Motorola looks to Israel for new tech to give it edge

US data communications firm is enrolling workers at new innovation center in Israel, seeks investments in startups

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

Emergency responder with Motorola Solutions' Si500 product (Courtesy)
Emergency responder with Motorola Solutions' Si500 product (Courtesy)

Motorola Solutions Inc., the US maker of communications equipment, is looking to Israeli technology to lead it to a new generation of intelligent products.

The company opened its new innovation center, its second and the only one outside the US, in Israel in December and is in the process of hiring some 20 experts and researchers to develop technologies for its clients: public safety officers, armies, municipalities and governments worldwide. The center will focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity technologies.

Motorola’s mission is to help mission critical workers, like police, army officers, firefighters, and emergency health responders to make sense of the tons of data available to them, “and get the right information to the right person at the right time and in the right way,” Paul Steinberg, Motorola’s chief technology officer, said in a phone interview during a two-day visit to Israel earlier this month. Chicago based Steinberg is in charge of development and execution of the company’s technology strategy, its technological vision and venture investments.

Motorola Solutions is a former wireless technology arm of Motorola, the radio pioneer that made the equipment that allowed astronauts on the moon talk to Earth in 1969 and went on to make the first commercial cellphones. The company makes walkie-talkies, pagers, body-worn cameras and other public-safety and communication equipment for first responders, and it believes that its future products won’t be based just on voice or text.

Paul Steinberg, chief technology officer of Motorola Solutions Ltd. (Courtesy)
Paul Steinberg, chief technology officer of Motorola Solutions Ltd. (Courtesy)

For police officers and firefighters, the key words are “eyes up, hands free,” said Steinberg. But today’s smartphones, which are ubiquitously among first responders, are “eyes down, hands busy,” he said. “So finding new ways for people to consume richer and richer intelligence and making it de-textual, not via text, I think is important.”

Voice communication will “always be the way human beings communicate,” Steinberg acknowledged, “but voice isn’t the most efficient way to share all forms of data.” Motorola is seeking a btter way to transmit data using artificial intelligence, virtual reality or artificial reality technologies. Head-worn displays, intuitive mobile applications or even smart vehicles that will be able to interact with the responders are things we may see in the future, he said.

The idea is to use the technologies developed at the innovation center in Israel in products that will be developed by Motorola centers worldwide.

“My job is to find innovation that is applicable to the company, reduce it to practice and get that into our R&D organizations or product organization so we can build products,” said Steinberg.

The Israeli innovation center, based at Airport City near Tel Aviv, will also work with local startups, helping them develop and grow their ideas. Motorola can then either strike strategic commercial partnerships with the most relevant ones or acquire them at a later stage.

Motorola Solutions Si500 product (Courtesy)
Motorola Solutions Si500 product (Courtesy)

“The reason why I like to use startups, besides the fact that they have ideas that we wouldn’t have thought of, is that they actually get you something you don’t have,” Steinberg said. “There is always someone out there doing something better and faster than you are.”

The innovation center will be independent from Motorola’s R&D center in Israel, which has been operational since 1964 and was the company’s first development center outside of North America. The R&D center in Israel employs several hundred employees at the company’s Airport City facility.

“The R&D center is designed to productize,” Steinberg said. “Designed to operate at scale and to be very predictable and deliver high quality products.” The innovation center will be made up of a small group of “agile” people working together and tapping into areas in which the Israel R&D center is not dealing with.

“One of the things that keeps me awake at night is speed. All this stuff happens faster and faster,” Steinberg said. “We need the best technology we can get, wherever it is and then we need somebody to work with to make sure we are proving it in as quickly as we can.”

Israeli customers of Motorola products, like the army, the police, fire departments, municipalities, and emergency medical responders are all early adapters of technology, enabling the company to test out its new products locally, Steinberg said. “Israel is not only important as a source of intellectual capital, it is a proving ground for us. We have fantastically innovative customers and users here with which we experiment with the technology and perfect it,” he said.

Motorola also has a venture capital arm, which Steinberg is also in charge of. The company currently has investments in four Israeli startups: ViaAgent, a video-analytics firm; BriefCam, which enables security forces to scan huge amounts of video images from surveillance cameras within minutes; Nubo, which allows secure communication via personal smartphones; and VocalZoom, which has developed sensors for voice control performance. the VC arm sold a stake it had Mobileye, a developer of automatic vehicle technologies, when the Israeli firm held its initial public offering in 2014 in the US.

Motorola has one investment director located in Silicon Valley, one in Chicago, and one in Israel, Steinberg said. “So yes, we are very actively looking for more investments in Israel,” he said, adding that he hopes to see more than one investment in Israeli startups in this year. “I have a budget. I usually exceed it, but I can’t tell you what it is.”

Motorola Solutions Inc.’s profit and revenue rose last year as the company invested $1.3 billion in acquisitions. Annual sales totaled $6 billion in 2016 and the company spent $553 million in research and development that year.

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