Microsoft Israel’s promising start-up accelerator

A look at Microsoft's program that fosters start-up companies with the prospect of becoming the "next big thing".

By
April 8, 2013 23:20
3 minute read.
START-UPS WORK together at the Microsoft accelerator in Herzliya Pituah.

Microsoft accelerator program 370. (photo credit: Niv Elis)

 
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Thirteen of Israel’s most promising start-ups all huddle in an office space in Herzliya Pituah each day, each hoping to develop into the country’s “next big thing.” Chosen out of an applicant pool of 300, these start-ups were hand selected by Microsoft for the second run of its accelerator in Israel, the first the software giant wholly owns and operates.

Over the course of four months, the start-ups gain mentorship, training, advice and $150,000 to $200,000 worth of software resources to develop their companies.

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“We went them all to develop into big and important companies, so that they can actualize their vision,” says Hanan Lavy, who directs the accelerator.

Of the first accelerator class, nine of the 11 companies have already raised an average of $900,000 in capital.

The model was so successful that Microsoft has replicated it in both India and China.

With only a few weeks left before its second class “graduates,” the accelerator gave The Jerusalem Post a special tour of some of the start-ups, which include tools to improve your photos (Pixtr) and cloud-based applications (Applango, Screemo).

Kitchenbug, for example, aims to make healthful cooking easier, helping people find what they want more easily while tapping into the Web’s obsession with recipes. With 2 billion searches a month, recipes are the second- most searched items on the Web.



“That’s why it’s so interesting: high demand, little supply and an enormous market,” says Dror Daliot, the company’s cofounder and COO.

The product is a Web-based plug-in for food blogs or websites that scans recipes, figures out exactly what’s in them and is able to present viewers with a nutrition label detailing the recipe’s contents. Not only that, but it takes out the guesswork, explicitly stating whether a given dish is good or bad for you based on FDA standards.

If a serving has too much fat or a moderate amount of cholesterol or is totally fine in terms of caloric content, the program lets you know.

In the future it could also be used to figure out, for example, if recipes are compatible with a specific diet, vegetarian or kosher, free of certain allergens or halal. The website already had 30 million hits since its launch.

On the other end of the spectrum is WSC, which makes professional sports videos easily customizable and searchable, and it can generate custom- made clips for sports enthusiasts.

Soccer fans, for example, could look up clips by play, have the program generate a montage of their choice and easily share it. That could be a boon to sports channels, which are trying to keep viewers who are increasingly turning away from television continue to watch their sports.

“Eyeballs are shifting to digital. It’s a different platform where everything is personalized, interactive,” says Daniel Shichman, the company’s CEO. Israel’s basketball league doubled the number of views when it applied the software, managing to get a whopping 10 minutes of engagement on average from viewers, all of which translates to big advertising dollars, he says. It could also be a great tool for leagues that are scouting for young talent, helping them sort through clips of amateur games to find the crucial plays.

Several of the start-ups in the class, such as Shopetti and SkyGiraffe, are still in “stealth mode,” waiting to perfect their products before they reveal their wares to the greater public.

When they graduate this month the companies expect to maintain a strong bond with the accelerator and its staff.

“It totally changed the way the product looks and what it does,” says Kitchenbug’s Daliot. “We learned to go outside our comfort zone.”

Having worked in start-ups before, he found that the guidance helped him avoid mistakes he might not have had the resources to otherwise avoid.

But it’s not just the formal mentorship that makes a difference.

“They take us out of our bubble and put is in an open space with other companies in the middle of the industry,” says Kitchenbug CEO Ofir Shahar. Collaboration with other companies dealing with similar issues helps them get things done far more efficiently, he says.

“Just being in the same room helps,” Shahar says. “Experiencing the energies of 12 companies in one space really contributes.”

The environment helps so much, in fact, that several of the start-ups are looking for joint office space so they can keep working together after they bid Microsoft farewell.

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