Minister of Construction and Housing Yoav Gallant speaks at the SOSA Construction Zone launch. Photo courtesy of Israel21c

Innovative construction-tech hub opens in Israel

The Israeli launch of the world’s first construction-tech hub aims to provide construction companies and real-estate developers everywhere access to disruptive high-tech innovation.

Announced on April 27, the Construction Innovation Zone is a joint project of the Israel Builders Association, the Tel Aviv-based SOSA platform for global startup ecosystems, the Israeli Construction and Housing Ministry and the Israeli Economy Ministry.

“The State of Israel has proven itself as a leader in the world of high-tech and innovation, changing the way we communicate, the way we drive and now the way we build,” Minister of Construction and Housing Yoav Gallant said at the launch held at SOSA, where the hub will be based.

“We are championing the combination of new technologies to create new models of operation, improve methods of construction and accelerate production times. This initiative will lead to progress and innovation in the construction industry, and as more and more startups join, and as the program expands to new industries, many more breakthroughs will be created,” Gallant said.

Software and hardware solutions for the building process — as well as planning, managing and financing construction projects — are included under the new construction-tech umbrella.

“We are in a unique position to create the next ‘it’ technology field,” said SOSA CEO Uzi Scheffer. “Much like the efforts the Israeli government took to spark the auto-tech industry with grants and a positive regulatory environment, our partnership will help lay the groundwork for the fundamental disruption of the multitrillion-dollar global construction and real estate development industry.”

Connecting the two huge industries of construction and high-tech necessitates creating a niche ecosystem in Israel, involving startups, investors, academia, government agencies, regulators and service providers, Scheffer said.

“Most of the companies in this ecosystem will be Israeli, but not all,” he said. “We will start locally but we see huge opportunity for this program.”

Examples of Israeli companies that already offer high-tech products for construction include Dronomy of Tel Aviv and Beyon3D of Herzliya.

Dronomy uses off-the-shelf drones to inspect construction sites autonomously, creating 2-D and 3-D models to compare actual progress against building plans in order to spot discrepancies. “This will have a huge impact, and it doesn’t take much to implement it,” Scheffer said.

Beyon3D offers a fully automatic robotic manufacturing process to turn a 2-D drawing or 3-D model into a prefabricated building component using high-grade concrete and gypsum mixes and a self-leveling sealer for coating and finishing.

Scheffer said startups and established companies in the fields of project management, supply-chain management and financial technology, or fintech, also are of interest to construction companies.

The Israel Builders Association’s 2,000 members will help identify pain points, and will work with SOSA to create open innovation programs leading to pilots and partnerships with new and established companies with cutting-edge solutions for the traditionally conservative construction sector.

“The Israel Builders Association is trying to actualize the potential that the global high-tech community can offer to the ‘low-tech’ world of construction, which until now has remained under their radar,” said Chaim Feiglin, vice president of the Israel Builders Association.

Pain points in the construction industry are similar worldwide, yet Scheffer said SOSA searched unsuccessfully for construction-tech hubs elsewhere.

Given Israel’s robust and geographically dense innovation ecosystem and its collaborative business culture, situating the Construction Innovation Zone in the startup nation makes sense.

“Construction technology is really an unexplored vertical,” Scheffer said. “Through SOSA’s unique and extensive network we’re able to take new verticals and position them fast and efficiently in the center of the high-tech industry and connect them to the relevant people. We have the ability to help corporations tap into innovation taking place not only in their industries but in others as well.”

SOSA, founded in 2013 by 20 Israeli innovation pioneers, including Rami Beracha and Chemi Peres, helps corporations and individual members engage with startups across various verticals. SOSA will work with the Economy Ministry’s Israel NewTech program, which focuses on the development of full ecosystems involving stakeholders with a common vision.

“This initiative with SOSA, the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Construction and Housing will connect our industry with the high-tech world and help actualize the monumental potential which Israel can bring to the world of construction technology,” Feiglin said. 

Jumping into ‘StartUp,’ fatherhood

Adam Brody first came to fame 13 years ago as the half-Jewish, Chrismukkah-celebrating Seth Cohen in the Newport Beach-set series “The O.C.” This fall, he’s playing another Jewish character, Nick Talman, in the drama “StartUp,” now streaming on

“It’s offhandedly mentioned a few times,” Brody said of Talman’s Jewishness. But this decidedly more serious series, set in Miami, focuses on the tech, banking and cybercrime world, with Haitian gangsters thrown in. The milieu was a draw for him, as was shooting in Puerto Rico. “We shot on real beach locations. The texture of it is visceral and in your face,” he said.


Israeli startups on cutting edge of aging tech

The world’s fast-growing over-60 population needs tech solutions for issues ranging from retirement planning to health monitoring, and Israeli companies are stepping up to meet the challenge. Some of the most promising products were displayed earlier this year at the Israel Aging 2.0 startup contest during the Conference for Technologies for Aging Well at Bar-Ilan University.

“We see the entry of more and more high-quality Israeli ventures in this field, and more interest from the investor community,” said Dov Sugarman, the Israel representative for Aging 2.0, a global platform to accelerate innovation to improve the quality of life of the aging population.

The competition was part of Aging 2.0’s worldwide startup search. Winners of 40 local events were featured on the Aging 2.0 website for popular voting and expert judges’ review. A chosen few will vie for prizes and mentoring at a San Francisco event in October.

Sugarman said that Israeli entrepreneurs and marketers — who tend to be young — are becoming aware of the opportunities in aging technology.

“We have so many great apps, but most 85-year-olds don’t have smart devices, and we need to address that with new solutions,” he said.

The Aging 2.0 competition was hosted by the Conference for Technologies for Aging Well, a program of the Israeli Society for Aging Well of the Society of Electrical and Electronic Engineering in Israel.

