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Entrepreneurs

PICO: A Force of Change in Jerusalem

by Brian Blum on February 5, 2014

in Entrepreneurs,Israel,Startups

PICO image from JPostGalya Harish could have set up her new company anywhere.

A seasoned business professional, she has both an MBA and a law degree, passed the bar exam in Israel and in the US, served as vice president of operations and finance for hi-tech incubator JVP Studios, and worked as a brand manager for several international companies in Israel and the UK.

So when the entrepreneurial bug inevitably bit her and she decided to open her own venture, the most logical location for the 40-year-old Harish would probably have been central Tel Aviv or Herzliya, with their wealth of founders in similar situations. But the Jerusalem-born entrepreneur chose to buck the trends of the last 15 years – which has seen start-ups fleeing the capital for the Center of the country – and opened up shop as one of the inaugural tenants at PICO, a new co-working space in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood.

PICO – an acronym for “people, ideas, community and opportunities” – is at the vanguard of a growing worldwide movement for entrepreneurs at the start of their business journeys to set up shop together and cut costs by sharing desks, equipment, phone lines and Internet access, all in an open-plan space. For a single entrepreneur, or even a small start-up with one or two employees, the price is appealing: PICO charges NIS 800 per month per workspace.

And if you only need to sit there a day or two a week, the price drops to as low as NIS 300.

Co-working spaces exist in the Tel Aviv area, but PICO is the first in Jerusalem. Its founder Eli Wurtman hopes it’s not the last.

Wurtman sees PICO as more than just a friendly place for entrepreneurs to park their laptops and cellphones. He believes that by creating similarly welcoming environments for students and start-ups, Jerusalem can reclaim its place as the country’s creative capital.

He should know. In 1996 he cofounded DeltaThree, one of the first companies to deliver voice-over-IP calls from a regular telephone. The business grew to 300 employees and was the poster child for start-up Jerusalem, which, at the time, was home to hundreds of small to medium-sized hi-tech ventures.

But then came the second intifada and the dot.com bust of 2000.

“The industry got snapped almost overnight,” Wurtman recalls. “And with it, sadly, most of the people who were working here left Jerusalem.”

He did, too, eventually commuting to Herzliya as a general partner for Benchmark Capital, a leading VC firm. His career thrived, he says, but “I knew I wanted to get back to Jerusalem.”

Within the last few years, co-working spaces have started to take off big-time.

Wurtman teamed with fellow investor Isaac Hassan and began designing what he called a New York SoHo-style “loft” space in Jerusalem.

It’s clear from the moment you walk into PICO – located in a grimy, nondescript industrial building, on the same floor as the offices of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) – that there has been an incredible amount of attention to detail without spending a lot of money.

“We didn’t want it to feel like Har Hotzvim or Malha,” Hassan says, referring to two of Jerusalem’s more popular hi-tech areas. “It needed to be functional, in sync with the area.”

The resulting look, which was meticulously planned to appear decidedly down-rent, includes bare concrete walls and exposed piping, natural wood floors, lots of metal and glass and even a large tube in the center of the office “to bring in fresh Jerusalem air,” Hassan says. (There is air conditioning, too – Jerusalem, like Tel Aviv, can get hot during the summer.) Windows open from two sides to let in plenty of light.

“We want the space to be copied [by future co-working spaces in Jerusalem].

So we didn’t spend a lot of money on things like plaster,” Wurtman says, only half joking.

He sees the Talpiot area as the center of a renewed start-up Jerusalem, calling it “the city’s garage district,” like lower Manhattan or Herzliya originally were in their respective environs. Many of the people who have been commuting from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv live near Talpiot, so it’s walkable. And it’s right on the new bike path that runs from the Old Railway Station in the German Colony.”

Plus, adds Hassan, “you need to have a good coffee shop nearby, and we have [popular bakery] Lehem Shel Tomer downstairs. The smell of fresh-baked bread liberally comes up through the window of my office.”

Also nearby is the private studio of Bezalel industrial design faculty head Haim Parnas, adding an artistic vibe to the neighborhood.

There is room for 18 entrepreneurs to sit in PICO’s central shared space. Use of a large conference room is included in the price, and there are couches for more casual working and conversation.

Occupancy rate since PICO opened at the beginning of this year has ranged from 40 percent to 60%, and Wurtman says it is already breaking even.

There are also six private offices, where Wurtman, Hassan and several other more established investors sit.

That’s part of the design, too. The vision is that the entrepreneurs can feel free to ask business questions of the more experienced professionals, as well as the other way around: It gives Wurtman and Hassan the opportunity to identify potential investments up close.

Harish says the ability to brainstorm easily with the PICO partners and other entrepreneurs is a key reason she chose to start there.

Her company, Wear My Prayer, creates custom jewelry with a written prayer inside.

“People unconsciously touch their necklaces all during the day,” she explains. “Each time they touch it, there’s a meaning to it. They may think about what note is inside, what the message is.”

