Why Did You Move to Israel? 'I Went to a Zionist School. I Bought Into the Dream'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An American-Israeli marketing exec describes selling the Israeli dream to investors ■ A scientist travels from France to Israel to be alone in the desert

Liz Cohen.
Tomer Appelbaum

Liz Cohen, 35, from Tzur Hadassah; arriving from New York

Hello, can I ask what you were doing in New York?

I went to visit family. It was my first trip without children, and these are my last eight minutes of quiet.

How was it?

I grew up in New York and I visit all the time, but it’s always a culture shock. The big cars and the big people and the big buildings – I’m better suited to this place. It seems to me that things are changing there, too.

What’s changed in New York?

It’s all hipster-y. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d stayed there, or what I would have become.

How long have you been in Israel?

I moved here in 2005; I’ve lived here for 13 years.

What made you decide to make aliyah?

I went to a Zionist high school and I guess I bought into the dream. I came here after university, and just wandered around for the first year – I didn’t know anybody – but then I got a job with a startup and I fell in love with that world. And I met my husband and fell in love with him. He’s an immigrant, too. He came to Israel from Australia, so we’re a real melting pot. We have four children, the oldest is 9, then 7, 4 and 2.

What do you do now?

I work in an insane startup, where I’m VP for marketing.

What’s insane about it?

Our startup is called OurCrowd: We raise money internationally to invest in Israeli startups. Just last month we organized a big conference. After the conference my husband told me, “Take a week off, relax.” That’s why I went. Things were extreme in the conference.

What was so extreme?

Just at the opening event, there were 5,000 people at the Jerusalem Convention Center. It was an international meeting of investors, and a lot of people came here from all over the world – Europeans, Chinese, Australians. The ones who were here physically met people and saw what they’d invested in; others took part in live streaming. It’s the fourth year we’ve held the conference, and this year 10,000 people registered for it. It was amazing. And it wasn’t just talking; there was good feedback.

Are most of your investors Jewish?

Not only Jews. But there are people who buy the Israeli dream about how we’re smart people, and do our best and meet challenges. You can feel it in the startup world, especially in the context of employees who finish the army and go straight into high-tech. That’s something people outside Israel really respect.

So the rumors about the “startup nation” are true?

The incredible thing about Israel’s startup-nation effect is that it’s like a country within a country. Culturally it’s a bubble, but a very pleasant bubble. People from all over the world come here and work in Israeli startups. Speakers of Russian, English and other languages; Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. There’s a global feeling, but the company I work for naturally wants to help Israeli startups reach the world.

How do you choose the startups you invest in?

Most of them submit a request and then we have all kinds of criteria. We look, for example, for a good team, or a company that a good investor has already invested in, or interesting technology that people will use. It takes us about three weeks to decide whether to take on the company or not, and then we don’t only offer it to investors but put money into it ourselves.

That’s not a bubble?

It’s real. Israel is a place you come to for technology. For a long time we were in second or third place in the world, after Silicon Valley.

I can’t make out if you’re a really good saleswoman or a woman with a mission.

Many of these startups genuinely change things in the world, which is also nice. For example, startups for driverless cars or medical startups. Those are down-to-earth things that I feel have real value.

Who are your investors?

Private individuals but also large corporations, companies and organizations from Asia, from Australia. In short, there are all types. Of course, there’s a minimum [investment] of $10,000.

A lot of money.

It’s like when, in the 1980s and ‘90s, there were Jews in America who bought Israel Bonds as presents for newborn babies or for bar mitzvahs – maybe by the time the kid grew up it would be worth something. It’s almost the same: One day that startup will be worth something, like Waze or Mobileye.

Wolfram Liebermeister.
Tomer Appelbaum

Wolfram Liebermeister, 45, from Paris; flying there

Hello, can I ask what you were doing in Israel?

I came here to be alone in the desert.

What did you think about in the desert?

I’m preparing for a lecture I’m going to deliver at a workshop for doctoral students on mathematical models in biology, primarily cell simulations.

Is that what you do in life?

I’m a researcher and Ph.D. in an institute near Paris called INRA [Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique]. I’ve also worked in Israel a few times, in cooperation with the Weizmann Institute and the Technion.

Is your doctoral degree in biology or mathematics?

Originally I am a physicist, and like many physicists, I like abstractions and simplifications.

Simplify things for me, please.

Biology is actually very complex. There are many facts, and the whole subject of cells in particular is like a journey you make in order to decipher small details. But what I like about the field is that you can start with those details and then pull back to see a bigger picture. That doesn’t always happen, it’s a matter of luck and perspective.

I don’t understand.

During the past 20 years, there’s been a trend in biology to try to understand how cells work as one system. Scientists are looking for the big picture, and I’m part of that trend.

Maybe an example will help.

A typical approach is to collect a great deal of information about cells and try to explain them by means of mathematical models. One must use computer simulations, and methods from linear algebra and physics. I’m trying to develop new techniques to analyze that information. It’s a bit like climate research: We observe fluctuations in the information to see what can be learned, and whether there are uncertainties or certainties.

What can you learn, for example?

At Weizmann, for example, I worked with an Israeli scientist named Uri Alon, who is also originally a physicist. He studied complex regulation networks inside cells, and networks formed by nerve cells, which are one big tangle, and noticed recurring patterns.

Recurring patterns between nerve cells? Sounds self-evident.

Even though it sounds logical, at the time it was very surprising. If you look at the stars for a while, you will always see patterns, but these patterns have no physical meaning. When studying networks, statistics can help you find patterns that are actually meaningful. It was an interesting study, because it led to a hypothesis that it’s not by chance – that the patterns allow cells to process signals in very specific ways.

Ah.

That was a decade ago, when I was in a group that studied this. Of course that’s just one example that makes it possible to understand a complex system. I don’t know what happened with that study since, but today it’s an accepted approach in biology. Not only to understand how systems work but to understand what their products are. Before that, cells were compared to a machine or a computer; the metaphor I like is that a cell is a factory and one can choose how much energy to invest in this or that production line in order to achieve an optimal result. There are thousands of possible results. The question is how we move the processes to produce stuff efficiently. Not to waste resources in one place if they can be better used elsewhere. It’s a big subject.

Absolutely.

When I started out in biophysics, there was a completely different approach; the field has developed tremendously in the past 20 years.

Seems to me like you’re in the right profession – you sound like someone who likes to decipher things.

The decision to study physics was a spontaneous one that I’ve never regretted – I think it was truly fortunate. I like this way of thinking and I also like the type of people who are in the field. Physicists have a pragmatic sense, they know that things are complex but they don’t overdo their occupation with complexity the way biologists do. It’s harder in biology and there’s more competitiveness and pressure. I really like the sober-mindedness of physics.

Did you find that in the desert?

I enjoyed the quiet and the sun. I even got burned a little.