The 250 members of the society, ranging from social workers to doctors to engineers, look at the future role of technology not only for health needs but also to help combat loneliness, aid in retirement planning, make devices like computers and cellphones easier to use, and provide assistance to caregivers.

“In the last four years, we’ve seen big progress in Israel’s aging technology,” said Yael Benvenisti, chairwoman of the society and the conference. “In Israel’s startup incubators, there are more and more companies with solutions for the aging population. Nobody used to think about this population, and now they see it’s a good market.”

From left: Dov Sugarman, Israeli rep for Aging 2.0; MyndYou co-founders Itay Baruchi, Ruth Poliakine Baruchi and Dan Sztybel; Yael Benvenisti, chairwoman 
of the Israeli Society for Aging Well. Photos courtesy of Israel21c


Sugarman, a Tel Aviv-based aging-tech consultant, manages strategic partnerships for SafeBeyond, a platform for creating and storing personalized messages for distribution later in life or after death. SafeBeyond pitched at the first Israeli Aging 2.0 competition last year.

He noted that monitoring, sensing and tracking technologies — delivered via apps, smart TVs and robots, for example — is becoming critical in extending the independence of people in declining mental and physical health.

“The megatrend is aging in place [aging at home], and we need technology for that,” Sugarman said. “We’re seeing activity in Israel across all those spectrums. I expect that 2016-17 will see Israeli companies playing a growing role in global innovation and the generation of new business ideas.”

The U.S. caregiving market is estimated to be a $279 billion opportunity, with some $100 million in venture investment going to tech-enabled home care in 2015. 

Israeli startups are making significant contributions in this aging-tech sector, and here are 11 to watch.

MyndYou: Winner of the Aging 2.0 Israel competition, MyndYou is developing a mobile platform to help people with early stage cognitive deterioration maintain independence. The monthly subscription platform will monitor cognitive, physiological and behavioral parameters, alert family members to changes and offer actionable insights, according to CEO Ruth Poliakine Baruchi.

A $1.2 million funding round is going toward finalizing development and launching in the U.S. next year; the startup is now in the ICONYC Labs accelerator.

Vitalitix: Following a new phenomenon called “crowd-caring,” the Vitalitix social-responsibility platform provides three-way communication among seniors, caregivers and community “social angels,” as well as volunteers from existing networks. The idea is to reduce loneliness, improve safety and allow more freedom at home and out. The senior can access the app, now in beta, through any wearable device or smartphone.

Pharmpool: Pharmpool is developing a mobile app that evaluates the safety of a particular drug therapy regimen for a specific patient, and includes features to increase medication adherence and management.

Steps&: Steps& has created a virtual smartphone assistant who guides and encourages physical therapy patients through home exercises. The interface, managed by the physical therapist, includes instructional videos, a motivation boost, and goal-setting, pre-scheduling and tracking features.

Kytera: Kytera, a graduate of the Microsoft Ventures Tel Aviv Accelerator, is working on a smart wristband and motion-sensor technology to monitor seniors who are aging at home. It automatically detects and alerts to “stress situations” that vary from a person’s usual activity patterns. It’s being piloted in the United States ahead of commercialization by the end of this year.

AbiliSense: According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, 1 in 3 people from age 65 to 74 has hearing loss and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing. AbiliSense is developing apps that continuously listen to the world around the user, analyze the sounds and transform them into alerts — delivered to smartphones, wearables and other devices — ranging from “the doorbell is ringing” to an emergency SOS.

HelpAround: Founded in Tel Aviv in 2013, the HelpAround platform for chronic patients and caregivers enables organizations to match patients with appropriate resources to improve access to care. The founders applied their knowledge of mobile health and data-driven, targeted advertising to build a smart “safety net” of helpers for chronic patients similar to the way ad tech pairs buyers with sellers.

HelpAround was one of four Israeli startups chosen as regional finalists in the 1776 Startup Challenge, and visited Washington, D.C., in June for the global competition.

Mybitat: Mybitat, a company in Herzliya, partnered with Samsung to develop a suite of smart-home solutions aimed at helping the elderly remain at home longer with better quality of life. Advanced sensors, cloud-based software and behavior analytics monitor daily routines and wellness. If a change in behavior or health is detected, the system alerts preselected contacts.

Perlis: Haifa-based Perlis is developing an artificial intelligence and robotic system to identify early symptoms of diseases commonly affecting the elderly, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The system serves as a support tool for physicians, caretakers and family to address health problems quickly enough to enable the elderly to retain independence at home.

E2C: Easy to Connect (E2C) in Ramat Gan offers a Basic smartphone (available in the United States and Israel) and a Basic tablet (available in Israel) designed to help seniors easily access the latest communication technologies with large print, one-button navigation and other streamlined processes. A Basic smart TV and Basic smartwatch are coming next.

PowerTags: PowerTags are miniature low-cost wearable tags providing location-based tracking capabilities for institutional caregivers of the elderly, among other applications. A proprietary “position engine” presents the tag’s real-time and historical movement patterns on a cloud-based dashboard viewable on smartphones, tablets and laptops. An emergency alert button is embedded in the tags. 

