Eight million people, 7,000 tech startups. These are the kinds of numbers that have people talking about Israel as one of the hottest innovation hubs in the world. And Tel Aviv is the tech scene’s home base. On the vibrant streets around Rothschild Boulevard – sometimes called Silicon Boulevard – the energy is palpable day and night as people talk, plan and collaborate on what could be the next big global start-up.
But it’s not just tech. Tel Aviv has become the region’s startup capital, with the cosmopolitan city’s entrepreneurial spirit extending to the creative and lifestyle realms.
We catch up with three of the Tel Aviv’s young entrepreneurs to find out why a city famous for its hummus, beaches and history has become one of the best places in the world to launch a business right now.
The best of Israel
Hannah Blustin, Pomegranate Travel
Moving to the Middle East from London would give anyone culture shock. But when former banker Hannah Blustin married an Israeli and arrived in Tel Aviv in 2012, the biggest shock she got was at work.
‘I got a job in a small venture capital fund, and it was a real awakening to spend all day, every day meeting people who were not just talking about their dream companies, but bravely turning away other opportunities to make them happen,’ she says.
Blustin quickly saw how willing entrepreneurs were to take risks. This culture spurred her to pursue her own entrepreneurial dreams. ‘I’ve always been passionate about experience-led travel and was excited about my new home. A business plan formed and I decided I wanted to deliver Israel to the discerning traveller on a no-compromise basis.’
In March 2013, Pomegranate Travel was born, helping clients design luxury trips in Israel, and started working with hotels, restaurants, archaeologists, geopolitical specialists, chefs, helicopter pilots, adventure mavericks and more for insight into all there is to explore in the city.
‘Every time I join a walking tour with one of our amazing guides, I’m reminded why I love this city, and how its past and present are so connected,’ she says. ‘People often think of Israel as being all about its ancient history. I feel very strongly that Israel is not an open-air museum – it’s a dynamic, living, breathing modern success.’
Hannah’s top Tel Aviv spots
‘This neighbourhood cafe exudes a laid-back cool vibe and is great for meetings.’
‘It’s world-class in style, finish and service. It has one of the best bars in town and fragrant citrus trees in its gardens – it’s the perfect place to get inspiration and I’m always sending guests there.’
‘This restaurant is elegant yet welcoming and has a nice menu divided into types of cooking, from raw to steamed to grilled, with cocktails to match.’
‘A very cool bar/club in Florentin housed in an old factory. It makes a fascinating use of space.’
On the Silicon Boulevard
Dror Ceder, Metaflow
Dror Ceder is one of Tel Aviv’s many tech success stories. In 2011 he sold Wibiya, a platform that allows online publishers to add apps to their websites, for US$45 million (HK$350 million), before starting Metaflow, a company that develops a pocket-sized device that measures metabolism with a single breath. Metaflow, which he co-founded with his friends Avi Smila and Daniel Tal (who both also co-founded Wibiya), has the potential to transform the health and diet industry, but it also represents a big change in direction from his previous ventures.
This is where Tel Aviv’s status as a startup hub came in handy. ‘Metaflow is unknown territory. It brings together physiology and science – not things we knew anything about,’ says Ceder. ‘We always want to learn more and start something new and because the collaborative community in Tel Aviv encourages innovation, if ever we need help there are so many people here who will jump in.’
The city is certainly awash with entrepreneurs, many co-working from coffee shops and networking at meet-ups. In recent years, Tel Aviv has seen entrepreneurs taking more risks, with those risks paying off for many.
‘I think it’s a lot to do with Israel as a country,’ says Ceder. ‘It almost has an island economy. So what can we do? We need to export and one thing we can export is knowledge. Tech startups have flourished under this pressure and Tel Aviv is now one of the most exciting places to be in the world.’
Dror Ceder’s Tel Aviv
Campus Tel Aviv
‘I love Campus Tel Aviv, Google’s space for entrepreneurs in Israel.’
‘This Israeli success story has one of the best office locations and its rooftop is also one of my favourite spots to attend events.’
‘A great cafe for meetings, especially with investors, and for brainstorming.’
‘It’s a great place to sit on the grass, relax and look at all the people running and cycling.’
Sharonna Karni Cohen, Dreame
The story behind Sharonna Karni Cohen’s startup, Dreame, reads like a scene in a movie script. ‘I met two successful entrepreneurs on a bench on Rothschild Boulevard,’ she says. ‘We met at 11pm after they’d left a startup event at a cafe called Rothschild 12. I sat down and we talked until 5am. They told me about their company and I was so inspired by their enthusiasm, passion and entrepreneurial drive that when I had an idea for a business, I called them and they helped me kick it off. They became two of my best friends and still advise me today.’
It’s a modern day fable of startups, one that seems typical of the go-getting culture that’s swept the city in recent years. ‘Tel Aviv’s zeitgeist is a combination of spontaneity and rationalism and everyone wants to help where they can,’ says Karni Cohen. ‘My company has grown so much in the last three years. I’m sure it continues to thrive because of the startup ecosystem here.’
Tel Aviv is known for its buzzing arts and culture, so it’s no surprise that Karni Cohen’s big idea was inspired by the creative scene. Dreame allows people to create bespoke artwork in conjunction with an established artist. So if you want your yoga mat to be printed with a hand-drawn sketch of your favourite beach, by your favourite artist, Dreame can make it happen. The company commissions 200 pieces per month and works with 500 artists worldwide. The company has sold more than 3,000 individual works of art in 30 countries.
‘I’m lucky to have high-profile advisors. I don’t think I would be as close to these types of people if I were in a larger country because it would be harder to meet them and get noticed,’ says Karni Cohen. ‘I couldn’t have done it anywhere else.’
To take in the creative scene, Karni Cohen recommends heading to the Florentin area to experience street art, and the Kiryat Hamelacha neighbourhood to gallery hop. ‘Tel Aviv is bustling with culture: music, theatre, cinema and art. More importantly it is booming with self-expression.’
Sharonna Karni Cohen’s Tel Aviv
Zemack Contemporary art
‘This gallery always has interesting exhibitions and such a sleek and sophisticated atmosphere, with so much power expressed in every painting or photograph you see.’
‘One of the more well known galleries. It always has inspiring exhibitions with stories and art that move you and make you think in entirely new ways.’
‘To let my hair down, I go dancing at this hip underground club.’
Cathay Pacific flies to Tel Aviv from Hong Kong four times a week.