Harish describes a problem she had with the Wear My Prayer website.

“We were getting a large bounce rate,” she says, referring to when visitors surf away without buying anything. “So we called an impromptu meeting, and everyone in the office came over to look at the page and make suggestions as to where the problem was.”

She admits that it’s not easy being an entrepreneur in Jerusalem, far from most of her start-up peers. “But the fact that there is something like PICO changes things. People come here and they’re surprised. They say that they’d expect this in Tel Aviv or New York, not in Jerusalem.”

Harish, who has several part-time employees, says that even when her company gets big enough and needs to “graduate” from PICO, she plans to find a space close by and visit at least once a week.

Sean Lewin is also renting shared space at PICO. A recent graduate of the Jerusalem College of Technology, the fast-talking 23-year-old made quite a splash when he raised over $30,000 on the Kickstarter “crowd funding” website to build an LED light for the iPhone that indicates when a message, email or text has arrived.

The light fits into the phone’s headphone jack and changes color and blinking frequency depending on the type of message. It’s something that BlackBerry users have had for years but that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs summarily banned from the iPhone.

Lewin – who has business partners in Italy, the UK and the US – had been working at home, but found he was not being productive enough.

“I find I can be more focused and concentrated here,” he says, despite the noise from other people. “And if I have a question, I can ask my mates. If I’m building an Excel spreadsheet, I can speak to a VC. That’s not something I could get in my own living room. There’s just a good vibe here.”

He also enjoys the free beer.

“I usually stay until 7 or 8 p.m.,” he says with a smile.

The beer is available at what is perhaps the most striking element of the PICO design: a blue neon-lit bar and kitchen, which is stocked with all-youcan- drink soft drinks and brew. This plays a role in the regular networking events PICO hosts.

Indeed, PICO buzzes after hours often as much as during the day. A series of intimate lectures have taken place at night; so far, the founders of hi-tech darlings Waze and Fiverr have spoken to a young, invitation-only crowd of no more than 30. Executives from Bira Shapira, a Jerusalem-area microbrewery, have also come to speak.

And city council member Rachel Azaria, head of the Yerushalmim faction, brought her whole team to hold one of its weekly meetings at PICO.

Hassan has been active in outreach, too: one notable partnership is with Siftech, an initiative that the Hebrew University’s student union founded last year to promote Jerusalem as a place to stay after getting one’s degree. Ten student start-ups have participated in Siftech’s four-month intensive technological entrepreneurship workshop. PICO offered a couple of months of free rent to the top two winners of Siftech’s most recent competition.

PICO also has close ties with Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit), another student organization promoting Jerusalem.

Clearly, having one cool place to work won’t solve all of Jerusalem’s problems with retaining the tens of thousands of college students who study in the city every year (including more than half of all art students in the country). Overall employment options and the availability of affordable housing top graduates’ concerns.

But, insists Wurtman, “we have the opportunity to be a force of change.

There’s an energy that’s required to change the working reality of a city; to give it more of an aspirational nature.

If there were 10 more places like PICO, more entrepreneurs would come out of their basements and stay.”

Adds Hassan, “Entrepreneurs are special people. They can change industries. It’s not just about PICO, it’s about changing the underlying aspect of the city.”

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post.

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Hello Doctor co-founders, from left, Ziv Meltzer, Maayan Cohen and Eran Keisar.

(Hello Doctor co-founders, from left, Ziv Meltzer, Maayan Cohen and Eran Keisar.)

When Maayan Cohen’s partner was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, she was suddenly thrust into a world of specialists, tests, recommendations and paperwork. It was overwhelming for the then 25-year-old Tel Aviv University biochemistry graduate, who was working as a senior analyst at Tel Aviv Strategic Consulting.

Midway through what would stretch into a two-year ordeal, Cohen realized there might be a better way of managing the process.

Her new mobile app, Hello Doctor, launched for Apple devices in August. The app allows patients and their case managers (like Cohen) to digitize and organize all the paperwork they currently carry in a binder. Results from blood tests, ER visits, surgeries, CT scans and more can be organized into “smart lists.”

Patients can then easily call up the right records and never succumb to what Cohen says is the case manager’s greatest nightmare: missing the one document your doctor needs to decide on the spot if you should go for more chemo, surgery or an alternative treatment … and your few minutes of precious face time are up and it’s on to the next patient.

The idea of patients carrying their medical records with them in electronic form is nothing new. More than a decade ago, technologies putting patient data on a chip embedded into their HMO card or on a USB thumb drive abounded, but they never gained traction. Cohen isn’t surprised.

“The execution wasn’t connected to reality,” she says. “Doctors won’t take the risk of putting a USB key into their computer. And many are techno-phobic even with websites. You can’t ask a senior oncologist in a top hospital to go to your personal medical portal and enter your password. Most doctors want you to bring in a paper copy.”