Lebanon goes digital

This article first appeared on The Media Line.
“Ironically everything that makes Lebanon a tough place to live makes it a good place for a start-up,” quipped Nasri Atallah, a partner in the Lebanese media publishing firm Keeward. “There are a lot of very talented people who have few opportunities and are pushed into starting their own thing.”
Lebanon may not be the ideal place for entrepreneurial growth, but the country has a growing tech-start-up industry that is starting to attract international attention. 
At a British Embassy celebration for the Queens’ birthday earlier this month, the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub — a joint initiative between the UK government and the Lebanese Central Bank — announced the winners of a start-up accelerator. Forty-five small and medium Lebanese start-ups had been chosen from over 150 to undertake a 4-month training program. This is on the back of a push by the Lebanese government to foster a healthy tech sector and encourage entrepreneurship. 
In a statement at the ceremony, Tom Fletcher, UK ambassador to Lebanon, highlighted the need for the British government to help Lebanese businesses forge strong ties with international firms and networks. 
Keeward, who employ around 46 people in Lebanon, was one of the recipients of the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub accelerator. Atallah explained that just a week after being told of their place on the program, the intense program of entrepreneurial MBA style courses, networking and business discussions had already started. At the end of the first phase, 15 of the firms will be taken to London to continue their development.
“The education aspect is great and the network angle is great but just having the stamp of approval of the Central Bank and the UK government is a motivating factor,” Atallah told The Media Line.
Atallah thinks that the UK government has seen that the next Google, Amazon or Alibaba is going to come from somewhere unexpected, so they are actively looking to support and build links with potential business leaders all over the world. The UK-Lebanon Tech Hub program also has the explicit aim of increasing employment in Lebanon and directly contributing to the country’s economy.
Over the last few years the Lebanese government has started to take a proactive approach to developing its own answer to California’s Silicon Valley. The move started in August 2013 when the Lebanese central bank issued a circular providing support for commercial banks and venture capital funds to invest in technology start-ups, incubators and accelerators. Among a large raft of measures, the law assures 75% of the cost of bank loans to start-ups. This lowers the risk to banks for investing in potentially risky but profitable start-ups. The aim was to encourage investment in the sector and to free up credit for entrepreneurs to pursue new ideas. After just 7 months funds in excess of $400 million were available to business leaders with new, inventive ideas. 
A second major boon for start-ups came earlier this year with the opening of the Beirut Digital District (BDD). It is located just off the capital’s still recovering downtown area, devastated in the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990. BDD has quickly became the center for the growing digital and creative industries, attracting a number of major business partners such as Touch– a major Middle Eastern telecommunications company. Both small and large firms have moved to the expanding site, which mixes offices, conference space and residential homes into one place.
However, despite financing and support there are still challenges ahead for Lebanon’s fledgling tech-firms.
Nassib Ghobril, an economist at Byblos Bank – a major Lebanese commercial bank – expressed concerns that the huge funds now available could lead to a bubble. 
“Will that encourage creativity and entrepreneurship? I certainly hope so,” he told The Media Line. “I’m fully for this sector but I have concerns – there is too much money for too few deals. You have to assess the quality of the deals and then get the cash to chase them, not the other way around.
Atallah also admitted that he too had been concerned about the large scale of the funds the Central Bank were making available. However, when one of the projects that Keeward was running got funding through the system, Atallah says he saw first-hand the rigorous checks and level of due diligence that was required in order to qualify for the money. He says that this went some way to easing his mind that the banks were investing responsibly. 
Beyond the scale of the funding now available in Lebanon, Ghobril says Lebanon needs to strengthen intellectual property rights and protection of minority shareholders in venture capital firms. In addition, he said, it is very hard to liquidate a company in Lebanon. “It takes around six years and a large amount of bureaucracy and paperwork,” he said.
Ghobril believes the key to fixing these issues is simply political will to improve legislation. However, Lebanon has now been without a president for over a year and parliament is often blocked and inefficient, which doesn’t bode well for changes in these areas. 
Despite these concerns, the Lebanese are resilient businesspeople and the achievements to date, even without large levels of assistance, point to a bright future. If these funds and support systems can continue to foster the growing tech start-up economy then Beirut’s Digital District could soon be the home of Lebanon’s answer to Bill Gates. 

Overheard at the DLD Tel Aviv Digital Conference

“Hey, Jackson! How’s your startup coming? Still living the dream?”

“We’re not really fancy yet. We still need to have that discussion.”

“Let me be Israeli for a minute and not be politically correct.”

“Let’s do it after Rosh Hashanah. Don’t let me forget, dude.”

“It’s good to laugh about Microsoft, just like it’s good to laugh about Yair Lapid.”

“They’re a pain in the ass, but you can’t get rid of investors. It’s very hard.”

“Really? People want to monitor their urine on their iPhone?”

“You’re kidding, how much?” “I don’t know — you’ll have to ask them. But an incredible amount.”

“My nephew was in this unit. They give them super hot projects like Iron Dome. Now, after that, everything looks easy.”

“The Chinese are hungry. The Thai are not so hot on Israel, but the Chinese are. So are the Taiwanese.”

“There’s so much money here on this small island.”

“I don’t care where you find them, just find me the startups.”

“I know someone who knows the woman who was almost kidnapped in Jerusalem.”

“If you get caught without a business card, you’re gonna get f—ed, man.”

“It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for him, because he has high blood pressure.”

“No, she couldn’t come. She’s doing a hackathon in Westfield over the weekend.”

“Look, if you want, you could have a presence for a couple thousand dollars.”

More from the conference: 

10 Israeli startups to watch

Roojoom is the latest buzzword you need to know for online content. It’s a new Israeli platform that helps publishers, businesses and  individuals curate Web content, organize it and guide readers.

Sounds similar to Flipboard? Marni Mandell, head of business development for Roojoom, said that while Flipboard lets people curate their favorite stories into a personalized magazine as soon as they click on a link, the reader is led elsewhere on the Web. Roojoom readers stay in a pre-organized content space even when they click on a link or hyperlink, leading to increased engagement and improved click-through rates.

“It keeps people on topic even if they go off topic,” Mandell said. “Roojoom is like a guided tour on the Web. It is going to change the way people read online.” 

