Israeli tech sweeps Verizon contest with $1.5 million in prizes

Three start-ups from Israel – representing a quarter of all participants – named Powerful Answer contest winners

A young paralyzed boy uses the Sesame Enable phone (Courtesy)
A young paralyzed boy uses the Sesame Enable phone (Courtesy)

In a worldwide contest by US telecom giant Verizon to search out top technologies that can help people live better lives, Israeli start-ups swept three out of the twelve prizes awarded – including one of the top prizes, a million-dollar payout.

Oded Ben-Dov, the inventor of the winning Sesame Enable smartphone, plans to use the money his invention was awarded for a full rollout of the device, which lets individuals who cannot use their limbs due to the effects of conditions like ALS, paralysis, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries to make phone calls, surf the web, and send text messages, all with a slight movement of their head.

“It’s a very proud and happy day for the disabled, and for us at Sesame Enable,” said Ben-Dov upon hearing that he won a million dollars in the Verizon Powerful Voices contest. “Now we have the resources to continue our work, enabling the severely disabled to interact with the online world in a way that was impossible until now.”

The winners were announced last week at a special ceremony in San Francisco.

Besides Sesame Enable, which won the million-dollar prize in the contest’s Education category, two other Israeli apps received a $250,000 prize in the Verizon Powerful Answers contest. Israeli start-up VoiceItt won a $250,000 prize in the contest’s Healthcare category for its TalkItt app, which interprets unclear communication by disabled individuals with heavy speech impediments into actual words in any language.

In the Transportation category, Israeli app HopOn, which lets bus passengers pay their fares using their cellphones, also won $250,000.

The three Israeli start-ups made it to the finals after being chosen from a total of 1,870 submissions from 78 countries, with the apps and tech divided into four categories (the only one without an Israeli winner was the Environmental Sustainability category).

The Powerful Voices contest, according to Verizon, “aims to give companies, entrepreneurs and individuals an opportunity to generate innovative ideas that address some of the world’s biggest challenges,” the company said, and in the Education category, the Sesame Enable device is the best way to do that.

Oded Ben-Dov (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Oded Ben-Dov (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The Sesame device is a specially rigged Nexus 5 smartphone that includes the Sesame software system – a variation of the Nexus device’s Android operating system – that takes control of the device, with voice commands used to open up applications, make calls, etc. For apps that usually require touch for interaction, the system uses head gestures, with users moving their head in various directions (up and down or left and right for navigation, a slight nod forward for selection, etc.).

“Our slogan is ‘touch is overrated,’ and with our device, touch is not even necessary,” said Ben-Dov. “For those who don’t have use of their limbs, this is so far the only solution that lets them use a standard smartphone, with all that means today.”

The fact that the Sesame solution is software-based is key to its abilities, said Ben-Dov. While there are other enabling technologies that allow the severely disabled to use smartphones, they are either hardware-based and very expensive (in the many thousands of dollars), or limited in scope, able to control only one or two apps. By hacking the smartphone’s operating system, Ben-Dov can provide touch and gesture services throughout the device – for a lot less money that other solutions.

“For the phone, technology, training, and stand for the device (it will need to be mounted on a pole opposite the user’s head), we expect to charge about $1,000,” said Ben-Dov.

Sesame Enable raised about $40,000 in a recent crowdfunding campaign (with all the money dedicated to giving away phones for kids whose families can’t afford to buy them), with the big donors ($700 and up) getting a phone themselves as well. Those phones are set to ship in March, said Ben-Dov, with the devices going on sale to the general public shortly after.

“We have funding from several angels who are very interested in the device, and we have been in touch with COs and top executives of many of the largest tech companies in the world, who have expressed support, both verbal and material,” said Ben-Dov.

It should be noted that while the Sesame phones are Google Nexus devices, the company does not have a partnership with Google. “We are using the Nexus 5 devices because they are good quality and easy to work with. We don’t have a formal relationship with Google, but if they’re interested, we certainly can have a conversation.”

Not only was an Israeli product the big winner in this year’s contest – but last year, too, an Israeli app snagged a million dollars in the Powerful Voices contest.

TinyTap, an Israeli start-up that has developed an easy to use platform allowing parents and teachers to design games for kids, won the million dollar prize in the 2014 edition of the contest. The platform allows users to develop games and activities in dozens of languages (Hebrew included). Users can upload their creations for the benefit of all, or even sell it in the TinyTap store.

Commenting on their win, TinyTap founders Yogav Shelly and Oren Elbaz said that “we would have never made it this far without our unbelievable community. Thank you for teaching us more than we could ever hope for.”

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