Tablet computers, however, are another matter. “We haven’t heard any objections to patients bringing in their records on an iPad,” Cohen continues. “85 percent of US doctors own a tablet. They’re not afraid of them. Rather, it saves them time. And perhaps most important, it doesn’t force the doctor to open his or her computer.”

Free for patients

There are several ways to get records into Hello Doctor. You can use the camera in your iPad to take a picture of a document. Or, if it’s already on your computer, you can copy it to Hello Doctor using the Dropbox file transfer application. Exporting test results directly from an HMO’s patient portal is in the pipeline.

Another feature, which Hello Doctor users have requested that’s also in development, is the ability to take notes using the app. “It’s our most requested feature,” Cohen says. The idea is to allow patients to write down questions about a test result or medication dosage, for example, right on the appropriate electronic record.

Once data is input into Hello Doctor, it’s stored locally on the patient’s iPad. “In another two months, we’ll release a version that will back up that information on the cloud and that will synch it to another device, such as the patient’s iPhone,” Cohen says. All data will be transferred using the industry-standard SSL security protocol.

hello-doctor-app

The backup and synchronization is key. If your iPad is stolen, your data is gone (just as if you lose your physical paperwork). Once the synch is in place, users will be able to instruct Hello Doctor to delete all the data from their mobile device via a Web interface. The app always requires a password, in order to keep your records as private as possible.

Still, some data does get sent beyond your iPad and the cloud. That forms the basis of the company’s business model. In the same way that Google scans your Gmail messages for keywords to serve up ads, Hello Doctor will look through your records (“anonymously and aggregated,” Cohen insists) to check on how a patient is responding to specific treatments – for example, is a particular medication causing nausea or vomiting? Hello Doctor will then sell that data to pharmaceutical companies “so they can make better decisions about future drug development,” Cohen says.

This is par for the course in the Internet age. Facebook is free because it owns your data and can provide it in the same non-identifiable way to advertisers. Hello Doctor’s success will hinge, in part, on whether users find enough value in the app to ignore any concerns about what’s being done with their records behind the scenes.

“It’s a win-win model,” Cohen stresses. “Patients don’t have to pay anything, they get a full integrated solution that will grow over time, and it helps pharmaceutical companies build better drugs.”

Cohen started Hello Doctor with two Israeli co-founders, Eran Keisar and Ziv Meltzer. The company has a staff of eight and works in Tel Aviv.

Hello Doctor competes most directly with Microsoft’s HealthVault, which is available for the Web and tablet devices, including the iPhone. A variety of other mobile apps allow you to input emergency information such as your allergies, which vaccinations you’ve taken and emergency contacts, but don’t sport the broader vision Cohen and her team have for Hello Doctor.

As for Cohen’s partner, there’s good news at the end of this story: After multiple surgeries and rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, he is now “100% cancer free,” Cohen says.

This article appeared originally on Israel21c.

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Parko logoTomer Neu-Ner was driving home from the hospital with his wife and newborn son. As always, parking was tight near Neu-Ner’s central Tel Aviv apartment.

“I was a nervous new father,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave my baby in the car more than even a minute longer than I had to.” So he stopped the car briefly on the sidewalk, ran upstairs, got his family settled and returned to his vehicle only to find … a NIS 500 ticket on the windshield.

That wasn’t the only time Neu-Ner has battled the parking gods who have decreed that the average Tel Aviv resident will spend 24 minutes on average looking for a parking spot. But it was the wakeup call that, if Neu-Ner’s new startup Parko succeeds, will transform life for curb-deprived drivers everywhere. Investors seem to agree: the new Israeli “crowd-funding” site OurCrowd recently invested in the company.

Neu-Ner teamed up with his cousin Itai David, a Technion graduate whom he describes as an “algorithm geek.” Together they created a smartphone app that almost magically senses when a parking spot will become available – even before the car’s driver opens the door.

The technology is based on the same principles that have made fellow Israeli tech startup Waze such a darling of the roads, but there is no connection between the companies.

Waze informs drivers where traffic is heavy and suggests alternative routes, all without requiring any active input by users. The app uses GPS to sense when cars with the open app are slowing down and from there it extrapolates that data into traffic alerts.

Parko also uses GPS to sense the user’s speed. Once the vehicle has stopped and the speed at which the phone is moving has slowed to a comfortable “walking pace,” Parko assumes the user has parked. When Parko senses the user returning in the direction of the parked car, the app sends a message to other users that a spot may soon open up.

Neu-Ner and David built the app so that it minimizes access to the phone’s GPS, a critical feature given how quickly location service usage drains a mobile device’s battery.

A different approach

Parko is not alone in the parking alert business. The elephant in the room, as it so often is, is Google, whose OpenSpot app for Android phones does much the same thing as Parko with one pachyderm-sized difference: OpenSpot requires drivers to tap the app to alert other users that they’re leaving their parking space.

This is also an option for Parko users. However, Neu-Ner says, it is not ideal because by the time the alert hits the cloud, the space will almost always be long gone.

