Talking from his study in Tel Aviv, it’s clear that David Assia is as engaged and impassioned as when he first stepped into the business world – perhaps even more so.
It’s not for nothing that, in his home country of Israel, he’s famously known as Mr High-Tech, driven as he is to push innovation further and beyond.
“I like it,” Assia says of his nickname. “But I would say it should be shared with at least another dozen people who had the same vision and will to make changes.”
Now a serial entrepreneur and angel investor, having solidified his legend as chairman of leading co-investment platform iAngels and the world’s largest social trading network eToro, Assia kickstarted a hugely successful career with a brainwave he had during national service.
“I was drafted into the Israeli army in 1969, when I was 18, and I remained for seven years,” he says. “During that time, I entered into serious computer programming and computer system analysis. I was part of a computer programming course run by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) jointly with IBM and I ended up being the head of a database department.
“It was clear to me that this emerging world would make a huge impact on the market.”
“During my time, the department developed into one of the largest computer centres in the world. We basically had an endless budget to make sure the IDF was totally computerised. So when I left as a Major, it was clear to me that this was an emerging world that would make a huge impact on the market.”
In 1976, after completing his extended national service, Assia spent two years working in retail in London and two years in banking in Switzerland before returning to Israel in 1980 when he decided to set up his own software company “With very little money together with a partner”.
David Assia during his Magic Software days.
That firm was Mashov Computers, the first micro-computer software company to be listed on the Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE). Six years later, he spun off and developed Magic Software, a database development platform, which went public as the first Israeli software company on NASDAQ in 1991.
“I had this path basically in my head from the day I was drafted into the IDF,” he says. “It was clear to me from day one, that I'd end up being an entrepreneur. I just wanted to disrupt the world and have something completely new in the market!”
“If you don't innovate every couple of years, somebody else is going to do it.”
Considering the fact that the disruptor mindset is still a relatively new concept, there’s a strong argument to be made for Assia as a true tech pioneer. From the offset, he’s clearly had an instinct to evolve and thrive. Keeping on top and ahead of the game is evidently a huge motivator.
“It's part of the industry,” he says. “If you don't innovate every couple of years, somebody else is going to do it. Steve Jobs was once asked why he would release the iPhone with a music player when the iPod was so successful. He said that if you don't disrupt your own technology, somebody else is going to do it instead. He didn't care at all that the release of the iPhone destroyed the whole business of the iPod.
David Assia at work with his iAngels team.
“It's the same across the industry, you have to evolve and quickly. If you stop for a minute, you're done.”
This mindset has led to the mantra: ‘Embrace passion, not sentimentality’ – an attitude that compels Assia to avoid stagnation and continually renew.
“Around 1992-1993, we had developed a competitor to Skype. It was a much better service at the time but the telecommunications bandwidth was slow, so meetings would have terrible latency,” he says. “So we found out that you can have great disruptive technology, but if the infrastructure around it is insufficient then you have to accept that you have a failed venture. We’ve had many projects in which we invested, some of which disappeared and some of which still exist today.
“You can work in two ways… One is evolution and the other is revolution.”
“You can work in two ways… One is evolution and the other is revolution. If you work by evolution, for example, you come up with new upgrades all the time which is great for customers because they just have to reinstall the software and everything works. But if you come up with something absolutely new, sometimes you have no choice, you have to be willing to disrupt all the work you’ve done before.”
Credited with transforming Israel from paper-and-pencil to digital in the fields of intelligence, inventory, finance and travel management, Assia has been instrumental in elevating his home country into a worldwide tech powerhouse.
The iAngels team.
This rip-up-the-rulebook approach has seen Assia grow from Israeli tech pioneer into an angel investor through iAngels and his family's privately held investment company, Nadyr Investments Ltd. It was, he says, a natural evolution.
“We made quite a lot of money on Magic Software, so I invested in different startups, some of which were complementary to what we're doing and others that were completely out of our scope. For me, it was always a great idea to invest in innovation and other entrepreneurs - whether in IT, pharmaceutical or medical worlds, or whatever.”
