Microsoft Israel's 'Garage' insists on creativity and execution

During Microsoft's last hackathon, engineers designed a drone-based system to advance the Ministry of Environmental Protection's efforts to combat illegal dumping.

August 16, 2019 08:12
3 minute read.
Guy Shalev, head of Microsoft Garage Israel

Guy Shalev, head of Microsoft Garage Israel. (photo credit: GUY SHALEV)

In a quiet corner of Microsoft’s vast research and development center in Herzliya lies a workshop with a difference.

Known as “The Garage,” one of several launched by the American software giant across the world, the workshop encourages Microsoft employees to freely develop ideas, experiment and innovate far beyond the limits of their company roles or disciplines.

Home to cutting-edge technology and machinery that is free to use, The Garage is open 24/7 all year-round to company employees to express their creativity. There is, however, one rule that sets the Israeli workshop apart from other experimental outlets.

“While other innovation hubs talk about innovation as a value, I believe innovation is a byproduct of something,” said Guy Shalev, leader of The Garage Israel. “Here, innovation must be tangible. Our slogan is creativity and execution – it’s about making things that really matter.”

Shalev says The Garage has been given carte blanche to innovate by Assaf Rappaport, the CEO of Microsoft Israel’s research and development center, with the company citing the creative freedom offered by the workshop as a significant contributor toward employee satisfaction.

“Tangible innovation means that if you speak to someone about it, they can easily understand the benefit,” said Shalev. “We focus on helping society, innovation that every person in Israel will appreciate.”

Although the workshop is open at all times, Shalev says creativity peaks with Microsoft’s annual global hackathon, the largest private hackathon worldwide and in Israel too, where approximately 900 employees participate every year.

While corporate hackathons are certainly trendy today, most winning ideas fail to proceed beyond the short-lived events. Shalev, however, says Microsoft is committed to bringing the most innovative solutions designed at The Garage’s hackathons to fruition, with the company dedicating significant resources to enable their development.

“We try to make hackathons meaningful. That is possible by focusing on customer pain and making sure you commit to the solution until you complete the task,” said Shalev. “With that mission in mind, we went to the Israeli ecosystem and asked different entities what pains they deal with.”

During Microsoft’s last hackathon, engineers designed a drone-based system to advance the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s efforts to combat illegal dumping.

While the ministry does currently use a fleet of expensive drones to identify dumped waste, it can take up to six months to analyze images and file a court report. Microsoft’s hackathon solution, however, uses artificial intelligence algorithms to rapidly generate a 3D model of the waste and analyze its contents in an acceptable format for court use.

The solution is currently in the advanced stages of development, backed by financial resources offered by the company.

“Innovation should start where the product is being used,” said Shalev. “Don’t stay in the building and say ‘I can innovate.’ Go to the field and see how technology is being used.”

Other products designed include a little robot developed in collaboration with ALYN Hospital to teach children how to operate motorized wheelchairs, a visual communication apron developed with Ariel University to assist children with autism, and an augmented reality solution for El Al airlines to accurately measure the volume of luggage with Microsoft HoloLens technology.
An additional goal of The Garage is to connect Microsoft product teams to outside companies and organizations, and promote a growth mindset by using products in an unorthodox manner.

“We worked with the Rabin Medical Center to predict and identify cases of elderly people who might fall and break their hips,” said Shalev. “We used a Microsoft Kinect camera to identify small changes in posture. Together with data and medical expertise, we can predict what will happen next.”

Another unorthodox application of Microsoft products by The Garage includes the extension of Azure Data Explorer, an analytics cloud platform for big data, to the property industry.

Utilizing travel data made accessible by the City of New York, Kusto uses an algorithm to evaluate where passengers are picked up and dropped off by taxis in the city. Identifying trends regarding where wealthy financial district employees sleep at night, for example, can offer valuable information for real estate companies offering expensive properties.

“If there are companies out there dealing with a meaningful challenge and The Garage might be able to help them somehow, they are more than welcome to approach us,” said Shalev. “We are truly looking to collaborate more with the ecosystem and we will listen to everyone.”

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