From Military to the Marketplace: Ex-soldiers Unveil New Products

IDF Unit 8200 hosts its second annual tech fair, highlighting promising start-ups from alumni of the elite technology division.

Last week offered a glimpse of the new Israeli technologies that will be making waves in the coming year, courtesy of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Support Program where 20 new start-ups presented their innovations.  The event was sponsored by the alumni association of the IDF's Unit 8200, the Intelligence Corp unit responsible for signal intelligence, similar to the United States' National Security Agency.

The new products span a diverse range of technological areas from information security for cell phones and e-commerce solutions to an online clearinghouse for solar panel price quotes.

Most of the start-ups are in very early stages. Many of the high-tech entrepreneurs at the event were embarrassed to admit that they were developing their products for the market without having raised capital from investors.  

But program manager Inbal Arieli points out that last year’s first round of start-ups resulted in the founding of 18 companies. Eight of these companies, Arieli says, have raised nearly $4 million from investors thus far. She also noted that 13 product launches have taken place since last year's presentations and 85 full-time employees now work at these companies.

In its second year, the program counts among its impressive list of sponsors the law offices of Naschitz Brandes, the accounting firm of Ernst and Young, Bank Hapoalim, BRM Group, the offices of Pearl Cohen, Zedek, Latzer, Tel Aviv University and the Bat Yam Municipality.

Face-to-face diplomacy online

One of the more prominent projects in this year's presentations was PeaceTube, a variation of the well-known start-up Chatroulette, but this one is intended for Facebook users from hostile countries. The company, according to founder Lior Penso is a non-profit that allows users from countries at odds with each other to talk through video chat. The choice of conversation partner is made randomly and each user's personal details are kept hidden from his or her conversation partner.

The app is integrated with Facebook, something which Penso says, "allows the company to correct some of the many problems of Chatroulette, like the use of the platform to engage in abusive behavior.”

“All the users of PeaceTube hold an account in their name,” Penso adds.  “They all live in the places where they claim to live and our system knows how to locate abusive users."

Although the project seems to have taken inspiration from the Facebook campaign We Love Iran, where several Israelis garnered international press by declaring their affection for their fellow citizens in Iran while tensions between the government were heating up.  Penso emphasizes that work on the app began long before the campaign was unveiled.

"We saw the impact that the campaign made, and we are taking it to the next level," says Penso. "Clearly, we were deeply impacted by the Arab Spring and the responses in the Arab World that showed how Facebook penetrated in a phenomenal way the most closed societies, and that there was a real chance here to hold a dialogue with the other side."

Electric dating: rooftop seeks well-priced solar panel

Another interesting project is Generaytor, which provides a bidding system based on crowd-sourcing technology that allows solar panel installers to easily contact potential clients. Based on figures provided by Generaytor founder Amit Rosner, $100 billion was invested this year alone in the purchase of solar panel systems, with 40 percent of these panels installed on the roofs of privately owned buildings and homes.

"Generaytor provides a bidding system for solar panel installation experts to compete for jobs from rooftop owners,” says Rosner. “We have installers ranked based on their actual track record of implementation – the amount energy that their previous clients have produced until now. In addition, we compare price quotes offered by installers so the rooftop owner gets a professional cost evaluation of each offer."

The service, which was launched about a week ago in a closed beta version in Italy, is being offered free of charge to rooftop owners. The business model for the project, which has received $50,000 in initial seed funding, calls for panel installers to pay a commission for every deal they close using the platform. Generaytor expects to earn on average $600 per transaction (or approximately 3% of the average transaction price) made using its bidding system. The installers will also have to pay an additional annual subscription fee for the service and in return will be allowed to advertise an unlimited number of bids.

Last line of defense for your smartphone

In the area of information security, entrepreneur Ohad Bobrov presented the software solution LacoonSecurity, developed with his partners Sharon Sahar, Michael Shaulov and Emanuel Avner. LacoonSecurity 's software protects mobile devices from hacking break-ins and malware downloads.

"Everyone wants to read their emails and use company apps through their mobile devices and this leads to the accumulation of sensitive information on cell phones,” says Bobrov. “Because of this trend, there is a tremendous incentive for crime groups to break in to these systems.”

