On a recent rainy day in Jerusalem, two unlikely startup partners, one Israeli and one Palestinian, sit at a table, scribbling ideas as they brainstorm with a group of visiting MIT students.
These venture partners are among six architects and urban planners who participated in Our Generation Speaks (OGS), a fellowship program based at Brandeis University. OGS was founded in 2016 by Ohad Elhelo, an Israeli entrepreneur, as a way to bring young Israelis and Palestinians to a neutral space beyond the regional conflict, where the common bond of entrepreneurship could unite them and help build relationships.
MITdesignX, a venture accelerator created three years ago in the School of Architecture and Planning, and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) partnered this year with OGS to focus part of the program on architects and planners.
The six MITdesignX/MISTI-associated fellows — from a total of 28 in the OGS program overall — spent last summer living, working, and studying together in Boston. They arrived as strangers, but emerged as three entrepreneurial startup companies dedicated to tackling urban and design issues.
In August 2018, the fellows worked daily at MIT with the support of MITdesignX faculty, mentors, and student interns. They emerged with viable business models and new startups, and returned to the region with $50,000 per team in seed funding from OGS to start new businesses.
Since then, together with MIT students, they have been working to create new technology, products, and services designed for social impact.
“For a startup that at its core is dealing with the way people live and consume in their daily lives, the design discourse and approach that accompanies the thinking at MITdesignX was especially significant in understanding the value we offer and refining the idea through asking the right questions and building a user’s journey,” says fellow Yishai Lehavi, an Israeli architect and co-founder of one of the new ventures, Tulou, based in Tel Aviv.
“The work with the interns during the three months of the accelerator period — plus the second part of the program, which included their working with us in Israel — was significant in many ways and boosted our venture with in-depth market surveys, a detailed financial model, a mockup of our app, and constant brainstorming that challenged the idea and its potential realization,” he says.
“We could really have an impact on the evolution of the businesses,” says Ayrlea Porter, a Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) student intern. “Having the opportunity to work with the same founders, over time and across different geographies, allowed us to form deep and lasting relationships.”
A partnership emerges
After attending a demo day from the second cohort of OGS in 2017, MITdesignX Executive Director Gilad Rosenzweig saw the great potential for MIT to partner with the program.
“We found that among the OGS teams in the previous year, a couple were dealing with urban issues, specifically housing and design,” he says. “The idea quickly emerged that they should have had the resources of MITdesignX and MIT to help as well.”
Almost immediately a partnership was formed among MITdesignX, MISTI, and OGS to create an MIT track to support selected fellows with architectural, planning, and design backgrounds. Rosenzweig traveled to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ramallah to join OGS interviews and choose six fellows from dozens of finalists.
MITdesignX and MISTI developed a special program for one month of the OGS fellowship, providing its workspace in Building 7, mentorship, design thinking workshops, and most important, a group of talented graduate student interns from DUSP and the Department of Architecture.
The fellows’ presence on campus created an opportunity for students at MIT to learn about planning, the environment, and housing in the region from the perspective of young professionals seeking to disrupt the status quo. The teams’ student interns helped with design work, finances, and the development of the storyline.
“The internship was the key,” says Rosenzweig. “The masters in city planning and masters in architecture students joined the three startups established by the fellows, supporting their work with knowledge and excitement.”
MISTI’s role was clear from the start: providing insight about the region and then enabling and preparing students to travel during MIT's Independent Activities Period to get hands-on experience. MISTI Assistant Director David Dolev says, “This program and others, like our MISTI-MEET program, are opportunities for our students to learn about entrepreneurship, science, and technology and its capacity to create positive change in the Middle East.”
Developing technology to manage domestic water use on the West Bank
The three startups created by the teams are Tulou, Quix, and WATA. Tulou is creating a sharing service for household equipment in apartment buildings, so that renters or owners can use a communal vacuum cleaner, drill, or ladder. Quix is a service for more transparent and affordable home maintenance and repairs.
WATA was developed by an Israeli industrial designer from Jerusalem and a water engineer and planner from the Palestinian city of Nablus. Their startup addresses an important water management issue in the West Bank and elsewhere in developing regions around the world.
Running water is not constant in the West Bank; in fact, water might be made available only once a week, and sometimes less often in high-consumption summer months. As a result, water is stored in large black tanks on rooftops of homes and apartment buildings, and families must control their use to avoid running out before water again flows through the pipes.
People have to manually check their tanks with poles to measure their supply. And stagnant water is a health concern. These conditions lead to anxiety and expense for families, especially those who need to buy more-expensive privately supplied water between deliveries.
WATA is developing a device to measure the quantity and quality of water in rooftop tanks and deliver that information to households through a smartphone app. Data can also be used by authorities to compare and help manage water usage and prevent the emergence of harmful bacteria.
For students, contributing to the development of new urban startups and living in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for three weeks in January made an impact, one that will grow next year as the program recruits its next cohort of fellows and interns.
“Working with Israeli and Palestinian fellows forced us to consider products, processes, and procedures from a perspective that was entirely new,” says Marissa Reilly, a DUSP intern. “Authentic foreign environments often feel impossible to understand as a tourist, but by working in Israel and spending time with the fellows, we were exposed to sides of the culture we would never otherwise have seen.”