A very different approach is being taken by ParkSF in the San Francisco area, which involves sensors buried under the street that will alert drivers when a spot is being vacated in real time. Neu-Ner says there is talk in Tel Aviv about deploying something similar, although he believes the entirely crowd-sourced approach has more mileage, so to speak.

After Parko’s October, 2012 launch in Tel Aviv, Neu-Ner has his eyes set on Paris and New York. Statistics for both those cities put the average time someone looks for a parking space at 40 minutes, nearly double Tel Aviv’s.

There’s no database to be updated before a city is ready for Parko. It’s more a matter of promotion and marketing, something that’s been tough on a shoestring budget of money from friends and family. Parko’s recently fundraising from OurCrowd should help keep keep the parking brake off.

Neu-Ner is taking the “give it away, charge later when you’ve built a huge user base” approach common to startups (remember Facebook?). At that point, “location-based advertising and the sale of data will be worth so much more.” He also anticipates that freemium (paid) features and “demand-based pricing will become very interesting options for revenue models.”

Won Israeli Mobile Challenge

The 30-year-old Neu-Ner grew up in South Africa with Israeli parents. He returned to Israel four years ago and worked as a product manager at a startup creating software for options trading on Wall Street. He has degrees in economics and math from the “old country” and, more recently, an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

While Parko users stand to benefit when they search for a spot, we wondered what kind of incentive would entice users to leave the Parko app open once they found parking. Neu-Ner has a quick answer: prizes. For example, after you’ve just shared your 20th parking spot, you might get a free carwash from a Parko partner, or a coffee at a nearby Aroma.

Regardless of prizes, Parko needs a critical mass of users to function effectively. Thousands of Tel Aviv residents already know about the app, in part due to Parko’s win of the top prize at the Google-sponsored Israeli Mobile Challenge competition in June, 2012.

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Jody and Brian meeting with "Brian of London" at the Better Place customer event

Israelis notoriously have a hard time saying they’re sorry, let alone that they may have goofed big time. But that’s exactly what happened in an extraordinarily candid meeting last week between Better Place’s new management team and several hundred owners of the company’s Renault Fluence 100% electric vehicles.

Not only did CEO Evan Thornley, the genial Australian who replaced Israeli founder Shai Agassi in October, concede that the company had set unrealistically aggressive expectations and that too many target dates had not been met, but his CFO, Alan Gelman, who’s also the CEO of Better Place Israel, went so far as to give out his personal cell phone number and email address. Talk about transparency.

“I know you’re frustrated that we didn’t fight back enough,” Thornley told the audience, referring to the blitz of negative media coverage the company received last year when Agassi was ousted, layoffs were announced, sales dried up, and cash ran dangerously low. “The truth is, what was said in the media initially was basically correct. We had to make some very big changes fast.”

The backlash against the company, Thornley suggested, actually came about, davka, because so many people wanted Better Place to succeed. When it looked like that might not be the case, the public and the press turned. That said, Thornley assured the crowd that Better Place is beyond the crisis and now it was time “to return to the sense where people want us to win again.”

Despite the problems, Thornley said he believes that “the business strategy of the company is fundamentally sound. It’s just that when things don’t go right, it’s easier to blame the strategy rather than the execution of the strategy.”

Thornley may have spoken too fast. This morning, the Israeli press reported that Thornley has resigned, citing disagreements with Better Place’s investors over exactly that: strategy. We’ll provide an update later once we know better what’s now going on (assuming the company continues to come clean).

Despite this latest news, Thornley’s examples still make sense. He cited Better Place’s lackluster sales to date of less than 1,000 all-electric cars currently on our roads but insisted that Israelis will eventually flock to electric vehicles. It’s just that it was unrealistic to expect that they’d do that before the infrastructure was all in place, and that’s just happened now.

So while the media deemed Better Place a failure for sluggish sales, Thornley believes “we are now only at the beginning, not the end.” Current car owners should be seen for what they are: tech-savvy, risk-taking early adopters; the beta testers of the electric car industry, if you will. 2013 will be the make it or break it year, he stated, understanding the risks.

To get the word out, Better Place has hired a new Chief Marketing Officer, Peter Economides (a native English-speaker like Thornley, originally from South Africa but more recently living in Greece where he’s had an even more daunting task: re-branding an entire country that’s gone nearly belly up),

Economides, who will be leading a renewed marketing campaign in Israel, has an impressive pedigree. He worked directly with Steve Jobs on the “Think Different” campaign that turned Apple around from the verge of bankruptcy in 1997. And he headed up Coca Cola’s international marketing while living in New York.

“You are the heroes,” he cheered the crowed on. “You’re the people with the vision and courage and belief to say yes. This is where the ball starts rolling.”

Economides has been at Better Place all of three weeks but he was sold in less than ten minutes, he said, when he took a ride in his first electric car on a visit to Israel. He flew back home and got in his gas-powered car. “I thought I was driving ‘yesterday,’” he quipped. That car, he added almost as an aside, was a Porsche.

