A Santa Monica Accelerator for the 'Startup Nation' Deals with COVID

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

A Santa Monica Accelerator for the 'Startup Nation' Deals with COVID

In normal times, the venture-backed accelerator Fusion LA brings batches of Israel startup teams to Santa Monica twice a year for networking, roadshows and mentorship. In their down time, founders can compare Southern California beaches to Tel Aviv, try out local restaurants and visit Disneyland.

But with most in person interaction halted by coronavirus, there was little point in taking a 15-hour flight to LAX. So most of the recent cohort stayed in Israel, pitching their business plans in a virtual showcase Tuesday.

Accelerators – with their white board sessions and leisurely group dinners – are particularly ill-suited to COVID, but Yair Vardi, founding partner of Fusion LA, has tried to focus on the silver linings.

"The advantage of the surreal COVID reality is that everyone is working from home, and no one knows if you're zooming clients from Santa Monica, Hong Kong or Tel Aviv," said Vardi. "In some cases, it's easier to set up a video-call, saving costs on flights and trade shows."

Fusion LA invests $110,000 in each company and connects Israeli founders with U.S. venture capital executives and entrepreneurs. In less than three years, it has backed 49 early-stage companies, with 70% of alumni going on to raise funds of $1 million to $7 million. Standouts have included GiantLeap, a science-backed platform that helps parents make data-driven decisions about their children's development as well as Erudite, an AI-powered reading platform.

The latest class included Crispify, which automates air quality monitoring, and eLoomina, which helps large corporations reduce employee fraud.

"VCs were not interested in hearing pitches during Q2, but over the summer some sense of normalcy returned," Vardi said.

Before starting Fusion LA in 2017 he worked as an advocate for the Israeli government's technology and innovation initiatives in L.A and served in Unit 8200, Israel's equivalent of the NSA.

Israel has been called "startup nation," boasting the largest number of startups per capita in the world.

"We hope that in 2021, with positive vaccine news, we can resume on the ground accelerator operations, or at least host an outdoor happy hour," Vardi said.

Founder Spotlight: Fusion LA Co-Founder & Partner Yair Vardi www.youtube.com

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