Israel smart-roads startup nabs prestigious EY Journey prize

Valerann has developed a traffic control and road monitoring system that uses road studs equipped with sensors to make them smart

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

Valerann founders, left to right, Daniel Yakovich, Gabriel Jacobson, Shahar Bahiri and Michael Dan Vardi (Courtesy)
Valerann founders, left to right, Daniel Yakovich, Gabriel Jacobson, Shahar Bahiri and Michael Dan Vardi (Courtesy)

Israeli startup Valerann, which aims to make streets smarter, won first prize in the startup competition organized by accountants Ernst & Young in Israel. The winner was announced at the end of the EY Journey business conference held in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

Set up August 2016, the Tel Aviv based firm has developed an end-to-end traffic control and road monitoring system that uses wireless sensory systems installed on the road itself. Using sensors, together with an algorithm and a communication system, the combination provides real time information to drivers and road operators about occurrences on the road — such as traffic, stranded cars on the roadside, or thin, treacherous films of ice on the road known as “black ice.”

The system can in real time identify dangers, optimize traffic and eventually interact and support autonomous cars, said co-founder and chief technology officer Shahar Bahiri in a phone interview with the Times of Israel.

“Two giants, infrastructure and technology, have not really bonded until now, and are not benefiting from one another, and we lose out because we suffer from less safe roads and a lot of traffic,” Bahiri said. “Our vision is to combine these forces together.”

Valerann’s technology uses road studs with sensors and algorithms to provide real time information about what is happening on the roads (Courtesy)

There is a lot of invaluable information that can come directly from infrastructure, but the ability to collect and analyze massive quantities of information in a comprehensive, consistent, and cost-effective manner has not been done, he explained. The transportation market is also still very conservative, he said, which is not optimal for innovation.

The idea is simple. Most roads today – especially highways and intercity road have so called reflective road studs, or cats’ eyes, as they are called in the UK, to help outline lanes, bumps and road crossings, particularly in the dark and in bad weather conditions.

Valerann suggests replacing these studs — which get changed anyway by road operators every few years — with smart studs, which are able to transmit information about road conditions to a centralized control center. They can also receive information from the center,  providing, what Bahiri calls, “bi-directional feedback.”

“We took the concept of road studs and transformed them into durable, smart road studs, which is one of the layers of our smart-roads system,” he said. The studs can detect a stalled vehicle on the roadside, for example, and automatically start flashing in red, to warn other drivers about the hazard, while at the same time emitting alert signals to a central control system so emergency rescue teams can be called to the location.

The system will also eventually connect directly to navigation apps, like Waze or Google, or also to Gett or Uber drivers, to alert about the hazards. When autonomous vehicles will be on the road, they too will be able to connect and interact with the sensors, and “that is the main goal of the company,” said Bahiri.

“Today if there is a car stalled on the side of the road it takes from half-an-hour to two hours to detect it and to send a rescue vehicle with blinking lights to alert drivers,” Bahiri said. “Each of our studs understand their exact location, and can alert everyone,” who needs to know, he said.

Although the system can be managed by people, it doesn’t need to have a control center — it is all automatic. “We are taking the human factor out,” said Bahiri. The control centers will be run by computers and not by humans.

Not only, he said, the technology — the road studs, the gateways placed on the street and the software, will be cost-effective as well. The studs, for example, will need to be replaced perhaps every seven to 10 years, when the top asphalt layer of the streets will need to be replaced for improved road conditions, he said.

“Our studs cost more money, but in the long run they cost less, because you don’t have to replace them,” as often, Bahiri said. Their durability also helps save the logistic costs of maintaining the road — as replacing studs means closing down roads and increased traffic jams.

Valerann’s smart road stud sensor (Courtesy)

The company is at the moment running pilot projects for the technology, that it is still under development, with potential clients including Israel’s Netivei Ayalon Ltd., which manages Israel’s Ayalon fast metropolitan freeway for millions of residents of the Tel Aviv metropolitan region; Israel’s Cross Israel Highway Ltd.; and also with Transport for London, a local government body responsible for the transport system in Greater London, said Bahiri.

“We don’t have our full product yet,” he said. “We have a proof of concept and we hope a full functioning system will be implemented by clients in a fully paid pilot by the second quarter or the third quarter of 2018.”

The company has raised seed money from angels and is at the moment seeking additional “bridge funding” before a series A round, Bahiri, said.

Valerann, which also opened a UK branch, was co-founded by Bahiri with Gabriel Jacobson, the firm’s CEO, along with Michael Dan Vardi and Daniel Yakovich.

Bahiri, 26, is the only child of a single mother who dropped out of school at the age of 15 to help with expenses. “We had a hard time financially, I was dyslexic and I could not cope with school,” he said. He worked in a bike shop and then started making bike parts. “The only thing that interested me was nature and technology and physics,” he said.

After completing his army service in an anti-terror unit of the IDF which dealt with ballistics, Bahiri got the idea for Valerann while working in a construction firm after his army service. His boss sent him to Germany to learn about road and traffic, “and then everything made sense,” he said.

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