What’s gone wrong in Better Place version 1.0? Plenty, as Thornley, Economides and Gelman heard while fielding questions from their outspoken customer advocates. The swapping stations aren’t in the right places (“the algorithm for networking planning is very different for electric cars and we didn’t get it quite right,” Thornley said); the batteries themselves don’t get the range initially promised (“what works in the lab is not always achieved in the field”). One owner felt Jerusalem had been abandoned (the opening of the capital’s only swapping station was delayed for months). And parking spots with power plugs and are too often filled with gas guzzlers (“we need regulatory support from the government for this,” Thornley emphasized).

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. An equal number of Better Place customers took to the microphone to lavish praise on the company. Economides’ driving experience was roundly acknowledged (the acceleration on an all-electric vehicle, along with the spooky silence when stopped create a driving experience that’s uniquely exhilarating), and the company’s responsive Customer Service is on a level several notches higher than anything else available in Israel. Battery swapping is as fast as promised. And Idan Ofer, chairman of the Israel Corporation and Better Place’s prime investor, even made a surprise appearance, showing his commitment to the company he’s invested some $300 million in by arriving in his own Renault Fluence, which he parked in front to show off some special customizations he’d added (it was all tricked out with fully leather, electric powered seats).

All this, nevertheless, begs the question: how exactly is Better Place going to make a better go of it this time around? Here’s what Thornley said last week. Whether this plan is the reason he’s no longer the company’s CEO isn’t clear. But his vision (and that of the management consultants who worked with the company over the past months) was simple: Better Place wants to be the electric recharging network for every electric car made. That means applying its experience in building charge spots and a smart power grid that doesn’t overload when everyone plugs in at once to supply the growing number of Nissan Leaf’s and Chevy Volt’s, even if they don’t have swappable batteries.

To Israelis, that might not resonate so much because the only electric vehicles in this country are the Renault Fluence’s that Better Place sells. But in Thornley’s Australia, Better Place is already working with General Motors as the car manufacturer’s “preferred charge network.

Of course, Better Place would like all the other electric vehicle makers to offer cars with swappable batteries, which Thornley said he still believes is the future of electric and the differentiating feature between Better Place and other up and comers. That will come eventually, he insisted, once a network of swap stations similar to the ones in Israel and Denmark is built out in target countries (the U.S. and China are high on the list). That poses a not insignificant chicken and egg problem, but Thornley said that, once Israel is acknowledged as a clear “proof of concept,” the economics of electric cars will ultimately win out.

“The cost of manufacturing an all electric car is much cheaper than a hybrid,” he pointed out. “There’s only one power train versus two” as in a Toyota Prius, for example. And, he added, for many of today’s fixed battery electric cars, it would be fairly “easy to produce them in a swappable form.” Think 18-24 months for a factory to add that capability.

Better Place also wants to be more transparent with its software – so far, “a brilliant integration but a walled garden,” Thornley admitted. Why can’t Better Place’s OSCAR GPS system work with Waze, for example? It should, Thornley said.

The question remains, however: can Better Place convince the world that its Israeli “beta test” country is a success that can be applied elsewhere, before the company runs out of money again? It’s an imperative, explained Saul Singer, who gave a closing talk for the evening. Singer is the co-author of Startup Nation, the best selling book about Israeli entrepreneurship that featured Better Place in its first chapter as the poster child of the scrappy Israeli startup with global ambitions.

Better Place was Israel’s first attempt at tackling a problem affecting the entire world – reliance on a dwindling supply of oil – in the living laboratory of a small country, Singer said. The author envisions Israel doing the same now for other burning issues. “But Better Place has to succeed if we want to do it next for education,” he said, giving a perhaps improbable example. “The stakes for this are huge.”

Singer then shared a personal story. His wife, he said, hates it when they have to stop the car to swap the battery. But then his kids intervene from the back seat. “’Why are you complaining, Imma?’” they’ll say. ‘We’re the pioneers.’ Yes there are problems, but that’s the meaning of being a pioneer. We have to stick with it and win.”

This report on Better Place originally appeared on the Israelity website.

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Amnon Dekel

I always enjoy Jeff Pulver’s networking “breakfasts” which he holds around the world. Pulver, a VoiP superstar and lately startup angel with a passion for Israel, usually hosts his breakfast shindigs in Tel Aviv, but last week he came to Jerusalem.

I approach a networking event like a Kiddush at shul. You want to flit around as much as possible (while not being too rude with quick getaways) but if you find yourself talking to someone particularly interesting, you stay put.

That was the case when I met up with Amnon Dekel. Dekel is an old friend (he used to run the Digital Media Studies program at the IDC in Herzeliya and hired me to teach a course) and he’s about to turn in his doctoral dissertation to Hebrew University. The topic: “indoor navigation.”

Dekel has identified a problem you probably never thought about, but that’s a potential “next big thing.” Mobile phones are great at using GPS to find their position outside. But they don’t work so well under a roof of, say, a library.

