China’s Baidu makes third investment in Israel

Tonara, maker of apps to help students learn to play music, has an ‘extraordinary’ future, its new partner believes

Tonara in action (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Tonara in action (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Chinese Internet giant Baidu, along with its Israeli venture capital partner Carmel Ventures, on Tuesday announced that it was investing $5 million in Israeli start-up Tonara, which makes interactive apps to help prospective musicians learn how to play.

“Tonara has consistently pushed the envelope when it comes to developing innovative and revolutionary technology,” said Peter Fang of Baidu. “We are certain that Tonara’s future will be extraordinary, and we’re proud to be a part of it.”

For Baidu, the Tonara investment is its third in Israel since it “discovered” the start-up nation last October, when the company, along with Chinese insurer Ping-An and software company Qihoo360, invested in an venture capital fund sponsored by Israel’s Carmel Ventures. More recently, Baidu invested $3 million in Israeli video capture firm Pixellot.

Baidu is China’s biggest web services firm, with nearly $8 billion in revenues last year. As such, the company has plenty of uses for Tonara’s technology, said Fang. “Not only is there a huge global market for Tonara’s music education platform, a large piece of which is China, but we see many other possible applications for Tonara’s technology,” Fang said.

Tonara is a fully digitized sheet music platform for professional and amateur musicians which follows music (monophonic or polyphonic) as it is being played, identifies notes, and shows the sheet music and specific notes (currently, it works with piano, violin, cello and flute). The app changes pages in the sheet music score as needed, speeds up or slows down the display in response to the way a piece is played, accounts for mistakes (highlighting a missed note) – all automatically, even under noisy conditions.

Using the same technology, Tonara also developed an app called Wolfie, which piano teachers can use to teach students and help them practice effectively.

As a “how to” system, the apps would fit right in with the Baidu Experience or Baidu Knows services, which provides instruction and tutorials in a wide range of areas, from home repairs to academic subjects.

It’s not clear if Baidu’s experience was the inspiration, but in January, another Chinese giant – online merchant Alibaba – made its first investment in Israel as well, in Tel Aviv-based Visualead, which develops “designer” QR (Quick Response) codes. “Working with Visualead, a dynamic startup and first-mover in this field is the next logical step as we seek to enhance customer engagement on mobile platforms,” said Zhang Kuo, director of Alibaba Group’s Mashangtao technology service. “We believe that Visualead’s leading Visual QR Code technology will complement our mobile marketing initiatives and enhance our ability to take advantage of the booming opportunities in China.”

That two of China’s biggest companies are becoming serial investors in Israel is not surprising, according to Edouard Cukierman, chairman of Cukierman & Co. Investment House and a managing partner of the Catalyst Investment Funds.

“China over the past two years has become the number one investor in Israel,” said Cukierman. “For them, Israel is a great source of technology to help them develop their economy, while for us, it’s a fantastic opportunity to gain entry into the biggest market in the world. As much as we are helping them, they are helping us.”

Nathan Low, an Israeli-American investment banker whose ZionTech Angels group has paired up dozens of Israeli companies with foreign investors, also sees China as a place where Israelis can do business – lots of it.

“Israeli startup companies can solve problems with the technologies and products they already have in hand, eliminate or vastly reduce China’s food and water shortages, improve freight logistics, optimize municipal bus schedules, reduce pollution, as well as improve health care,” said Low. “China and Israel are destined for partnership. China has the money and the markets. Israel has the products to solve problems and address opportunities.”

Baidu’s investment presents a great new opportunity for Tonara, said CEO Guy Bauman. “Tonara’s mission is to redefine the way music is taught, learned and practiced around the world by bringing music education into the digital age. The new funding will enable us to scale and reach music students and teachers globally. We’re thrilled to cooperate with Baidu in reaching out to the Chinese audience.”

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