire, to land on the moon.”
Levkovitz added that this ambitious expedition would motivate Israeli youth’s interest in education.
“Kids today are less inclined to study science and maths,” he says, “We want kids to get interested, and we want to make an impact. We want to win the Google Lunar X Prize, and we will win it.”
From Israel’s high-tech sector, Microsoft Israel R&D (research and development) general manager Yoram Yaacovi explained why Israel is ahead of the game.
“We are not only innovators,” he said. “We also know how to build our ideas and sell them. That’s why we do well in Israel.”
Mike Jadon, CEO of Calabasas-based flash memory company Radian, agrees with Yaacovi’s assessment.
“Israel has had a phenomenal impact on the high-tech industry,” Jadon said. “Whatever they put in the water, they have really innovative engineers and a great entrepreneurial spirit there.”
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