For 72 hours this week, Israeli tech innovators were gathering in Tel Aviv to address a variety of challenges faced by 12 wounded war veterans, of whom seven are Israeli, four American and one French.
The program, entitled “Makers for Heroes,” is the first international event of its kind. From April 30 to May 2, some 200 volunteers — programmers, engineers, physiotherapists, doctors, psychologists — will put their heads together to find solutions to challenges these veterans face as a result of injuries they incurred while in service. The projects will be developed and tailored to each former soldier’s needs.
The initiative was organized by RESTART, a nonprofit organization that helps soldiers break out of the injury cycle and get back to the normalcy of daily routines. The organization’s main focus is to connect injured soldiers and veterans to leaders in the tech and business sectors, and to work together to develop new ways to improve their quality of life.
During the event, the volunteers, the so-called “Makers” were divided into teams, each one aiming to solve a challenge for a specific veteran. The goal is to create a 3D-printed working prototype solution during the three days. If successful, the prototypes will be further developed.
With these initiatives, “we solve things. We don’t change lives, but we give people a feeling that if they want something, it can be achieved,” said organizer Niv Efron, an IDF veteran who was shot in his wrist and chest during the 2014 Gaza conflict and was left with a nonfunctional left hand. Efron himself was the subject of one of RESTART’s earlier pilot projects.
“They built a device to help me do pull-ups,” he said. “Most people don’t do pull-ups, but as a combat soldier I used to practice and do pull-ups on a daily basis.” Not being able to do them was frustrating, he said, but suddenly, after the Make-a-thon, he was able to do them again.
“It is not only being able to do something again suddenly that makes a difference. It is also understanding that there is no limit to what you can do. You realize that you can find a solution, it just depends on your motivation.”
This is the first time the Makers for Heroes event is international. “We saw our experiences are similar,” Efron said.
Ron Weinreich, 32, was an IDF tank commander whose spine was injured during the Second Lebanon War when a building collapsed on his tank. He has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. He will be working with the volunteers to solve two challenges, he said. The first one will be to create a standing frame that he can wheel his chair up to that will help him stand upright. “We want to make a lightweight device that will be both portable and low-cost,” he said. “It will give me the ability to stand in my home but also to take it with me and go camping, where I can stand in nature.”
Weinreich, a musician who now lives in Los Angeles, flew in especially for the event. In LA he plays in a band and sings about his life experiences, and is now working on a new record. Since his injury, however, he has “neglected” playing the piano. “It is a challenge to press on the pedals,” he said. So he is going to work with the volunteers to set up an electrical system that will be activated by the nerve signals in his legs and enable him to press on the piano pedals.
“This is the first time I am taking part in an event like this,” he said. “It is incredible. It is profound to have so many engineers from the tech industry giving so enthusiastically of themselves and their personal time to do something from their hearts for someone else. It moves me. It goes to show how much people care about each other.”
The event will be held at Impact Labs, a technological community center for the development of products run by the Reut Group and WeWork. The center holds dozens of 3D printers and technologies necessary for carpentry, metalwork, sewing, robotics and laser cutting.
“3D printing can make a difference,” said Arita Mattsoff, a VP for corporate social responsibility at Stratasys, a maker of 3D printers, that will be supplying the event with volunteers and printers. “You can create an idea and produce it quickly and economically, and customize it” to best suit the user.
Herut Zoaretz is a 33-year-old IDF veteran who was injured in her lower legs and back during a military training exercise. She suffers from complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a condition of chronic pain, usually arising from an injury, that can be so great that amputation may be needed. Zoaretz wants to set up a website that will raise awareness, reduce the time needed for diagnosis, and become a go-to address for all those with the condition, their carers, families and doctors.
Two years passed until Zoaretz was diagnosed with the condition and she almost lost her leg in the process, she said. But after a year of intensive treatments she managed to regain functionality in the leg. The pain persists, however. “I want to map out how you can live with this condition and cope and manage it,” she said. “I managed, and I want to pass it on now.” Professor Jean-Jacques Vatine, the head of outpatient rehabilitation of the Reuth Rehabilitation Center, will join her in the team effort.
Wounded IDF veterans who suffer from the condition and have heard about the initiative are already joining Zoaretz in volunteering to run the site in the future, she said.
Among the US soldiers who will be participating, Team Zarita will help Zarita, 33, who was injured in Afganistan in a car accident, dance again by creating a stabilizing dance companion to help her overcome her dizzy spells. Team Jeff will help 33-year-old Jeff, who suffers from severe PTSD and anxiety, use an app that can serve the purpose of a service dog, replacing a real dog.
The project won’t be just work, however. The participants will take part in a Friday evening dinner, a tour in Jerusalem, a meeting with the Israeli disabled veterans’ organization at Beit Halochem Tel Aviv, yoga workshops, performances by guest singers, and a game of basketball between the Paralympic Basketball League and Maccabi Tel Aviv players.
Makers for Heroes is RESTART’s flagship initiative, and is organized together with the Reuth Rehabilitation Hospital and its TOM: Tikkun Olam Makers initiative, which develops and distributes affordable products for people with a range of disabilities. An additional partner, Challenge America, assists wounded veterans from the US and French militaries. Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) is also supporting the initiative, along with other Israeli firms.
Other participating companies include Bank Hapoalim Ltd., Controp, a subsidiary of the Israeli Air Force, Elbit Systems Ltd., The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP). The employee volunteers from these organizations will bring both their expertise and technological means to the event, the organizers said.
The event will culminate with the closing ceremony on Wednesday, during which a jury will announce what they deem the most successful project.