Dekel’s research specifies a methodology for locating objects such as books, and it doesn’t require transmitters to be installed all over the ceiling of the space. The idea is that you’d type in the title or author into your phone, and you’d receive a map telling you exactly which floor, section and even shelf you should head to.

Dekel has built a working prototype in the Harman Library on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. His tests show that, using the system, it takes only half the time to find a book and people make less navigation mistakes and need less help from others to find the book.

The same technology could be used in warehouses, bookstores and manufacturing plants, Dekel says.

That’s not to say that it’s easy – staff at the physical site need to input data, items may need to be scanned – but it’s a fascinating start.

The system has yet to be commercialized (venture capitalists – take note). But, who knows (and Dekel will scold me for writing this), you could eventually crown yourself mayor of the Dewey decimal system!

This article appeared last year on the Israelity blog.

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From ‘Facebook-like’ buttons to embedded YouTube videos and interactive chat, it’s rare to find a website these days that doesn’t beckon you to share your thoughts with everyone you’re connected to.

But for website owners, adding all that social interaction takes time and, if you’re not a programmer, copying and pasting esoteric HTML and JavaScript code into your site’s header or widget boxes can be a technically daunting task.

Wibiya from Israel is a hot start-up that aims to streamline the process. The company, which raised $2 million a few months back from Primera Capital and counts as one of its seed investors the ubiquitous Israeli angel and Internet guru Yossi Vardi, has built a popular toolbar that consolidates dozens of social media functions into a single space-saving strip at the bottom of your website. Wibiya’s aim is to make adding new apps and functionality as easy as a one-click install.

Among the useful Web functions that Wibiya incorporates are the ability to instantly “like” a company’s fan page on Facebook and write on its Wall without leaving the website you’re looking at; see how many other people are online and looking at the same page you are; translate the site into one of more than 40 languages; and chat with your social media friends directly from within the Wibiya bar.

Taking a cue from Apple, Wibiya has created its own app ecosystem, allowing third party developers to add their Web products to the toolbar at no cost. This has led to an eclectic range of functionality built by enthusiastic supporters that Wibiya co-founder and CEO Dror Cedar never expected.

For example, there’s an app that allows website owners to pop-up targeted messages filtered to the specific person visiting. This could be based on the page a visitor is currently viewing (say, a message about the Middle East peace process) or could kick in only after a user has been on at least five pages of the site.

Another popular app automatically turns all links on a website into “affiliate ads.” If a visitor to the site buys a product via that link, the website publisher keeps 70 percent of the revenue. Amazon is one of 25,000 merchants included in the program.

Want to raise money? Wibiya has apps for that, too. One puts a link on the toolbar to your organization’s Causes page on Facebook; another allows visitors to use PayPal to make donations a snap.

Wibiya is on the verge of releasing a developer website with an open API (Application Programming Interface) to make it even easier for developers to build Wibiya-compatible apps, Cedar says.

For publishers, Wibiya provides detailed analytics showing, for example, how many clicks the toolbar is receiving or how many Twitter updates have been tweeted via the Wibiya service. The toolbar itself is tiny – only 17K. And it plays nicely with all the leading blogging platforms, including WordPress, Blogger and Ning.

Since the toolbar is free to both third party developers and publishers, how does Wibiya intend to make money? “We work with high end publishers including Philly.com, Playboy and even the (confectionery vendor) Jellybelly.com on either a revenue-share model or one that’s based on performance,” Cedar explains. “We deal with them directly to build a tailor-made solution.”

For everyone else – the so-called “long tail” of web publishers, as Cedar describes them – Wibiya will soon introduce premium paid packages with “for example, the ability to integrate your own advertisements into the toolbar.”

Cedar didn’t start out with the intention to build Wibiya. He and his co-founders Daniel Tal and Avi Smila were working on a travel-related product called Joongle. “If you wanted to search for a flight from Tel Aviv to New York, our toolbar would give you the top 10 websites, like Kayak and Priceline, with flights to that country,” Cedar says. “Then each time you clicked, it would do the search for you.”

But when the team showed the product, potential clients kept saying “wouldn’t it be great to have another button that would show my most recent posts, or one that displays photos,” Cedar recounts. Realizing that there was an even bigger market beyond travel, the company quickly switched gears. “After the 10th time, we said okay. The demand came from the publishers themselves. People really wanted it.”

One concern we had was whether creating yet another way to share information across the Web would cause alarm, much in the way that Facebook has taken a drumming recently for its fungible privacy policies. Moreover, will users be paranoid that Wibiya may follow them around, tracking what they’re doing on the Web?

Cedar assures us that Wibiya is just “an enabler. We don’t do anything automatically and we don’t save your information. We’re completely transparent.” Still, Wibiya may have to be more proactive in spelling things out to put visitors at their ease.

As for the name Wibiya, it’s a play on words – a “wib” is a widget bar. “We didn’t like ‘widget,’ ” Cedar says.”That implies a static component.”

