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Spreading Startup Success

Math is the key to getting ahead in the tech world, and if Israel wants to keep its edge, it needs more kids to study it
Israeli students on the first day of the new academic year, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli students on the first day of the new academic year, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A few years ago, a bunch of investors I know in London figured out that the start-up scene in Israel is interesting. They asked me to look out for Israeli companies they could invest in. Thanks to them, I’ve been fortunate to encounter some of the phenomenal companies and entrepreneurs in Israel’s hi-tech scene, aside from my day job in solar.

A couple of things about this scene struck me recently. Firstly, more and more of the companies that I see are taking on challenges that will make the world better. Sure, I also see a lot of apps designed to somehow improve your shopping experience, or technologies to deliver the next miniscule, must-have upgrade in the next generation smartphone, things which, personally speaking, don’t get me that excited. But more and more, I see Israeli companies developing hard-headed, for-profit business models for improving the human condition.

Secondly, I’m struck by how these amazing companies, spanning diverse areas of technology, whether software, biotech, mobile, internet or cleantech tend to have one very basic thing in common: math.

Math is the language of science, the DNA of computing and the indispensable foundation for just about any technology breakthrough. When I go and meet a company the white board in the conference room is typically covered with equations, flow charts and decision trees. (Maybe it’s all just there to impress me, but probably not.) The people who work in these places seem to be really, really good at math.

Precisely this fact makes some fear for the future of Israeli hi-tech. Achievements of Israeli school kids in maths are in decline. Lack of qualified teachers, and lack of interest in students led to a sharp decline from 14% to 10% between 2006 and 2012 – in the numbers taking five points of math – the hardest level – in their bagrut school leaving exams. Far-Eastern countries like Korea and Singapore are way ahead of us in the international high school math rankings.  From experience with my own kids in Israeli schools, the best math teachers are OK but the worst are, unfortunately, not.

Too many people are terrified of math. There’s a myth, particularly in the West, that you’re either a “math person” who has what it takes to be effortlessly successful in the subject or you don’t in which case you might as well go and flip burgers. As a recent article in the Atlantic put it: “Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America.” Ample research shows that more often it’s a case of boring or bad early experiences in math starting a life-long downward spiral of frustration with the subject.

One of my favourite start-ups that I’ve seen sits on the cusp of these two trends. Symbolab is aiming to revolutionize math education worldwide by bringing great, easy-to-use math learning tools to hundreds of millions of kids. The company has developed a math solution engine that can solve math questions from middle school level through advanced post graduate stuff spanning algebra, trigonometry, calculus, matrices and more.

The solution also gives detailed solution steps so that students can see how it’s done and practice the steps themselves. It’s all presented in a really accessible and user-friendly way. Though Symbolab’s team are computer people by training, the solutions are laid out with the flair and clarity of born educators.

Symbolab’s journey began in 2010 when Co-founder Adam Arnon was a math grad student. He realized that there was no good way to search for math content on the internet. The standard search engines don’t “understand” math and throw up loads of irrelevant and nonsensical results when you try to search for an equation or formula. Using cutting-edge machine-learning algorithms, Arnon and his colleagues developed the first-ever math search engine, which is still a core part of Symbolab’s site.

But Symbolab realized that for kids to learn math they first and foremost need help with their class work and help in solving problems, so they built the step-by-step solutions engine to complement the search feature. Symbolab CEO Michal Avny commented “the response is amazing. We now have over 3 million page views a month. School kids and college student love Symbolab, not because they can “cheat” with their homework, but because they can finally understand math.” (My own kids are enthusiastic users of the site to make up stuff they’re not learning in school.)

Encouraged by the success, Symbolab just launched its solutions engine in Chinese, Russian and Spanish in addition to English, covering the first languages of a third of the world’s population. It’s exciting and awesome to think that an Israeli-designed site that my own children love learning from is also helping kids from China to Chile and from Siberia to Shanghai to gain tools that will enable them to share in the global high tech economy.

Let’s hope Symbolab can help not just to save the future Israeli start-up scene from the vagaries of the local education system but also to spread some of its success to children in developing countries who are yearning for a share in it.

( Disclosure: I made a small investment in Symbolab.)

About the Author
Yedidya Julian Sinclair works in the Israeli clean tech world. Before moving to Israel he was as an economist in the UK government. In his spare time he is a writer,translator, urban tour guide and teaches Jewish texts and sources. He holds semicha, degrees from Oxford and Harvard and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and five children.
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