The new technology won Most Promising Start-up at Microsoft Ventures Tel Aviv Accelerator’s graduation party in November. Roojoom joined nine other startups in the accelerator’s third program that helps new companies create world-class products and services and take a significant leap into the global marketplace.

At the program’s Demo Day, international and local media came to have a peek at the cool new technologies. The other companies to have concluded the accelerator program that are likely to snag headlines in the near future are: Appixia, CellMining, ConferPlace, KitLocate, Navin, MetalCompass, Kytera, Semperis and Vubooo.

“We are building extraordinary startups around the world,” Microsoft Ventures Senior Director Zack Weisfeld said. “One of our biggest strengths is our unique partnerships with enterprise customers and our ability to provide startups with unparalleled access to markets. We’re giving startups a head start.”

MetalCompass has already taken the mobile gaming industry by storm with its groundbreaking technology that lets users play in a real environment with their smartphones. 

But Jonatan Mor, CEO and co-founder of MetalCompass, said the Microsoft course helped narrow their focus to “partner with other companies from all around the world that use our solution, and we’re helping them create the next generation of entertainment products.”

Vubooo — the largest interactive engagement platform for pro sports fans — joined the program with an already growing customer base of more than 500,000 Android users on its beta platform.

Still, Itav Topaz, Vubooo CEO and co-founder, said the accelerator had much to do with the company’s recent achievements.

“The progress we have achieved in four months is truly amazing and would have taken us at least a year to get to the place we are now,” Topaz said. “The accelerator is like a co-founder of the company. Its goal is that we succeed.”

Guy Schory of eBay, a partner with Microsoft Ventures Tel Aviv Accelerator, said it has been inspiring to see the startups that come out of the accelerator program.

“We are proud to have been a part of it,” he said. “Combine this highly talented batch of entrepreneurs with world-class mentorship and the creative energy of the ‘startup nation,’ and you’ve got a tremendous springboard for success.”

Microsoft Ventures runs accelerator programs for early-stage startups or first-time entrepreneurs around the globe. Its Tel Aviv Accelerator, opened in April 2012, has graduated 34 companies so far.

Eighty-five percent of the first 24 startups from the first two cohorts raised an average of $1 million in funding within half a year of graduation. Five of the 10 most recent graduates received an average of $1 million in funding or formal proposals even before the latest four-month program ended.

“The accomplishments of our third round of startups, the rising number of major multinationals participating in the program and the significant amounts of funding already achieved all point to the increasing success of our program,” said Hanan Lavy, director of Microsoft Ventures Accelerator.

“We’re even seeing companies which are skipping the seed stage and heading straight towards A-round funding — a testament to the quality of the entrepreneurs in this batch.”

The 10 recent graduates were picked from a pool of 380 candidates. They include indoor location-based services, cloud recovery, tele-care solutions for the elderly, guided Web browsing and augmented-reality gaming.

Navin, a crowd-sourced navigation platform/app that works indoors and out, and KitLocate, software development infrastructure that allows companies to provide location-based services using minimal battery power on mobile devices, believe they have something new to add to the navigation technology field.

KitLocate CEO Omri Moran said the Israel Defense Forces trains people to find new ways to navigate out of different situations, and that has helped Israel become a powerhouse in navigation technologies. 

Most companies joined the accelerator program with an idea. 

ConferPlace, the first conference platform that delivers a full conference experience online from anywhere in the world, officially launched at the graduation. The company started in March 2013, introduced a beta version in July and went live in November.

“The mentors in the program helped us focus our path, finding exactly where we want to be,” said Hilla Manor, CEO and co-founder.

Six weeks after Better Place bust, some Israelis still bullish on electric cars

It was perhaps the biggest startup failure in Israel’s history.

Five years of bombastic hype. $850 million of funding burned. Networks planned in at least seven countries. A founder who spoke of changing the world.

When the electric car company Better Place declared bankruptcy in May, it marked an unhappy, though perhaps unsurprising setback for those who dreamed of Israel revolutionizing the global auto industry and freeing drivers from the tyranny of volatile oil prices.

After so public a downfall, it was reasonable to wonder if and when Israel’s electric car industry would rise again.

The answer: six weeks later.

Two initiatives are now trying to salvage the remains of Better Place and keep battery-powered rubber on Israel’s roads.

Last week, the solar energy entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, in partnership with the Association for the Advancement of Electric Transport in Israel, won a bid to buy Better Place’s Israeli infrastructure and intellectual property for about $11 million. Abramowitz will be the new president of Better Place and Efi Shahak, AAETI’s chairman, will serve as board chairman.

Meanwhile, Electric Vehicle Environments — known by the acronym EVEN — plans to import electric cars and motorcycles to Israel that will be able to use the 2,000 Better Place charging posts already installed around the country. Rather than the single model offered by Better Place, EVEN will offer seven cars ranging from the luxury American vehicles made by Tesla to the Indian compact Mahindra Reva.

“The issues that exist in the States don’t exist here,” said Marc Harel, who manages EVEN in Israel. “Vehicles aren’t going more than 125 miles. The one place you might go, Eilat, we can put a charging station in the middle.”

With its innovative solutions to problems that had long confronted electric car makers, Better Place, led by its exuberant and self-promoting CEO Shai Agassi, had raised hopes that a viable alternative to fossil fuel-powered transportation was within reach. But despite its high-profile flop, entrepreneurs continue to put money behind their faith that a small country like Israel is an ideal market for electric cars.

Abramowitz hopes to transform Better Place from a large car retailer to a slim infrastructure operation managing the charging posts and the company’s battery swap stations, where drivers can exchange a spent battery for a fresh one in about the time it takes to fill a gas tank.

