Meeting of the minds: Chicagoans and Israelis unite behind high-tech innovations

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IDEAS Immersion participants Tamar Shlimak (left) and Mor Aviram, who developed PRforALL.

If you were a young, smart, tech-savvy Israeli with an entrepreneurial spirit, where in the United States would you seek to build your network of potential backers for your product?

The Silicon Valley-the 40-mile strip between San Francisco and San Jose that houses hundreds, if not thousands, of high-tech, venture capital and startup companies?

Seattle, home to Amazon, Microsoft, and scores of other corporate giants?

Boston's Route 128, which boasts digital knowhow and the proximity of academic powerhouses like MIT and Harvard?

Think again.

The answer, according to a number of experts in academia and the business world, is Chicago.

Which is why a half dozen or so participants in the most recent IDEAS (Israel, Digital, Entrepreneurs, Arts and Science) Immersion project, an initiative of Tel Aviv University (TAU)-American Friends, came to Chicago earlier this fall for a two-week intensive program in entrepreneurship. The participants, all graduates of TAU's Coller School of Management MBA program, gained access to Chicago-based mentors and exposure to contacts that might help them acquire the capital they would need to take their innovations beyond the markets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa to Chicago and points beyond, such as Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles.

Participants included Mor Aviram and Tamar Shlimak, who started PRforALL, an interactive platform that facilitates queries between the media and public relations industries, and Omer Blaier, who developed Castor, an app that allows for the transformation of video gamers' favorite characters into toys, merchandise, and do-it-yourself items through a three-dimensional printing process. "You can take your favorite characters off the screen," said Blaier, and have them made into miniature action figures. The gaming community in Israel is huge, said Blaier, who placed second in a major Israeli startup competition and looks forward to expanding his concept beyond his country's borders.

While Aviram, Shlimak, Blaier, and their IDEAS cohorts traveled around Chicago during their stay to meet with local business experts, they used as their working hub the innovative 1871 center, a Merchandise Mart-based digital startup incubator that, with more than 150,000 square feet in workspace, serves as ground zero for hundreds of high-tech businesses in the nascent stages of development. Howard Tullman, the chief executive officer of 1871 and a manager director of two venture capital firms that have invested in several dozen local startups over the past several years, said, "There is no better place than Chicago" for the Israeli entrepreneur seeking international underwriting and product growth.

Welcoming IDEAS participants to Chicago during a reception at 1871 in early September, Tullman, a trained attorney and former president of Kendall College, who also serves as chair of the endowment committee at Chicago's Anshe Emet Synagogue, said that Chicagoans are receptive to investing in innovation and, in particular, funding projects and products that are coming out of Israel. Tullman has taught at both Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management as well as at TAU's Coller School. He said that he encouraged his students in Israel to think beyond the Silicon Valley and consider Chicago as a marketplace for ideas and innovation.

Tullman's sentiments were echoed by another attendee at the IDEAs reception, Israel's Deputy Consul General to the Midwest, Itay Milner, also an alumnus of TAU's school of management. "Israel is the startup nation in the Mideast," said Milner, but in a country of only 8 million people, innovators need to look well beyond their borders if they want to grow their products and services.

Israel, along with the United States, Japan, and the Scandinavian nations, is considered one of the leaders in research and technology, according to experts who assess levels of innovation throughout the world. TAU's Coller School ranks among the top 10 business schools internationally in alumni who have developed startup firms worth more than $1 billion.

The brainchild of TAU's IDEAS Immersion Program, David Dorfman, Vice President of the American Friends of Tel Aviv University Western Region, said in a press release, "We're thrilled to have the opportunity to bring this program to Chicago following its great success for the past two years in California, and look forward to working with the startups and our corporate sponsors to help further fuel the digital technology industry in Israel."

Since its founding in 2015, IDEAS Immersion has produced 28 alumni. Blaier, the gaming app developer who graduated with this year's class in Chicago, said, "IDEAS Immersion was a huge experience for us in terms of getting to know the U.S. market and Chicago's special ecosystem. We've initiated our network toward reaching potential customers [and received] local market validation of our product."

The groundwork has been laid, Blaier added, for "future investment." 

  Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.   

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