IBM kicks off first-ever accelerator program

Big data is a common denominator among the eight companies in the Israel-based project, the company said

The Alpha Zone accelerator (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The Alpha Zone accelerator (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The escalating conflict between Gaza militants and Israel hasn’t deterred tech giant IBM from moving ahead with pioneer programs in Israel. On Tuesday, the international company inaugurated its first-ever technology accelerator in the world at its headquarters in Petah Tikva, next to Tel Aviv.

Called Alpha Zone, the program teams IBM’s vast resources with start-ups, helping the newcomers develop their products and market them. IBM gets nothing material in return. Its program managers say their gain is contact with innovative minds and companies.

It’s not just IBM that is enamored of Israel’s technology ecosystem, said Dror Pearl, director of IBM Israel’s Global Technology Unit and a key figure in the management of the brand-new IBM Alpha Zone accelerator. “We planned to open the registration site for Israeli companies for a month, but after a few days we began getting applications from all sorts of countries — including some that Israel does not have diplomatic relations with,” said Pearl, displaying a map that showed applicants from Gulf states, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

There are good reasons for any start-up to want to be involved in Alpha Zone, said IBM Israel Country General Manager Rick Kaplan. With access to mentors, technology advisors, assistance from IBM research and development pros around the world, and a long-term plan to help companies get funding, the 24-week Alpha Zone program will enable IBM “to build deeper, earlier relationships with start-ups. This is a big moment for us, and another chapter in the IBM story in Israel,” said Kaplan.

At the end of the program, the companies will be expected to go out to the market with mature products and services, said Nathan Low, whose Ziontech Blue and Sunrise Financial Group are providing the business development component of the program. “Start-ups have the technology, IBM has the sales force to help companies sell their products, and we have the skills companies need to make those products marketable. Together we are going to bring a lot more Israeli technology to the world,” said Low. “We believe that companies coming out of this program will be more than ready to have major impact on the market.”

Those companies are developing technologies in a variety of areas, including transportation, energy management, advertising, and medical devices. In that latter category is Bio P Medical, which has come up with a unique device to quickly and cheaply detect cervical cancer. Also working in the medical field is Emerald Solutions, which developed the world’s first automated database for the early detection of skin cancer.

In the transportation field, OptiBus has a system that allows bus companies to anticipate traffic, accidents, and other hazards on the roads, enabling companies to save money on deployment of vehicles. EGM has a system to prevent losses due to inefficient electrical grids — losses that amount to as much as $500 million a year in the US. VideoDeals has developed a smart technology to identify faces in YouTube videos, enabling more efficient and better-value advertising.

The common denominator for the companies, said Low, is their development of big data-based technologies — locating, gathering, and analyzing huge reams of information to devise a solution. “This fits right in with IBM’s focus,” said Pearl. “We have some of the most innovative big data projects around, including cognitive computing system Watson,” the computer famous for successfully competing on the American quiz show “Jeopardy” several years ago.

Alpha Zone is part of IBM’s long and distinguished history in Israel, said Kaplan. “We do a lot of work with government ministries, and our technology has been deeply integrated in Israel since the company started operating here, right after the establishment of the state. In 1972, we started the research and development arm of the company in Haifa, and today our developers deliver many hundreds of patents a year.” IBM, said Kaplan, is a “serial patenter — we file for about 6,000 patents a year, far more than any other tech company. And IBM Israel delivers the second largest number of patents for the company each year, with only US teams delivering more.”

After the two-year program ends, the company’s technologies will be displayed on demo days both in Israel and abroad, to be seen by IBM customers the world over — and IBM sales staff will be there to help the companies market their products. Companies working in areas including big data analytics, cloud, mobile, security, Internet of things, and commerce have the best chance of getting accepted, said Pearl.

IBM is not retaining any equity in accelerator companies and isn’t charging any money. There are no requirements to sell the tech to IBM, and the company is not even taking a portion of the intellectual property developed by program members. For IBM, it’s enough to have the opportunity to work with innovative start-ups and to help them sell their products for the benefit of all, said Pearl.

The idea of an IBM accelerator makes perfect sense, said Low, because IBM itself is an accelerator of sorts. “We’ve been discussing this idea for several months, and during that time I got to know IBM very well. This is not your grandfather’s IBM, and it is not your father’s IBM. It’s not even your IBM,” said Low. “It’s your kids’ IBM. This is a company that has completely reinvented itself in the past five years, with new leading-edge technologies in so many areas — all while doing $100 billion in business annually with its ‘traditional’ product lines. This is a younger, more innovative, and more aggressive company than most, large or small — and the technology that will be developed in Alpha Zone will enhance that innovation even further.”

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