Building An Israel-US ‘Superhighway’: Q&A With Dr. Maria Blekher, Founder Of Yeshiva University’s Innovation Lab
Dr. Maria Blekher has always had one leg in academia and the other in industry. As the director of the Master’s program in Digital Media and Marketing at Yeshiva University’s Katz School of Science and Health, the academic side is obvious.
The marketing professor, who grew up in Beersheba, is quick to note that much of her academic success also stems from a PhD at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the completion of a postdoc at New York University, prior to the move to Yeshiva University (YU).
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Academic and industry intertwined when Blekher created a course for Yeshiva University called “Business in The Israeli Environment,” teaching students at YU about Israel’s vast high-tech ecosystem and tying in a US-Israeli market connection based on her own experience. Besides studying pro-social and consumer behavior in both Israel and America, she’s worked at Bank Hapoalim and Numonyx, a semiconductor company founded as a joint venture between Intel Corporation, STMicroelectronics NV, and Francisco Partners to develop flash memory products. The company, which had 1, 200 employees in its Kiryat Gat facility in February 2010 was also acquired that month by US chipmaker Micron. In New York, Blekher created an online platform selling Israeli products to the American market as part of a fellowship through an American-Jewish organization called Cojeco (Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations.)
The US-Israeli market connection is what prompted her to establish the Yeshiva University Innovation Lab, a “launchpad” for Israeli startups looking to enter the US market.
The Innovation Lab, which first launched in May 2019, just kicked off its second cohort this September. It features a group of 11 Israeli startups in a variety of sectors, including medical devices and AI-powered sensor technology. The three-month program, which connects those startups with YU students and ends in December with a final project, also partners with Gvahim, the Israeli NGO that helps new immigrants to Israel with business and career goals, Cactus Capital, the first student-run university venture capital firm in Israel, and Yazamut 360°, the Entrepreneurship Center of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).
NoCamels sat down with Dr. Blekher recently in Tel Aviv to talk about why Yeshiva University’s Katz School of Science and Health as well as its new Innovation Lab, aims to be an important initiative in the US-Israeli business connection. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
NoCamels: How did you come to found the YU Innovation Lab?
Maria Blekher: I joined Yeshiva University before the Innovation Lab when I got the chance to develop a course called “Business In The Israeli Environment,” which is my expertise.
After landing at NYU — it was a postdoc, which means strictly research — I was looking for more things to do. I love being busy and I need several projects, and as much as I love academia, I love to see impact. Academia is very impactful, but sometimes it takes years to get something published. After a year, I got the chance to start teaching at Yeshiva University and although I started as an adjunct, it felt like home because it has an Israeli flag on campus and they play Hatikvah [Israel’s national anthem] at every single official event. The sense of community and belonging — it just felt like home. For me, it feels like Israel.
In 2014, I started to teach my first course as an adjunct, and then after one semester, they offered me the chance to teach more courses, because again, I was teaching back in Israel during my PhD, so I had teaching experience and also principles of marketing [skills]. One thing led to another and a couple of years later, we launched the Master’s in Marketing program and they offered me the opportunity to lead it. I stepped up into the leadership position. I am still doing this position now, though I’m hiring someone soon because my main focus now is the Innovation Lab.
NC: It sounds like you were thriving as a director of YU’s Marketing program. Why the shift towards the Innovation Lab?
MB: I love marketing. I think I bring my marketing expertise into the Innovation Lab. I didn’t ditch [the marketing program,] but I think that putting this expertise to work in the context of early-stage Israeli startups or startups in general, has more impact on an outcome. The combination of understanding the Israeli business environment and the Israeli tech scene and my marketing background is kind of a unique edge that brings value to startups who want to enter the US market.
There are plenty of marketing experts in New York. But there are fewer people who can use their marketing skills to bring startups to NY. I love being in places where I bring the highest value. I want to be there where I can help others. If my impact can be broader, working with students and startups because of my diverse background, that’s where I want to be.
NC: What are you looking to achieve as the director?
MB: It’s an interesting story. A couple of years ago, and it was before my time, the state of New York provided the university a grant to renovate a space on campus to attract Israeli startups. This was around 2017, before I was involved in the lab.
I think that [former NY] Governor Cuomo visited Israel, was impressed with the Startup Nation and at Yeshiva University, we have this institutional connection, so the background story was, “You’re Yeshiva University, bring some Israeli startups.” For the university, it was a great opportunity to bring some startups and let them work with students.