 Bobrov points to a McAfee report showing that in the first quarter of 2012 there was a 1,200 percent increase in the number of malware software programs attacking mobile devices. According to Bobrov, part of the problem is that smartphone providers, like Apple and its iPhone, refuse to run anti-virus software on their phone's operating systems.

“The situation with Android phones isn't much better,” says Bobrov. “Even with them it's impossible to implement an effective defense against break-in attempts.”

In contrast, the security solution developed by LacoonSecurity doesn't run on smartphone operating systems.

"We analyze all communication traffic that is received and sent from the smartphone, including Wi-Fi and cellular-based Internet connections,” says Bobrov. “This way we're capable of identifying the installation of malware files and subsequent data leaks.  The advantage of our solution is that we don't depend on the operating system, so security won't be affected if the system crashes."

According to Bobrov, the start-up is on the verge of finishing its first round of financing and is already conducting field trials of the software with the cooperation of several Israeli companies in finance and cellular communications. Bobrov estimates that the final product will be ready for launch by the end of this year.

A sight for sore eyes; e-commerce made easy

EyeVector is another ambitious project in advanced stages of development presented this year. EyeVector creates technology that provides users' with the ability to view 3-D content without special glasses. 

“The amount of time during the day we look at mobile devices continues to increase to the point where our significant others become jealous,” jokes co-founder and CEO Kfir Yeshayahu. "We imagined a world where more and more content will be consumed electronically without the need for glasses, whether to read a newspaper on a tablet or to look at family photos on a smartphone.”

EyeVector's technology, he says, which is far from the mass production stage, will be appropriate for all screen sizes, and can be used by television manufacturers as well. 

A related technology was presented at the event by start-up Zuznow, which provides a service to make Internet websites easier to read for smartphone users.

"A recently published survey revealed that 93 percent of businesses are not fit for mobile-based web surfing,” said Zuznow co-founder Rachel Levkovich. “If customers don't find what they’re looking for, they end up going to a competitor who may have already figured out how to make its website more user-friendly.”

According to Levkovich, Zuznow has 100 e-commerce clients in Israel and around the world who subscribe monthly for the service.

Build an app, become a millionaire

FeatureUnlock, also presented at the event, is intended to help tablet and mobile phone app developers generate more profits from their creations. The entrepreneur behind the start-up, Daniel Kopitchinski, who started working for the company Aladdin Knowledge Systems at age 14, didn't even serve in the IDF's Unit 8200.

According to Kopitchinski, a previous app he developed gained the following and was well-reviewed in the blogosphere.

"There was only one problem - we didn't make any money off of it,” he says. “Not only didn't we make money from it, we discovered the sad truth in the world of apps: Most don't make money.”

"I had the opportunity to see the secret business plans of other apps,” he says. “It seemed to work like this: build an app and then become a millionaire. But somewhere in the middle there is a giant question mark – how do you get from here to there? When we tried to answer this question, we discovered that we lacked a lot of necessary tools. We wanted to sell app features, and we didn't know what to sell, how to sell it or how much to sell it for."

FeatureUnlock helps app developers fill this glaring hole in their business plan by offering a cloud-based computer service to help developers make better business decisions. It shows app developers "how to sell features in an intelligent way," according to Kopitchinski.

Shopping for a new generation

Still on the e-commerce side of things of things, Yael Vizel's C&ST focuses on delivering an e-commerce shopping experience tailored to personal consumer tastes.

"Today there are more than 20 different websites that allow you to take a basic shoe and to modify it according to your own needs and tastes without getting up from the comfort of their couch,” says Vizel, adding that the market for personalized consumer products is estimated to be $300 million. “This is the future of consumer products – shopping for the new generation."

“The websites that offer these options are spread throughout the web. We realized that this whole experience needs a home and a community built around it. C&ST bundles all of these sites them together as a one-stop shop and allows for social participation."

The website operated by C&ST has been live for four months and C&ST is currently working on a Facebook app that will refine the experience of designing women's shoes.

"It’s still a new market but in five years everyone will shop like this," says Vizel. "It's not a question of if, but rather when."