Gary LaFever Got the Fever for Innovative Israeli Ideas... He's Not the Only One.
by Carter Dougherty - PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROB MOSS
Northern Virginia native Gary LaFever flew to Israel in mid-January intrigued but not overwhelmingly excited. A bunch of computer engineers had offered him a job as CEO of yet another tech startup. The Wall Street investors backing the company, Citigroup Investments and ING Barings, were impressive, but its main product - a technology that alerts email users to incoming messages when a computer is offline - didn't exactly scream success. Furthermore, the name of the company seemed like a total dud: NetGong. For the 40-year-old LaFever, a lifelong resident of the United States, the name conjured up images of a bad game show from the pre-Internet era.
Fortunately for the new company, LaFever had a flash of revelation, a defining moment in which the smart Israeli engineers and the savvy American salesman from Northern Virginia finally connected.
A 10-year veteran of the white-shoe Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson, LaFever sat in the conference room of the company, located on in a five-story office building in Haifa, Israel's main port and third-largest city. It was also a Sunday, the furious beginning of the workweek in the Jewish state, which takes Fridays and Saturdays off for the Sabbath. And it was swelteringly hot and sunny outside, but well air-conditioned inside. So LaFever watched intently as an Israeli engineer performed a PowerPoint presentation about NetGong's technology.
The engineer, Kobi Grudka, unaware that he was briefing a CEO candidate, repeatedly left the room to ask his supervisors whether he could answer LaFever's many questions about NetGong's proprietary technology. "I looked at it with some horror," recalls LaFever, who served as Chief Operating Officer at the Virginia-based womenCONNECT.com, a website for women in business. "As a user it was very confusing, unless you were an engineer."
Grudka clicked past a slide that duplicated a screen shot of the software. It had a button buried in the corner that read, "Launch Application." LaFever told him to go back. "What does that mean?" the American asked. Grudka explained that NetGong's product could alert a user to an incoming email, open an Internet connection, and fire up the user's email application, all in one fell swoop.
The concept, LaFever realized immediately, would remedy a basic shortcoming of the Internet. To know whether an email is waiting to be read, a user must be online and inside an email program. The Internet, in short, is like a telephone that does not ring, but relies on the user to pick up the receiver every so often to check if someone happens to be calling.
LaFever then had his eureka moment. "So you're saying that you can grab a device that is offline, bring it online and open an application?" he asked incredulously. Grudka was nonplussed. "But of course," he replied.
That's when the idea for the company - but not the name - was born. "Gong" is the technical term for the ringer in a telephone, so NetGong, (for an engineer anyway), evoked a similar concept for the Internet: it told users to get online and gave them the tools to accomplish the task. But the Israeli's esoteric presentation had obscured the technology's potential for use in cell phones, personal organizers and all the other devices that are becoming the nodes of an increasingly networked society. "When an engineer explains technology to someone, it is very different than if a salesman explains it," concedes a sheepish Gideon Lefeber, himself an engineer and the co-founding chairman of the company.
So LaFever, who was by then mesmerized by the technology, set to work that evening in his hotel room overlooking Haifa harbor to find the right name for the company. Surfing the Web on his laptop, LaFever, not yet a company employee, hopped onto the website for the Herndon-based domain registrar Network Solutions, and used his own American Express card to reserve dozens of names for the firm.
Well into the night, he hit on the perfect name for the Chantilly, VA-based company he was to join as president and CEO in February. It was a moniker that summed up the virtues of the engineers' technology in a way that "NetGong" didn't: Internet2Anywhere, or In2a. LaFever remains obsessed with his company's new name. The Internet address appears not only on his business card, but also on the license plate of his gray Volkswagen Passat: IN2A.
LaFever's experience illustrates the central reason why the technology industries of Israel and Greater Washington are finding common ground like never before: Israel has an abundance of engineering talent developing new and exciting ideas in telecommunications and the Internet. And the Americans - especially those in Northern Virginia - have the sales and marketing chutzpah to bring the Israelis' products to the world.
"The growth in business between this area and Israel has been modest so far, but it is getting ready to explode," said Emanuel "Manny" Friedman, the chairman of the Arlington, VA-based financial services firm Friedman Billings Ramsey. "We are probably adding one Israeli company per week, and it's like the law of additional returns: Success feeds itself."
The "modest" growth to which Friedman refers isn't so modest at all: There are roughly 50 Israeli companies with some significant presence in the region. And recently, three acquisitions made Northern Virginia especially attractive in the Israeli business community - a community that had previously thought primarily of Silicon Valley and New York when it thought of American technology centers.
In 1998, America Online purchased Mirabilis, the Israeli inventor of the "ICQ" instant messaging software, for $407 million. The sale made folk heroes out of Yossi Vardi and his two sons, who wrote the software and whose company, in true Internet start-up fashion, never racked up more than $30,000 in revenue. "This acquisition created a Mirabilis effect in Israel," says Vardi, who is now widely regarded as Israel's very own Steve Case (and AOL's eyes and ears in the Middle East). "It put Northern Virginia on the map, and opened the eyes of Israeli youth to Internet-related technologies."