This is the time of year that tech sites and tech pros come out with their “top 10 of 2014” lists, and Israeli tech pundits are no different. But what does “best” mean? The company that got the most investments? The firms with the best exits? The ones that won the most international awards?
A list could be drawn up of Israeli tech companies for each of those categories, and most of those lists would find it challenging to limit themselves to just 10. But in the final analysis, the purpose of tech is not development for its own sake, but to solve problems – to help people live healthier, more productive, more prosperous, and easier lives.
Many Israeli tech firms have done just that, essentially transforming the way the world works today – and here, too, there are a lot more than 10. While what follows is by no means a comprehensive list, it is a good place to start. Some of these technologies you may be familiar with, and perhaps even use, while others may be less well-known – but all of them are having a major impact on the way the world does business, treats health problems, deals with environmental issues, or keeps its data safe.
The Israeli-developed exoskeleton system that enables the paralyzed to walk was praised by US President Barack Obama on his visit to Israel in 2013, and has been used by paralympics champion Claire Lomas, paralyzed from the chest down, to complete the marathon course at the London Paralympics. Using computers and motion sensors for the heavy lifting, ReWalk allows independent, controlled walking similar to that of an able-bodied person. The system controls movement using subtle changes in the center of gravity, mimics a natural gait and provides functional walking speed, enabling even paraplegics to move independently.
If computers and sensors can enable the paralyzed to walk, perhaps they can be used to control other “additions” — like a bionic hand, or body parts to take the place of worn-out or damaged organs or muscles. ReWalk went public this year and the company now has the funds it needs to develop its technology further.
“We are going to be using the money raised in the IPO to expand our research and production, almost all of which is done in northern Israel,” said ReWalk CEO Larry Jasinski. “On our short list of R&D projects is adapting the ReWalk technology to enable quadriplegics — those who cannot use their limbs at all — to be able to function.”
Dr. Amit Goffer, inventor of the system, is working to adapt the technology for other uses as well, said Jasinski, with components and devices that will eventually assist people suffering from multiple sclerosis, palsy, paralysis due to stroke, and other conditions.
If you think that websites for small businesses and start-ups look a lot more professional these days, you’re right – and one reason for that is Israeli web design start-up Wix. Aimed squarely at do-it-yourselfers who don’t have a ton of money to sink into website design, Wix offers tools that allow users to build world-class websites, complete with online shopping carts, video special effects, flash and hosted apps – all the tricks that just a few years ago professional website designers were charging thousands of dollars for, all available for free on Wix. With 55 million users and counting, Wix is the first company to turn web authoring into a routine activity that anyone, even those without technical skills, can do.
Wix, too, went public (in 2013), and in 2015, the company promises to move beyond websites, enabling users to author their own mobile apps, also for free, using tools that offer guided development similar to its web authoring tools. Beginning with hotels and restaurants, Wix is developing verticals that Avishai Avrahami, Wix co-founder and CEO, believes will profoundly change business. Wix’s OpenRest restaurant app platform, he said, “complements our strategy to further enhance the Wix platform with tailored industry-specific solutions. With Wix and OpenRest, restaurateurs will have a technologically advanced and cost effective solution to better manage their business and their customers’ experience.”
The Metamaterials ‘invisibility cloak’
Imagine a Harry Potter-style “invisibility cloak” that could enable IDF soldiers to traverse the battlefield right under the noses of their enemies without being detected. It’s not a reality yet, but could be soon. Israeli scientists continue to work on “metamaterials,” engineered materials that are micro-designed in a manner that results in a specific behavior. Depending on how the components – usually metal threads – are arranged, the materials can deflect radiation, sound, and even light. The materials are precisely constructed based on complicated principles of physics and mathematics, but once a metamaterial “recipe” is created, it can be mass-produced.
Metamaterials obviously have a great future – and Professor Michael Bank of the Jerusalem College of Technology is one of the world’s premier metamaterials researchers. It might be awhile before invisibility cloaks come on-line, he said, but the technology can be used right now to help protect soldiers from radiation. “Units in the field always have at least one soldier who is required to carry a large communications unit, and they usually carry them on their shoulders or back, right next to their head,” said Bank. “The systems have large transmitters and emit a large amount of electromagnetic radiation, which many scientists believe are the cause of diseases such as cancer. Using metamaterial principles, we designed a new antenna that keeps the radiation away from the heads of soldiers, without compromising the range or performance of the transmitter.”