When I heard about [the grant] and I was told I should help to find Israeli startups because of my background, my first question was, “Hold on, does the school have an innovation lab?” I was told no, but somehow we got this grant and we needed to renovate this space. So I said, “Ok, this is the kind of project I want to be involved in because this is my expertise.”
I was on top of the project from day one. I literally chose the color of the paint on the walls. I [ told the school] we should build up a program that will connect our students with Israeli startups and provide added value. In order to do this, we need to see the challenges that Israeli startups are dealing with and figure out what kind of things we want our students to get from the program. I said, “If we’re building something, let’s build an institution that will connect our students with the startups and provide added value.” And that’s how we started.
Then I was appointed founding director but when we started working on the project, it was just an idea. When we had the official launch in May, it was very exciting because you see something on paper, you see an idea and then you see it come to life. Now we have 11 startups, over 90 students working with us, and that’s amazing.
NC: As someone who knows the Israeli business world, what are some of the challenges Israeli startups face?
MB: I think that’s the main question. The way I see it and based on my knowledge and based on multiple conversations — I spoke to Israeli startups and other colleagues and accelerators, really trying to nail the main challenges — the challenges that I identified and the ones that we really want to tackle are these three: knowledge, culture, and connections.
- Knowledge – We can look at business potential. They need to know their customers, their partners, their investors in the US.
- Culture – Culture is huge because as an Israeli, when you grow up in Israel, sometimes you feel like the 51st [US] state, you watch Netflix, and you even shop on Amazon and you grew up watching Sex and the City and you grew up in New York — if you speak to an Israeli startup, they’ll say, “Ok, I get American culture.” That’s not true! The first thing I thought of, “You think you know? You don’t!” There are so many differences and you need to know these cultural differences and you can talk to any Israeli and they’ll tell you 10,000 situations of misunderstandings. But when you are in the business of business and the business of startups, these are your investors and these are your customers, so you really need to be careful and you really need to be aware of these differences.
- Connections – In Israel, everybody knows everybody. If you need to recruit a marketing person, you’ll find it in your network, if you need to recruit a developer, you’ll find it. In the US, with all due respect, you are just another person, especially in New York where the most talented people from around the world are gathering, and you don’t have the network.
What we’re doing now in the innovation lab is we are building a system to tackle and to address these challenges.
NC: What is the program like? What do you look for in participants?
MB: The first semester was a soft launch. It was a pilot. We were testing the model. Now, when we are in full operation, I think we are in a much better product-market fit. We’re looking to work with early-stage startups from various verticals, but we try not to focus on medicine and drug development just because the processes of the FDA take five, 10 years and the value there is not as significant as in other domains. Various verticals, early-stage, but post-acceleration. We have a wide spectrum of verticals — we have medical devices, we have apps, we have consumer products.
We work with startups that are post-acceleration or post-incubation program. So it’s not just a guy or a girl in a garage who has an idea and they want to work with us. We work with startups that have developed a prototype or a product or an app and now they’re ready to explore the American market. Because if their target market is China, well, that’s not my expertise.
Another thing is all of these startups need to identify a specific project because we work on a project basis. We are a university. We work with students. Students work with semesters so the startups need to develop a project that will be approximately within a three-month timeline for the students to work with.
I had startups say, “Well, we need help with everything.” Well, everything is too general…And I told them, “Ok, but can you be more specific?”
It helps startups overcome the knowledge barrier because a lot of what the students are doing is collecting primary data, conducting marketing research, helping startups find product marketing fit.
I have an example of a startup, Truvi, which works with us. It’s a platform where they really support first responders. They have all the information. They are AI-based and they are great.
One of the students working with them has a family member involved with Hatzalah [a free, volunteer-based emergency medical services organization based in Jerusalem, Israel.] Now, having an interview with someone from Hatzalah can be priceless for Truvi, because the kind of insights you can get — this is the primary data, this is sometimes one interviewer, one piece of data that is directly connected to your startup — can change the game. That’s where we focus.
We’re in New York, Yeshiva University students are smart and passionate and they get to work with founders and CEOs and…this is an amazing opportunity. And if a startup works with me, they’re getting my expertise as well, and the expertise of the other faculty member, which is again very valuable for them.
I think from the pilot program, we learned that structure is very important. I think the most important thing is to find the right startups.
NC: What’s in it for the students?
