Tech meets culture in Israel and Jordan

22 July 2019 | Education
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The students at Jaffa (Photo: Brian Pek Chin Siong)

It was an eye-opening experience for 19 students from various faculties in NUS. Their itinerary was chock-full of technology start-ups and historical places, courtesy of the NUS Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER) Programme, themed Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Creating Sustainable Solutions for Marginalised Communities” which took place from 1 to 15 June.

Home to the largest number of start-ups per capita worldwide — one start-up for every 1,400 people — Israel has gained the moniker of “Start-up Nation”. One of the most notable technology start-ups the students visited was Mobileye. Mobileye develops a vision-based driver-assistance system which provide warnings for vehicular collision prevention and mitigation. This start-up has been acquired by Intel for $20.8 billion (US$15.3 billion).

Another technology company that intrigued the students was MobileODT, which provides an affordable tool for lower-income women to detect cervical cancer with a mobile phone and algorithms. Dr David Levitz, co-founder and CTO of the organisation shared with the students how he turned down a grant of some $950,000 (US$700,000) for maintaining ownership, and switched from work on skin cancer to cervical cancer after a decade. This taught the students the importance of taking risks and new challenges.

At non-profit organisation PresenTense, the students were encouraged to look beyond Tel Aviv into other parts of Israel that do not have as much entrepreneurial activities. PresenTense is the first accelerator and entrepreneurial programme for women from the ultra-Orthodox society, and the first accelerator in the world for assistive technology. The students visited the organisation’s office in Jaffa, where Ms Khouloud Ayuti, one of the co-CEOs, shared their experiences on the lack of ecosystem for entrepreneurs to interact and the low percentage of degree-holders in Jaffa.

They also had the opportunity to appreciate the many scenic and historical places in Israel such as Jaffa. The students particularly enjoyed the stunning view of the Mediterranean Sea and Jaffa Port. “Walking down the limestone roads and stairs of the ancient port city felt like walking through a movie set; the walls of the alleys lined with art pieces and gallery entrances. One of the most iconic art pieces is actually a floating tree, held firmly in the air by metal cables,” recalled Year 1 NUS Business student Vanessa Ho.

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The students at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre in the University of Jordan (Photo: Brian Pek Chin Siong)

From Israel, their first stop in Jordan was the Iraq Al-Amir Cooperative, founded in 1993 by the Noor Al Hussein Foundation. Her Majesty Queen Noor Al Hussein built the community to empower women by helping them to be financially independent as well as to address the major national challenge of urban unemployment. Women from the Wadi Al-Seer villages come together at the cooperative to cultivate the artisanal crafts of ceramics, soaps, paper-making and hand weaving through conducting workshops for tourists and selling the handcrafted goods.

At a briefing they attended at the Central Bank of Jordan, the students learnt how the Bank helped 1.3 million Syrian refugees with schemes such as one that mandated everyone open a bank account to ensure that aid was delivered into the right hands. The most impressive revelation to them was the way the Jordanians opened their arms and welcomed the refugees without any hostility. The Central Bank also shared their upcoming plans for financial inclusion — including women’s protection, consumer participation, mobile banking and financial literacy. 

Their final days in Jordan were spent in beautiful Petra and Wadi Rum. Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an ancient trading route and is home to the history and culture of the Nabataean people. Films such as Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Aladdin were filmed in Petra.

Some students managed to complete the 4.5km walk to the Monastery — one of the legendary monuments of Petra — which sits at the top of a mountain. The view of the surrounding mountains from the peak was spectacular. At the equally scenic Wadi Rum, they enjoyed navigating through the desert on a four-wheel drive and arrived at a good vantage point to watch the sunset before dinner.

Though not all aspire to take the entrepreneurial route, the participants found the insights and exposure gained from this trip valuable and applicable in many fields. Elizabeth Chin, a Year 2 NUS Law student, concluded, “The STEER trip to Israel and Jordan was an enriching one. Particularly, getting the opportunity to speak to the various stakeholders in their start-up community shed light on the trials and tribulations Israel went through to build up the vibrant start-up ecosystem that we see today.”

By Vanessa Ho, Year 1 NUS Business student