Students explore entrepreneurial spirit of Israel over spring break

Chemical engineering student Trisca Ngo gets a lift over the dunes of Negev Desert. Credit: Ben CutlerAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the past few decades, Israel has been a hotbed of innovation and technological exploration. The country boasts more than 4,200 startups, the highest per capita in the world, and according to Forbes, more than 250 global companies have research and development (R&D) labs in Israel today, 80 of which are Fortune 500 companies.

What better place, then, for a group of Penn State students in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ENTI) minor to travel over spring break? The 10 students, along with three faculty members, spent the week visiting a number of Israeli startup companies and government officials while exploring the Israeli culture and historical landmarks.

“I thought it was very important to have a study abroad opportunity in the ENTI minor because so much of the entrepreneurship scene is global and growing; it goes beyond borders and cultures,” said Anne Hoag, director of the minor and ­­an instructor for ENGR 310: Entrepreneurial Leadership, the course in which the students are enrolled.

The course is required for the ENTI minor, but it is open to any student interested in learning more about entrepreneurship and leadership.

When thinking about where to take students to learn about new enterprise and innovation in another culture, Hoag, an associate professor in the Donald P. Bellasario College of Communications, said that Israel immediately came to mind.

“Failure is often a part of starting a new business, but it is a learning opportunity toward future success,” she said. “Israel is a culture that encourages trial and error, and failure isn’t something that’s frowned upon because it means you are trying.”

Hoag, along with Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Robert Beaury, interim director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship program and instructor in the College of Engineering, led the students on a 10-day trip of the entrepreneurial-focused country.

Israel is often called the "Start-up Nation," a moniker made popular by the 2009 book of the same name by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Between 1999 and 2014, more than 10,000 companies were started in Israel. Half of these are still in operation today, and 2.6 percent have annual revenues of more than $100 million.

What makes those numbers even more impressive is the fact that Israel’s land mass is smaller than the state New Jersey.

Tiffany Zoe, a junior agribusiness management major minoring in ENTI, was interested to see for herself how the agricultural industry in Israel has thrived through the years.

“As someone who is interested in food and agricultural policy, it is so impressive that such a small country was able to create an agricultural miracle in the middle of the desert,” she said. “Israelis continue to push the boundaries and perception of agriculture, and it is just amazing to see the things they make happen with less resources than we have in the United States.”

The group traveled to several cities, including Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Jerusalem, and visited more than 10 companies where they heard from owners, employees and managers about how Israeli culture fosters new business models and how they have made their companies not just survive, but thrive.

“We visited a wide variety of businesses, from a food tech hub, to a medical accelerator, to Fiverr, which is an online freelancing service, to a company that is using waves to generate power, and it was all just fascinating,” said Ben Cutler, a sophomore industrial engineering student who is minoring in ENTI.

Cutler also was impressed with the support that aspiring business owners receive from the government.

“We were able to talk to public policymakers in the Israeli Innovation Authority to hear how they foster entrepreneurship at the government level. One way that they do that is by giving grants to people so they can get their ideas off the ground,” he said.

Conscription is still a mandate in Israel, meaning that everyone in the country is required to serve in the military when they turn 18 years old — a minimum of two years for women and three years for men.

Zoe was impressed with the mindset of the Israeli people when it comes to this directive.

“Some of the people we spoke to didn’t want to serve in the military right out of high school, but they understood their duty,” she said. “They know that, as a nation, they are surrounded by enemies, and they understood the importance of standing up for their country. That is something I deeply respect.”

Beyond their initial obligation to serving their country, Israelis remain in the reserves until they reach their early 40s. This means they see their old military peers at least once a year to fulfill their duties, opening the door for collaboration and support.

“The system inherently fosters a lot close relationships built over many years, and so Israelis have this network of people that they can turn to for favors and use as resources,” explained Hoag.

What else fosters the sense of entrepreneurship found in Israel? An education system that cultivates innovation and creativity from a young age, and a system to which many Israelis return after conscription.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2014 report, nearly half (46 percent) of the country’s adults have completed education beyond high school, with half of those adults majoring in STEM subjects. Additionally, universities in Israel are highly geared toward basic and applied research, especially in technical fields. 

