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Where Arab-Led Israeli Startups Find Mentors and Partners

By Abigail Klein Leichman
February 21, 2021)

An Arab-Israeli entrepreneur with a PhD in nanotechnology is creating 3D virtual try-on simulation software for ecommerce sites selling jewelry and watches.

“Lots of small players are trying to bring this kind of tool to the market but it’s been quick and dirty, so the adoption rate is low,” says GemSight cofounder Basila Kattouf. “We have taken the technology one step forward so there are better visuals for the consumer.”

GemSight was one of seven startups in the recently completed fifth cycle of The Hybrid, a non-profit accelerator founded five years ago by the 8200 Alumni Association and the Ministry of Economy to promote early-stage Arab-led startups.

The Hybrid offers mentorship, networking, connections with investors and collaborators, and the human capital of alumni from the famed 8200 signal intelligence unit – who account for 70 percent of Israeli startup founders.

All of this is difficult for Arab entrepreneurs to achieve without the connections most Israelis make during military service.

“I came to Hybrid because I knew the reputation of the people and because I didn’t want to waste time trying to do it alone,” Kattouf tells ISRAEL21c.

“Hybrid accelerates the processes you need for the future in terms of finding cofounders and partners, lawyers, accountants and designers. They show you what problems could come up in the future to make better decisions in the present.”

Kattouf’s weekly mentoring sessions with Omri Toppol of North First Ventures during the half-year program saw him through to entering the R&D phase of developing the core GemSight technology. Now, working out of WeWork in Haifa, he and his partner will apply for an Israel Innovation Authority grant and raise a pre-seed round.

A More Diverse Startup Nation

Noa Gastfreund, the program’s managing director, says The Hybrid aims to bring greater diversity to Israel’s startup ecosystem.

“The Arab community has an abundance of talented high-tech professionals, mostly working in corporations. Our goal is to be their bridge to the competitive world of entrepreneurship in Israel,” says Gastfreund.

Women are also underrepresented in the startup sector, and The Hybrid has given many Arab women an opportunity to help even the playing field.

One example is Afaf Shehab, cofounder and CEO of the Petwork app that will provide location-based information about services for pet owners in addition to a platform to share views and opinions.

Shehab and her cofounder, CTO Basil Hawari, hope to target the 24 million millennial pet owners in the United States.

“We come from programming backgrounds and have been working together for five years, since I finished university,” Shebab tells ISRAEL21c.

“We had the technical knowledge. The Hybrid gave us an understanding from the side of business and finance, storytelling and pitching. They gave us important connections to people in the ecosystem in the US and Israel. We’re now developing the prototype, finishing the business model, and looking for investment. The Hybrid was an amazing program, really life-changing.”

Another female founder, Zada Haj, is developing Daifco, an online matching platform to connect producers and bookers at international news channels with expert guests from the Middle East. The platform suggests the best profiles based on real-time news and the channel’s needs.

“Zada started with another idea in The Hybrid,” says Gastfreund. “After several validation processes, she pivoted and found out there is a big problem for media companies to find diverse experts. Her venture can make an impact by bridging between the Middle East and the rest of the world.”

Some other businesses that got off the ground at The Hybrid include Ahlan (Arabic for “hello”), a 24/7 property management solution for hospitality asset owners; Obscure Games, a studio developing casual games for mobile that is already generating revenue; and Flare, a digital community for gamers and small streamers to connect and get greater visibility.

Gastfreund has been with The Hybrid for a year and a half. Recently she cofounded the UAE-IL Tech Zone in which The Hybrid is a partner with Start-Up Nation Central, Nobex Partners, and Fusion LA.

The Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates presents new prospects for Arabic-speaking Israeli founders.

“One of the main principles we’re based on is creating opportunities for Arab founders in Israel in the MENA region,” says Gastfreund. “We are working on some partnerships with The Hybrid community as the enabler.”

The Hybrid no longer receives government funding. Gastfreund says it is seeking alternative means of support while gearing up for its sixth cohort hoped to begin in June.

Source: Abigail Klein Leichman, “Where Arab-led Israeli startups find mentors and partners,” Israel21c, (February 21, 2021).