The young entrepreneurs sat huddled around their computers in a shared office space in the heart of Tel Aviv, chatting about their projects, while others were laughing and swapping stories over coffee and snacks in the kitchen.
The venue is RISE, an international three-month accelerator program, one of three programs the multinational bank Barclays Plc runs — in New York, London and Israel — together with Techstars, a Colorado, US-based firm company that runs over 50 accelerator programs globally.
The aim of the Barclays accelerator is to tap into technologies it can both use for its own purposes and invest in, explained Hilla Ovil-Brenner, a serial entrepreneur who is running the accelerator in Israel for Barclays and Techstars.
“People apply from all over the world for this program,” she said. “Less than one percent of the applicants get accepted.”
“We look for companies that are right for Barclays,” said Ovil-Brenner, a lawyer who was also the former CEO and co-founder of the publicly traded company White Smoke, Inc., a developer of software to correct grammar.
This third cycle of the joint accelerator program in Israel started in May with includes entrepreneurs from 10 startups from Israel, Italy, Ecuador, the US and Montenegro. On September 5 the startups will hold a demo day for investors, presenting their developments.
“The idea is to accelerate these companies and help them succeed,” Ovil-Brenner said. The companies selected are at all stages of development. “Being part of the program gives them a great opportunity to meet the right people and meet with investors, it is a good stamp for the future,” she said.
The program introduces the fledgling entrepreneurs to mentors from a wide variety of fields and shows them how to put together their story, set up a business model and speak to potential customers.
Their areas of interest are varied, from payments to cybersecurity to internet of things and cloud to biometrics and identification systems. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and language processing technologies are also very much of interest, including robotics, risk management tools and gaming technologies; and computer vision and virtual and artificial reality technologies that may be relevant to the banking industry.
Companies choose to join the Tel Aviv accelerator because of Israel’s buzzing startup scene and also because they hope to meet multinationals who are hunting for opportunities on the ground, Ovil-Brenner said. The nation’s tiny size also makes investors and multinational more accessible than anywhere else, she said.
Ben Fried, a Dallas-born entrepreneur who has been in Israel for 13 years, is working on his startup Cred, which has developed software that uses machine learning to help banks and financial institutions set up an investment portfolio that best matches the preferences and lifestyle of customers. The software allows banks to offer customers suggestions based on what other customers with the same profile have invested in. The firm is already working with a large European bank, he said.
Kriptos, a startup founded by Ecuadorean Christian Torres, its 26-year old CEO, has created an antivirus that uses artificial intelligence to analyze the critical information stored by companies and to determine which employees are exposed to this information. The software also enables corporations to pinpoint what information is the most critical for them to protect and where this information is stored.
“Israel is a cluster for cybersecurity companies,” Torres said, explaining why he chose to take part in the accelerator program in Tel Aviv. “This is a huge opportunity,” he said, to tap into the wealth of cybersecurity knowledge that exists in Israel, through the mentors and the products he’d not be able to access otherwise. “This brings you to the future very quickly,” he said.
“Israel by nature is looking for solutions for hopeless situations,” said Mladen Markovic, the 40-year-old chief financial officer of UHURA, a startup from Montenegro that has developed software based on artificial intelligence that can read and understand customer contracts as humans do. The startup originally applied to take part in Barclay’s London accelerator, but looked to Tel Aviv after being turned down in London.
“We are very happy to be in Tel Aviv,” he said. “The startup scene is developed and there are many opportunities here. We are accelerating at a very fast speed, finishing in one week what would have taken us two months at home.”