Tel Aviv Innovation Festival Lures World’s Tech Leaders

In a testament to Israel’s tech prowess, the number of overseas visitors to the DLD conference doubled this year.

Ofer Vaknin

If the DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival is an accurate barometer for the state of Startup Nation and its place in the high-tech world, then things are looking good: The conference, whose packed schedule peaked on Tuesday, was expected to host 3,000 overseas guests from 53 countries, double last year’s number.

What the guests – most of them executives from multinational companies and high-tech investors – are coming for is to see, hear and meet the denizens of Israel’s start-up sector through one-on-one meetings and presentations. All told, some 10,000 people are expected to have attended by the time DLD winds up late on Thursday.

“Last year the events took place just two weeks after Operation Protective Edge and we still succeeded in getting 1,300 people from overseas, the same number as the previous year,” said Yossi Vardi, chairman of the DLD Festival. “This year we’ve got an unexpected flood of people – we didn’t expect to grow like this.”

DLD, which stands for Digital Life Design, is a global conference network sponsored the German media company Hubert Burda. As well as Tel Aviv, DLD holds events in New York, Beijing, San Francisco, London, Moscow, New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and Munich, but Vardi said that this week’s Tel Aviv event marks a step up for Israel.

“There’s no question that the festival has won a place as one of the leading such events in the world. As I see it, the festival’s success puts Israel on the map,” he said.

The panels, meetups and hackathons make up the official conference schedule, but much of the action is happening behind the scenes in informal meetings between entrepreneurs and investors and corporate executives from overseas. Not a few check out business opportunities at Tel Aviv’s cafes and bars, and a few are even being hosted, thanks to Airbnb, in the homes of Israeli entrepreneurs.

“We went out of our way to create a lot of events that are free to the public, especially startups. One of my personal goals is to get firms to have access to things that happen in the world,” said Vardi.

Among the guests are a few surprises, such as Pierre Louette, the deputy CEO of the French telecom company Orange, which earlier this year severed its long-standing relationship with the local cellphone Partner Israel amid accusations (it denied) that it was boycotting Israel.

But Orange, which is on the hunt for Israeli innovation, is a DLD co-sponsor and operates an accelerator called Fab Israel.

Michael Hyman, a senior vice president from the U.S. Internet company AOL and a first-time guest at DLD Tel Aviv, said he was impressed by the wide range of technologies being developed in Israel, from mobile video to wastewater treatment. Moreover, he said, Israeli startups have a higher rate of success than in other global technology clusters.

Other tech giants in attendance include Facebook, Airbnb (which is attending the Tel Aviv DLD for the first time), Samsung, Amazon, Google and Deutsche Telekom. Not a few of them are sponsoring events as a way of luring Israeli startups to one-on-one meetings with their executives.

Startups 500, an American seed investor, used the conference to announce it was opening an office in Israel. Founder Dave McClure called Israel a developed startup market on par with Silicon Valley, but has an advantage for investors in that its startups generally were valued lower than their U.S. peers.

Among the many national delegations, Japan has sent one representing 20 major companies, signaling what Keren Rosner, direct of the Israel-Japan Chamber of Commerce, said was a new interest by Japan in Israeli innovation.

“In the last year we’ve witnessed a change: The interest of big Japanese companies has grown in Israel innovation, its creativity, flexibility and ability to respond quickly to market changes,” she said.