The Israel Conference in LA

I attended the Israel Conference in LA this past Thursday (it continued into Friday but I had other commitments), and wrote up this reflection for publication. I’ll be doing reviews of several of the startups that exhibited there in the coming days and weeks, and, as referenced below, I’ll also be reviewing The Unstoppables, a new book on entrepreneurship that heavily draws on the Israeli startup spirit and culture (the book’s author, Bill Schley, and Graham Weston, who wrote the foreword, spoke on a panel at the Conference, hence the connection).

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There’s some inherent risk to getting any group of hundreds of people together for a conference at a boutique hotel in Los Angeles. All sorts of logistical snafus could arise with the meeting spaces, Internet connectivity might be slow, traffic could of course be a problem, causing speakers or vendors to be late to their sessions, and on and on. But make this a gathering of people who tend to talk with their hands as much as Israelis are wont to do, and you’d just be asking for trouble. Or so it would seem if you only knew The Israel Conference on paper.

In practice, the fifth annual such meeting, which took place at West LA’s Luxe Hotel on Sunset Blvd. May 30 & 31, was a dynamic and injury-free event, featuring hundreds of attendees and representatives of dozens of Israeli and Israel-facing companies doing what people who love to talk do best – networking, making deals, and sharing ideas. The businesses included brand new to mid-stage startups, more established companies, and venture capital firms, all looking to be or be behind the next big thing. The driving force behind The Israel Conference is Sharona Justman, managing director of STEP Strategy Advisors, a business advising firm focusing on improving their clients’ profitability and market position through acquisitions. After being in Sharona’s presence for just a few minutes, you can’t help but be swept up in her positive energy, secure that her smile would light the way forward even if the electricity went out.

If you weren’t as immersed in both the Israeli economy and technology tools and toys as I am, you might be surprised at the plethora of innovative ideas coming out of Israel. You’d be less surprised if you’d read Start-Up Nation, the 2011 book that opened many people’s eyes to the remarkable success of the Israeli high-tech sector and broader economy (with its consistent growth over the last decade, even as countless other global economies have stagnated, shrunk, or utterly melted down). And you’d get completely over your surprise and just move into being inspired if you’d read The Unstoppables, the new book by Bill Schley (with a foreword by Graham Weston, founder of Rackspace). Schley and Weston, having read Start-Up Nation but with no previous experience in Israel, wanted to follow up and get another perspective on Israel’s entrepreneurial engine, so they did something incredibly Israeli: they flew to Israel with no agenda, no meetings set up, and no idea if they’d succeed. Of course, this being Israel, one contact turned into eight, which turned into dozens more, and by the end of the week, they had enough material for a book (a formal review of the book will follow). They shared the story of the genesis of the book and some of their impressions of Israeli ingenuity and the entrepreneurial spirit that imbues the Holy Land on a panel at The Israel Conference moderated by the conference’s co-chair, Yossi Vardi (known as the Godfather of Israeli high-tech).

Other panels at the conference covered topics such as cyber-security (particularly in the mobile device space), fundraising for startups at various stages of product and capital development, gaming, emerging sustainable energy solutions, and other areas where Israeli companies are on the bleeding edge of innovation. In between the panels, conference organizers built in plenty of time for attendees to network, schmooze, and – this being a Jewishly informed event – eat. The conference’s Pavilion of Companies featured some remarkable products and services offered by companies in varying stages of the startup cycle (some seeking funding to come out of limited beta testing, others that were just there to build awareness and maybe score additional clients and customers; I’ll review several of these individually in subsequent posts). But as often happens, some of the most interesting (and profitable) conversations happened off the beaten path, at small tables with three or four people who may not have known each other before this event. Arguably the greatest value in an event like The Israel Conference is to provide a space for people to find common ground and mutual personal and business interests that lead them to collaborate in ways that not only benefit them financially, but in many cases, in true Israeli and Jewish form, make the world a better place.

The next Israel Conference will take place in Los Angeles on May 29 & 30, 2014. Information is at http://www.theisraelconference.org/.

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