Other applications could include protecting cellphone users from radiation by limiting the radiation given off by microwaves, electrical substations and other radiation-prone devices and locations. But the dream is, and remains, the invisibility cloak, said Bank. “We may try to develop it, but the truth is that I have a lot of research going on, so I may not get to it for awhile.” But he hopes to.
One of the most successful Israeli busbinesses is Caesarstone, the company that invented engineered stone marble and granite substitutes. Caesarstone – still headquartered at Kibbutz Sdot Yam in Israel – is one of the original Israeli R&D tech firms. It invented its countertop products in 1989, and spawned an entire industry that is today worth $5 billion, according to industry experts.
But Caesarstone isn’t just a great idea. For the past three years it’s been one of the most successful companies, Israeli or otherwise, on Wall Street. Investors can’t seem to get enough of the company’s stock, running it up over 200% since the company’s NASDAQ IPO in 2012. Caesarstone was one of Israel’s fastest growing companies between 2002 and 2008, with the company expanding sales and revenues by an annual average of 30%. The worldwide housing downturn in 2008 hurt the company some, but it quickly bounced back. Caesarstone had revenues of $260 million in 2011, with a net profit of $29 million, up 31% from 2010. In 2012, Caesarstone’s revenues increased from the previous year by 14.2% to $296.6 million, and its net profit rose 36.4% to $39.6 million.
Earlier this year, furniture retailing giant Ikea caught Caesarstone fever and began carrying its engineered countertops to go along with the Swedish-designed kitchens the furniture superstore offers. “Ikea has been a driving force in bringing great modern design and tremendous value to a wide range of consumers around the world, particularly through their customized kitchen and bath product lines,” said Yosef Shiran, CEO of Caesarstone. “We are excited to begin this important relationship with one of the world’s great retailers.”
Opgal/Lumus night vision system
Night vision for security purposes? There’s an app for that. Karmiel-based Opgal’s Therm-App mobile device consists of a low-cost night-vision camera that is mounted on an Android phone. The camera is able to display high-resolution images on the phone, enabling the user to see in the dark as they would in the daytime. The system is capable of tracking vehicles up to 1,500 meters away, and people at a distance of up to 500 meters. The camera has an interchangeable lens, allowing it to be used in a wide variety of security scenarios, such as in a factory or an outdoor night patrol. It’s the first – and only – smartphone-based night vision system. And at a list price of about $1,600, it’s a lot more affordable for security patrols, police departments, and even army units than standard night-vision systems, said Amit Mattatia, president & CEO of Opgal.
Add that to the Google Glass-style eyewear being developed by Israel’s Lumus, and you get a pair of connected glasses that can take video, even at night, that the Therm-App system can interpret. The glasses can then upload the video to a security center, where police or security personnel can track threats, intervening before a crime or terror attack is committed.
“The combination of these two breakthrough technologies – Therm-App night vision with Lumus wearable displays – presents an exciting, and more importantly, useful solution for professionals who require hands-free operation in complete darkness or limited visibility,” said Mattatia. “This innovative solution provides security teams, search and rescue first responders, and other types of professionals working in darkness with lightweight, portable and powerful night vision capabilities.”
Israeli start-ups invented the concept of “social gaming” – the casino-style games played by hundreds of millions of people a day on social networking sites like Facebook. Over the past several years, Las Vegas-based gambling giants Caesar’s Interactive Entertainment (CIE), the online gambling division of Caesar’s Entertainment, and Bally Technologies, the R&D arm of the world’s biggest casino equipment maker, have been snapping up the Israeli firms that created the top titles in online social gaming, in which users get the rush of gambling without putting up real money. Also acquired this year, by Imperus Technologies of Canada, was Israeli social game maker Diwip.
Between them, Playtika, DragonPlay, and Diwip consistently hold on a regular basis at least half of the top slots on Facebook’s list of most popular online games. Although players don’t put any bets down, social gaming is a multi-billion dollar business worldwide. In the US alone in 2012, it generated $1.9 billion in revenues, and Israeli firms are the engine keeping the industry going.
