The 1990s were a revolutionary time Israel’s economic development. The government created Yozma, the innovative venture capital vehicle structured by the Israeli government, saw an inrush of venture capital, a wave of NASDAQ IPOs, and benefited from a surge in corporate technology acquisitions. Recent accounts represent the period as a case study for governments looking to foster entrepreneurship. But that story is so incomplete as to mislead policy makers. In fact, developments in the 1990s were the fruits of a process almost forty years old.
The real timeline:
1. 1950s. The seeds of Israel’s entrepreneurial revolution were sown in the late 1940s and 1950s. Israel’s first (Weizmann) and fourth (Katzir) presidents were scientists. Both believed strongly in the role of science in national defense and societal prosperity; in and of itself unique in the world and a strong message about national priorities. The first military technology transfers took place then, half a century before Mirabilis created ICQ, the first instant messaging system.
2. 1960s. R&D got a huge boost in the 1960s, in part from the sudden 1967 French weapons embargo: military self-reliance became defense policy, leading to massive investments in military R&D and the seeding of what would become an entrepreneurial hothouse, the Intelligence Signal Corp (Unit 8200). In 1968 the Katchalski Committee recommended the establishment of the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) to help fix market failures in commercializing R&D.
3. 1970s. The early 1970s saw Israel’s first NASDAQ IPO (1972; by medical imaging pioneer, Elscint), the embryonic involvement of top-tier US-based venture capital, and very significantly, the establishment in Israel in 1974 of Intel’s first international R&D center. In 1977 the influential BIRD foundation was created to fund technology-based product development between Israeli and US companies.
4. 1980s. By the early 1980s there were numerous top-tier VC investments, and by 1984 the NASDAQ value of the first wave of a dozen Israeli tech ventures was $780 million. In 1984 the government passed the milestone Law for the Encouragement of R&D. In 1985 the first limited partnership venture capital fund, Athena Venture Partners, was established with $23 million. In 1987 the cancellation of the Lavi fighter-plane mega-project flooded the market with thousands of engineers who swelled the ranks of startups. By 1989 I even had enough material for my speech in Berlin at the European Venture Capital Association conference, “The History of Israeli’ Technological Entrepreneurship.”
You can’t write American history without Jefferson and Washington, yet the authors of Start-Up Nation tried to do the equivalent, overlooking founding fathers like Uzia Galil and Dan Tolkowsky. They’ve even neglected the founding sons—people like Zohar Zisapel (founder of 29 IT firms) and Efi Arazi (founder of Scitex). There are consequences to this revisionism. For example, by focusing on the 90s, policymakers have neglected the parallel entrepreneurship ecosystem that preceded—and enabled—initiatives like Yozma.
But it was this ecosystem that, by 1990, made Israel’s entrepreneurial revolution a fait accompli; so much so that by 1997 there had been 68 NASDAQ IPOs—all before Yozma’s investments started bearing fruit.
And in truth the massive Russian immigration of scientists and engineers has had little direct impact on Israel’s entrepreneurial revolution—in the 90s most had no choice but to accept K-12 teaching or low-level service jobs; Israel’s vast incubator program, admirably privatized, has bred a relatively low number of successful ventures; and Israel’s culture and institutions were anti-entrepreneurial until the mid-1990s, with labor and the government owning huge portions of the economy, wealth being scorned, and marginal tax rates discouraging extra work.
Israel’s entrepreneurial accomplishments have indeed been nothing short of miraculous. Since 1972, over 160 Israeli ventures have been listed on NASDAQ, more than any other country outside of the U.S. and Canada, and hundreds of tech ventures have been acquired. Tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars of value have been created. The world benefits from Israeli innovations, such as the USB memory stick, instant messaging and new generation cardiac stents, to name a few. The entrepreneurs who created such novel products have disproportionately contributed to Israel’s growth. So it is only natural for policy makers around the world to want to learn from Israel’s remarkable experience. But they will only reach the right conclusions if they first get the history right.
Originally posted in the Economist, February 1, 2011