"We no longer wait for the 'magic' to occur. We incorporate entrepreneurship into the curriculum," says Tel Aviv University's Moshe Zviran. (Photo/Courtesy TAU)
"We no longer wait for the 'magic' to occur. We incorporate entrepreneurship into the curriculum," says Tel Aviv University's Moshe Zviran. (Photo/Courtesy TAU)

Stanford study: Tel Aviv U. breeds most ‘unicorn’ startups outside U.S.

Updated at 10.30 a.m., Aug. 29

Where is a unicorn born? If we’re talking about unicorns in the business world — privately held startup companies valued at $1 billion or more — then Israel must have some pretty green pastures.

New data released this month by Ilya Strebulaev, a Stanford University business professor, shows that Tel Aviv University has produced more unicorn founders than any other university outside the United States.

“When we look at the founders of U.S. unicorns who come from outside the U.S., Israel just occupies a special place,” Strebulaev said.

In fact, Israel boasts five of the top 11 universities outside the U.S. in numbers of unicorn founders.

“There are likely many factors behind such outstanding results, but one that I would like to mention is the way many Israeli universities collaborate with the private sector and the network effect of a relatively small community,” he said. “This reminds me quite a bit about what I observe at Stanford.”

Strebulaev examined 1,110 U.S.-based companies backed by venture capital that became unicorns between 1997 and 2021. Then he compiled a list of universities that “produced the highest number of unicorn founders in their respective countries.”

His own university, Strebulaev found, has produced 310 unicorn founders who graduated from or worked at Stanford —  the most of any university in the U.S. or in the world.

But with 43 unicorn founders, Tel Aviv University is both Israel’s top unicorn cradle and the top-ranked university outside the U.S.

We no longer wait for the ‘magic’ to occur. We incorporate entrepreneurship into the curriculum.

Tel Aviv beat the U.K.’s top unicorn producer (Oxford at 33), Canada’s (University of Waterloo at 21) and India’s (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi at 16).

“We no longer wait for the ‘magic’ to occur,” Moshe Zviran, a professor and the chief entrepreneurship and innovation officer at Tel Aviv University, said in a press release. “We incorporate entrepreneurship into the curriculum — in the classic disciplines like computer science, engineering, and management, but also in the faculties of humanities, social sciences, law, and the arts.”

In addition to Tel Aviv University, four other Israeli universities have bred a healthy herd of unicorn founders: Technion has produced 32; Hebrew University, 29; Ben-Gurion University, 17; and Reichman University in Herzliya, 26.

The foreign influence on the U.S.-based unicorns is strong. According to Strebulaev, almost 30% of unicorn founders that he studied either attended or worked at a university outside the U.S., making a case for the value of foreign-born talent in the U.S. economy.

Last year, the United States-Israel Business Alliance, a New York-based organization that promotes business connections between the two countries, identified 32 Israeli-founded unicorns with headquarters in the Bay Area.

While Israel is known as the “startup nation,” its tech boom may not last forever.

A global tech downturn that started in 2022 and political turmoil in Israel this year have hurt tech sector growth. In addition, a number of startups, concerned about Israel’s political stability and democratic safeguards, have begun withdrawing cash or considering moving their offices overseas.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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