Having spread his angel wings beyond his direct areas of hard-earned expertise, Assia’s approach to risk in his startup investments has had to similarly evolve.
“The number one lesson I’ve learned is to raise money when you can and not when you need it.”
“As those who not only investing their own money, but also other people's money, we have to be much more careful and much more conservative than we may have done in the past,” he says. “You must do very serious risk analysis, look at all the competition, what they're doing, where they're more successful, where they're less successful, what their competitive advantage is, etc. Then you lay out all the what ifs in case things go seriously wrong. In the analysis reports we make on each investment, the basic calculation is that if you invested X, you want to make sure that after, say, four years, that X becomes 10X.
“The number one lesson I’ve learned and have since passed onto my children is to raise money when you can and not when you need it. Aways have a cushion of two years of expenditure and don't worry about the valuation – just make sure you have the money in the till.”
It's an approach that has been finely tuned over the years and has clearly been adapted for the fast-moving industries that he’s now comprehensively investing in.
“We've changed quite a bit,” says Assia. Originally, most of iAngels investments were computer tech-related – software, hardware, internet, cybersecurity etc. But in the past few years, we've realised there's huge potential for agri-tech, food-tech and health-tech among others. We've invested heavily in many different companies in those fields.
“One particular investment which has proved to be an immense success for us is a firm named Arbe Robotics who came to see us five years ago, saying that they've developed the most robust radar for cars for autonomous driving. We did our whole analysis, we studied the subject and decided to invest. We then invested subsequently three or four more times, and the company went public in the US last year. We made 3000% back on our investment!
“This wasn't a field we’d had experience in, but we found a fantastic entrepreneur with an experienced team, who convinced us to invest and it proved to be a fantastic success.”
While Assia’s investment strategy has developed over the years, he says his core values have remained unaltered.
“As you get older, you start thinking of the future of your children in this overcrowded world.”
“My core values haven’t changed at all,” he says. “We've just changed focus in where we want to invest. We're more into the ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] world than before. As you get older, you start thinking of the future of your children and grandchildren in this overcrowded world. You start thinking how you can bring in disruptive technologies to make the world a better place.”
From investing in a startup that can predict prenatal hereditary diseases to a comprehensive database streamlining pharmaceutical clinical trials to advanced food tech; “Making milk and cream from chickpeas”, Assia’s desire to make a difference is leading to a whole host of potentially life-saving innovations.
Assia’s involvement in ESG advances goes beyond investment opportunities, however. A long-time philanthropist, his work supports hundreds of under-privileged children with further education and he also sits on the board of the Israeli Education Fund, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel Aviv University and many more. Edification and elevation, it’s clear to see, is of huge importance to the man.
“For me, I think that the success of a society is based on the level of education that you give the next generation,” he says. “We have a lot of places in Israel, in which the level of education won't enable them to break into the high-tech industry or other industries. Many need after-hours teaching of mathematics and English, which is where our education fund comes in.
“The Weizmann Institute is a world-leading scientific institute with specialisms in biotechnology, biology, chemistry, physics etc. Many patents, medications and medical devices have come from the Weizmann Institute and have been extremely successful. I entered the institute in my father’s footsteps and became extremely active in helping them with their mission to make a better world.”
While Assia’s life and career has not been without its challenges, his passion for innovation and willingness to learn and adapt has seen him constantly moving forward.
“Evaluate when bad things happen and take hard, bold and difficult decisions.”
“I had two major challenges in which I would say we nearly went under,” he says. “One was when the dotcom bubble burst and we had raised lots of money for the company. I didn’t cut down the expenses fast enough and that created huge problems. Before that, there was a bank crash here in 1983 and all our capital was depleted within six months
“The lessons I learnt from both those situations was to evaluate when bad things happen and take hard, bold and difficult decisions. If the economy, business, environment or market has gone against you, you have to be able to make those decisions decisively. Looking ahead in those situations, you have to look at what your competitors are doing, where the market is going and always look for where you can disrupt the industry.”