Amid COVID-19, Israeli start-ups do wonders in New York

As virus cases plummet, executives for whom the pandemic provided motivation and business opportunity are tasked with pivoting yet again, this time to a post-pandemic world.

FOR NEW YORK City, the financial capital of the world, cyberattacks have always posed a major threat. (photo credit: LUCA RAJNA/PROGETTI FOTOGRAFICI)
FOR NEW YORK City, the financial capital of the world, cyberattacks have always posed a major threat.

NEW YORK – While the global economy was heavily shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis also unleashed a tidal wave of entrepreneurial activity, particularly among Israeli start-ups headquartered in New York City.

Indeed, they raised more than $1 billion during the pandemic, according to Israel Mapped in NY, an interactive map created by Israeli entrepreneur Guy Franklin in 2013, listing nearly 350 Israeli start-ups currently operating in New York.

Start-ups are a key source of job growth, innovation and economic resiliency. As virus cases plummet, executives for whom the pandemic provided motivation and business opportunity are tasked with pivoting yet again, this time to a post-pandemic world.

As COVID-19 forced people to hunker down in their homes, among the most disrupted industries was transportation, particularly normal day-to-day ride-sharing. Lyft and Uber reported an 80% drop in ridership in 2020.

Israeli ride-sharing service Via, which was founded in 2012 and is headquartered in Manhattan, responded to the challenging period with innovation, and as a result, has seen record growth in the past year.

A depiction of a shuttle service provided by Bubble, a joint initiative of Via and Dan. (credit: Courtesy)A depiction of a shuttle service provided by Bubble, a joint initiative of Via and Dan. (credit: Courtesy)

“We’ve been proud to partner with cities and transit agencies across the globe to use our software to make public transportation more flexible and resilient, expanding equitable access to transit for those who need it most, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shimrit Nothman, Via head of media and community relations. “This includes our work with partners like Green Bay Metro [in Michigan] to provide free rides to vaccination clinics, introducing an on-demand transit service with EMT to get healthcare workers to-and-from hospitals, and supporting essential workers in Jersey City with transport options when traditional public transit routes and hours were more limited.”

During the peak of the pandemic, Via launched a partnership with Bowery Mission, a nonprofit organization that feeds and shelters homeless New Yorkers. Using Via, Bowery Mission employees could book a free ride to or from the shelter between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., ensuring safe and affordable transportation for these critical workers. Via provided a discount to Bowery Mission riders, and then Bowery Mission reimbursed Via for the rides that their employees took. This service has since closed, but Via usage is still skyrocketing.

In Jersey City, home to nearly 17,000 households living below the poverty line who depend on transit, Nothman reported a 78% increase in ridership since the start of the pandemic. While New Yorkers have resumed riding the subway, Via ridership remains three times what it was before the onset of COVID-19, currently hitting more than 1,900 rides per day — approximately 70% of which are safely shared by multiple passengers.

Headquartered in New York and Tel Aviv, Israeli start-up Empathy, a digital platform that helps families navigate the complicated bureaucratic process after losing a loved one, emerged from stealth mode in April 2021, 13 months into the global pandemic, to reveal a $13 million seed round.

“We were launching our first product in the midst of the pandemic,” said Ron Gura, co-founder and chief executive of Empathy. “As a result, a lot of the research we had done before has changed. Empathy deals with end of life, and that is something that became much more vivid and clear to people during a year full of loss. Things like estate planning and anxiety around grief are topics that became much more present in our lives.”

Combining technology and human support in an application on iOS and Android for users across the United States, Empathy provides a digital companion application built to empower grieving families. Empathy’s software streamlines end-of-life bureaucracy, minimizes tedious tasks, and automates processes involved in the administration of an estate. Simplified steps with assistance from social workers and lawyers help families in completing action items, making informed decisions, and avoiding common mistakes. The experience is personalized for each user to ensure families are not overwhelmed by an excess of information.

“Mortality has always been present in our lives,” said Gura, an entrepreneur with over a decade of fintech experience including stints at PayPal, eBay and WeWork. “So it’s not like we were working on product A and come pandemic shifted to B. But loss has become more present during COVID. So, we did see a greater demand of interest. Instead of going just direct-to-consumer as planned, we were receiving requests for help from hospice, nursing facilities, even government officials.

“Grief is made hard by logistics and logistics are made hard by grief. When you put all of that under a pandemic situation, where there are limitations to where you can go, who you can meet, it really excels the aftermath of loss.”

Gura noted that the life-saving rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which cut the risk of death by nearly 95% in those age 50 and older, did not affect demand for the Empathy app.

“I have no concerns over the global pandemic ending decreasing the need for our product,” he said. “I want the pandemic to end just as much as any other human. I don’t think anyone has cured death. If you find anyone who can do that then let me know and we’ll be out of business.”

Gura previously worked in Silicon Valley, after eBay acquired his first company, The Gifts Project, in 2011. “It’s tough there. The mentality is different. It’s also a much larger time difference with Israel and a longer flight.”

He said nothing compares to New York City when it comes to launching a start-up. “The energy and overall drive is closer to home in terms of Israelis and New Yorkers. New York has great talent. It’s also the capital of life insurance, which is important for our company.”

Israeli start-up TytoCare, the healthcare industry’s first all-in-one modular device and telehealth platform for on-demand, remote medical examinations, chose New York City as their headquarters for similar reasons.

“We have nothing against any other part of the country, but certainly New York City offers a wide array of opportunity,” said Vice President and Head of Commercial (US) David Bardan. “It’s the largest hub in the US. Our engineering and development takes place in Israel, so there is a great connection to how our New York and Israel offices can work together. New York offers us a huge investor community, and New York City is an amazing place for any company to be, network-wise. It’s full of like-minded entrepreneurs.”

The TytoCare device, which uses AI and machine learning-based home diagnostics solutions and other patented technologies, first received FDA approval in 2017, but getting medical validation and bringing the product to the market was challenging, Bardan recalled. He said that COVID-19 hitting in 2020 was an accelerator for the company, partially because of eased restrictions on telehealth as a result of the pandemic.

“Years of legislation that would have probably taken the rest of the decade happened in a course of months,” Bardan said. “The pandemic really opened up the eyes of healthcare institutions across the US to adopt meaningful telehealth. What we consider meaningful telehealth is going beyond just audio and visual, and that’s introducing Tyto, our device, which can bring diagnostic capabilities into the examination.”

Bardan said that the pandemic brought a significant increase in the utilization of the platform from consumers and providers, and that telehealth allowed for more hospital beds to remain open in facilities overflowing with patients.

“On the consumer front, we saw over 500% increase during the pandemic,” said Bardan. “On the provider front, it was a 400% increase. We also have seen a shift from usage predominately among pediatrics pre-pandemic to 60% adults during the pandemic. The most commonly used examinations are lungs and temperature, which makes sense during COVID – those are the two things people cared about during the pandemic.”

Currently, the TytoHome product is offered both as direct-to-consumer through retail giant BestBuy, as well as business-to-consumer through healthcare insurers or systems. In a post-pandemic world, said Bardan, the company’s focus will remain on connecting patients with providers. “We’re not looking to pivot away from COVID,” he said. “We’re looking to build on top of this COVID era.”