(Graphic/Maya Mirsky)
(Graphic/Maya Mirsky)

Israeli ‘unicorns’ — startups worth at least $1 billion — gallop to success in Bay Area

A record number of mythical creatures have cropped up in the Bay Area. But these particular fantastic beasts, while thriving here, have roots in Israel.

The state as a whole now boasts the headquarters of 32 Israeli-founded “unicorns,” a term used to refer to privately held startup companies worth at least $1 billion. That’s nearly twice as many unicorns as last year, according to the United States-Israel Business Alliance, a New York-based organization that promotes business connections between the two countries. All but one of the unicorn companies are in the Bay Area, with an outlier in Los Angeles.

“Like in the Gold Rush days, people are drawn to this area because they heard others’ success stories, they know people who moved here and can potentially connect them and they are not afraid to try,” Sharon Vanek, executive director of the California Israel Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an email to J.

woman in white shirt with microphone in front of large screen
Sharon Vanek, executive director of the California Israel Chamber of Commerce

The 32 Israeli unicorn companies run the gamut, from travel insurance to retail analytics. Unsurprisingly, the mix includes a lot of cybersecurity companies, a field where Israel is known for its innovation. Silicon Valley is the epicenter of Israeli-founded unicorns, but according to the report, San Francisco also saw its total rise.  (Another six companies came off the unicorn list when they went public, according to  the United States-Israel Business Alliance.)

So what is a unicorn company, exactly? The term was coined almost a decade ago and refers to the rarity of a $1 billion company. It may not have anywhere near that amount in income or assets, though, as valuation is an analytic process used to estimate a company’s worth.

According to the website PitchBook, which tracks public and private equity markets, there are 607 unicorns globally. Crunchbase, a database of companies, reports that 270 of those are in California.

The investment channel between Israel and the U.S. is broader than just local startups getting financed and becoming unicorns, though.

According to a 2021 report from the Berkeley-based Bay Area Council Economic Institute, between 2003 and 2021, California companies made 147 direct investments in Israeli companies, primarily in research and development work. Of these, the large majority, 127, were companies in the Bay Area. The report also found that at the end of 2020, 478 Israeli startups had offices in California, the second highest of any state.

According to Vanek, Israelis make for potent founders because of their ability to “quickly innovate…to defeat our competitors by being first to market with new products, and above all being flexible and adapt to crises.”

She said the ability to adapt has always been crucial for Israel’s survival as a state, but has also bore fruit in entrepreneurship.

“These qualities are rooted in the Israeli culture (for better and for worse) and are being duplicated and implemented in the business culture that sprang so many startups,” Vanek said in her email. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area are fertile places for Israeli businesses because of the willingness to take a leap of faith to invest in people with great ideas, she said, “even if they have crazy ideas.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.