UpWest Labs was founded in 2012 with a simple idea. Israel has tons of startup talent, but much of the funding is in the U.S. The founders decided to put the two together and bring a small group of promising Israeli entrepreneurs to the U.S. for four months to meet customers, partners and investors. Today marks the 8th graduating class.
Today’s graduating group is comprised of 7 companies including Genoox, a big data platform for storing genetic information, UMake, an online 3D design tool and Codefresh, a cloud-based development environment. Co-founder Gil Ben-Artzy says in the first few classes it was evenly divided between consumer and enterprise ideas, but over time it’s shifted to the pointed this class has 6 enterprise products and just one aimed at consumers.
UpWest deliberately keeps the classes small with only 6 or 7 teams participating. According to Ben-Artzy, the program has graduated 39 startups to-date (not counting today’s group) with 70 percent receiving at least some seed funding, a majority of which came from Silicon Valley investors. In fact, their graduates have received more than $50M in funding to-date.
Among their biggest wins were Series A financing rounds of $12M for endpoint security firm SentinelOne and $10M for Honeybook, and event planning service aimed at professional event planners. They also have three exits to their credit including Senexx, which was acquired by Gartner, Qlika, which was acquired by Priceline and SlickLogin, which was snagged by Google. Of course, not everyone who participates succeeds and of the 39 previous graduates, Ben-Artzy said that 7 flamed out without funding.
Ben-Artzy explains that Israel has a very active startup scene, and they sort through hundreds of applications before selecting the group that comes to the U.S. for their program. He says, even though Israel is a very small country, it has a highly educated population and it’s not just formal education. The mandatory military service also contributes because Israelis get exposure to technology that most folks don’t get to see at such a young age, he pointed out.
He says they started the company because they saw a problem. Many Israeli startups would come to the US after a couple of years and not have the connections or skills to get in touch with funders, partners and customers. As Ben-Artzy pointed out, it’s hard to come to the Silicon Valley cold and expect to get any major results on a trip that lasts a couple of weeks.
They decided to start a program to nurture the most promising group of startups they could find and help them with all the logistics including housing, visas and making introductions to the right people. They give them $25,000 to help get settled for the time they are in the U.S. “We reduce friction and give them a boost,” Ben-Artzy said.
They look for folks, not just with a good idea, but with a high degree of dedication and a willingness to learn and work hard. They also have to be willing to take negative feedback from customers and change the product accordingly.
He says one of the reasons he believes they’ve had such a good success rate is that they keep it small and don’t try to do too much. What’s more, the model produces mentors from the graduate pool who can work with the newer classes, so the three founders aren’t stretched too thin. Ben-Artzy says they don’t want to simply shake hands with the graduates and leave them on their own. They want to be a resource for the long term and the mentors can help with that, especially as the program grows.
“What energizes us is that this is a long process, not just a one-time thing,” he says. And so far, judging from their track record, it seems to be working.