Israeli tech pioneers set British investors’ hares running in a visit to London earlier this month, by showing how the world of commerce is being disrupted by technology.
It the one-day event, organised by UK Israel Business, Israeli entrepreneurs told a British audience where the innovation will come from next – and how Israel is already on to it,
Among the line-up at the Institute of Engineering and Technology was an Israeli firm set up in London that scans your phone’s photos then tells advertisers when your circumstances change, so they know when to contact you, and about what. Think, for instance, of that sudden flurry of baby photos, and the inference therein.
“Creepy and terrifying” is how Ofri Ben-Porat, co-founder of Pixoneye, describes it, if it meant the firm delving in.
But it doesn’t. Instead it uses “image understanding technology” to teach phones how to scan their own photos and extract from these huge galleries data, which, when analysed, gives up to 150 characteristics – for example, age, gender, marital status, hobbies, where you go on holiday and what you do there.
All processing is done on the device and “because of that, we can start clustering users based on their characteristics,” says Ben-Porat, noting, for example, how many men go to Amsterdam once a year.
For investors uneasy with that concept, the safer ground is ParaZero, a firm fitting drones with parachutes, deployed at the first sign of trouble. Led by a former brigadier-general and commander in the Israeli Air Force, Eden Attias has seen how drones changed war.
“It didn’t take long to realise the huge business potential,” he said. “In almost every industry today, there is already a drone service provider.” Take the inspection of infrastructure. “Drones already inspect power lines, wind turbines, cellular antenna, solar panels… They deliver packages to your door, bring you lunch from a restaurant, even provide medical supplies. So the challenge is how to do this safely. This is not a toy. It is aviation.”
The point is particularly pressing when you consider how drones are now operating autonomously, beyond line of sight, above populated areas. “That’s where the money is,” says Attias.
Venture capitalist Raanan Cohen, who founded logistics start-up Bringg, says drone delivery is an example of how e-commerce and its derived services are “changing the world”.
He said: “This is just the beginning of the beginning.” He believes we are in the age of the customer, who doesn’t care what fancy innovation lies behind their order; they just want it quick and hassle-free.
“Customers are becoming more demanding, more sophisticated,” Cohen says. “They want transparency, visibility, to see where things are. Some companies say they give visibility, because they email customers to say it’ll be there Thursday, others text. Text? Are you kidding me? Uber gave visibility a new meaning.”
This is an example of what he says are “brutal forces that come and disrupt things – Amazon, Uber, Google – highly funded giants, who innovated, launched a new service and said, ‘Hey, guys, hey industry, wake up, there’s a new way of doing things.’ It has changed industries and existing players either step up or disappear.”
Some things are still at the experimental stage, but Asher Bennett, a former Israeli submariner who founded Tevva Motors, has just been given permission to ‘play around’ with Leeds, controlling its transport via ‘the cloud’ and apps.
His company develops range-extenders for electric trucks, but he’s taking it to the next level and setting his sights on an “emissions-free city”.
Bennett shows the audience a photo of a completely empty motorway. “Yom Kippur in Israel,” he says. “That’s one way to get no emissions. But how do we do this realistically? One thing I learned on Israeli subs is that you can go very far, very quietly, with almost no emissions.”
He’s talking about using range-extenders and software working to energy management principles, and applying them to roads.
So what is Bennett planning in Leeds? The first step is for council vehicles fitted with mobile emissions sensors to drive around and build up a picture of where the emissions are, before the system starts sending instructions to different vehicles, starting with trucks, saying either ‘this is a clean area, use your range extender’, or ‘this is
a dirty area, you have to be zero emissions.’”
The next step, as Bennett says, is more ‘big brother’ stuff – “complete control of every vehicle in Leeds, to route them in different ways, in order to clean up the city”.
He cites an example: “If it’s a dirty day, and you have a dirty old car, you will have to pay either a £15 emissions charge, you’ll get a free Park & Ride voucher, or you’ll be offered to pick up people for car pooling…
“It’s a much more complicated, interesting project, but it will completely clean up emissions and we’re glad to have Leeds as our first
That an Israeli firm can even aim to make a major British city emissions-free in 2017 shows how, in the words of OurCrowd founder and major venture capitalist Jon Medved, “Israel has just gone up and to the right” in recent years.
“It’s been so dramatic, this rising tide,” says Medved, who started the equity crowdfunding platform in 2013, when there was $2.3 billion (£1.7bn) invested in Israeli start-ups. That has now more than doubled, with increasing investment coming from Asia.
“What’s happened is innovation itself has gone mainstream. Tech companies have always come to Israel, so seeing them isn’t a surprise, but seeing big insurance companies, big banks, oil and gas, utilities, packaged goods companies and clothing companies – that is a surprise.”
Why? “Everybody’s running scared that their business is going to be disrupted,” he explains with a grin, as we wander through Victoria Embankment Gardens and the park’s historic water gate, itself undisrupted since 1626.
“Five years ago they sent their assistant vice-president. Now they’re sending their chairman and CEO in a 30-strong head office delegation. They’ve realised they need to reinvent their businesses, whether it’s retail or electricity or transportation. And that means either Silicon Valley or Israel.”