The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • ABI­GAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN

Ilan Re­gen­baum was 23 when he moved to Is­rael from At­lanta, Ge­or­gia. By law, he was re­quired to do six months of mil­i­tary service. He wanted more. “When I was 18 and learn­ing in yeshiva here, really wanted to be Rambo and join a com­bat unit, but my fam­ily wanted me to go to univer­sity first. So when I came back at 23, I net­worked to try to find an in­ter­est­ing place for my­self in the army.”

Even­tu­ally he con­nected with the head of the Is­rael Air Force In­no­va­tion Unit at a start-up con­fer­ence and drafted straight into that unit in Fe­bru­ary 2016. He would ex­tend his service mul­ti­ple times.

Re­gen­baum be­came in­terim com­man­der of the unit and founded the Air Force Ac­cel­er­a­tor, a sub-unit that works with sol­diers and of­fi­cers to solve chal­lenges that the IAF faces.

“In to­tal, I served in the air force for just over two years, and then moved to the IDF Spokesper­son’s Unit as chief in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer for about eight months.”

In other words, he did as much mil­i­tary service as the av­er­age 18-year-old, ex­cept he wasn’t the av­er­age 18-year-old.

“In ba­sic train­ing, I was 25 and my di­rect com­man­der was 19. The cul­tural and lan­guage gaps made for some funny in­ter­ac­tions,” he re­lates.

One time he was told ratz l’mit­vach, and ran to the kitchen (mit­bach) in­stead of the fir­ing range (mit­vach). (“I learned that mix­ing up the two words can be dan­ger­ous, dis­ap­point­ing, or both,” Re­gen­baum wrote in a blog post in April 2016.)

“For me, ba­sic train­ing was a month­long mix of Jew­ish sum­mer camp and prison,” he says. It did, how­ever, teach him last­ing lessons he would take to the start-up world.

He found an al­most para­dox­i­cal ten­sion be­tween the re­quire­ment to fol­low rules and the re­quire­ment to break them in or­der to do his job in the in­no­va­tion unit.

The en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence, pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, paid off well for Re­gen­baum. Fol­low­ing his re­lease in March 2019, he spent two months vis­it­ing start-ups and lec­tur­ing in Sil­i­con Val­ley about in­no­va­tion in Is­rael. Upon his re­turn, he be­came the new man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Siftech: The Jerusalem En­trepreneur­ship Cen­ter.

Siftech was founded by two stu­dents from He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem in 2012 as the first start-up ac­cel­er­a­tor in Jerusalem. Re­gen­baum is now in the process of clos­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tor and launch­ing a new pro­gram that works with He­brew Univer­sity and re­searchers across Is­rael to help launch sci­ence-based start-ups around their re­search. En­trepreneur­ship runs in the fam­ily

Born in Jo­han­nes­burg, South Africa, Re­gen­baum lived in At­lanta since the age of three. Fol­low­ing a typ­i­cal Mod­ern-Or­tho­dox tra­jec­tory, he at­tended a Zion­ist-lean­ing Jew­ish day school and then earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in fi­nance and busi­ness man­age­ment from Yeshiva Univer­sity in New York.

“I first went to Is­rael on an eighth-grade trip,” he says. “It was cool and fun but still just a trip. I grew to love Is­rael much more when I spent a year-and-a-half af­ter high school in yeshiva. I came back on Birthright Ex­cel while in univer­sity and in­terned at a ven­ture cap­i­tal fund. I loved meet­ing en­trepreneur­s and CEOs

and see­ing the ‘Start-Up Na­tion’ first­hand. That was the fi­nal thing that pushed me over the edge in terms of aliyah.”

FOR RE­GEN­BAUM, the ap­peal of Is­rael isn’t only about re­li­gion, his­tory and Jew­ish na­tion­al­ity. It’s also about the start-up cul­ture. En­trepreneur­ship runs in his fam­ily; both his par­ents started busi­nesses af­ter em­i­grat­ing from South Africa.

“The first com­pany I founded, at 13 or 14 was a green­screen pho­tog­ra­phy busi­ness funded by my bar-mitz­vah money,” says Re­gen­baum. He cre­ated photo mag­nets at events, of­fer­ing a choice of back­grounds that var­ied from the Western Wall to a sports field. He sold the com­pany af­ter high school.

“To­day I love walk­ing around with my cam­era. Be­ing in Jerusalem there is al­ways some­thing in­ter­est­ing to take a pic­ture of,” he says.

Like any start-up en­tre­pre­neur worth his salt, Re­gen­baum had some fail­ures, too. While in univer­sity he tried his hand un­suc­cess­fully at a pho­tog­ra­phy busi­ness for youth sports leagues and an on­line pre­scrip­tion-eye­glasses ven­ture.

“What I am do­ing at Siftech is also a new ven­ture,” he notes. “Hope­fully it will grow into a suc­cess­ful new model in Is­rael, work­ing to solve ma­jor prob­lems in ar­eas like food tech­nol­ogy and sus­tain­abil­ity, quan­tum com­put­ing, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and more.”

His pas­sion for busi­ness is matched by his pas­sion for ac­tiv­i­ties such as run­ning, mar­tial arts and what he de­scribes as “tin­ker­ing/mak­ing.”

At least once a week, Re­gen­baum goes to Tel Aviv – not just for work but also to teach at the gap-year pro­gram To­rah Tech, which com­bines Jew­ish stud­ies with in­tern­ships match­ing the stu­dents’ pro­fes­sional as­pi­ra­tions.

“I teach a class on the evo­lu­tion of tech­nol­ogy in the face of halacha [Jew­ish law] and how it will change Ju­daism and re­li­gion. Hav­ing a dati [re­li­gious] outlook on life grounds me and makes me think about tech­nol­ogy through that lens.”

Re­gen­baum fondly con­sid­ers Is­rael “the most first­world third-world coun­try. It’s a coun­try of ex­treme ef­fi­ciency and ex­treme in­ef­fi­ciency. But over­all, I love the cul­ture here.”

The main thing he misses from Amer­ica – aside from two-day ship­ping with Ama­zon Prime, he jokes – is his fam­ily. “My par­ents are in At­lanta, my brother is at Ge­or­gia Tech, and my sis­ter is fin­ish­ing her mas­ter’s de­gree in Mi­ami. I really miss them.”

How­ever, he has come to con­sider Is­raelis in gen­eral to be his ex­tended, if some­what dys­func­tional, fam­ily.

“One Fri­day when I was in the army, I went to the shuk in uni­form and went to buy falafel. The owner said ‘Chayal, alai’ [‘Soldier, it’s on me.’] Then I bought rugelach and the bak­ery gave me a 90% dis­count. And then I bought whiskey and the man in front of me in line paid for it with­out even say­ing any­thing,” he re­lates.

“It can get an­noy­ing when peo­ple are too much in your face – but you know they’re al­ways there and are will­ing to help.” ■



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