Baruch HaLevi and Don Schoen are on a mission to unite the Start-up Nation and the Silicon Prairie through welaunch, a U.S.-based not-for-profit that connects Israeli companies to business and investment opportunities and resources throughout its Silicon Prairie network.
CEO and cofounder HaLevi says he has deep roots to the American Midwest. He was born and raised in Omaha, went to the University of Kansas, and led his first synagogue in Des Moines before moving on to Boston, then Israel.
However, he found himself more attracted to the entrepreneurism and innovation of the communities he was serving, rather than to the traditional role and responsibilities of a rabbi.
“I wanted to be involved in entrepreneurial and also the narrative of Israel around entrepreneurism and innovation,” says HaLevi. “I saw an opportunity to connect my two homes––the Midwest and Israel––and that’s what we set out to do.”
HaLevi teamed up with Schoen, an entrepreneur with business oriented background and now welaunch’s cofounder and COO.
Schoen helped evolve welaunch in terms of business practices.
“There’s a real passion behind the individuals we have in our organization,” says Schoen. “We’re really trying to evolve welaunch to be a focal point for Israel in entrepreneurial aspects and bring them to the U.S.”
Israel has more startups per capita than anywhere in the world outside of Silicon Valley, more venture capital than the rest of Europe combined, more companies on the Nasdaq than any other country outside of the U.S. and China, the most college graduates second only to Canada, and they’ve done it all with a population equal to that of New Jersey.
HaLevi says one of the driving elements of the country’s startup success is a necessity.
“Israel is mostly desert,” says HaLevi. “It’s the only country in the world with receding deserts, and it’s the only country in the world that’s water independent and recycles [over] 90 percent of their water. But it’s out of necessity. There is no water source. They’re not getting water from their neighbors. That’s a good example of why Israel is leading in water tech––because they have to.”
The other factor is the country’s advanced military. Everyone serves in the Israeli military and becomes technologically oriented. Then, after the military, then they go on to college.
“When you start adding those things up, you have a great recipe for entrepreneurship and innovation,” says HaLevi. “It’s a pretty remarkable place from an entrepreneurial, innovation and technology, aspect. There are certain areas which they lead the world in technology. That said, there’s no market and Israelis don’t know how to scale up.”
HaLevi says Israel is known as “The Start-up Nation” and welaunch wants to help them be “The Scale-up Nation.” He thinks he can do that with the help of the Silicon Prairie and its markets.
“The Silicon Prairie has an amazing industrial base, and in certain sectors, it’s the world leader,” says HaLevi. “That was the impetus to connect the two; to bring the strength of Israel and to bring the strength of the Midwest, and to marry them because each has what the other needs.”
HaLevi says that welaunch is matching focal points of Midwest tech verticals and sectors with those in Israel to create stronger impacts.
“Some of Israel’s strongest verticals are best suited not necessarily for the traditional Israel destinations of the coast but for the Midwest,” said HaLevi.
Among other things, Israel is known for strengths in agtech, foodtech, watertech and cleantech. HaLevi says those are what welaunch refers to as “global impact technologies” with their ability to make the world a better place.
In addition to helping Israel scale, Schoen says welaunch is also helping unite the Silicon Prairie around a cohesive brand and goal. Success won’t be found if Nebraska competes against Iowa, but it can be found if the collective Midwest competes against Silicon Valley.
“The Silicon Prairie has the fifth largest GDP in the world when you start looking at the territory of the states,” says Schoen. “The bottom line is that we need the entire Midwest to band together and be able to compete together, not against each other, so we can really evolve the economy in a new way.”
A unified Midwest will also make it more attractive to outside investors like those in Israel.
In May, welaunch took a delegate of 14 people from around the Silicon Prairie region to Israel for exclusive briefings with government officials, industry leaders and corporate executives.
While there, they attend three exhibitions and networking events as part of an effort to develop ties with Israeli startups and show them the Midwest is a viable alternative or complementary addition to places like New York, Boston and California.
“The Midwest is a flyover part of the country right now for Israel,” says Schoen. “Being able to band together and really focus gets individuals in Israel aware of the Silicon Prairie, which they haven’t had in the past, because all the money and opportunity has been on the east or west coast.”
HaLevi says that another piece of Israel’s power and ability to punch above their weight class in size is because they have chutzpah: the audacity to think big and talk big.
“I know our strengths in the Midwest and that’s not necessarily one of them,” says HaLevi. “Often times we’re too humble and aren’t out there boasting and promoting. welaunch is passionate about promoting the Midwest as something bigger than the sum of its parts. We want to promote that; we want to educate Israelis about the Silicon Prairie.”
Christine McGuigan is the Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News.