Is Israel’s Startup Scene a Quantum Leap Ahead of the UK’s?

While working with my client Visa a few years ago now, I helped open innovation hubs for the financial services firm in London, Berlin, and Tel Aviv. The project meant spending some time in each of these vibrant cities, which was awesome all round, but it was Tel Aviv that really stood out. I had the opportunity to experience the flourishing startup scene there, in the country’s economic and technological centre, and it’s no overstatement to reveal that it left me awestruck.

Israel now has at least 6,000 active startups, and with an approximate population of 9.2 million, that’s an impressive number of startups per capita — and also explains why the country is nicknamed ‘The Startup Nation’.

This blog comes to you the week EY becomes the first commercial customer to connect quantum secure data transmission between its major London offices (London Bridge & Canary Wharf). So it would be awfully remiss of me not to mention that around 25 of the aforementioned startups are focused on quantum tech. And this brings me nicely on to a great illustration of just how well the Israeli startup space is doing beyond the numbers: an article by Indie Writer & Futurist Michael Spencer on Israeli researchers building the country’s first quantum computer.

But exactly why is the scene thriving to such an extent? Various sources cite the country’s robust R&D capabilities, educated and skilled workforce, flourishing venture capital market, flexible economy, favourable investment laws, and strong government support; while Spencer mentions cultural factors including chutzpah and openness to immigration. I see the influence of all of this, but I think the real secret to the startup scene’s success lies in its ties with academia!

During my spell in Tel Aviv, I met various academics, who clearly embraced not only existing startups but also students with startup ambition. These individuals went well beyond their duties and responsibilities as educators to proactively connect entrepreneurs with the support and funding on offer — fund managers, industry sponsors, incubators, low-rate government loans, and so on.

This environment seemed to be a quantum leap ahead of that in the UK (a bit of wordplay I couldn’t resist after hearing that 90s time travel series Quantum Leap is poised to make a comeback), where, in my experience, academics were far less involved. The UK is renowned for its world-class education, so why weren’t our own academics — the bright sparks I expect they are — conscious of their power to help entrepreneurs succeed? And where was the financial support?

Now, none of this is to say there’s no startup support here in the UK at all. There is. In fact, EY recently announced its collaboration with Carbon13, a venture-building programme supporting entrepreneurs to build companies aimed at tackling climate change. Like EY, its CEO and Founder Chris Coleridge, who is also Senior Faculty in Management Practice at the University of Cambridge, understands the role of both the private sector and academia in fostering entrepreneurial talent. He says:

“There are a great number of entrepreneurs with some ground-breaking ideas but the challenge is taking these from concept to reality much more quickly. By bringing together the collective power and expertise of EY to collaborate and offer advice and guidance to entrepreneurs, we will be better able to drive forward their plans and ambitions”.

Any university or organisation failing to push entrepreneurs in the right direction also misses a trick. As Kim Paykel, EY’s Sustainability Innovation Leader & Head of wavespace UK, notes:

“As well as being an opportunity for us to support the next generation of climate entrepreneurs, we can also learn so much from their ideas, and new ways of looking at a problem”.

As I round off, it’s worth remembering that my comparison of the startup environments in Israel and the UK is primarily based on observations from a few years ago — practically a lifetime in business and tech. The relationship between academia and new companies in each country may since have changed, for better or worse. And we should also keep in mind the potential impact of the pandemic-ignited startup boom — the strongest in a decade — on these relationships. Please make your way to the comments if you have any inside knowledge in this respect!

Before I head off to wait impatiently for the upcoming Quantum Leap reboot, a shameless plug: In May, I’ll be speaking with Piers Clinton-Tarestad and Mira Pijselman at Commercialising Quantum, an Economist Impact conference on achieving near-term quantum advantage. Feel free to join us and find out what these technologies could do for business and society!

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