Innofense: Defense Ministry breaks new ground with start-up push

The ministry’s push runs in parallel to similar efforts by the Mossad and the Shin Bet.

  THE MINISTRY of Defense building in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE MINISTRY of Defense building in Tel Aviv

The Defense Ministry is breaking new ground to utilize a start-up fund to develop innovative new solutions and technologies, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

In an interview at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, Innofense program head IDF Lt. Col. “D.” said that “every organization needs an innovative and ready-to-dash-out, start-up-style attitude in their organization.”

The ministry’s push runs in parallel to similar efforts by the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).

D. also said there is even some “cooperation with the Shin Bet and the Mossad between our various innovation staffs, with some of us investing in some of the same companies, and there are personnel that jump between the organizations,” but that it is important for the ministry to invest in start-ups that will tailor their work to its and the IDF’s unique needs.

View of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv September 21, 2016.  (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)View of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv September 21, 2016. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

'Israel is the start-up nation'

“Israel is the Start-Up Nation,” he said. “The Defense Ministry and the IDF also want to utilize the advantages of start-ups. Those preceding me in this role encouraged brainstorming and dialogue about how funds are being used with the defense industry and we decided to use Innofense as our platform for the Defense Ministry to work with start-ups.”

The Innofense chief described how certain elements of dealing with start-ups are different from the ministry’s standard procedure with defense companies like Rafael or Elbit. For example, the companies will want to keep the intellectual property relating to the start-ups to themselves. Also, the ministry must pay the start-ups part of the funds before they start, said D.

“We did an internal review about what needs are currently unfulfilled, what operational gaps exist and what new technologies can match up to those issues,” he said.

Next, D. said they brought the list of their needs to the SOSA business opportunity platform and Israel Homeland Security (iHLS), which have already been the main civilian sector bridge for the Shin Bet’s own start-up initiative in the Ashkelon-southern region.

The Defense Ministry and Shin Bet’s embrace of these other two partners in a deeper way is another sign of how open their operations in this arena have become.

D. said that the civilian businesses “put out notices to their distribution lists – which are much larger than those who look over the Defense Ministry Facebook page,” estimating they might have followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Next, he said, “they get responses, there is a short process to vet and then we ask candidates to show us proof of concept,” to demonstrate that the idea itself will work and has merit.

Once a start-up candidate is selected, “we accompany them, we assist them with accompanying technological and operational needs – including getting them special approvals and handling some bureaucratic business issues. We get them all the external things they need to succeed.”

After three months, the candidate start-ups are usually selected, and after six months, they present the proof of concept, said D.

“There is a cooperation between all the different arms of the IDF, so you achieve something in three months instead of taking years,” he continued. “The years paradigm comes from a very slow standardized mechanism with many protocols and rules. But in order to change these rules and still cover information security and other issues, you need to be someone who knows those rules in depth.”

Addressing the issue of why the ministry has turned specifically to start-ups, he responded: “They want to succeed and make a profit. We want someone who is hungry, with lightning in their eyes. From the first moment they wake up in the morning, they are committed to making their idea happen – and this can help me.”

“They bring forward a new idea,” he said. “That is the whole structure of a start-up. They are very flexible, agile and not limited. Forget about the rules and the lawyers. Every day, major things can happen and change 180 degrees and then back in the other direction.”

Moreover, “the resources we need to put forth to invest in these companies are much less – only NIS 170,000” per start-up.

There were some plans to launch all of this in 2017, but the launch was delayed and downplayed somewhat due to the coronavirus crisis. The first round of start-ups took a real hit, but the second round already met expectations.

16 start-ups have taken part in the Innofense program so far

There have been 16 start-ups to date. In contrast, the Shin Bet usually only has five start-ups per “class.” D. explained that “the IDF is much larger and the work is more diverse than the other defense agencies.”

He said the second round of start-ups had a 50% success rate for proof of concept and for the ministry’s desire to continue – considered very high. “Some already carried out their project,” he said.

After proof of concept, the ministry usually then invests a few hundred thousand additional shekels in each start-up.

One start-up idea involves drones. “It requires a lot to get them to take off safely and to get them to return – and to do this all efficiently. We could establish a special kind of platform for them from which they would know how to take off from and land automatically, as well as to recharge their batteries automatically. This could significantly increase their reliability and reduce the resources needed to be contributed to piloting them.”

In the medical field, there is a project to deal with soldiers who have a serious fever to help them handle the situation in the field without, at least initially, having to evacuate to a medical center. Another project is to help soldiers who have internal bleeding to most efficiently stop it in the field, also at least initially, without needing the assistance of a medical center. 

One fascinating example of a start-up idea that the ministry hoped to get ideas for was enhancing the IDF’s ability to understand “dog language.”

According to D, the idea was that the IDF’s special Oketz dog unit incurs high costs and requires a tremendous time investment for training each army dog and the soldiers who work with them.
Rhetorically, D. asked, “What if you could enable any Golani soldier, without any training, to speak to the dog, to understand the dog’s responses? Then you could utilize far more dogs.”
In the end, no one proposed a solution for this issue for this round, but hopefully they will in future rounds.Another start-up idea involves keeping various machines and items of electronic equipment cooler at a reduced size, so as to reduce their energy footprint, he said. Most electronics get very hot, and keeping them at a cool enough level to operate at smaller sizes would have both financial savings and help protect the environment.
D. said the solution could work for electronics in the many different kinds of terrain where the IDF operates.One simple new idea that is going forward could save the IDF millions of shekels simply by being more efficient and resourceful about the garbage removal process. “This would be a very large savings compared to the mere NIS 170,000 seed money,” he said.
Another example was simply incorporating a new idea for negotiating defense contracts that will regularly save the ministry money.
D. was then asked about larger problems of information security that could be created by opening up the ministry to more private sector partners, with the most famous disaster happening to the US when private contractor Edward Snowden publicly released a treasure trove of classified files.
D. said the candidates and any potential vulnerability are carefully reviewed by the ministry’s information security officer, and that for most of the process, the start-ups do not have any classified access anyway.
In addition, he said that, “once they have proof of concept success, then the start-ups go through an even deeper security review” for them to receive an official ministry defense supplier license.
D.’s own background has included a mix of serving in combat engineering capacities as well as handling logistics and employing different kinds of weapons for special operations units.

“MAFAT looks at dualities – the meeting point between technology and start-ups – with the end goal being a directive to get start-ups into its portfolio.”

IDF Lt. Col. D

He has an advisory body to help decide on the start-up ideas, made up mostly of around 20 colonels who all have special expertise in different relevant areas and arms of the IDF.

Part of the change making this program possible came around two years ago when a new department head was appointed.
D. works for the new department head and “improves the cooperation between MAFAT [Directorate of Defense Research & Development] and aspects of the defense industry, including accelerating processes.
“MAFAT looks at dualities – the meeting point between technology and start-ups – with the end goal being a directive to get start-ups into its portfolio,” he said.
The Defense Ministry expects to launch its fourth round of start-ups in the next month.