The basics are pretty straightforward. Birthright Israel Excel is a fellowship program founded in 2010 that begins with a business internship in Israel. Wanting to integrate Israeli innovation into its programming mix, Birthright Israel created the Excel Ventures Program which focuses on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship – a kind of mini accelerator. Got it. So what?
By now, the success of Israel’s tech start up sector is pretty well known. What’s less well known is what’s behind it. Obviously there are a number of factors contributing to Israel’s success as a startup powerhouse but the one I want to briefly discuss is the IDF. See, when you throw relative strangers together and have them share powerful experiences, you form a certain measure of closeness, camaraderie and familiarity. In no time at all, you will quickly figure out who is who in your unit – which guy is the alpha male, which gal is the joker, who is a slacker, who is super anal, who is the jock, who is the nerd etc. The emphasis is on getting things done and not on ego or rank. IDF trained Israelis become adept early on, at excelling in team oriented tasks – especially when doing so with people who they served with. All of this is enhanced by the shared experience of serving in the IDF in general and the familiarity that that creates.
This sort of group dynamic is not unique to the IDF of course. Any time you throw people together and have them share intense experiences, bonding and closeness will result. Birthright Israel is a perfect example – you take 40 young adults, and you put them together for an intense 10-day trip full of new challenges and experience – there’s going to be a certain measure of bonding. Birthright also encourages a rapid process of intimacy and familiarity – within the first 24hrs, the group will identify the natural leaders, the flirts, the goofballs, the geeks, the bros, the hipsters etc. Everyone will have their role to play, everyone will bond – and the Birthright trip will end up being memorable, intense and, for the most part, one of the best experiences ever enjoyed by the participants.
I recently read an article in Forbes Magazine that explained why Silicon Valley became a tech leader over Boston despite the fact that Boston had top research universities like Harvard and MIT, and a wealth of established tech companies like DEC and Apollo Computers. It was the victory of networks over hierarchies. The author concluded “Small, tight clusters of people, loosely connected through more distant ties, can dramatically increase information flow and enhance innovation.”
Hence, trying to combine the intensity of the Birthright experience with the intensity of a typical startup kind of makes sense. But instead of making it a 10-day experience, Birthright has created a 10-week experience which is accelerated by the inclusion of mentors, consultants and experts culled from the Tel Aviv innovation ecosystem. Qualified, pre-vetted participants from the US and Israel are thrown together and are expected to go through all the stages of venture creation, from creating a team, all the way to the creation of an early stage proof of concept.
I recently attended an event where the first Excel Ventures cohort presented their proofs of concept at the end of their program. It was a typical Tel Aviv-style event, complete with complimentary snacks and beers, attended by all the usual suspects. I hung back and felt the palpable energy in the air while observing the Excel Ventures members. The teams were made up of people that clearly balanced each other out – there were the code monkeys paired with the extroverted natural salesmen, the creative, idea people paired with the born networkers and Americans and Israelis working together and combining their disparate experiences and skills into well honed and rather impressive units.
I’ve been to events like this before, and heard presentations of pitches put together by people who had been working together for months and even years. The quality of the presentations presented by the Excel Ventures teams was at least as good, and in some cases better than those I have heard in the past. Many of the ideas presented could easily have been turned into viable startups and profitable businesses. The presenters were poised and self-assured. What can I say? I was, much to my surprise, quite impressed. Who knew that taking the intensity of a 10-day Birthright Israel experience, and porting it into a 10-week accelerator experience would generate such impressive results? Of course in hindsight, it makes perfect sense as everything in hindsight tends to do. It’s amazing, but you can actually manufacture innovation!
Excel Ventures is a pretty much free 10-week program that accepts qualified applicants under the age of 30 from Israel and the US. American participants have to pay a $500 deposit, $300 of which is refunded at the end of the program. Excel Ventures provides double occupancy dorm rooms for 10-weeks, a return ticket from New York and access to top business experts from the Israeli startup scene. Excel Ventures is funded by the Steinhardt Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation, the Paul E. Singer Foundation and the Meitar Liquornik Geva Leshem Tal Law Firm, with the cooperation of other leading groups such as Ernest & Young and the Rise Community. You can get more information from the Excel Ventures Web site where you can apply for next summer’s cohort when applications open again.