Chinese Giant Alibaba to Close Israel R&D Center

After losing its two Israeli senior executives six months ago, the Chinese giant shuts down its Tel Aviv R&D center which employs about 40 people

Ruti Levy
Ruti Levy
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Jack Ma, co-founder and former executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, at the China Development Forum in Beijing, China, in 2016.
Jack Ma, co-founder and former executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, at the China Development Forum in Beijing, China, in 2016.Credit: Mark Schiefelbein / AP
Ruti Levy
Ruti Levy

Chinese multinational Alibaba plans to close its Israeli development center, according to an email sent to employees on Sunday and obtained by Haaretz.

The center, operating from the square Azrieli tower, currently employs around 40 workers – most with expertise in artificial intelligence (AI).

Six months ago, the two senior directors of the Israeli center left the company – Prof. Lihi Zelnik, who served as CEO, and Itamar Friedman, the technology leader and founder of the startup Visualead, which was acquired by Alibaba. Efforts were made at Alibaba to replace the two, but these didn’t come to fruition. The center has suffered other departures in recent months, in favor of American tech giants.

Alibaba’s Israeli development center was opened in December 2017, on the basis of the acquisition of Visualead, which employed 15 people at the time. Visualead provided Alibaba with a solution for the prevention of product forging by embedding QR codes in images, animation and video clips, and worked on technology enabling 3-D scanning of physical objects by regular mobile phones, for sellers on the Chinese e-commerce site. Some 18 months later, Alibaba also acquired the startup InfinityAR, which operated in the field of layered reality and employed 25 people, most of whom joined the Israeli development center.

The Israeli center was formed as part of Alibaba’s research and development arm, called Damo Academy, which the company announced in October 2017. Alibaba allocated $15B to opening eight branches and recruiting leading researchers in the fields of AI, quantum computing, and fintech.

Its centers are spread in China, the U.S., Russia, Singapore, and Israel, out of desire to compete with global leaders in e-commerce, logistics, and cloud technology. Recent months have seen reports of Alibaba’s intention to cut this activity by 30 percent.

Alibaba’s plans for the Israeli team were quite ambitions. The center dealt in developing technology for smart facilities, such as Alibaba’s cashier-less Futuremart supermarket, the Chinese equivalent to Amazon Go – but this operation was later shut down.

Another of the Israeli team’s projects was the automatic development of machine learning (AutoML,) which allows development teams, without expertise in machine learning or sufficient computing resources to run it, to enjoy its capabilities, and run it on Alibaba’s cloud. This product was eventually integrated successfully and is part of the services of the Chinese giant. A third project, also integrated, was the development of a photo app with advanced free text-based search capabilities.

At its height, the Israeli center employed 80 people, with ambitions to grow to 300, but various canceled projects over the years reduced its size.

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