This Normal Life: Crowdsourcing the real Israel

A look at some of the most exciting up-and-coming Israeli start-ups.

Ourcrowd head Jon Medved with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, (photo credit: COURTESY OURCROWD)
Ourcrowd head Jon Medved with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat,
(photo credit: COURTESY OURCROWD)
Pick up any international press these days, and you might think Israel is on the verge of catastrophe – with sanctions from Europe just around the corner, boycotts being adopted by academia and beyond, terrorism back in vogue on the streets of Jerusalem and tourism in a tailspin.
You wouldn’t be faulted for assuming that businesses around the world would certainly soon be pulling out of the Start-up Nation – after all, who wants to fly into a war zone or consort with an international pariah? That assumption would be very wrong, judging from the turnout at the first conference put on earlier in December by OurCrowd, the Jerusalem- based crowd-investing platform.
OurCrowd makes it possible for individuals to jump into the once-exclusive venture capital game, as long as they have a minimum of $10,000 to invest. The company identifies promising start-ups; its investor members decide where to spread their money.
OurCrowd has generated plenty of buzz since it launched in early 2013, in no small part due to its energetic founder, Jon Medved – who has been either leading or backing Israeli hi-tech companies for close to 30 years.
(Among his better-known ventures: the VC firm Israel Seed Partners, and mobile social applications maker Vringo.) OurCrowd, though, may be Medved’s biggest success yet; in less than two years, the company has made it possible for 6,000 individuals to invest more than $80 million in 55 companies, with more on the way.
Make that $84m.: At the conference itself, some of the nearly 1,000 participants must have been doing some serious tapping on their smartphones; another $4m. was invested before the day was over.
Some of the receiving companies were on hand at the conference, which I attended.
Below are some of the most exciting up-and coming Israeli start-ups.
– VocalZoom has built a technology that filters out background noise so that when you talk on your cellphone in a loud public place, the call will sound crystal clear. VocalZoom works by picking out the vibrations coming from your face when you talk, in order to isolate just the voice.
Already working with Apple as well as Toyota, the company’s been around since 2010 – but recently received an additional $700,000 from OurCrowd.
– Cimagine allows shoppers to place a 3D picture of a piece of furniture from any website into an “augmented reality” version of their own living room. Cimagine does this by adding a “Visualize” button next to that sofa you’re interested in. Click it, then aim your phone’s camera at the spot you imagine the sofa should go; on your phone screen, Cimagine shows you how the sofa will look in the space. You can move to another part of the house, click Visualize again, and the furniture appears there; you can also swap out different pieces of furniture, change colors and more.
– Pixie: You might have heard about “beacons,” little plastic devices that broadcast where they are so you can track your luggage, phone, keys or kids. Pixie one-ups that by adding “distance” and “direction” – you won’t just know your car is nearby, but by using the accompanying cellphone software, you’ll be directed right to it.
A physical device about thumb-size, Pixie will cost $10-$15, has a battery that lasts 18 months and, most importantly, works indoors – which GPS can’t do. The beta is coming next month.
– Up-n-Ride is a new take on the wheelchair.
The trick: It rises up into a vertical position, so the person in it is essentially standing. That’s not only healthier than sitting all day, it also allows access to kitchen or bathroom counters, for example, where the disabled person can participate more normally in everyday activities.
Up-n-Ride is a friendly spin-off on another Israeli innovation, the ReWalk wearable “exoskeleton,” also backed by OurCrowd (which went public at the end of September). But while ReWalk can only be used by about 10 percent of wheelchair-bound people, Up-n- Ride is appropriate for anyone who using a regular wheelchair.
The first prototype will be out in February, with full production starting in 2016.
– Zula calls itself WhatsApp for small business, but it’s more than that. The pitch is that business teams routinely use 10 or more different digital tools – email, chat, WhatsApp, file sharing, Skype, conference calling and more; Zula brings all this into one application.
While not meant for “regular” users (unlike Whatsapp, it costs real money), it has one thing that’s been on my WhatsApp wish list for ages: a desktop version. I’m going to try it out with my own small team (i.e. my family).
– eVigilo started as a warning system for the rockets fired from the Gaza Strip; eVigilo manages the alerts, primarily text messages to your phone.
Now they’ve started selling it to civilian customers – for example, to alert people of a potential tsunami after an earthquake.
In this way, in 2010, exactly such a tsunami killed 600 people in Chile. This year, an earthquake and tsunami in the same location killed only five people– because the eVigilo alert system was in place. Other potential clients include gas and chemical plants where residents living nearby need fast alerts.
The system uses the location of cell towers, not your phone number – so if you’re out of town, you won’t get an emergency alert about something happening hundreds of miles away.
– Consumer Physics is the closest thing to science fiction I’ve seen in many years of technology reporting: It’s a molecular scanner that fits in the palm of your hand. This little black dongle – the smallest spectrometer ever built, the company says – uses light waves to analyze the chemical property of physical things.
Aim it at the pesto pasta on your plate, and it can tell you the ingredients and number of calories. It can be used to sense what’s in pharmaceutical packages (great for drug stores and law enforcement); really, anything other than metals. Connected to a cellphone, the device sends what it scans to the cloud, where it’s matched to Consumer Physics’s massive and growing database.
You’ll be able to pick one up as early as next year, for around $50.
AND THOSE are just companies OurCrowd is backing; the start-up ecosystem in Israel is a hundredfold larger.
Some of these companies may make it to the big time while others will fail; that’s the nature of venture capital. But collectively, they represent the continuing vitality of Israel’s hi-tech sector; a mass of brute brainpower that international business cannot – and does not – avoid.
Gonzalo Martinez de Azagra may have said it best. De Azagra heads Samsung Ventures in Israel; in the closing panel at the conference, he was asked why Samsung had opened an office in Israel only five months ago. De Azagra looked sheepish.
“We were already late in the endgame,” he told the audience, which was still packed after nine hours of pitches, panels and ever-replenishing snacks. But after arch-rival Apple acquired Israeli flash memory design firm Anobit for $500m. in 2011 and 3D sensor maker PrimeSense in 2013, Samsung had to follow.
In the last two years, first from Korea and now from Tel Aviv, Samsung has invested $30m. in seven start-ups.
There is just too much talent to not be here, de Azagra said, “and today we are coming in strong.”
That ought to be the real headline when reporting on Israel.
The author is a freelance writer who helps companies, brands and organizations become their own publishers in order to rank higher on social media and search engines;