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Accelerator provides launch pad for startups outside Israel’s mainstream

Journal Correspondent

Rachel Shaul, CEO of PresenTense, speaking in Kendall Square.
Photo by Penny Schwartz

APRIL 12, 2018 – CAMBRIDGE – It’s not every day that three Israelis with such different backgrounds – a Druze physician, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and a young, high-tech whiz – share a stage to talk shop about their innovative startups.

But that was the scene at a recent program sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel to New England to showcase PresenTense, a dynamic accelerator program whose core mission is to promote entrepreneurship in Israel’s underserved communities.

The company, founded in 2007, fosters coexistence through innovation among the country’s diverse religious and multiethnic populations. It also focuses on new ventures that address social responsibility such as assisting people with disabilities.

Last month’s event, hosted by LabCentral in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, featured PresenTense CEO Rachel Shaul with Dr. Shady Hassan, Tomer Shor, and Michael Nachtiler, a trio of the accelerator program’s alumni who have since launched their own startups. During their visit to the area, the group also spoke at Boston University, Harvard Hillel, and at Brown University in Providence.

With an estimated 6,000 start-ups, Israel, known widely as the “Start-up Nation,” ranked 10th in the Bloomberg 2018 Innovation Index. While Israel’s high-tech sector is traditionally thought of as the Tel Aviv bubble, the booming economic engine has expanded to other cities and regions, including Jerusalem, Haifa, and beyond, according to Matan Zamir, deputy Consul General of Israel to New England.

Meanwhile, the benefits of Israel’s technology revolution have reached only about 15 percent of the population, said PresenTense CEO Shaul during the hour-long event in Cambridge.

“We must find a way to reach these diverse populations” as a way to benefit society as a whole, she said.

Among the company’s successes have been:

• the first social venture accelerator

• the first accelerator for Arab entrepreneurs in Israel

• the first accelerator for ultra-Orthodox women

• the first accelerator in the world focused on innovative solutions for people with disabilities

Through PresenTense, Hassan, a medical doctor who is Druze, launched Healthymize, which developed an app that uses voice-monitoring technology to assist people living with chronic voice‑affecting diseases such as asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The app uses personal smartphones to detect vocal changes up to two days in advance of a medical flare-up, thereby avoiding hospitalization, he said.

Shor, CEO of TuneFork, developed a software application for the smartphone that allows people to test for hearing loss in the privacy of their own homes. TuneFork then creates an audio filter that adjusts sound to the user’s needs. This is a breakthrough for people with hearing loss who may resist going to the hospital for testing, or those who may not want to use hearing aids, which can be prohibitively expensive, Tomer told the Journal.

When Nachtiler, CEO of Aguda Achat (One Society), began the PresenTense program, he and others in the organization had a vision to help those in their ultra-Orthodox communities – especially women – who had nowhere to turn with highly personal questions. Now, they have launched Akshiva, an online platform that responds to anonymous personal questions on sensitive subjects such as marital problems, sexual orientation, abuse, and suicide, issues that are often taboo within the very insular religious communities.

Today, about a year after launching Akshiva, his group has grown to 60 volunteers, who respond to thousands of questions. The site boasts some 9,000 followers on Facebook.

The three social entrepreneurs who have connected through PresenTense share human values and the same concerns for helping others, Nachtiler said he has realized.

“We can learn from each other and have respect for the other communities’ values when we work together,” he said.

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