Arab-Jewish ‘partnership of equals’ startup BlockIT aims to bring fun to school

Gal Dvir studied political science with a dream of achieving peace in the Middle East. His ambition turned to pessimism when he saw how slowly and painfully the peace-making wheel turns. Then he stumbled upon the startup world.

In tech, he saw, collaboration among different groups seemed possible. People could perhaps work together — Israeli Jews, Arabs and Palestinians. But first, there needs to be a good match.

So the 38-year-old Tel Aviv resident slowly pivoted his career path to tech, joining forces with three other ambitious entrepreneurs: Kareem Abu Alfilat, 25, who lives in Jerusalem and has a background in software and hardware, Sally Awad Asfour, 39, who lives in Nof HaGalil and has a background in education, and Nicola Mansour, 28, who lives in Rameh and has a background in engineering and business.

Together they set up BlockIT, a startup making educational toy kits that facilitate a hands-on learning experience by creating a real and digital environment where users can touch, feel and play with parts and shapes that also have a parallel digital presence.

Dvir found his partners — who are Israeli Arabs — by joining 50:50 Startups, an initiative that creates startup collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians to show they can create “partnerships of equals.”

Different backgrounds

Coming from different backgrounds, each member of BlockIT had their own rationale for seeking out 50:50 Startups. Some, like Dvir, wanted to make a change in the region; Abu Alfilat wanted to take advantage of the mentorships and partnerships offered by the initiative, while Mansour was seeking partners to team up with. To Asfour, the program’s diversity was appealing — bridging between Arabs and Jews in entrepreneurship.

’50:50 Startups’ first cohort at Azrieli College of Engineering in March (Courtesy)

The four applied and were accepted into 50:50 Startups’s first cohort in fall 2019. Early in the program, when members spend time getting to know each other, Abu Alfilat and Mansour met Awad Asfour, who introduced them to Dvir. The four figured they had good potential, given their various educational backgrounds, and asked the program managers if they could form a team. They then spent the early months of 2020 developing the idea through the program’s various accelerators and incubators.

BlockIT won second place at the August 4 virtual Demo Day for the program.

Digital castles

Dvir had the original idea behind BlockIT after he attended a virtual reality show in Munich. Fascinated by the idea of virtual reality, he wanted to find a way to combine it with storytelling.

Awad Asfour said the idea is to make learning fun.

“For me, the education aspect is very important and I think that we have a lot of things to do and to improve the system here in Israel, in the classroom,” Awad Asfour said. “So, what we tried to do in our startup is to find some solution that can involve the digital world in the classroom.”

Each “BlockIT kit” comes with 50-100 pieces in the shape of squares, triangles and arches, and a flat playing board. Each piece contains a chip that connects to the playing board, which can connect to any device — mobile, PC, game console or virtual reality. Every physical piece then gets a digital twin on the device, and can be used for games and interactive stories on BlockIT’s online game platform.

BlockIT puts chips on playing parts, hoping to make games that you can touch but that also have a digital twin (YouTube screenshot)

For example, a user can use the BlockIT pieces to build a standard-looking castle on the playing board. What they’ll see on the device is a castle far more realistic-looking — a grand and detailed digital twin of their construction.

The co-founders estimate each kit will cost $50-$100, ideally paid for by consumers and schools.

Coronavirus a bigger obstacle than culture clash

Working together has shown that Jews and Arabs get on better when dealing with tech than with politics. Indeed, the team members said they haven’t encountered any major cultural clashes in their dealings with each other.

“Sometimes I felt a little awkward because I don’t really know the holidays of everybody, and I was embarrassed to ask,” Dvir said, chuckling. “But I didn’t feel that there’s a big difference. Every one of us wants to do something new in the world — and special — with technology. Maybe the background is different, but the goal is the same.”

Since all four group members live in Israel, they don’t encounter any complications in working together, as there are no border crossings or checkpoints they need to overcome — a setback faced by other 50:50 Startups groups with members who live in the West Bank.

The spread of the coronavirus has, however, dealt setbacks to the team, forcing them to meet only over Zoom and preventing in-person meetings for months. Deliveries of parts from China were also delayed. Abu Alfilat said it’s taken months for shipments — with tools and parts needed to build the kit prototypes — to arrive.

Some stuff still hasn’t arrived, and Abu Alfilat has not been able to make the kits as sophisticated as he’d like, he said, because of the shipping issues.

Dvir said one of the biggest obstacles has been finding time to work, with each team member in a different city preoccupied with coping with the difficult situation at their homes created by the pandemic.

The benefits of diversity

Awad Asfour said working together, even if virtually, creates an atmosphere that encourages different ways of thinking, learning and developing ideas and breaks down prejudices.

“Sometimes you have a lot of stereotypes [about] other cultures,” she said. “So, when you meet personally, you can know that we are all human, we can live together in a peaceful way.”

The team believes its diversity will help attract future investors and strengthens its appeal to the startup ecosystem.

Looking forward, the group is seeking a new accelerator program to continue to develop BlockIT, using the $1,500 won from THE 50:50 STARTUPS Demo Day. They also hope to add a feature that allows third-party developers to create their own games, using BlockIT pieces, and to upload them to BlockIT’s online game platform.

They also need to get more money and begin testing. Abu Alfilat hopes to have a beta version of the product for testing by 2021.

Besides building groundbreaking technology, the mission and vision is to “build a diverse company — an equal company between Arabs and Jews, and women and men,” Dvir said, bringing on a “wave of diversity” and setting an example for others in the region.

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Written by Aakash Malu


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