Indeed, with Wibiya’s functionality, financing and future prospects, the company is anything but static.

This article originally appeared on the Israel21c website.

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Multitasking in Tel Aviv

by Brian Blum on July 14, 2010

in Entrepreneurs,Social Media

From right to left: me, Benjy Lovitt, Lior Manor and his iPad

From right to left: me, Benjy Lovitt, Lior Manor and his iPad

A recent episode of the NPR program Science Friday featured an interview with Clifford Nass, the author of the forthcoming book “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” about whether human beings are truly able to multitask. His conclusion: not really.

Nass says that we have the illusion of multitasking, but in reality, we are switching from one task to another so quickly it seems like we’re doing more than one thing at once. The problem is that, every time we switch, there is a micro-millisecond delay and that teeny tiny pause causes us to be less productive even when we feel we’re sailing high.

I had a chance to experience the woes of obsessive multitasking first hand earlier this week when I attended the 140 Characters conference in Tel Aviv. The event, produced all over the world – including Israel – by social media and VoIP guru Jeff Pulver, is dedicated to exploring the “real time web” (a fancy way of referring to web and mobile services that let you follow a stream of never ending status updates as they happen).

As I sat in the lecture hall at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College listening to the lectures (which, in true short attention span spirit, were allotted on average no more than 10-15 minutes each), I had my laptop with me open to TweetDeck, a Twitter desktop client where I could follow along as much of the room was “live tweeting” what was happening on stage; Gmail – which I checked incessantly while simultaneously chatting with people both in and outside of the room itself; Facebook – of course (just for fun); an Excel spreadsheet of all the attendees sent by Pulver – so I could scope out who to approach during the networking breaks; a live video stream of the conference itself (with a slight time delay); and Evernote – a application I used to take notes on my laptop which were then automatically synched to my home computer, iPhone and (when I get one) iPad.

And if the lectures ever got boring, I’d brought with me a copy of an article I was working on that needed an edit.

By the time the conference was over, I actually breathed a sigh of relief as I finally caught a break in the long drive back to Jerusalem.

Not so for Michael Matias, a 14-year-old who took the stage for his 10 minutes of fame to tell us about “growing up in real-time.” My multitasking experience is his daily reality. He adds to the mix doing homework while simultaneously watching TV on his laptop (42-inch flat screens are so 2006) and playing online chess and poker. He says he spends at least 5 hours a day online, not including class when he often uses the school computers. When he needs to study, it’s as likely to be via video conference than an in-person cram session.

Matias is a relative pauper when it comes to Facebook friends – he only has 300 and says he only accepts someone he’s met in person. Although he does spend time with people in the so-called “real world,” he told the audience that in some ways he actually prefers his online world. “It brings me closer to them. I can hang out with more than one person at the same time.” No, he doesn’t think he spends too much time online and, when asked which of his real-time tools he’d give up if necessary, he quipped that he couldn’t. “It would be like choosing between my mom and my dad.”

The rest of the conference was interesting (if less shocking). Israeli comedian Lior Manor did “Twitter magic” – he asked the audience to tweet a number between one and 140 (get it, the 140 character maximum Twitter imposes), then he picked a number from his real-time Twitter stream and did a card trick in person – no different than what magicians have been doing for years except that he used an iPad to display the input.

Yossi Taguri talked about his latest startup Fiidme which lets you “share your satisfaction” about food. “If you’re in a restaurant,” he explained, “you can ask your friends what’s good on the menu and they’ll tweet you their recommendations.” With a grin, he added that they also “thought it would help us get free lunches.” His business partner Lior commented that being in a restaurant “without wireless is very frustrating.” (Whatever happened to the romantic candlelit dinner?)

There was also a session on using Twitter to do good in the world: an Israeli company called JustCoz lets you “donate” your Twitter status to organizations to raise awareness about their causes. In just under a month online, 100 organizations have signed up for the free service, gathering 1,200 supporters which provide re-tweeting access to more than a million people.

Now that’s a great idea from the real time web…if we can actually take a moment away from our incessant multitasking to participate.

Oh, and about that article I was writing? I guess I succeeded because you’re reading it now.

This article was originally posted at Israelity last week immediately following the 140 conference.

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Gil Friedlander, Tawkon CEO

Gil Friedlander, Tawkon

What do you do when you suspect something’s bad for you but you just can’t stop doing it? That’s a question many cellular phone users have been asking themselves, with reports of radiation emissions from their mobile devices raising serious questions about the safety of our increasingly un-tethered society. A new Israeli startup may have the solution.

Tawkon has entered the fray with an inexpensive application for the iPhone that warns users when radiation levels have inched up too high and provides advice on how to counter the potentially negative effects.

The company says that its solution gives users the information and tools to avoid mobile phone radiation as much as possible by “mapping” their homes or offices so they’ll know where they’re exposed to significant levels of mobile phone radiation. It also supplies simple precautionary measures to minimize radiation, based on a user’s location and phone usage.

