Blurring Boundaries

Interview with Noa Gastfreund, co-founder of UAE-IL tech zone

This year, the month of September marks the second anniversary of the signing the Abraham Accords and the summer in the UAE saw a group of Israeli companys’ representatives attending a series of events and bi lateral discussions organized by UAE-IL tech zone, a non-profit organization that builds bridges between the Emirati and Israeli tech ecosystems, unicorns and late-stage startups.

Together with UAE’s newly established Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology, the delegation focused on the FinTech, ClimateTech, and HealthTech sectors, which are key to the UAE’s tech development strategy and in line with the country’s 2030 vision.

Keeping in mind that the bilateral trade is surging, Israel’s best of breed startups explored the UAE market, meet public and private stakeholders, shaping the country’s innovation scene through growth opportunities, talent solutions or investments.

We interview Noa Gastfreund, co-founder of UAE-IL tech zone, a platform and community that bridges technological, entrepreneurial, business, venture capital, and government collaborations between the UAE and Israel.  Noa talks about building relationships, creating connections and helping grow business ventures between the two countries.

Where did the idea of creating such a community come from?

It was a combination of the perspective we had with bridging the Jewish and the Arab communities within Israel and the strong feeling that we can really make a change and create an impact in this region by connecting people through tech.

What ideas did you have about the UAE/Gulf before the Accords?

Basically not much as for most of the Israelis this part of the world as we did not come for tourism nor for business before. Israeli tech companies were adopting the “global first” approach as our region was not a real option. But not only that, I think that the human part is the real loss. Since the accords were signed, I was lucky to meet amazing people that became friends and we have so much in common through a culture that I was able to absorb from my Marocain grandmother and now I’m able to understand it finally. 

What did you feel/notice when you visited the UAE for the first time and now that you have visited often?

To be honest, every moment felt like  (a dream) imagination. Everyone I met ended with the sentence “who could have imagined one year ago that we wouldl be here sitting and thinking of collaborations that will shape our future relationships in the region. Today, the UAE is a second home for me, I have friends that are almost family, and places I am always excited to back to. 

What do you think these two countries can achieve together?

I believe that there is so much to discover yet but in the past two years, we learned what are the opportunities for the tech industry. These two countries are the most innovative in the region, and they each have areas where they are leaders, and exchanging our knowledge is the best way to move forward. Additional, I believe that for Israeli companies there is a huge opportunity to penetrate the MENA region market leveraging on the UAE as a gateway for this region and start selling their products. There are also opportunities around human capital i.e Israeli companies opening R&D centres and hiring both local and international talents that in the future will be the next generation of startups founders in this region.

For the Emirati side, Israel can be a great place to learn how to go global from the early stages as well as knowledge and know-how sharing channel. The Emirati ecosystem can leverage the Israeli experience with incubating successful early-stage startups as well as ecosystem building as a whole.

Which areas of focus two such small countries could help the world with?

I think these two countries have already shown the world how peace and prosperity can do good to so many people and countries in our area. We broke the glass ceiling that has been there as a status quo for a long long time and I feel it opened the appetite of many more countries to join this movement.

What are the main challenges you have had to face building bridges between these two cultures?

When you are thinking about them you understand it is not a straightforward one, it’s not a vertical or a professional challenge we gather around. At the end of the day, these are two communities that are getting engaged for the first time and everything we do, we do for the first time so there is much more than just collaboration around tech. The cultural aspect is taking a role in our community, understanding the other side, its desires, interests and behaviour and how they do business. We also realised that trust is vital, so we are doing a lot of face to face gatherings so people can come, meet and get to know each other for real. So we are a bi lateral community focusing on the tech community but takes under its mission much more than that.

How does tech/innovation play a role in diplomacy?

When I was with the Hybrid, I learned how the “language” of tech is much easy to communicate when it comes to more difficult situations like cultural bridging. For me to do so through tech is easy. I think that as the two nations that are in a process of building and scaling up their tech ecosystems, we have so much in common vision and mission-wise. For both of us, the sky is the limit and this is where we aim at. Leveraging the innovative assets of both countries in order to promote diplomacy is just a no brainer. Especially in our beloved and sparkling region.

What does your community currently focus on?

We aim to build the bridge between the two nations and the wider GCC area and promote tech collaborations. We are very focused on the cause of the people-to-people connection at the end of the day as this is the only way to build sustainable relationships and corporations in our region. I believe in the power of people to make the change, I believe in the power of innovation to be the platform for that and for us there are no boundaries. We are doing knowledge-sharing webinars and meetups, delegations, and educational programs for Business experts as well as for young leaders. We are managing a community of more than 2K members that enjoy that activity and are looking to expand our activities as well as our community.

Do you have plans to expand in the region?

Yes. We see ourselves as the bridge between Israel and the UAE but not limited to that. At the end of the day, the region is wider and we should be able to tie connections with more countries and create a wider impact.

 What is your objective for the future of the community?

We are lucky to have started with amazing founding partners such as Startup-Nation Central in Israel and to have amazing support in the UAE both on the personal level and institutional level with MoIAT for example (The Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology). We aim at strengthening this network of partners in every country we develop in. This is our plan at the moment, surround ourselves with like minded people, mainly decision-makers, companies, and organizations who share the same goal as ours and are willing to participate in our activities and have us join theirs. We are in the UAE quite regularly with delegations, educational programs or handling our Club activities (our members only club gathering decision makers from the region). Our next event will take place in November in Abu Dhabi during the Milken Institute Summit which we will be attending. We believe every stone we are laying now with current and future partners will set the stage for long term initiatives across the MENA region. At the moment, we keep growing our network.

What do you like most in this mission?

The impact is huge, I love people and I meet amazing people that take part in our exciting journey. We are looking for new partners who want to be part of our journey and decision makers who can help make a positive change. We are making history and this is the golden age of the Middle East.

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