According to the World Bank, Israel invests 4.2 percent of its gross domestic product in R&D (the highest in the world), with 30 percent of it being streamed through its universities. More importantly, Israeli universities have taken the lead in commercializing their research output. This strong connection between academia and industry has given way to many innovative products.

Cutler saw this enterprising spirit firsthand when he met Omri Dahan, a fourth-semester student at Ben Gurion University of the Negev who also is studying industrial engineering. Dahan knew before he went into the military that he wanted to start a company. Once he finished his required time serving his country, he enrolled in the university and is currently developing an app.

“This app takes what you have in your kitchen — your refrigerator and pantry — and, after understanding who you are, recommends what meal you could make; and not just every possible meal you could make but something you would enjoy based on the information the app collected from you,” explained Cutler of his counterpart’s idea. “That is just amazing, and he knew before he even finished high school that he wanted to create something that didn’t yet exist.”

ENTI is an intercollege minor that is offered by eight colleges and five Commonwealth campuses. It is administered by the Office of Undergraduate Education and includes nine clusters from which students choose to take classes.

Clusters include Food and Bio-Innovation, Entrepreneurship as Advocacy, New Media, New Ventures, Social Entrepreneurship, Technology Based Entrepreneurship, Digital Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Hospitality Management, and Arts Entrepreneurship. Classes for the Technology Based Entrepreneurship cluster are based in the Engineering Entrepreneurship program and classes for the Social Entrepreneurship cluster are based in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program. Both programs are housed within the College of Engineering’s School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP).

“Students considering the ENTI minor are encouraged to select a cluster offered outside the college of their major,” noted Rob Pangborn, vice president and dean for undergraduate education. "This exposes students to the interdisciplinary environment that provides a fertile ground for innovation, and helps develop an appreciation for the importance of coming at a problem from different perspectives and with different skill sets.”

“Observing entrepreneurial activities in a different cultural setting offers a similar educational value,” he added.

Funding for the trip was provided in part by SEDTAPP’s partnership with Norbert and Audrey Gaelen, longtime supporters of the College of Engineering.

“SEDTAPP is very fortunate to be able to contribute to this entrepreneurial experience for these students through the generosity of the Gaelens, who have provided endowments that support these activities,” said Sven Bilén, head of SEDTAPP and professor of engineering design and electrical and aerospace engineering. “Their vision in establishing these endowments has meant that thousands of students have been — and will be — provided entrepreneurial experiences, from engaging with entrepreneurs who return to campus, to travel opportunities.”

Multiple sections of the ENGR 310 course are offered throughout the year. Hoag believes the embedded travel component of this section is “an accessible and affordable opportunity for students to enjoy the benefits of studying abroad without the cost associated with a semester or summer abroad.”

Cutler and Zoe took different things away from their trip, but both expressed their gratitude for the experience and the life lessons they learned.

“Everyone we met seems to want to do something new and different. There just seems to be this intrinsic desire in the Israeli people to make something better and they go for it, knowing that there will be risks but not getting hung up on that aspect,” said Cutler “It was inspiring to be in a culture where in the end, everyone wants to make life better in some way, and I really appreciate that spirit.”

For Zoe, it was the group’s hike to the top of Masada, a steep plateau, during the trip that provided some important enlightenment.

When she reached the top of the plateau, she realized that had she not pushed herself to do something that made her incredibly uncomfortable, she would have missed out on the spectacular view that awaited the group at the summit.

“That experience got me out of my comfort zone, and whether someone is an entrepreneur or not, stepping out of what is comfortable is so important in life,” she said. “Unless you choose to push yourself and take some chances, you’ll never realize that the most difficult climbs provide the most breathtaking views.”

“Growth is not something that is supposed to be comfortable,” she continued. “But the results that are produced in the end, over time, are unforgettable.”

And that is the hope of Hoag for students enrolled in her course: an unforgettable experience with a lasting effect.

Editor's note: The students kept a blog about their experiences during their trip, including photos of their travels and adventures, which can be found here

Last Updated October 24, 2018