Innovation in Israel: Start-Up Nation class explores Middle Eastern entrepreneurial phenomenon

Through historical site visits and company tours, students grasp the inherent ties between business and culture. 

By Erin Manchuso '19

For approximately every 1,600 people in Israel there is one startup venture. Why does this small Middle Eastern country hold such a disproportionally high number of startup businesses? That's the question that caught the attention of industry experts and inspired Elon students to take a deeper look at this business phenomenon as part of the Winter Term course Innovation in Israel, Start-Up Nation.

Led by Alyssa Martina, director of the Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, students examined how history, geopolitics and economic development have influenced Israel’s development as a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Students prepared for their time in the country by reading the New York Times best-selling novel “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” through which they examined the environmental factors behind the blossoming Israeli entrepreneurial scene as well as the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and venture finance. Additionally, students read either “Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a Tech Military Superpower” or “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World,” as well as a number of business case studies.

Analyzing the newly booming entrepreneurial scene during the class’s predeparture studies helped students initially contextualize Israeli society. “Israelis have a passion and drive that no other citizen from any other country in the world has,” remarked Jack Boyland '21. “From small start-ups to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), all citizens work just as hard to prosper and defend the land they call home. It’s truly incredible how far they have come since their independence in 1948.”

With a foundational understanding of business and cultural context, the class set off on Jan. 12 for Israel’s second most populous city, Tel Aviv. In the class’s handful of days in the Israeli metropolitan, students experienced contrasting work environments while visiting the project management startup as well as the multinational tech powerhouse Google’s Tel Aviv office.

After departing Tel Aviv, the class traveled to Caesarea and Nazareth where they delved more into Israel’s complex cultural and religious past. Students toured ancient ruins and the Church of Annunciation, widely considered one of the holiest places for Catholics. The time spent in both cities helped provide students with perspective on Israel’s cultural roots and how those roots have influenced today’s society.

“This visit is an important reminder that even though Judaism is the current dominant religion of the country, the Christian and Muslim roots still inform the culture of Israel, which is built on many different sources and beliefs,” said Joe Rodri '21. “By having such a rich combination of ideas, perspectives, beliefs and viewpoints, the Israeli mindset is able to take these into account when trying to launch businesses or other types of ventures.”

The class visited startup BioBee Biological Systems, an industry leader in biologically-based pest management and organic pollination, before traveling to the nation’s capital, Jerusalem. Their time in Jerusalem included visiting the World Holocaust Center and Museum, the natural oasis of Ein Gedi, and a traditional Shabbat dinner hosted by an American-Israeli family.

Students also met with the local nonprofit Made in JLM. The organization was founded specifically to support startups in the greater Jerusalem area by offering services such as mentoring, coaching, networking and financial grants. In part due to JLM’s efforts, Jerusalem has been named one of the top 30 cities in the world for startups and is expected to only grow with time.

“Going to Israel was not only a great cultural experience that was substantially different from businesses in the United States, but also the optimism with which Israeli businesses operate was truly inspiring for developing an entrepreneurial mindset in a global context,” Rodri said.

To wrap up the class’s 11-day tour of Israel, students visited the West Bank and Palestine where they learned about the media-driven misconceptions of Palestine and the efforts local nonprofit Business Women Forum is going through to promote female representation in business.

The class completed its comprehensive exploration of Israeli business and culture Jan. 21.

“The Innovation in Israel course was an incredible experience in which I was able to network with international professionals, visit various historic and religious sites, and learn about the country that is otherwise known as ‘Start-Up Nation,’ said sophomore Honors Fellow Meghan Murray. “Hearing from Israeli professionals in the start-up industry has taught me that growth only happens outside of your comfort zone when you constantly challenge the status quo.”