Crowdsourcing the Real Israel

by Brian on December 28, 2014

in In the News,Technology

Jon Medved and Nir Barkat (sm)If you were just to read the international press these days, you might think Israel was on the verge of catastrophe, with sanctions from Europe just around the corner, boycotts being adopted from academia and beyond, terrorism back in vogue on the streets of Jerusalem and tourism in a tailspin. You wouldn’t be faulted for assuming that businesses around the world would certainly soon be pulling out of the Startup Nation – after all, who wants to fly into a war zone or consort with an international pariah.

That assumption would be very wrong, judging from the turn out at the first conference put on earlier in December by OurCrowd, the Jerusalem-based crowd-investing platform. OurCrowd makes it possible for individuals to jump into the once exclusive venture capital game as long as they have a minimum of $10,000 to invest. OurCrowd identifies promising startups; its investor members decide where to spread their money. 

OurCrowd has generated plenty of buzz since it launched in early 2013, in no small part due to its energetic founder, Jon Medved, who has been either leading or backing Israeli hi-tech companies for close to 30 years. (Among his better-known ventures: the VC firm Israel Seed Partners and mobile social applications maker Vringo.) OurCrowd, though, may be his biggest success yet. In less than two years, OurCrowd has made it possible for 6,000 individuals to invest more than $80 million in 55 companies, with more on the way.

Make that $84 million: At the conference itself, some of the nearly 1,000 participants must have been doing some serious tapping on their mobile phones: another $4 million was invested before the day was over.

Some of the receiving companies were on hand at the conference, which I attended. Here are some of the most exciting, up and coming Israeli startups:

VocalZoom has built a technology that filters out background noise so that when you talk on your mobile phone in a loud public place, the call will sound crystal clear. They’re already working with Apple as well as Toyota. VocalZoom works by picking out the vibrations coming from your face when you talk in order to isolate just the voice. The company’s been around since 2010 but recently received an additional $700,000 from OurCrowd.

Cimagine allows shoppers to place a 3D picture of a piece of furniture from any website into an “augmented reality” version of your living room. Cimagine adds a new button called “Visualize” next to that sofa you’re interested in. Click it, then aim your phone’s camera at the spot where you imagine the sofa should go. Cimagine shows you on your phone screen how that sofa will look in the space. You can move to another part of the house, click Visualize again, and the furniture now appears there. You can swap out different pieces of furniture, change colors and more. 

You might have heard about “beacons,” which are little plastic devices that can broadcast where they are so you can track your luggage, phone, keys or kids. Pixie one-ups that by adding “distance” and “direction” – so you’ll not just know that your car is nearby, but by using the accompanying mobile phone software, you’ll be directed right to it. Pixie is a physical device about the size of your thumb, it will cost $10-15, has a battery that lasts 18 months and, most important, works indoors which GPS can’t do. The beta is coming next month.

Up-n-Ride is a new take on the wheelchair. The trick: it can rise up into a vertical position, so the person in it can essentially be standing. That’s not only healthier than sitting all day, it allows access to kitchen or bathroom counters, for example, where the disabled person can participate more normally in everyday activities. Up-n-Ride is a friendly spin off from another Israeli innovation, the ReWalk wearable “exoskeleton” (also backed by OurCrowd; it went public at the end of September this year). But while ReWalk can only be used by about 10 percent of wheelchair bound people, Up-n-Ride is appropriate for anyone who can use a regular wheelchair. First prototype will be out in February 2015, with full production starting in 2016.

Zula calls itself WhatsApp for small business, but it’s more than that. The pitch is that business teams routinely use ten or more different digital tools – email, chat, WhatsApp, file sharing, Skype, conference calling, and more. Zulu brings that all into one application. It’s not meant for “regular” users (unlike Whatsapp, it costs real money) but it has one thing that’s been on my WhatsApp wish list for ages: a desktop version. I’m going to try it out with my own small team (i.e., my family).

eVigilo started as a warning system for rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. eVigilo manages the alerts, primarily text messages to your phone. Now they’ve started selling it to civilian customers – for example, to alert people of a potential tsunami after an earthquake. In 2010, exactly such a tsunami killed 600 people in Chile. In 2014, an earthquake and tsunami in the same location killed only 5 people because the eVigilo alert system was in place. Other potential clients include gas and chemical plants where residents living nearby need fast alerts. The system uses the location of cell towers, not your phone number, so if you’re out of town, you won’t get an emergency alert about something happening hundreds of miles away.

Consumer Physics is the closest thing to science fiction I’ve seen in many years of technology reporting – it’s SCiO device is a molecular scanner that fits in the palm of your hand. This little black dongle, the smallest spectrometer ever built, the company says, uses light waves to analyze the chemical property of physical things. Aim it at the pesto pasta on your plate, and it can tell you the ingredients and the number of calories. It can be used to sense what’s in pharmaceutical packages (great for drug stores and law enforcement); really anything other than metals. Connected to a mobile phone, the device sends what it scans to the cloud where it’s matched to Consumer Physics’ massive and growing database. You’ll be able to pick one up as early as next year for around $50.

And those are just companies OurCrowd is backing – the startup ecosystem in Israel is a hundredfold larger. Now, some of these companies may make it to the big time; others will fail – that’s the nature of venture capital. But they represent the continuing vitality of Israel’s hi-tech sector; a mass of brute brainpower that international business cannot – and does not – avoid.

Gonzalo Martinez de Azagra may have said it best. De Azagra heads Samsung Ventures in Israel. In the closing panel at the conference, he was asked why Samsung had opened an office in Israel only five months ago. De Azagra looked sheepish. 

“We were already late in the end game,” he told the audience, which was still packed after nine hours of pitches, panels and ever replenishing snacks. But after arch-rival Apple acquired Israeli flash memory design firm Anobit for $500 million in 2011 and then 3D sensor maker PrimeSense in 2013, Samsung had to follow. In the last two years, first from Korea and now from Tel Aviv, Samsung has invested $30 million in seven startups. There is just too much talent to not be here, de Azagra said, “and today we are coming in strong.”

That ought to be the real headline when reporting on Israel.

This look at Israeli startup success originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post.

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