Skip to Content (Press Enter)

English / Français

Inside Tel Aviv's Booming Tech Scene

These start-ups are redefining how we plug into a city.

Tel Aviv sandy shoreline

The living is easy along Tel Aviv’s 14 kilometres of sandy shoreline.

The woman at the soda counter won’t tell me her name, and she won’t tell me what’s going in my drink. “I decide what you get,” she says, ladling chunks of preserved watermelon into a glass so large it’s essentially a bucket. “And you’ll love it.” Probably, because after a morning touring Levinksy Market under a blazing sun, I’m parched. The south-end district was once dominated by nut and spice shops, but recently, a slew of young residents moved in, adding businesses with a different flavour. I’ve already downed a powerhouse espresso at Cafelix, the third-wave coffee shop around the corner, and sampled spicy tacos at nearby Asian-fusion restaurant Diego San. I can still feel the burn of jalapeños on my tongue when the woman at Café Levinsky 41 (the name, and the address, of the soda shop) hands me a perspiring glass of fizzy, ice-cold watermelon soda topped with white cherries, tarragon, apples, rosemary and lemongrass. “I was right?” she asks. She was right.

Tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard

Tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard is the centre of the city’s start-up scene.

This blunt, sun-kissed experience is memorably Tel Avivian, and I would have never discovered it without my Cool Cousin Edie – no relation. In fact, Edie and I have never spoken, let alone met, but I feel as though I know her. Commonalities include our profession (editing and writing), our age and an appreciation for Bill Murray and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And based on her recommendations of Cafelix, Café Levinsky 41 and Diego San, it seems as though she knows me, too.

 

 

Cool Cousin is an 18-month-old Tel Aviv-made app with more than 60 meticulously detailed profiles of locals like Edie and their favourite haunts. In a Yelpless country like Israel, it’s a blessing for which I can thank the city’s booming start-up scene, which has spawned the multilingual transit app Moovit and a citywide network of free Wi-Fi that actually works. Fifteen years ago, visitors were met with inscrutable signage, few maps and haggling taxi drivers. Now, with a population of just under 420,000, Tel Aviv is a Middle Eastern Silicon Valley with 19 start-ups per square kilometre – it’s the beta site for the whole world. Scads of innovative technologies and products underpin and unlock the Mediterranean city in a way not previously possible, even for those who think themselves experts.

Tel Aviv’s sprouting skyline of high-rises

Art deco masterpieces give way to Tel Aviv’s sprouting skyline of high-rises.

“Over the last eight months, we’ve been collecting cousins,” Itamar Weizman, one of the app’s co-founders, tells me over pints of Goldstar, Israel’s biting amber lager. “I upload the addresses to Cool Cousin myself, and I discover hundreds of places I didn’t even know existed.” I’m sitting with Weizman and his business partner, Nadav Saadia, on the patio of Port Said, a hangout popular with thirtysomething tech workers in linen shorts and loose shirts. To get here, I had to make my way down Rothschild Boulevard, the thoroughfare whose converted art deco buildings are home to much of the start-up scene. Today’s the Sabbath, but the place, with its floor-to-ceiling wall of vinyl records, is so packed that the crowd spills out toward the modernist arches of the Great Synagogue next door.

A breeze blows through from the dining hall, carrying smells of garlic, frying chicken, freshly whipped hummus and toasting bread. Waiters in cut-offs and tank tops seem to know everyone, giving high-fives with one hand while setting down small plates of spiced white beans and sizzling flank steaks with the other. At the next table, two young women are deep in conversation; they’re speaking Hebrew, but the words “Google” and “Facebook” are the same in any language. At the end of the bar, a man types furiously on his laptop while greeting every other person that walks by in Russian, Hebrew or English. His neon-green T-shirt says “Date me before my IPO.”

EatWith host-chefs Aviya and Loran; Mediterranean bathers

Left to right: EatWith host-chefs Aviya and Loran among the herbs in their backyard; bathers desalinate after a dip in the Mediterranean.

