There is a great deal of discussion about engaging the underutilized segments of Israel’s society to contribute to the economy, namely the country’s Arab and Haredi citizens. A number of support tools are now being offered including incubators, industrial parks, angel and VC funding, and special training programs to stimulate startups and jobs for these groups.
For the Arab minority, Nazareth-based Alpha Omega is surely a proven role model for how to build technology business success in Israel. Founded in 1993 by the husband and wife team of Imad and Reem Younis, this neurotechnolgy equipment company has an extensive and established customer base worldwide, and their products can be found in the most advanced hospitals, universities, and research institutions across the globe. Alpha Omega’s recording and stimulation tools are used by neuroscientists in the lab to understand more about the human brain, and by neurosurgeons for treating patients with a variety of neural disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.
As an Arab-owned company, Alpha Omega exemplifies the diversity of Israel with technology developed in the country’s top universities and having Jewish, Muslim, and Christian employees, now numbering almost 60. I first met Imad Younis in 2002 when he decided to locate the company’s America’s headquarters in the Atlanta area. Over the years, I have viewed their progress with great pride, culminating with Alpha Omega being honored as the 2012 Israeli Company of the Year by the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce (recently renamed as conexx – America Israel Business Connector).
The path hasn’t been an easy one, but in some ways, Imad feels that adversity has made the company stronger. Unlike most Israeli startups, Alpha Omega bootstrapped its 20-year success, having had no outside investment with the exception of grants from the Office of the Chief Scientist. The company is profitable, earning steady growth by penetrating markets with innovative products. Imad is proud that Alpha Omega is a “complete” company, not just an R&D entity with IP and an exit potential.
When asked if things would have gone differently if he and Reem were Jewish Israelis, Imad shared the lessons of his background. He graduated from Technion in 1983 when most technology companies were offshoots of Israel’s military or had business with the IDF and would not hire Arabs. Intel was one of the few then without the military ties, but Imad was turned down by them. That’s the reason he and Reem started the company in 1993, originally as an R&D subcontractor based on Imad’s expertise and relationships in electronics and neuroscience. “It is hard enough to start and run a new business without the additional obstacle of being an Arab in Israel.”
Yet they did succeed. Last July, Alpha Omega moved from a small facility in Nazareth Ilit (Upper Nazareth, the Jewish part of town) to Stef Wertheimer’s new industrial park in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city. Imad feels the move was good for two reasons. First, they are receiving lots of visibility as a result of the move; and second, the new park reflects the type of business they’re in—hi tech medical. Imad and Reem still live in Nazareth Ilit.
The future looks bright for Alpha Omega. To fund their anticipated growth, they are constantly considering three options: IPO, private equity / venture capital, or partnership with a major industry player. As for the metro Atlanta operation, they will continue to expand in the Americas from this office. While it is now mostly used for sales, marketing, and support, Imad would like to develop more collaborations with hospitals and academia in the area such as Georgia Tech, Emory, and Georgia State so that they can begin to do R&D from here.
I asked Imad about what kind of advice he would offer to budding Arab Israeli entrepreneurs. He pointed out that a central component of Alpha Omega’s mission is to serve as a role model and help grow other Arab Israeli hi tech businesses. There are now several support programs, although ironically, perhaps the previous lack of support may have served to make Alpha Omega tougher and stronger since they had so many obstacles to overcome. Imad and Reem are actively involved with some of these programs and serve as mentors to other Arab owned startups. Four engineers have left Alpha Omega to start their own companies, two of them as competitors. Imad is happy for all of them, even the competitors, and that he could help create this positive impact. At a recent conference organized by Pitango’s Al Bawadir fund, Imad offered the following advice to other Arab Israeli entrepreneurs:
- Whatever your situation, there are always problems to address. Solving one of them will not make problems go away, but they make you stronger.
- As an entrepreneur, you will be the star. Have others share the spotlight with you.
Imad feels optimistic about the future of Arab Israeli entrepreneurship with the new tools and support being offered that were not available when he and Reem started Alpha Omega. Congratulations to this outstanding couple for the success they have achieved and for giving back so profoundly to their community and the State of Israel.