The clock had just gone past 8pm local time when the EasyJet plane touched the tarmac at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. It was the end of a five-hour flight that had departed the UK earlier that day. On board were fourteen UK students, stepping into the warm Tel Aviv evening with eyes set on a trip that was months in the waiting. These students were joined by two others who had arrived on earlier flights. For me, it was the end of a four-month wait after an earlier disappointment.
Sometime in February, while on a tour of London’s Kensington area, I strolled into the famous Imperial College. On one of the notice boards, I saw a poster advertising an Easter trip to Israel being organised by the school’s Jewish Society for students of Imperial College. Not being an Imperial College student was not going to deter me from trying to join the trip, so I took a picture of the poster. On my return to Cranfield, I visited the application website, applied and then emailed the organisers to request that they ignore my non-eligibility and instead look at my desire to visit Israel. Alas, I got a rejection email.
Accepting my “rejection” in good faith, I moved on. Then, in May, I got an email from the society’s president saying if I were still interested in visiting Israel, the UK’s Union of Jewish Students was organising a business trip (“Bridges Not Boycotts – Let’s Talk Business”), and I could apply. Quickly, I went to the UJS website and filled the application form. When accepted, the UJS only required me to pay a £149 commitment fee, get travel insurance and apply for an Israeli visa. In return, they were going to cover the cost of flights, hotel accommodation, feeding and transportation within Israel and the Palestine territories. How else can one define “subsidy”?
The group that landed in Tel Aviv was a motley crew of nationalities and faiths. We had me, Nigerian Christian, a Somali-born British Muslim, an Indian-born Brit, a Sri Lankan Brit, an American, some Chinese and others from England and Scotland (apparently British!). What linked us all was that we were studying in UK universities and interested in learning stuff about Israel that does not show up in regular news reports.
After breakfast on Monday morning, we began with a trip to Rothschild Boulevard, where an anchor person, Jason Weiss, founder of Be Israel, took us through the concept of Israel as the “start-up nation”. We were surprised to learn of widely used innovations with their roots in this tiny Middle Eastern state. With Israel having a small local market and generally unfriendly neighbours, Israeli innovators are forced to think globally, making them to create products that can compete with the Europeans, Asians and Americans. While Israel is known for military technology, something like Mobileye, which is now being used in many modern cars to detect road signs and prevent collisions, was birthed in Israel. He also spoke about the link between Israeli military and the tech space, somewhat similar to the American model, although military service is compulsory for most Israelis at a certain age. Surprisingly, Israel had about twice the venture capital funding of the United Kingdom in 2016, with the highest number of start-ups per capita, making it one of the hottest innovation hubs outside the US.
Thereafter, we moved on to the offices of iAngels, an angel investment company operating out of Tel Aviv. There, we learned about the activities of angel investors and venture capital firms in financing Israeli innovation. These financiers are part of the Israeli ecosystem that tries to push innovations from being mere ideas to becoming market-ready. The troupe was surprised to learn that not only was iAngels formed by two women with backgrounds from some of the world’s best-known finance companies, only two of its twenty employees are men. At the threat of a discrimination lawsuit, we were assured that the company “would never employ a woman just because she is a woman”—competence before gender.
Our next stop was at Samsung’s Venture Investment outfit in Tel Aviv. There, our anchor person explained the concept of “open innovation” using the different routes through which a company could innovate. This covers a wide spectrum from mergers and acquisitions to corporate venture capital, entrepreneur-in-residence, accelerators, incubators, licensing and joint development agreements. Most persons in the group were shocked to learn that Samsung is involved in more than the phones and other electronics it is known for; with investments in hospitals, insurance companies and even ship building. More shocking was learning that the Samsung group’s 2016 global revenues reached US$350 billion. He went on to cover the aims of Samsung’s investments in Israel, linking it to the theme of our trip.
By now, we were famished, so off we went for lunch at the Sarona Food Market. For me, as an expression of my love for my stomach, I ordered an unknown meal, “Dorom Lahmajoun”, and enjoyed every bit of it, apart from the accompanying vegetables, which reinforced my drive to avoid any illness that would condemn me to relying on vegetables. Lunch over, it was time to continue our tour.
We resumed with a trip to Woosh, an Israeli start-up focused on providing potable water in public spaces. Their aim is to reduce the use of disposal plastic bottles by driving the use of refillables to help the environment. Basically, they liaise with municipal authorities to provide public outlets for potable water, which can be paid for via money linked to a membership account. Before refilling a bottle, a user has an option to have his/her bottle rinsed with an ozone-enhanced biocidal water spray. Users can either log into the water dispenser by entering their phone number and pin or by using an issued NFC tag.
From Woosh, we moved on to Presentense, an NGO working to help incubate businesses, especially among disadvantaged communities. Here, we learned about projects geared at encouraging business partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians as a way of creating economic bonds that could engender peace. We were surprised to learn that despite Israel’s high technological advancement, its non-tech industries are plagued by low productivity due to obsolete equipment and lack of worker training. It was also interesting to hear of wilful segregation in the educational system between Jews and Arabs. The speaker tried to clarify that segregation was not government-enforced, but linked to cultural differences, with even Jews having to choose between religious and secular schools. For many of us, it was also shocking to learn of a high poverty rate in Israel relative to other wealthy countries, and a large economic divide across communities, with the poorest communities being those yet to be integrated into Israeli society and facing institutional or involuntary discrimination.
Finally, we were done for the day. On return to our hotel, some persons chose to rest, while I joined the not-yet-tired group to the beach to chill with the warm waves. After dinner that evening, we had a “processing session” to relive the events of the day and prepare our minds for the next day’s foray into the Palestinian territories. Some chose to return to the beach or go drinking or whatever else the mind could plan, while I picked my PC to type this recount. I hope it wasn’t too long to read, as Monday was a really long day.
- While reviewing this article, my roommate protested his non-inclusion in the article. So, here’s my apology to Lei Guo, my Chinese roommate who listened to the first draft with rapt attention.