The company will be run more like a startup, with 50 employees instead of the 300 it had before the bankruptcy. The slimmed-down operation will operate 15 swap stations, down from 30, and have a budget of just $12 million per year.

Better Place “tried to conquer the whole world,” Abramowitz said. “We’re not doing it that way. We’ll serve the Israeli market and grow it organically.”

Both companies have a long way to go, and a lot of skepticism to overcome, to prove that electric cars have a bright future in Israel. Among those obstacles are government regulations that could mean the difference between success and failure for both ventures.

Harel hopes to begin importing Teslas at the end of this year, and to start selling Mahindra Revas in Israel a few months later. But in order to import the cars, he’ll have to pay a $2.5 million deposit to the government.

“In Israel it’s one obstacle after another,” Harel said. “This is an extremely challenging market to deal with. The Transit Ministry has put a lot of barriers to entry.”

Abramowitz, meanwhile, will have to prove that investing in a network that failed two months ago isn’t just throwing good money after bad. He is still trying to raise the money to buy Better Place, and said 5,000 electric cars will have to be on the road within two years for the company to break even. Better Place sold only about 1,000 cars.

Harel and Abramowitz are lobbying to extend a tax benefit, due to expire at the end of the year, that offers electric car importers a vastly lower rate than their gas-fueled competitors. Currently, importers of electric cars pay an 8 percent tax, while gas cars pay 83 percent.

Abramowitz also hopes to convince the government to adopt Better Place’s network as a national infrastructure project, a designation that would provide a range of benefits to help the industry develop, including loan guarantees and a more favorable regulatory environment. Abramowitz and Shahak also want the government to populate its car fleet with electric vehicles and give electric car drivers benefits like free parking.

The government has not agreed to these proposals, telling JTA that the relevant ministries will wait to see what happens before taking a position. But even if they do, skeptics remain unconvinced that either company has hit on the appropriate model.

Haaretz automotive columnist Yoav Kaveh, while conceding that electric cars eventually will be the norm, said the jury is still out on how best to keep the batteries charged.

“We need to see if it’s going to be battery switching, a fuel cell or a smaller battery,” he told JTA.

Harel says Mahindra Reva and Zero Motorcycles, a model that can plug into a regular home outlet, solve Kaveh’s problem. And even though another charging method might offer some benefits, the Better Place network has the advantage of already existing.

“This is a national program that could make Israel a leader in electric cars,” Shahak said. “We should take this infrastructure and keep it running. It would be a shame to throw it away.”

Showing off The Israel Conference

The Israel Conference  held at the Luxe Hotel on Sunset Boulevard May 30-31 was the largest gathering I’ve ever seen of … Israelis in suits.

Beyond that, the two-day event was a persuasive showcase of Israeli innovation and how companies from all over the world — including Procter & Gamble (P&G), IBM and Deutsche Telekom — are opening research and development offices in Israel to bottle some of the magic of the startup nation.

Organized around a series of panels on broad subjects such as “Big Data,” “Mobile Everywhere” and “Smarter Cities,” the conference was punctuated by very short presentations by individual company executives of new technologies. Outside the main conference room, booths (tables, really) were set up for companies that wanted to showcase their products or new technologies. Among them was SodaStream (, the carbonated water dispenser that has made deals with Crystal Light, Ocean Spray and KitchenAid. (Admit it, you almost bought one at Bed Bath & Beyond!) SodaStream was the first Israeli company to have a Super Bowl commercial and boasts one of the most successful IPOs of an Israel-based company.

Looming over the Israel Conference was the big question: Are Israeli companies best suited to just being startups that develop new technology — to be bought out by larger global companies who can better market and deploy and distribute their products — or should these companies be allowed to mature in Israel, creating jobs and industry there rather than merely for export? It’s a question that made headlines with Google’s recent purchase of Waze, the Israeli traffic app, for what media reports have pegged at more than $1 billion and the promise that its headquarters will remain in Israel for now.

The answer, according to speakers at the conference, was: Both. Israel must continue to be a place where research and development is paramount, bringing new technologies and products to the market (and leading to large payouts for its founders). At the same time, Israel needs to develop a mature base and infrastructure for companies to keep their businesses headquartered in Israel.

The conference, which attracted more than 600 attendees, has become a major shmoozefest. I collected some 25 business cards — almost all from CEOs — and that was without really trying. There were American venture capital investors, gaming executives, even some former and current Hollywood agents. This was a room full of people talking about Israel with no mention of “the situation” or “the territories” or even the Charedi. (The most politically charged conversation related to income equality created by tech execs’ exit packages.)

So what is it that makes Israel so conducive to successful startups? Lital Asher-Dotan, who established P&G’s Israel House of Innovation, the company’s first R&D center in Israel, spoke of the country’s “culture of entrepreneurship, where everything is possible. They don’t take no for an answer.” Her P&G colleague, Sophie Blum, added, “Israel is global-oriented from day one, always forward-looking.”

Shelley Zalis, CEO of Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange, a research firm, perhaps put it best when she said, “It’s the chutzpah factor … Israel is all about, ‘Act now!’ ”

Dov Moran, an Israeli who invented the USB flash drive, said at the conference that innovation is not hard.

“Look all around you. There are problems crying out for solutions!”

Moran explained that he got the idea for the flash drive when he was going to give a presentation and the technology failed and destroyed his presentation. After that, he vowed he would find a way to keep his presentation on him. Solutions to annoyances — that’s invention, he said.

In Israel, Moran said, “There are a plethora of good ideas fueled by a [vigorous] exchange of ideas.”

