Israel: All-Access Outlook for a Start-Up Nation
Israel is leveraging its status as a hotbed for wired entrepreneurs to design technological solutions for the disabled.
The nation of Israel, per person, has more tech start-ups than anywhere else in the world, including Silicon Valley. In 2011, journalist Saul Singer co-authored the book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle in an effort to explain the phenomenon. His analysis took hold, and between tech journalists and futurists, the nicknames “Start-up Nation” and “Land of Milk and Honey” have become synonymous.
Singer suggests that a number of factors played a role in this colossal growth over the past decade, including a commitment to higher education and innovation. And since service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is compulsory for both men and women, the populace has an acute sense of personal sacrifice and collective mission, characteristics Singer argues are particularly valuable in inventive environments that require a high-octane mix of single-minded commitment and teamwork.
While the region has produced more than its fair share of cool, whiz-bang gadgets and multimillion-dollar ideas, what’s even more notable is its focus on social impact investing, which many in the region view as a calling — a chance to contribute to something larger than any one person or economic imperative. Over the past several years, one side effect of this mentality has been an explosion of technology designed to assist people living with disabilities.
“I think in both the United States and Israel there’s a strong sentiment about veterans — people who have served the armed forces, and have returned from service with injuries,” says Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which promotes mutual understanding between Israel and the U.S., and supports philanthropy that advances the cause of people living with disabilities. “What people in Israel are really trying to do is come up with new ideas that can add to society. That mentality is a very celebrated part of the culture. It runs deep.”
One of the foundation’s initiatives is the support of A3i, a technology accelerator in Israel that focuses on assistive technologies. The accelerator serves as an investment vehicle that gives fledgling entrepreneurs access to capital and other resources. During each round of investment, the 12–15 entrepreneurs who are accepted into A3i are given access to experts in their field, volunteer business coaches and cutting-edge information on patent issues, market research and web design.
Ruderman is also a partner — along with companies such as Google, Intel and Uber — in three-day make-a-thons that bring together engineers, technologists and artists to work with disabled people to address specific day-to-day challenges that can be minimized by technology. Called TOM (Tikkun Olam Makers) events, they reference the phrase Tikkun Olam, which is found in the Mishnah (a collection of classical rabbinic teachings) and means “world repair” in Hebrew. Started in Israel, the events are now hosted all over the world. At TOM: Israel 2017, innovations included a conveyer belt coffee maker for people with hand tremors, a hatchback-like umbrella for wheelchair users and an adaptive bicycle for people who have amputations below the knee. The participants at the event, who hailed not only from Israel but also from the U.S., Canada, China, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom, no doubt drew plenty of inspiration from a number of its host nation’s high-profile ventures.
One of them is the ReWalk system developed by Israeli company ReWalk Robotics for people living with paralysis. The system’s computerized external robot is jacked into a lightweight exoskeleton that moves people’s hips and knees so they can stand and even move around on their legs. Besides the obvious benefits, the device — which was approved by the FDA for sale in the United States in 2014 — can improve cardiovascular health and halt the loss of fat tissue.
Another is Sesame Enable, an A3i success story that’s the brainchild of Oded Ben-Dov, an Israeli-based tech guru, and Giora Livne, an engineer and quadriplegic veteran of the IDF. Their groundbreaking handless smartphone uses a combination of face tracking — enabled by the phone’s front-facing camera — and voice control to help users with severely limited mobility make calls and operate apps.
Ben-Dov believes that venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and other start-up hubs have been too slow to embrace the sort of social impact investing that goes on in Israel and argues this reticence is short-sighted. “In assessing potential, investors should measure the social impact, alongside profitability,” he argues, before pointing out that building around a solid need is not only sustainable, but it creates the foundation necessary for further innovation and profitability. “There is also great potential for spin-offs for the masses …. The hands-free technology we are developing has numerous commercial applications, such as video gaming or as a tool for musicians to flip digital sheet music without lifting their hands from their instrument.”
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