The co-founder and managing general partner of Pitango Venture Capital, Israel’s largest venture capital fund, was speaking to an e-learning audience of Limmud FSU, and interviewed by the organization’s president Aaron G. Frenkel.
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL, June 03, 2020 /24-7PressRelease/ — Speaking to an e-learning audience of Limmud FSU International earlier this week, and interviewed by the organization’s president, Aaron G. Frenkel, Chemi Peres, co-founder and managing general partner of Pitango Venture Capital, Israel’s largest venture capital fund, and chair of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, reminded the worldwide Zoom audience that Israel has been a start-up nation from the moment of its very conception. “Israel is the first country built by innovation from very beginning, it was a necessity,” said Peres; “when Theodor Herzl conceived of a Jewish homeland, he wrote quite clearly about how the state should be. At first innovation was about culture, what sort of society the country should be. Beyond the country itself, we created kibbutzim, engineered the rebirth of the Hebrew language.”
Limmud FSU mounts peer-led, volunteer-based gatherings of Jewish learning that specifically reach out to Russian-speaking Jews around the world. In a project initiated by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, and produced by Limmud FSU Public Affairs director Natasha Chechik, since the COVID-19 lockdown made physical conferences impossible, Limmud FSU has been providing digital e-learning opportunities on Jewish, general – and coronavirus – topics. Sessions have been arranged by the organization itself, alongside those arranged by volunteer organizing committees of the festivals around the world, from Moscow to the US West Coast, and from Europe to Israel, and are an opportunity for Russian-speaking Jews to learn – and be – together, virtually.
“After that first stage of innovation,” said Peres, “the country settled down but continued to develop an economy based on innovation – out of necessity. We didn’t have enough water, so we saw innovations in agriculture, such as drip irrigation, and then extensive water desalination. Where defense is concerned, we developed nuclear technology, cyber security; without them we could not have defended ourselves.”
And what about today, asked Frenkel. Is Israel still a start-up nation? Yes, argued Peres, while pointing out that it is also a country that is building significant companies that are growing very fast and impacting well beyond the country’s borders. “Today we are working to introduce purpose and Jewish values to our start-up activities; we are trying to make the world a better place. Advanced technology has an important role in this.”
Looking from the past to the present and the future, the discussion’s attention turned to the impact of COVID-19. Matthew Bronfman, chair of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, noted that there are some estimates that as many as 65 percent of Israeli start-up companies that currently employ less than ten people will collapse because of the pandemic and a lack of funding. Peres sounded an optimistic note, using by way of example the fortunes of such companies as Zoom, which has experienced enormous growth since the pandemic forced so much of the economy onto a distance footing. Start-ups in health care, cyber security, data analysis, meta data should do well, he argued – and there are many in Israel – for in all those fields there is a growth in demand. Where some small start-ups are concerned, in which his venture capital company is invested and whose products will only be ready next year, “we need to review the products and assess the degree to which they are attractive to the new world. Others are revisiting their expenses and staying in close contact with their customers, but believe they will be able to grow and adjust to the new world.”
In this new world, suggested Peres, every business needs two legs – one in the physical world, the other in the digital world. “Without a digital component companies can crash completely. This is a scenario that no one had thought of before. Today companies need a diversified business model, not only in hi-tech: serving food in a restaurant is the physical world; producing food to be delivered is the digital world.”
He sounded an equally positive note when asked about the dangers of artificial intelligence. “Until the pandemic we thought there was a real danger of AI taking jobs away from people; then we saw how the world was prepared to damage the world economy in order to make sure that people stay healthy. In the same way, we need to work out how to ensure innovation is used to create collective good.”
A central element in that collective good is how we inspire the children of today and teach them to think out of the box. This must apply to all sectors of society, Peres noted, explaining that at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, “a center for the future” and the brainchild of Peres’s late father, Israel’s former prime minister and president, Shimon Peres, school groups of all ages, and from all parts of the country, including the socio-geographic periphery where there is often very limited access to even the basics of high-tech, are exposed to a hologram of people from no less a wide variety of backgrounds who “changed the world by believing in themselves. The message is to encourage children to dream and pursue their dream. Israel needs to make education its top priority, and we must start with children even of pre-school age. Brains are the most important resource we have.”
When prodded by Limmud FSU founder, Chaim Chesler to look backwards a bit and visit the exhibition in the community center in Vishneyeva, Belarus on the life of one of the village’s most famous sons, Shimon Peres, an exhibition initiated by Limmud FSU, Chemi Peres promised to attend a Limmud FSU festival in the region and use it as an opportunity to see where his father was born. He was more certain when talking about the future. When asked by Chesler whether he might follow in his father’s footsteps and run for public office, Peres argued that in some ways the Peres Center is impacting on society more than a government ministry. “We are endorsing the younger generation to think, to plan ahead, and to take responsibility. We are growing a new generation of entrepreneurs.”
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