So, what were my takeaways from the conference, which was organized by Sharona Justman, the managing director of L.A.-based STEP Strategy Advisors, and co-chaired by Yossi Vardi of Israel’s International Technologies (founder and seeder of more than 60 high-tech companies, including the early instant-messaging company ICQ, now sold to AOL)?

Overall, it struck me that some of the most interesting technologies are not about inventing the wheel — rather they just make the wheel roll better. So, for example, WalkMe ( can provide online how-to guides from a company in real time as you do any task — saving companies on customer service calls, tech support and returns of merchandise. Pango (, not only tells you about parking availability at public and private spaces in real time based on your location, but also incentivizes you to alert the service when are about to leave a spot by awarding points and prizes. Paperless Proposal ( is a collaborative platform for sending presentations. (Think of it as YouSendIt for PowerPoints.)

Here are some other things I learned at the Israel Conference: Most of the 3D motion technology (à la Wii and Kinect) was developed in Israel. Procter & Gamble has an office in Israel for R&D, as does IBM, which has been there for 62 of Israel’s 65 years.

Apps are an $80 billion industry (that’s with a “b”), and social gaming (i.e., Words With Friends) is 59 percent female and overwhelmingly mobile driven, so there is a great need for more women executives and developers.

And there are 40 million dog owners in the United States, 80 percent of whom leave their pets at home for four hours or more and feel guilty about it. Wonder what that last statistic has to do with Israel? An Israeli firm is launching DogTV, the first channel of programming for dogs to watch while you’re out of the house. Don’t laugh (OK, it is funny) but Dish Network is going to beam DogTV ( into 20 million homes. So who’s laughing now?

What was striking was in how many diverse fields Israelis and Israeli-developed technology are making an impact.

Ynon Kreiz, chairman of the board of one the top YouTube multichannel distribution networks and production facilities, Maker Studios ( ), spoke of the emergence of video content as “a whole new revolution” delivered to people all over the world in real time. According to Kreiz, 100 hours of video are being uploaded every minute, and there are large fortunes to be made for small, even stupid jokes that people enjoy. (Don’t believe him? Check out Snoop Lion — formerly the rapper Snoop Dogg — as Moses battling Santa in “Epic Rap Battles of History”).

In medical science, there were presentations from OraMed (, which focuses on the oral delivery of medicines such as insulin; SureTouch (, maker of a new, simpler device for breast exams; and Dario (, a diabetes management system.

In a panel on “Smarter Cities,” we got a look at Israeli company Mer Systems’ ( control room for city-wide security and communication, which is being tested in Buenos Aires; and CanarIT, an inexpensive multisensor air quality monitoring system from AirBase (

Finally, there were some technologies I simply can’t wait to use. There was Tako (, a Dropbox for apps, which Ross Avner, co-founder and the former head of Yahoo! Games, says will be out of stealth mode in 2014 and which will allow you to access any of your apps on any of your devices or home screens. Appeo ( is a virtual services market that works 24/7 (there are several demos on YouTube). It will allow you both to have professional services performed, such as drafting a will or translating a document, and set up a virtual company providing those services. Then there’s Magisto (, an online video editing software that brings Instagram-like simplicity to making your videos look more professional.

I was particularly taken with Wibbitz (, software that converts text into videos (i.e., you could be watching this article rather than reading it). Imagine that a search engine was automatically reading the article and grabbing images to go with it, while a voice-to-text software reads it.

And I am curious to see Moran’s latest project, Comigo (, an operating system that the flash drive inventor feels will not only topple Microsoft and Google but, in his words, “change the world.”

No one at the Israel Conference even blinked an eye when Moran made that ambitious, impossible-seeming prediction — not the American software and gaming executives in the room, not the venture capitalists and investors mingling outside, eating Israeli food or listening to the music of Steve Katz. It was a room in which, like proud Jewish parents, it was OK to boast, as if everyone there was family.

“What other conference,” co-chair Vardi asked,  “serves pickles on all the tables?”

Google Opens campus Tel Aviv

Startup spaces in Tel Aviv are getting to be a dime a dozen, but the prime minister doesn’t attend the opening of every single one.

The Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, however, was on hand at the December ribbon-cutting for Google’s Campus Tel Aviv, a one-floor shared work environment available to Israeli startups, developers and entrepreneurs at no charge.

Campus TLV, like Campus London, which opened nine months previously, is a part of the Google for Entrepreneurs program to foster global entrepreneurship and innovation. It offers access to Google’s devices and experts, as well as workshops and events for the local tech community.

This is the newest pin on the map of Google facilities in Israel, according to Paul Solomon, Google Israel communications director. Google opened its Tel Aviv offices in 2006. Currently, 270 developers work in this creatively designed eight-floor headquarters in the 45-story Electra Tower. Another 80 employees churn out new products and technologies at Google’s Haifa research and development (R&D) lab. 

“We also have a business operation here working with advertisers in Israel, Europe and Africa to build online businesses,” Solomon said.

Google Israel personnel have taken the lead in cultural preservation projects, such as digitizing historical archives of Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Campus TLV is another community-minded move for the California-based multinational corporation.

“We’re not looking for acquisitions or talent,” Solomon said. “If it were simply about acquisitions, we wouldn’t need to build Campus Tel Aviv. It’s about contributing toward future Israeli tech innovation and helping Israel maintain its reputation as a startup nation, and in doing so, making Web and mobile space even better.”

Google began as a startup in a garage, Solomon adds, and in many ways remains a startup at heart.

“Entrepreneurship is very much in our DNA, and we want to help the next generation to be successful. There is tremendous expertise here in Israel. Our goal is filling gaps in knowledge in a number of places.”

To distinguish the new venture from neighboring projects such as TechLoft, Hub TLV, The Library and The Junction, Solomon is unequivocal about what Campus TLV is not.

