Obscure IDF Unit Steps Into the Spotlight

Long outshined by the more celebrated Unit 8200, IDF’s Intelligence Unit 9900 is very tech-heavy, and its elite soldiers are highly skilled in location-based technologies. Now that its fields of expertise are in high demand in Israel’s start-up ecosystem, 9900 is stepping out of the shadows

A recent meetup in Tel Aviv of Unit 9900 alumni
Courtesy of 9900 Alumni Association

It’s well known that IDF Intelligence Unit 8200 –Israel’s cyber and code-breaking version of the NSA – produces the cream of the crop of the country’s tech start-ups. The elite unit has spawned generations of hardware and software engineers, data scientists and coders that fill the ranks of Israel’s technology industry. Most of its operations remain cloaked in secrecy. The largest outfit in the Israeli army, 8200 is so prevalent in the start-up ecosystem that it’s even been called 'Israel’s Start-Up Machine.'  

But the accelerating shift toward technologies like autonomous driving, natural language processing, satellite navigation, image recognition, and augmented and virtual reality – where machines are taught to make sense of visual information and act appropriately on it – is bringing to the fore another Israeli intelligence unit whose grads are starting to make a name for themselves in Israel’s tech ecosystem – Unit 9900. Smaller than the more famous 8200, Unit 9900 is bigger than most other military intelligence units. Its alumni are experts at technologies such as GPS, machine vision, photo analysis, and even Cyber, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality.

Eyes in the sky

An alumni association created by veterans of Unit 9900, which specializes in gleaning intelligence from geospatial information, satellite and high-altitude surveillance images, and visual information from other sources, has recently started holding tech meetups for its veterans. Its official name is “Unit 9900: Terrain Analysis, Accurate Mapping, Visual Collection and Interpretation Agency.”  While vets from 9900 are now allowed to say publicly that they served in the unit, they are not allowed to go into detail about the work they did, the missions they took part in, or the specific technologies they used for missions. If 8200 is Israel's ears on the ground, 9900 is its eyes in the sky.

“It’s an excellent unit. Lots of start-up founders have come from 9900 in the past but they’ve never acknowledged themselves as unit vets. With machine vision and navigation now a part of our everyday lives, 9900 is becoming a lot more relevant,” says Avi Vaidman, a former 9900 officer and founder and CEO of Nucleai, a start-up that develops machine vision algorithms for computerized analysis of biopsies and that recently announced a $5M seed round.

Avi Vaidman, CEO of Nucleai
Avi Vaidman, CEO of NucleaiCourtesy of 9900 Alumni Association

Apart from a handful of articles in Hebrew in 2013 – one article posited that 9900's low profile in the Israeli tech ecosystem was because the unit's DNA was less entrepreneurial – not much else is publicly known about the tech chops of Unit 9900. But with big companies like Google, Uber, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and others pouring huge resources into computer vision for autonomous mobility, image recognition and augmented reality, 9900’s time in the spotlight might be approaching. “8200 grew on communication and cyber over the past 15 years, but now with machine vision rising, we’re starting to see the power of 9900,” Vaidman says. 

Vaidman may be right. According to data from Start-Up Nation Finder, the innovation discovery platform from Start-Up Nation Central, there are 255 currently active companies in Israel working in machine (or computer) vision, navigation and image recognition. This is up from 144 companies in 2013. A third of those (31%) are early stage, having recently raised their seed rounds. Venture funding in general for companies in those fields has boomed, going from $71.7M in 2014 to $268M by the end of 2017.

Promising start-ups from 9900 grads

It’s that kind of momentum that 9900’s alumni association is hoping to leverage and build on. Established by former unit commander Col. (Res.) Yossi Adler, the association held only its second meetup in late May in Tel Aviv. It’s planning to establish programs in entrepreneurship, marketing and community contribution, and has signed up high-profile tech firms as sponsors-partners, including monday.com (formerly Dapulse), Gett (formerly Gett Taxi) and Natural Intelligence, all packed with former 9900 grads. 

Not that 8200 is going anywhere. According to Start-Up Nation Central data, Israeli cyber companies garnered around 18% of worldwide venture-backed financing in 2017. While not entirely monolithic, a big part of that industry has ties to 8200. Big name grads include Checkpoint founder and CEO Gil Shwed, who invented the firewall, and Microsoft Israel R&D head Assaf Rappaport, a young army hacker who sold his cyber start-up Adallom to Microsoft in 2015.  8200’s alumni association is thousands strong, has regular meetings throughout the year, and has incubated more than 150 start-ups, says Inbal Arieli, a former 8200 vet and founder of 8200 EISP, its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Support Program. Members of 8200 EISP have even gone on a roadshow to the US.  A recent academic paper specifically about its effect on the Israeli ecosystem said that companies founded by 8200 alumni “have a higher propensity for autonomy, risk-taking, and innovativeness than industry peers.” Some of its alumni have written spy thrillers based on their time in the unit, including a new one (in Hebrew) by Daniel Shinar, one of Israel’s top tech investors and operators. 

9900 will have a long way to go before its impact on Israeli tech is as acknowledged as 8200’s is, but it is already widely recognized for recruiting soldiers diagnosed on the autism spectrum (the army says these soldiers have remarkable visual and analytic capabilities, and “can detect even the smallest details, undetectable to most people.”). 

Some promising start-ups are starting to emerge from 9900 grads. Kirill Slavkin, a former technologist at 9900, is the co-founder and CEO of Annoto, an annotation and chat tool for online video platforms. Annoto is growing in the online US education market, and is in partnership talks with large video platforms providers. Actiview, whose COO and CTO are 9900 grads, allows companies to evaluate a potential employee’s performance by testing their responses to real workplace challenges in a mixed reality simulation. PlanetWatchers says it combines “geospatial technology, machine-learning algorithms and multisource satellite sensors to monitor large-scale assets at a regional and global scale.” 

Satellite image of a suspicious facility in Syria. Unit 9900 is Israel’s eyes in the sky
Satellite image of a suspicious facility in Syria. Unit 9900 is Israel’s eyes in the skyAP

PlanetWatchers was founded by former 9900 and 8200 grads. That’s not actually that uncommon, says Shir Agassi, who runs the 9900 alumni association together with other volunteers. A captain in the reserves, Agassi, 29, who spent 7.5 years in 9900 – women are only required to serve 2.5 years in the IDF – says 9900 grads can be found working in companies with location-based business models like Waze, Gett and Moovit. These companies also require big data analysis on hundreds of millions of people, the kind 8200 grads are experienced in. The combination of visual and big data skills can be powerful, she says.

Agassi says her band of volunteers in the 9900 Alumni Association has built a website where 1,000 members have already registered, and started a closed Facebook group where every new member is thoroughly vetted to check if they actually served in the unit. Agassi says there are currently around 25,000 grads from 9900 in Israel, and that the association is mapping them for the first time so it can leverage their skills and experience, which she says are unique.

“We have a lot of areas to analyze, we’re talking big areas with lots of satellites and other sources. You have to know where to look, what to look for, and what not to look for. Everything you look at looks different on different days and times, and even different angles. You have to stay focused,” she insists.

Nucleai’s Vaidman agrees that 9900’s time has come. “Before Waze and Google Maps, hardly anyone saw satellite imagery. Those were the purview of military and intelligence agencies. Now every phone has GPS and a camera, and this is 9900’s domain of expertise.”

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