Long considered a novelty, 3D printing is finally finding its place in industry, business, and medicine, according to Dr. Daniel Dikovsky, head of materials research at Stratasys, the joint Israeli-US company that is the top producer of advanced 3D printing equipment. “Imagine if in 1990 you wanted to design a new product and find a manufacturer for it. You would contract with a manufacturer, probably in China, and send them a sketch of the prototype of what you wanted. Possibly a few weeks later – depending on how busy they were – they would send you the prototype itself, which you would ask them to adjust. You could go throw the process five or six times, with each cycle taking weeks. With 3D printing, you just upload the design into the printer, and you get the prototype just a few hours later, saving time, money, effort, and frustration.”
Dikovsky didn’t hazard a guess about how much industry could save using Stratasys equipment, but companies like car manufacturer BMW are using the printers to create prototypes for their vehicles, spending 58% less money, and 92% less time, on the process.
If that were all 3D printing did, it would be enough. But the technology has the potential to bring change to many other areas – like dentistry. Using intra-oral scanners, which provide a full view of the anatomy of the mouth, jaws and teeth, labs can on the first try build precise models of dentures, implants, braces and other objects that in the past usually had to go back to the lab for fine-tuning. Stratasys is actively developing systems not only for dentists, but for doctors – such as at the Centre for Biomedical and Technology Integration in Malaysia, where, said operations director Yuwaraj Kumar Balakrishnan, Stratasys technology was being used to produce highly accurate models of human tissue, making it easier for doctors to determine treatment procedures and doing away with the need for cadavers.
This year was the year of cyber-security in Israel. Dozens of new companies sprang up with innovative takes on defending data from hackers. Representing this new wave of cyber-security firms is CyberArk, which this year went public – to the delight of NASDAQ investors, who nearly doubled the company’s share value from its initial pricing when the IPO was launched in September, giving the company a market cap of nearly $900 million.
CyberArk specializes in protecting server “privileged accounts” that are set up by system administrators with rights to advanced network functions or areas, then are often not closed down after they serve their purpose. With no one paying attention to them, hackers have all the time in the world to try to guess the passwords that will let them hijack those accounts. Cyber-Ark identifies and chokes off access to those accounts, looking for suspicious activity, alerting administrators on what is going on and allowing them to intervene at any time.
CyberArk has been welcomed by investors, said company VP Development Chen Bitan, because it solves a major problem. “According to international research firm Deloitte, 100% of sophisticated attacks used privileged accounts to get into critical systems. We prevent attacks simply by choking off access to these accounts, denying hackers the opportunity to use them to break into systems.”
An app that helps users figure out where air quality is good and where it isn’t, Breezometer has been racking up award after award. It was most recently chosen by US television network CNBC as one of the “20 hottest apps in the world,” after being named a finalist at the Israel Mobile Summit in June for best app and beating out apps from developers in Israel and 30 other countries to win the StartUp Open IL Contest in September.
Currently in use in several cities in Israel, and poised for its American debut next year, BreezoMeter looks at your location and determines where the closest stations are in order to make its calculations. For example, it may take data from three or four nearby stations. The app’s algorithms check the information and match it up with weather data (also supplied by the stations), including temperature, wind information, time of day, position of the sun — all factors that can affect the pollution level. BreezoMeter then delivers a localized pollution reading that, said Breezometer co-founder Ron Korber, “is 99% accurate.” The app has attracted a great deal of interest from investors, he added.
Without bread – the green kind – there’s not going to be any tech development. And while not strictly a tech company, Jerusalem-based OurCrowd’s equity crowdfunding platform, which came into its own in 2014, has become one of the important new engines in the growth of Israeli technology. OurCrowd enables accredited investors – individuals with over a million dollars in liquid net worth or incomes over $200,000 a year – to get in on the ground floor of Israel’s tech success, opening to investments for the common man that were once available only to millionaire angels.
Since its founding in 2012, OurCrowd has invested at least $70 million in over 50 Israeli start-ups, and plans to invest as much as $100 million next year, said CEO Jon Medved. One of OurCrowd’s best-known investments is ReWalk Robotics. In the past, only big-time investors could have gotten a piece of ReWalk’s successful IPO, but OurCrowd’s model “truly democratizes investing,” Medved said. Along with big investors, “the ones who have given $10,000 to OurCrowd get into a deal based on the same conditions and arrangements. The investor with only a small stake will be getting the same deal as the one with millions. That, more than anything, shows how important the crowdfunding platform is.”