MB: Today, the academic concept of teaching and learning is changing so we’re an academic institution — we rely on research and we teach the science behind things we say and do. Having said that, the employers are looking for experience. So what we’re doing by having this Innovation Lab is letting students do work with real founders and solve real-world problems. It’s called learning by doing. They are not theoretically applying a model to analyze a case study, which we also do. But they are going out there — they have a research project and they need to find a product-market fit. And to do that, they need to go and speak to potential customers. This is an experience that, again, you cannot even put a number on it because when they’re going to be interviewing and applying for jobs, they will be able to demonstrate the kind of knowledge that only a person who actually did the work can show.
The second point is the connection to Israel. We have about 3,000 Yeshiva University alumni living in Israel now. Some of the Yeshiva University students are making aliyah and they’re looking for connections in Israel. Now we have a wider network.
NC: Can you tell us about your partnerships in Israel?
MB: So we’re working with Gvahim, [a non-profit organization helping new olim find jobs in Israel]. Their GEC (Gvahim Entrepreneurship Center) program is their entrepreneurship program and so you have olim from all the world participating in this accelerator and so you get some great startups from there. I was just there giving a meeting with our next cohort of startups. Truvi was from Gvahim. There was LEELOO, a chatbot for learning languages.
We started with Yissum, [the technology transfer company of Hebrew University of Jerusalem,] but Yissum is more focused on medical developments and it’s not such a good fit for the students because the projects run for three months at the university. When you’re developing medicines, these processes take years. So we’re working with startups in other verticals. Yissum was a great partner, they helped us to jumpstart.
NC: Yeshiva University isn’t known for its business school, but do you think it should be? What can you tell us about it?
MB: I think the business school at Yeshiva University is now moving in a great direction of innovation, entrepreneurship, and business and STEM with a focus on technology. Last year, I had to explain to people that Yeshiva University is a university, not a yeshiva. I still think they are many people who are not aware of that.
Having said that, I think the Innovation Lab helps to kind of pivot and add something to the school. The business school is now blooming. The new dean is Noah Wasserman, the author of The Founders’ Dilemma. So he’s the new dean of the business school, which is exactly in sync with the innovation lab.
In the summer, we ran the first Founder Bootcamp in the Innovation Lab. Noam led it and we are planning to bring it to Israel. Maybe in January. It was with NY-based startups but many of the participants were Israelis.
Then you have the Katz School of Science and Health which is a new school of Yeshiva University and there you have academic programs like cybersecurity, biotech and management, and digital marketing and media. The university is kind of shifting in this direction and it’s very much in sync with the Innovation Lab and so the Innovation Lab can support all these programs. Because all of them will eventually be working with Israeli startups. And so the startups will benefit from a wider range of experts and student expertise.
NC: There are so many innovation labs, there are so many startups, there are so many co-working spaces in the American market, especially in New York. What makes Yeshiva University stand out?
MB: I think that our competitive advantage is that we are the only university that has the expertise and focus on Israeli startups. This is the combination. This is the secret sauce. We have NYU and Columbia and Cornell Tech. They all have amazing innovation programs and they have multiple accelerators, but Yeshiva University has the proximity to the Startup Nation.
I think part of the vision of the president of Yeshiva University is to build a superhighway between Israel and New York. The Innovation Lab is part of this superhighway because that’s what we do. We create this bridge and it’s a direct bridge and it’s super fast because we have our students and faculty working with Israeli startups directly. No middlemen in the process.
NC: What’s the next step?
MB: This cohort started in September. My students are collecting data from the startups now and they will be presenting their final reports at the end of December.
The next step is scaling. It’s running around 20 startups per year. Hopefully, we’ll get more staff so we’ll be able to run more programs. Next is the marketing for founders workshop. Personally, I would love to develop a cultural transformation workshop that will address the cultural challenges or cultural misunderstandings for Israelis in the US.
NC: For example?
MB: What’s the first thing that happens with Israelis in their first Memorial Day [in the US]? They’re rolling their eyes and they don’t understand why people barbecue and go shopping on Memorial Day.
Because two weeks earlier or usually within the same month, you have Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day,) which is one of the two saddest days for every Israeli where we cry and mourn. Now the way Israelis address Memorial Day, they’re wearing their Israeli “glasses,” they’re looking through an Israeli prism. When you are in the US, and you want to cater to an American audience, you need to change the glasses and it’s very difficult.
The Yeshiva University Innovation Lab is accepting applications for its third cohort until December 1st. Their next event is a fireside chat with Team 8′ s Nadav Zafrir on December 4 at the Global Cyber Center in New York, in cooperation with SOSA.