Tech forum in San Francisco addresses Holy Land of ideas

What grandparent wouldn’t love an app that allows her to see her grandchild’s artwork from thousands of miles away? Maybe that’s why the app is being used by more than 1 million family members, according to the CEO of the Israeli company that makes it.

Offir Gutelzon, founder and CEO of Keepy, was one of the speakers at the Israeli Technology Forum held March 13 in San Francisco. The event at Congregation Beth Sholom highlighted the connections between Silicon Valley and the Jewish state by featuring presentations from five tech companies and two investors.

OurCrowd, a venture capital firm headquartered in Jerusalem, opened the forum with an overview of the technology industry in Israel and why it has been so successful.

Then things quickly shifted toward hummus. Well, sort of.

Alex Bernstein photo/arno rosenfeld

Adi Bittan, CEO and co-founder of OwnerListens, spoke about how the application grew out of her involvement in Oren’s Hummus Shop in Palo Alto. The app’s other founder is the shop owner, Oren Dobronsky, an angel investor and Internet entrepreneur.

OwnerListens, Bittan explained, is a customer-service interface app that allows businesses to respond quickly to customers by analyzing their messages and complaints — and routing them to the right person for an answer. The goal is to keep customers from running to Yelp, TripAdvisor or other similar sites and writing a negative review.

Bittan, a former attorney for the Israeli government, said half of OwnerListens is based in Palo Alto and the other half in the Israeli city of Tivon, east of Haifa. She said that with most of the Israeli technology sector based in and around Tel Aviv, it was easy to attract employees by being one of the few startups in the northern part of the country.

“Putting my Zionist hat on, I think it’s important for the country that the technology industry spread out,” Bittan said.

Organizer Alex Bernstein said the goal of the event was to highlight Israel’s unique advantages as an incubator for innovative startups. He is a member of Achshav Yisrael, a 7-month-old group at Beth Sholom that offers Israel-focused programming in a nonpolitical setting. Its inaugural event last August — “What is Israeli Food?” — included tasting booths and demonstrations on how to make off-the-beaten-path Israeli dishes.

“We didn’t feel like there were enough conversations about Israel, or if there were, they were political,” Bernstein explained.

As an investment banker, Bernstein has attended many Israeli technology conferences, but he said the forum at Beth Sholom was intended to provide exposure for community members who were less familiar with the topic.

“It was an opportunity for the average congregant, who may be a doctor or a lawyer or own a business … to come and learn a little more about what the Israeli tech sector looks like,” he said.

For example, Israel’s high marks around the world in categories such as scientific and technological infrastructure were highlighted by Audrey Jacobs, OurCrowd’s vice president of investor relations in the Americas.

But Jacobs’ presence went beyond educating people about Israel. She was also there looking for potential investors, as the firm operates by bringing together thousands of people who pool their money to invest in Israeli companies.

Perhaps that led to some of her statements, such as calling Israel “truly a light unto the nations in the way that we heal the world, feed the world and advance the world.”

Other presenters had some more meat-and-potato ideas about what makes Israel home to so many innovative startups.

Udi Oster, chief technology officer at Tapingo, noted that to create a successful technology company one must first identify a problem that needs solving. That, Oster said, is something Israelis are great at doing.

His company, Tapingo, for example, has created a food ordering and delivery app that is popular on college campuses. Designed to make buying everyday things such as lunch or coffee a breeze rather than a wait-in-line experience, people can order ahead of time, walk in and pick up their sandwich or latte and be on their way.

“When you think about Israelis, the only thing they see is problems,” he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Any Israeli can give me 100 things that are wrong with Israel — actually, no matter where you go in the world, people can give you 100 problems with Israel.”

Epic CleanTec CEO Aaron Tartakovsky, a San Francisco native who earned a master’s degree in political science from Tel Aviv University, also presented at the conference. He talked about his S.F.-based company, which often works in conjunction with Israeli firms, and its plan to develop the technology to take solid waste normally processed at sewage plants and turn it into nontoxic ash.

He said the idea grew out of his Israeli friend’s successful attempt to come up with a pooper-scooper for dogs that turns waste into harmless fertilizer.

Gili Ovadia, the head of Israel’s economic and trade mission to the West Coast, didn’t attend the forum, but he did offer advice to Beth Sholom’s organizers, and he also told J. that such events are an important way of connecting local Jews to Israel.

“It’s showing the nice face of Israel when all you can see in the media is … another terror attack or another conflict between our prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] and the president [Barack Obama],” Ovadia said. “It’s a way to leverage and strengthen the relationship between Jews here and in Israel.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.