“There are many incubator and accelerator programs here, and it’s not another one,” he said, “though we do work with existing ones.”

In fact, part of the program is a two-week Launchpad pre-accelerator program for very early-stage startups that come through Campus TLV partner incubators, developer hubs and academic institutions.

In boot-camp style, Launchpad covers user interface, product strategy and technology, marketing, business development and analytic tools. The first participants are supported by UpWest Labs, The Junction and the Tel Aviv Angel Group. Up to 100 startups per year are expected to pass through.

“We recognize the huge talent that has made Israel the world’s second-largest center of tech startups, after Silicon Valley,” said Yossi Matias, managing director of Google’s R&D Center.

Meir Brand, managing director for Google Israel, Africa and Greece, added, “Our continuing investment and expansion in Israel are a testimony to the unique talent here, and we’re committed to helping increase even more the contribution of the Internet to the Israeli economy and society.”

As for Netanyahu, he termed the opening of Campus TLV “pure joy.”

“The world is flying fast, and we’re leading the way,” he said.

Don’t launch a startup till you play this game

Starting a company can sometimes be likened to a game of chance. Coming up with the right idea at the right time, when the market is neither saturated nor in financial free-fall, isn’t always under the business owner’s control, no matter how crack the team.

Ronen Gafni aims to enable entrepreneurs to surmount the vicissitudes of chance by turning the startup game into a real board game. FreshBiz is the result of eight years of development by Gafni, an entrepreneur who is taking his biggest gamble yet with a product that looks like the fabled Game of Life, but is far more practical.

FreshBiz players move through various business stages, from starting a new company to trading on the stock market. Dice throws and “business opportunity” cards help them advance toward the winner’s slot.

Instead of earning $200 by passing Go, players pay “toll passages” along the way. And you have only 90 minutes to do it. The game aims to simulate the world of business and to improve business behavior and industry acumen.

Unlike typical board games, competition is secondary to collaboration. “There can be more than one winner,” Gafni explained. “So it’s not about beating other people. It’s about finding creative ways to make enough money to get to the winner’s block. And if you collaborate, the chances are higher that everyone is going to get there.”

As players move around the board, they can start new businesses whenever they land on an empty lot. It may cost $2 million to open a business, but if you pay attention, you may have the opportunity to start a company for half price — if you find a partner. Similarly, you may be able to trade stocks more profitably if you team up with someone else.

Game translates across cultures

Sounds like you’d need an MBA to succeed in FreshBiz, but Gafni insists that “you’ll pick it up very fast. From the second game on, you’ll be more creative about how you play.”

You can buy the physical game for $50 or download an iPad version of FreshBiz for $7 so you can play against a maximum of four players in your living room or on the Web. But perhaps the best way is to join a FreshBiz workshop.

This is what Gafni has been doing for the last 18 months — running tests with real people around the world, to see how the game works and whether cultural differences matter. He has 30 facilitators (each person pays $700 to buy a kit, after which he or she can run as many workshops as desired) and has played the game in Israel, New York, Spain and Singapore; at banks and financial firms; and with professors and MBA graduates at New York University’s entrepreneurship program.


Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few differences in game play across cultures. That’s because “it’s a game about our core beliefs,” Gafni said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in India or Italy; we all go through the same experiences. In Israel, people might scream more, while in Europe the game might be quieter. But our insights are very much the same.”

Where is Gafni’s favorite place to play FreshBiz? “Madrid,” he said. “I don’t know Spanish, but I can see how the game is going by the movements made by these top executives.”

The game has, so far, been translated into Spanish, Russian and Hebrew, in addition to English, of course. Gafni estimates 3,000 people have played the game already in more than 100 sessions.

Tel Aviv ‘world tour’

FreshBiz officially hit Israel in July, when Gafni held a workshop with 200 entrepreneurs and business owners at the ZOA building in Tel Aviv.

The cost to join a FreshBiz workshop varies depending on the length, from NIS (new Israeli shekel) 150 (about $38) for a short session, up to NIS 2,000 (a little more than $500) for a whole weekend per person. Gafni hopes that organizations will pick up the tab for their top team members.

A workshop can include anywhere from 20 to 150 players. The facilitator does some lecturing with an overhead projector, but it’s mostly about sitting (or jumping) around the board.

Gafni’s goal is to have 1 million FreshBiz’ers in three years. The iPad app is key, he says, and it will comprise more than just the game. “There will be an entire community for entrepreneurial thinkers, where they can share knowledge and opportunities. They can create events and parties” outside of the digital realm.

His own entrepreneurial path started when he began trading stocks while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. He built a stock portfolio worth hundreds of thousands of shekels until the global financial meltdown. “It was a heavy blow for a young guy like me who was just getting started,” Gafni said. “But it also taught me the philosophy of recovery from a financial crisis.”

He and his wife later worked together in their own marketing consulting and branding company, where he saw “so many owners are stuck playing an old game of life and business. The world is changing around them, with technology, the economy, globalization, society — it’s not the same as it used to be — but they don’t know how to adapt themselves to this new game.”

Gafni, 39, was inspired to create FreshBiz after he realized the new world of business looked nothing like the landscape his parents knew. “They both worked in a bank for 30 years and then got their pensions,” he said. “I knew from the age of 10 that I wouldn’t do that. Knowing how much I’ll earn at the end of the month is boring. It’s cooler not knowing!”

Israel’s whiz kids

Mickey Haslavsky of Holon is only 18, but he’s already on his second startup.

“When I began my first startup at 16, I thought I was the only one creating Web sites at this age, but I was amazed to discover a huge community between [the ages of] 10 and 18 around the world, and I know of about 10 startups by Israelis my age,” Haslavsky said.