The following morning, I find a public bike through the city’s Tel-O-Fun website, and ride along the beach promenade. On one side, families laze about on the sand and Tel Avivians sweat their way through workouts at the many free outdoor gym parks; on the other, a wall of hotels partially eclipses the horde of cranes that are putting up high-rises in the city’s distant core. I park the bike in the Florentin district. I’m a kilometre from Port Said, but it feels like a different world. This tight tangle of streets, lined with rough-and-tumble carpentry shops and long expanses of concrete wall, has become a de facto outdoor art gallery dedicated to graffiti and decorated with panels of vastly different styles. I take a photo of a grinning, sunglass-wearing camel transporting surfboards.

Gideon Smilansky; cold brew at Cafelix

Left to right: Gideon Smilansky checks the state of the art in Florentin on the Artbit app he helped create; patience pays when waiting for a cold brew at Cafelix.

Using Artbit, a Tel Avivian app that combines visual recognition software with social media and geo-location, I upload the shot to an online profile for the artwork where I can discuss it with other users, share with friends, read about its history, discover related works and, in some cases, even contact the artist. “It’s Shazam for art meets Wikipedia,” says Gideon Smilansky, an artist and gallerist who helped pioneer the app. “Artbit is disruptive because it democratizes the art world: It makes the experience about the artist and the viewer, not money or galleries or auctions.” All the pieces I snap are plotted on a map, too, so the app becomes a portable, customizable, crowdsourced art guide. Once home, or wherever I am, I’ll be able to find nearby work by artists I discovered in Tel Aviv.

Pundak Deluxe in the Jaffa Flea Market

Lunch at Pundak Deluxe in the Jaffa Flea Market is always artful.

One night, a driver drops me east of the Ayalon Highway, in a residential area many locals advised I could skip, due to its idleness. With the sound of crickets in the background and the windows of the distant Azrieli Center glimmering on the horizon, I set off through the sleepy streets. When I find the address I’m looking for, I’m greeted with a warm handshake and a glass of cava. I follow Loran through her kitchen, which smells like tomatoes and vinaigrette, to meet her wife Aviya, pregnant with the pair’s first child. A miniature pinscher circulates at our feet. In the living room, framed snapshots of families smile at each other from opposite sides of a credenza.

Israeli tapas at Port Said

Israeli tapas at Port Said, the resto-bar at the social and physical centre of Tel Aviv’s start-up scene.

I found Aviya, Loran, their home and their little dog, too, on EatWith, a website (and app in the making) that was developed locally and connects diners with host-chefs; over 100 such events are held in Tel Aviv each month. It’s kind of like Tinder for food lovers, and it’s not by chance that I swiped right on Aviya and Loran: The animated duo learned their cooking skills while working with some of Tel Aviv’s top chefs, like Yonatan Roshfeld, Roy Sofer and Osnat Hoffman. The smell of shrimp grilling on the coal barbecue surrounds me as Loran sweeps through, circulating a platter of enormous spoons of watermelon gazpacho topped with salted cheese, and grilled calamari swimming in tomato-spiked yogurt.

As a group of 12 casually dressed thirtysomething Israelis and I take our seats around a candlelit, linen-draped table, Daya Tolkatzir, the website’s community manager in Israel, tells me that “people compete to see how many EatWith dinners they’ve been to.” The menu is clipped to our plates with clothes pegs, and we eat family-style, the meal punctuated with glasses of retsina and a “L’chaim!” here and there.

Nadav Saadia and Itamar Weizman in Casino San Remo Cafe

Cool Cousin founders Nadav Saadia and Itamar Weizman in Casino San Remo Cafe.

By the time the desserts roll out (my favourite is a chocolate mousse latticed with kadaif, a regional pastry made from butter-fried threads of dough), I’m laughing and chatting with all the other guests. Each one of them is anxious to share what their start-ups are working on, or to tell me which Tel Aviv apps and websites are essential to the essence of the city. It’s a sweet finale to my trip. In a place where I don’t recognize the characters of the alphabet or understand a fraction of the language, technology has made me feel at home.

Tags

INNOVATION     ISRAEL     START-UPS     TECHNOLOGY     TEL AVIV    

Please leave a comment

HTML tags will be removed
Web addresses starting with http:// will be converted to links