It was a bright winter’s day in Tel Aviv in February 2020 when Microsoft for Startups and Yazamiyot, Israel’s largest female entrepreneur community, launched its first joint deep-tech accelerator. Touted as the first such program in Israel supported by a multinational like Microsoft, the program was “aimed at helping female founders scale their businesses and prepare for global success”, Raz Bachar, Managing Director for Microsoft for Startups in Israel said in a statement at the time.
And, indeed the program’s initial batch – 14 startups offering a range of solutions from addressing code testing to online shopping to predicting mechanical failures – seemed poised for success.
Israel’s women in tech scene as a whole seemed like it reached new heights.
Momentum Builds Before COVID-19
The launch of the program followed one of the strongest years yet for Israeli women in tech. 2019 started out with an increase in government attention and support, specifically by the Israel Innovation Authority, as well as an open dialogue hosted by Israel’s largest entrepreneur group TechAviv between investors, founders, and employees about breaking down barriers and increasing diversity and tolerance in the workplace. The percent of female founders rose to a record-high (but still very low) 12.6% in 2019 from 10.7% in 2018, according to Start-up Nation Finder.
Large rounds raised by startups with mixed-gender founders in 2019 included a $21.5 million Series B round by retail visual search startup Syte and a $109 million Series D round by imaging technology startup Vayyar Imaging. The momentum was strong heading into 2020 and January didn’t disappoint. Even February wasn’t much different.
Just a few weeks before Microsoft and Yazamiyot’s deep-tech accelerator launch, an event, Women of Agri-Food Nation, featured some of Israel’s most innovative startups addressing agritech and food tech that were founded by women.
Shulamit Levenberg, co-founder and CSO of cultivated meat startup Aleph Farms, which raised $12 million in a Series A round in 2019, gave the keynote to a full house while presenting startups included SavorEat, BiomicAgritech, and Soos Technology.
Towards the end of February, Strattic, a hosting platform which optimizes WordPress websites for speed and security that was founded by Miriam Schwab (CEO) and Josh Lawrence (COO), announced that it had raised a $6.5 million seed round. The size of the round was nearly 10 times the 2019 median seed for a startup with mixed-gender founders.
Just days after Strattic’s fundraising announcement everything seemed to change.
“In the blink of an eye,” said Yariv Lotan, Head of Strategic Sector Development at Start-up Nation Central, when describing how quickly the pandemic changed everything in Israel’s tech sector in a conversation we had in July.
In the nearly ten months that have passed since the beginning of the pandemic, women in Israel who were laid off have struggled to return to the workforce due to a lack of childcare alternatives and other challenges, and funding, in terms of both volume and value, to female-only and mixed gender-founded companies globally declined.
And yet with that backdrop, there has also been much hope for women in tech and female-founded companies in Israel.
Travel and in-person meetings may have been halted, but executives that were previously hard to get hold of, were more willing to join virtual meetings and events, Lotan noted in July about the environment for startups in general in Israel.
In late July, then-Minister of Science and Technology, Izhar Shay, held a virtual meeting with a group of Israel’s leading high-tech women to discuss how to get more women involved in innovation and how the government can support such initiatives. The ministry has been active in supporting women from university through when they enter industry, including by supporting the Council for the Advancement of Women in Science and Technology and the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, Shay told Calcalist in an interview last month.
On the municipal level, FemJLM, an organization focused on supporting women in tech in Jerusalem that was established in late 2019, launched a mentorship program in October 2020 to help women in tech advance up the corporate ladder. In the coming weeks it will begin accepting applications for its second cohort.
As part of ongoing efforts to help its different communities feel safe, Tel Aviv launched a program over the summer to find startups that address female security, Yael Malatskey, Head of Startups Ecosystem at CityZone in Tel Aviv and volunteer Head of Business Relations of the 8200 Alumni Association mentorship program Woman2Woman, said in an August interview.
For example, SafeUP, a mobile app founded by Neta Schreiber Gamliel, is creating communities around the city that enables women to support and protect each other in real-time and help prevent cases of sexual and physical harassment and assault.
The largest seed round for an Israeli female-founded startup through July 2020 was Lili, a mobile banking app for freelancers, which raised $10 million in June, according to Start-up Nation Finder. The company, which was founded by finance industry veterans and serial entrepreneurs Lilac Bar David and Liran Zelkha, has since raised a $15 million Series A round.
Startups that include women among their founders in construction and agri-food have also successfully raised.
ECOncrete, an environmentally sensitive concrete manufacturer, raised a $5 million Series A round in June, and Versatile, a construction site performance monitoring solution, announced in early December that it raised a $20 million Series A.
SavorEat, one of the presenters at the Women of Agri-Food Nation event in February, broke ground in late November by becoming the first food-tech company to list on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE). The company, which is developing a meat alternative, raised $13 million, according to Times of Israel. It previously raised $4.75 million in July.
As for the 14 startups from the Microsoft Israel and Yazamiyot accelerator, some have raised capital and started working with Microsoft, Hilla Ovil-Brenner, Yazamiyot founder and Managing Director of Techstars Tel Aviv Accelerator, said in an interview earlier this month. There are also plans to launch the second batch in 2021, she continued.
In March 2020, Flint Capital Principal Adi Levanon Chazan established WomenInVC Pitch, which provides female entrepreneurs the chance to present their startup to a group of female investors from Israeli VC funds and get constructive feedback. The platform has had investors from over 30 VCs in Israel participate and over 60 pitches made by Israeli entrepreneurs located in Israel, Europe and the United States, Levanon Chazan said earlier this month in an interview. It has also inspired other similar initiatives, she said.
However, male investors also need to be interested and actively invest in women founders.
Male investors need to turn their words about wanting to invest in women into action, Ovil-Brenner discussed in a recent op-ed in Globes on the topic. Real change is going to happen with intent and they need “to search [with the intent] to find,” she said in it.