By invitation of Israeli high-tech godfather Yossi Vardi, Haslavsky recently gave a TEDx Youth@Holon presentation, “Teenage Nation,” about how he founded an online youth magazine.

One thousand people registered the day Haslavsky launched his second site, Machbesa (Laundry), this past spring. It’s a viral scheme for racking up genuine “Likes” on Facebook, pluses in Google Plus and views on YouTube.

“I want to bring the system to Brazil next because it has 51 million Facebook users and it’s spreading all the time,” said Haslavsky, who needs to find someone to run his enterprises come November, when he gets drafted for military service.

That shouldn’t be hard, as he is at the older end of the spectrum of Israeli teens helming a surprising number of high-tech ventures.

Mickey Haslavsky, 18, presenting at TEDx Youth@Holon.

Tal Hoffman of Haifa says Israel’s designation as the “Startup Nation” has encouraged young business developers. “Israel’s entrepreneur community is really big among my age,” said the 15-year-old founder of Itimdi, a not-yet-launched site where teens can meet and interact based on their interests.

Another 15-year-old, Gal Harth of Herzliya, was interviewed at TechCrunch Disrupt last year in San Francisco about his Doweet Web site (motto: “So, what do you want to do?”), described as “a fun and easy way to create activities with your friends.”

Harth said he founded Doweet with his pal Nir Ohayon in reaction to all their friends playing Xbox and PlayStation instead of engaging in social and physical activities. “This is a way to get together easily to go to the gym, go swimming, play soccer. It’s an app that links everyone in one spot.”

Harth and Ohayon got initial funding from Israel’s Rhodium, the first venture capital firm they approached.

“My passion is startups,” Harth said. “My passion is to change the world.”

Nurturing whiz kids

Enterprising Israeli teenagers have plenty of role models. Gil Schwed, founder of Israel’s Check Point Software Technologies and one of the world’s youngest billionaires, is a prime example. Schwed was taking computer courses at the Hebrew University before graduating high school. Drawing on experience gained in the Israel Defense Forces’ Unit 8200 intelligence corps, he invented the modern firewall at just 26.

Many up-and-coming entrepreneurs are eager to follow the same path, knowing that their military service can pave the way to successful careers. It’s no coincidence that many Israeli startups are co-founded by former army buddies.

However, programs to recruit high school students for high-tech military units focus on top achievers and tend to miss a considerable number of kids whose tech abilities far surpass their grades. Finding and cultivating these diamonds-in-the-rough has become a priority for StartupSeeds, a 1,300-member community for entrepreneurial Israeli teens founded in 2007 as a private philanthropy-supported project of the MadaTech-Israel National Museum of Science in Haifa.

One of its original members, Ido Tal, created a wildly popular Flash video game at the age of 14, but — perhaps because of his addiction to video games, he said — wasn’t exactly a model student. Likewise, Haslavsky, whose math teacher once told Haslavsky’s mother that the boy wasn’t going to amount to anything.

“From our research, nobody is dealing with this population of kids,” StartupSeeds Director Saar Cohen said. The organization is hoping to fill that gap by reaching out to parents of teens who show a talent for coding, Web design, video editing, animation, social media, security and other needed skills.

Through contacts in the military and academia, StartupSeeds brings these teens out from under the radar for the benefit of themselves and their country. “Everybody wants their kid in a special unit because if you get in, you’re set for life.”

This is just one of the organization’s programs devised to nurture and encourage Israeli whiz kids, with support from Israel’s high-tech industry and academia. In 2008, StartupSeeds was invited to lead a panel on entrepreneurial youth at the prestigious Israeli Presidential Conference.

“StartupSeeds promotes excellence, entrepreneurship and innovation among technological youth,” Cohen said. “We believe in strengthening their existing strengths by giving them tools and a platform for them to reach their potential. We help them make connections through an online community as well as physical forums.”

Every two weeks, StartupSeeds hosts meetings and lectures along with social activities. There are periodic regional conventions and field trips to army units and high-tech industries. Members get access to events such as TEDx, groups such as MIT Forum and competitions such as BigGeek, a live broadcast from the Microsoft R&D Center in Herzliya where four teams of techies scramble to develop a working application within 24 hours.

What is special about Israel that seems to encourage what Cohen calls a technological youth phenomenon?

“Everything here happens fast,” Cohen said. “Kids are encouraged from an early age to think on their feet, ask questions, be curious and not be afraid to try anything. The high-tech industry and the startup industry in Israel are very strong, and they take great pride in that, so it’s contagious. The army helps, too, because a large percentage of those in high-tech startups went to these special tech units.”

Boys and girls together

StartupSeeds, as well as Israel’s military, academic and industrial leaders, are eager to get more girls into the high-tech mix.

“Research shows there’s an early age at which kids decide what to go into, and everyone wants to get girls to choose technological fields,” Cohen said. “We recently decided to target this audience by starting an all-girls forum, offering meetings with female leaders in industry, to see if we can create a community. Our goal is to get to 30 percent girls [in our membership]. We think they are out there, and we are approaching them at the perfect age.”

For now, most teen entrepreneurs are boys, including recent immigrants such as Ben Lang, 18, who co-founded the Innovation Israel community for startups, entrepreneurs and investors; and, most recently, Mapped in Israel, a Web site pinpointing Israel’s many startups.

In March, Lang and three young colleagues ran a successful Hackathon Israel event, sponsored by Carmel Ventures and ROI Community; their stated vision was “to share the incredible high-tech scene in Israel with the entire world.”

“Because Israel is so small, it’s easy to create a startup and give life to an idea,” Haslavsky said. “In the media you see every day how startups sell their companies for millions of dollars, and that also encourages us. Every young entrepreneur wants to be a CEO. I think Israel is amazing in this field.”