Newly re-elected Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav was in Toronto last week on a mission to entice entrepreneurs, community leaders and politicians to invest in the rapid development of Haifa’s high-tech industry.
Yahav, who secured a third term in office in October, having won 50 per cent of the votes, said he has ambitions to develop Haifa’s high-tech centre to resemble San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, and he wants Toronto’s help.
“I want to try to set up a support group, which we want to lean on,” Yahav said in an interview with The CJN. “I offered them to be a full part of the development of Haifa and to be full partners to invest and to help.”
During his three-day trip to the city, accompanied by Haifa Foundation executive director Cobie Brosh and Canadian Committee For The Haifa Foundation executive director Lisa Gardner Plant, Yahav’s family in Toronto, Irena and Avi Greenspoon, hosted a dessert reception in his honour at their Thornhill, Ont., home last week.
Yahav also met with a number of Toronto city councillors to discuss economic and cultural development opportunities between the two cities.
“Haifa is known throughout the world as a city of business, culture and innovation. Speaking with Mayor Yahav, it quickly became clear that there is enormous potential for investment between our two cities,” Coun. James Pasternak said. “I look forward to working together in the future on cultural and economic initiatives.”
Established in 2008, Haifa is home to Hi-Center, which is an accelerator for late-stage startups. Last year, Top Start-Up was established as an accelerator for new startups. Top Center, Hi-Centre’s sponsor, is an incubator that currently hosts about 20 companies, Yahav said.
Yahav said the startup he is most excited about is Lexiphone, a Hi-Center alum, that got a $2-million investment from a Toronto-based technology incubator called Intertainment Media Inc.
“Lexiphone, the first company that became ripe, is a cellular company that… allows you to talk to someone in China in English and he will hear it in Chinese, and he will speak to you in Chinese and you will hear it in English,” he said.
Through Haifa’s high-tech accelerators and incubators, the number of inventions of medical devices and technologies that come out of the city is on the rise.
Haifa’s future looks a lot brighter than it did the last time Yahav spoke with The CJN in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War.
“The economy is in a hole, most of the businesses are closed. And people are instructed to stay behind walls because the rockets that are being shot at us contain thousands of bullets [shrapnel], which are being scattered around in a radius of kilometres,” Yahav said in 2006.
But Haifa recovered quickly, he said, thanks to the rapid reconstruction effort and financial help from the Israeli government.
Today, the population in this growing city is about 300,000 – up from 270,000 in 2006.
“The unemployment rate went down to four per cent, which is the lowest unemployment rate in Israel. You have to bear in mind that when I started in 2003, we started with an unemployment rate of 12 per cent,” Yahav said.
“We’re in the midst of a very rapid development in the city… We changed the whole setup of the city with regard to the infrastructure… We are now considered the most modern city in Israel these days.”
But Yahav isn’t content to rest on the laurels of his city’s high-tech sector.
“The second thing we’re doing is turning the entire downtown Haifa into a university campus. This is the only project of its kind in the world because this is a city renewal through high education.”
Yahav said he is also working with his government to expand the Port of Haifa, the largest of Israel’s three major international seaports, to accommodate shipments from China and India. The 4-billion-shekel (almost $1.2-billion Cdn) expansion is scheduled to be completed in 2018.
“Through that, the whole economy of the city will change. Once it happens we should be able to carry out our huge project on the waterfront of Haifa,” Yahav said.
“Once we succeed in building the waterfront of Haifa, this will attract about two million or more tourists to Haifa and this will finalize our aim to turn Haifa, which is the most beautiful city in Israel, into a tourist site.”