Entrepreneurs Without Borders
Despite thousands of miles between them, Israel and Colorado are strikingly similar when it comes to their entrepreneurial ecosystems.
Highlighting these similarities and exploring new opportunities for collaboration were topics of discussion covered by a high-profile panel on Sept. 14, organized by the Daniels College of Business for Denver Startup Week, the largest summit of entrepreneurial energy, innovation and connection in North America.
The panel—Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Across Borders—featured entrepreneurial luminaries from Israel and Colorado: Yoram Dahan, CEO of Israel Innovation Expo; Ben Deda (MBA 2011), COO of Galvanize and co-founder of Denver Startup Week; Gov. John Hickenlooper; Ben Wiener, managing partner of Jerusalem-based Jumpspeed Ventures; and Roy Munin, CEO and co-founder of Made in Jerusalem. Erik Mitisek (BSBA 1999), executive director of DU’s Project X-ITE and cofounder of Denver Startup Week, served as the moderator.
Mitisek kicked off the discussion by ticking off similarities between the Startup Nation and the Centennial State, noting that they’re separated by only a million in population: Israel has just over 7 million residents while Colorado has nearly 6 million. Additionally, Israel is the number one startup hub in the world in terms of density, while Colorado boasts four Front Range cities in the top 10 for density, according to a recent ranking by the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship. And, according to Mitisek, Israel and Colorado have unique attributes that enhance their entrepreneurial ecosystems.
“Some special sauce is that the Israeli Defense Forces have been an incredible contributor to the startup ecosystem in Israel and [Colorado has] a lifestyle that is unmatched in the United States,” added Mitisek.
While Israel and Colorado may have conditions that lend themselves to healthy entrepreneurial ecosystems, Dahan emphasized that innovation and entrepreneurship require hard work and long hours. “A smart man once said, ‘build it and they will come,’ but I always say, ‘build it, work 16-18 hours a day for three years, and then they will come,’” said Dahan.
Rebuilding Jerusalem into a thriving metropolis of innovation also took hard work following several years of violence in the early 1990s. “Israel is a tough place and we need to adapt all the time to make life good there,” said Munin, recounting the intifada between Palestinians and Israelis. “Around seven years ago, a student movement worked to take back the city.”
And it worked. Conditions in Jerusalem today on the tech front are in stark contrast to those of 2012: Startups have grown from as few as 250 to more than 550, while investments in those startups have increased exponentially—from around $50 million annually to approximately $250 million annually.
While capital streams are critical to driving entrepreneurial activity, so are networking and collaboration between business, academia and government. Gov. Hickenlooper—a former geologist turned entrepreneur—mentioned the concept of “friendly friction“ in the design of his Wynkoop Brewpub many years ago. “The restaurant designer designed it with the intention of getting people to bump into each other,” he said, noting this friendly friction now pervades Colorado. “Once people bump into each other, they’re more willing to talk to each other. Once you talk to strangers, you create an environment where almost anything can happen. People can have all kinds of conversations.”
Wiener cited a need for determination as well. “When you think about this from an ecosystem point of view, you need the technology know-how, you need the capital, but you have to create that culture of rebellion, that underdog culture,” he said.
The panel discussed the importance of inclusivity, unanimously acknowledging the diversity problem in the tech space—be it a paucity of women or ultra-orthodox Jewish entrepreneurs. “It’s about providing on ramps for people,” said Deda, noting that Galvanize works to identify inclusion partners within the communities needing more industry representation.
As the conversation turned toward the future, Wiener commended the Daniels team for developing and sustaining relationships in Israel, and encouraged the panel audience to visit the country and invest in Israeli companies to further collaboration.
Munin noted the importance of events like Denver Startup Week, which continues to grow in size and scope: Immediately before the panel discussion began, it was announced that the event had just surpassed 12,500 attendees. Last year, Denver Startup Week drew 10,876 attendees.
As the discussion wound down, Gov. Hickenlooper remarked on how much Colorado and Israel can learn from each other because of the natural alignment of issues they face. “Water research, renewable energy, clean tech, cybersecurity … these are monumental emerging industries that Colorado and Israel have a proclivity to,” he said. “They say emotions are contagious. I think one of the great things about entrepreneurs is that they are, by nature, optimistic and enthusiastic. They tend to put the system first before themselves because they believe in the system. I can’t think of better emissaries between our two countries.”