In ‘Pitch in the Dark’ competition, entrepreneurs put technologies in spotlight

Startup contest in Jaffa organized by Citigroup and others aims to do away with bias that arises from appearances

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An entrepreneur pitching her startup behind a screen, in the second stage of the "Pitch in the Dark" competition organized by Citi in Jaffa (Eylon Yehiel)
An entrepreneur pitching her startup behind a screen, in the second stage of the "Pitch in the Dark" competition organized by Citi in Jaffa (Eylon Yehiel)

At a startup competition in Tel Aviv this week, 21 entrepreneurs pitching their technologies, along with the 21 judges who would declare the winners, were asked to leave their bags and cellphones in lockers – causing a flutter of panic. They were also told that there was no need for paper or pens, as the room in which the presentations would be held would be completely dark.

Participants were escorted into a pitch-black hall accessed via a dark corridor behind a black curtain, and told to place their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them before entering so as not to fall. Entry into the hall was slow, with people gingerly finding their way in the dark and relying on the person in front of them to lead the way to their seats. Contenders and judges were seated facing each other at tables that were long and bare to the touch.

Once everyone was seated, an organizer explained how the competition would take place: at the sound of the bell entrepreneurs would pitch their companies for five minutes to the judges, who were split among seven tables in the room. After the pitch, judges could ask questions for another five minutes. The whole process lasted some 45 minutes, with each team of judges hearing three startup pitches. If anyone felt uncomfortable with the darkness, they could ask to be taken out of the dark room, the participants were told.

All of this took place in complete darkness, without anyone seeing the faces or expressions of anyone else, or the assistance of PowerPoint presentations or any other helpful props — all were forced to focus on the content of the message.

A participant of the “”Pitch in the Dark” competition us being ushered into a pitch dark room; the competition was held by Citi at the Na Laga’at center in Jaffa; Nov. 5, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

“I am terribly afraid of the dark,” said one female entrepreneur as she began pitching her company, which combines blockchain and artificial intelligence.

“This dark room is great, because I’m from the Israeli secret service,” joked one of the judges. He actually was, and had been summoned by the organizers of the event to judge the entries.

The competition, “Pitch in the Dark,” was organized by Citi’s innovation division; credit card firm Visa; Intuit, a financial software company; and Israel Discount Bank in a bid to do away with the bias and prejudices that arise from appearances, and encourage a focus on technology.

After the pitches, the judges discussed the various startups and voted for the project they liked the best. The shortlisted entrepreneurs then pitched their startups to all of the judges from behind a screen in a hall, again to do away with bias.

The “Pitch in the Dark” competition was held by Citi at the Na Laga’at center in Jaffa; Nov. 5, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The event was held on Monday at the Na Laga’at center in Jaffa, a nonprofit cultural and art center which aims to raise awareness of the deaf and blind population. Its theater company hosts performers who are blind and deaf while a restaurant (where the pitches in the dark were made) enables non-disabled people to experience the huge vacuum felt by those who cannot see.

Startups that participated hailed from the fields of cybersecurity, fintech, blockchain and artificial intelligence.

The team of judges at the “Pitch in the Dark” competition in Jaffa, organized by Citi (Eylon Yehiel)

“The idea of the competition is to promote diversity,” said Tsafrir Attar, the head of Citi’s accelerator in Israel, who was a judge at the event. “What you hear is the idea, the technology, the product,” without seeing the person behind it. The experience in the dark room, he said, was “difficult” because of the loss of some senses, and the total reliance on others.

Shahar Friedman, the head of Visa Innovation Studio in Tel Aviv, which the credit card company set up in February this year, said “the experience was amazing.” Sitting in the dark made him nervous, he said, but it also eventually had a calming effect. “There was something liberating and free” in not being seen or seeing, he said. “It allows you to focus, it was an unusual experience.”

The winner of the competition was Avenews-GT, a Tel Aviv-based startup that has developed a digital trading platform using blockchain technology to enable commercial sellers and buyers of agricultural produce to transact directly with each other, locally or internationally, helping cut costs, create secure financial transactions and increase the transparency of the supply chain.

Ismail Kharoub, the chief technology officer of Avenews-GT, a Tel Aviv based startup , pitching his startup behind a screen, in the second stage of the “Pitch in the Dark” competition, organized by Citi in Jaffa (Eylon Yehiel)

“I have pitched my startup in the past but never in the dark,” said Ismail Kharoub, the chief technology officer who co-founded Avenews-GT with Nimrod Dahan, Shalom Ben Or and Ishai Ben Or. Both of the latter are fourth-generation farmers in Israel. Dahan is no longer active in the company.

“The experience was different, it is easier to be calm in the dark,” he told The Times of Israel. He hopes that winning the competition will pave the way for the startup to get access to funding, to “help bring the solution to the world.”

Ladingo, a startup that wants to make shipping large items from overseas affordable won second prize, with Tel Aviv-based EasySend Ltd., which helps convert documents into digital transactions, nabbing third.

Finalists of the “Pitch in the Dark” competition held by Citi on stage at the Na Laga’at center in Jaffa, where the winner was declared; Nov. 5, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The winner won a flight to the US or London, and a meeting with senior Citi executives, investors and others in the global industry relevant to their activity, the organizers said.

Pitching their technologies in the dark is a “trial by fire for startups,” said Citi Israel CEO Neil Corney at the event. Israel is at the forefront of technologies, but entrepreneurs must know how to push themselves “out of their comfort zone,” as people with diversity do on a daily basis.

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