However, you won’t find this app on your iPhone any time soon, because Apple has banned it. Apple says that Tawkon is a diagnostic tool that would create confusion for iPhone owners from a usability perspective. Tawkon believes that Apple doesn’t want its customers to install an app that appears to advise them to talk less – even though its stated aim is to make it safe for them to “talk on.”

Tawkon founder and CEO Gil Friedlander is taking it in his stride. He says that his company is in discussions with Apple and that he is “optimistic and hopeful that the issue will be solved soon.” He insists that he’s not an anti-cell phone zealot. “We love our phones, too,” he says of the Tawkon team. “We won’t give them up. But we can help people use them more responsibly.”

In the meantime, the company is pressing forward with porting the application to other devices, starting with the Blackberry then expanding in the coming year to cover Google’s Android operating system and the Symbian OS used by Nokia phones.

Friedlander describes the Tawkon app as “like infrared goggles – suddenly you can see at night. We view ourselves the same way. We give users the ability to see and feel non-ionizing radiation. Once you know whether you’re in a red, orange or green zone, you have the information you need to take action.”

That action might be to move to a different location until the radiation levels drop, or to plug in a headset or use a speakerphone in your car.

Tawkon can’t actually measure a phone’s radiation – it’s just software after all – so the app relies on processing a dizzying array of factors, including your location, environmental factors such as the weather, Bluetooth functionality, how close your phone is to your body (utilizing the iPhone’s proximity sensors), antenna orientation (are you holding the phone vertically or horizontally), GPS and even the phone’s built-in compass. The app then prompts users with a vibration or tone when the radiation levels reach a dangerous threshold.

Some of the worst places to talk in terms of radiation are a room with thick concrete walls (a basement, elevator or, in Israel, the sealed room mandated from the time of the first Gulf War), and a moving vehicle (such as a train, car or bus) when the phone is switching off between cellular broadcast towers. In all these cases, the phone has to work harder to connect to a signal, hence the radiation goes up.

In some cases, the locations where radiation is highest can be surprising. “In my apartment, radiation in the washroom is high,” Friedlander says, “while the rest of the house is decent.” In 80 to 85 percent of cases, there’s “good coverage and radiation is pretty low, especially in an urban area,” reassures Friedlander.

No one knows exactly how – or even whether or not – radiation will cause serious medical problems in another 10 years, but the government isn’t taking any chances. Israel’s health ministry has recommended that children under the age of 18 shouldn’t use mobile phones at all – young people’s brain tissue is still developing. In the US and Europe, however, similar precautionary warnings have not been issued.

Friedlander and his staff of six in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya have been working on the Tawkon technology for 18 months now, going live with the still unclear iPhone version earlier this month. The app will be marketed direct to consumers via the various hardware manufacturers’ app stores for just under $10 a download.

Down the road, Friedlander says, he would be “delighted to partner with cellular phone operators,” where he believes that a tool to bring real value and safety to customers would be an absolute win/win. “We are aware that it’s challenging for them,” Friedlander admits. “For many years, they’ve just not addressed the issue.”

Friedlander is originally from Canada and studied at McGill University in Montreal. Tawkon has raised money from private investors in Canada, the US and Israel. Is he looking for larger investors? Probably not. “I don’t see the company as a big venture capital play,” he says. “It’s not a very capital intensive business. We don’t require tens of millions of dollars.”

If the app sells well – and Friedlander reports that the company has received thousands of inquiries since the TechCrunch blog about technology startups broke the story of the Apple ban – a small company like Tawkon could do quite well for its owners, partners and employees. The press is certainly interested. Tawkon has been inundated with press requests, from the Washington Post in the US to Channel 2 and The Marker business and technology print and online newspaper in Israel.

With the total number of cell phones in use said to be some four billion, and of these half a billion smart phones, Friedlander is optimistic that “it’s almost like an endless market.”

Ultimately, Tawkon is not all about the money. “Most of the time, you develop and sell a technology that reduces costs for a phone operator,” Friedlander says. “We were looking for something that can make an impact on the well-being of our friends, family and community. Being able to help the user is very important. We saw a real opportunity.”

This story on Tawkon first appeared on Israel21c and has since been written about by a number of top international newspapers and magazines.

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Great Deals or Hidden Scam?

February 21, 2010

The courts have ruled that the service is legal, but it still leaves a muddled taste in my mouth. I’m talking about Free.co.il, a popular Israeli auction site that works more like the Lotto than eBay. You can’t help but be drawn in by Free.co.il’s home page which promises a Sony Playstation for NIS 99 […]

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Sweatshops and Social Justice

February 3, 2010

I’ve apparently started running a sweatshop. I didn’t mean to. It’s just what the market seems willing to bear. It began with a small task. I wanted to move the content on my personal blog from one platform to another. Over the last 7 years, I’ve written well over 400 articles for This Normal Life. […]

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