Lessons from Israel’s tech miracle

The crisis can serve as an opportunity for the development of entrepreneurship in Greece, insists Nava Swersky, founder and president of Nano-Israel and advisor to the Israeli government, as well as to international organizations on issues of innovation, research and development.

“When you have nothing to lose, that is the right time to take a risk,” she stresses in an interview with Kathimerini during a recent visit to our country.

Her visit, as well as contacts with government officials and representatives of the business and academic communities, is part of a series of initiatives being undertaken by the Embassy of Israel to promote start-up enterprises and cooperation between the two countries in the field of innovation. The high point of these initiatives is the “Start Tel Aviv 2015” competition, with submissions from Greek technology start-ups being accepted until June 5. Businesses that can apply must be at the initial stage of financing and must have already developed a prototype of their product.

It is common knowledge that the so-called miracle of Israeli start-ups may not have happened without the active support of the state, which provided sizeable resources for innovation development in the country.

How could Greece learn from Israel’s example, given the lack of financing sources?

It is a fact that there was strong support from the state in Israel for innovation and research. But experience has shown that the private sector is more powerful. In a system you essentially need the infrastructure and resources, but the culture even more so. The culture does not come from the government. It originates from the people and what we call the private sector. You certainly also need the infrastructure, because if you do not have the resources, if you do not have access to financing, if you do not have good education or a good taxation system and the right incentives, you will not manage to attract investors. However, what you need first and foremost is the culture and the basic element of this culture is the right to fail. You must be willing to undertake the risk. That is why I insist on saying that the crisis is an opportunity. If you think carefully about it, the crisis reduces the cost of failure because you have less to lose.

To what extent does the situation in the country act as an obstacle to business activity and what needs to be done to change this?

What I discovered is that the people here have the culture of entrepreneurship. But at the same time the statistics show growing fear at a much higher level compared to the rest of the private sector in Europe. This reaches 62 percent, when the corresponding percentage in the rest of Europe is close to 35 percent. This trend must be reversed. The fact that the public sector has stopped producing new jobs is a reality you must recognize and begin somewhere else – that is with private initiative. Going back in history, we see that the Greeks are not a nation that need to be told what to do.

Therefore, the key to understanding the new environment is that you can no longer rely on what the state will do for you. This must become the starting point. The private sector must take initiatives, regardless of the political developments, which may not help but they do not stop economic activity.

Spain is a very good example, because we see that despite the high unemployment, the entrepreneurship initiatives are also increasing. The government supports entrepreneurship with programs, because it is clear that you cannot spend a lifetime hoping to find a job in the public sector or receiving unemployment benefits. This can also happen here because as we are discovering, the Greeks have a very high rating in the list of countries with the best business ideas. What you also have is something in common with Israel: the Greeks of the diaspora, who can undertake business initiatives and help the country.

The Israeli model is clearly export oriented, something missing in Greece. How could this be addressed and what is the key to beginning a business activity in a crisis environment?

A basic thing you must do is locate what fields you are strong in, like tourism and the agricultural sector for Greece. Something which seems to be quite misunderstood is the impression that innovation only refers to technology. So, you do not begin with something you don’t know. You do not start from scratch. You begin with what you know and build on that. I had the opportunity to meet with around 40 entrepreneurs who do mentoring and I discovered that there are interesting ideas, which are not necessarily related to technology but deal with how to make your tourist product attractive. There is innovation in services and the agricultural economy, a field in which the two countries could cooperate. Israel has managed to gain the leading position worldwide in the use of desalinated water, which is the only water used in the agricultural economy. It is true that there is not a strong export orientation in Greece but your participation in the European Union gives you that ability, providing the infrastructure framework for more export activity.

From the contacts you had in Greece, what conclusions did you draw in relation to what we call the business culture?

The incubators that are being created are a very good initiative. Even though it is clear that you are still at the beginning, it is certain that you have to start somewhere. What is observed in all the initiatives being developed is that there is a great thirst for innovative entrepreneurship. There are many good scientists, engineers, programmers, etc, and this could be a very good opportunity for cooperation with Israel, because we have many companies that are seeking engineers. This cooperation could happen without these people needing to move. It could be realized through outsourcing a series of services. It is something we have done in many countries, like India for example, and it could be a field of cooperation between the two countries.

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