Some 35 people in their 20s to late 40s sat huddled over their laptops in groups in five rooms last week at the Siemens offices in Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, trying to make people’s lives better.
The rooms were eerily quiet, as the participants of a social impact weekathon — a hackathon that lasts for a week — were deep in concentration, struggling to find ways to stop children being forgotten in cars; how to eat healthier at restaurants; how to make education more accessible; how to help parents of kids with autism and how to force drivers to switch off their cellphones while driving.
The weekathon, the subject of which was Social Impact, was organized by the Israel Advanced Technology Industries (IATI), an umbrella organization of high-tech firms, VCs and startups that is active in promoting the high tech industry and boosting its startup ecosystem.
Participants in the weekathon were programmers and software developers from a spectrum of multinational companies with R&D centers in Israel, from HP Indigo, Marvell Technology Group, Motorola Solutions, Siemens, Nokia, eBay and HP Enterprise Software, finding themselves with a chance to spend a week with other developers from other firms, who at times could also be competitors.
“This is an opportunity to enlarge our horizons and work with other people from other companies and see how things are done there,” said 34-year-old Daniel Laettner, a software developer for eBay. “Generally, you work in your box, you know what you are working on. When you meet other developers, you find other ways to work, and this helps you think differently.”
The group Laettner was working with was developing an Eat-Smarter app and was made up of representatives from Marvell, Siemens, eBay and HP. They were all brainstorming on creating an app that would enable consumers to find out the various components of the food offered in the menus of restaurants, to help them eat healthier.
“This is a one-time opportunity for us,” said 27-year old Adi Avron, a programming engineer at Siemens. She doesn’t generally get a chance to sit down and exchange ideas and work with colleagues from other firms, she said.
The teams came up with their own ideas for their subjects, and planned on presenting them at the end of the week at a Demo Day organized by the IATI, in which the heads of their companies and other representatives from Israel’s high tech scene, including officials from VC funds and others would be present.
“We don’t know of any other country other than Israel where this kind of cooperation between multinationals happens,” said IATI’s CEO Karin Mayer Rubinstein. “The IATI facilitates these encounters because it is good for the Israeli technology ecosystem — enabling the integration of the different players — and it is also good for the companies themselves, as it allows their workers to interact with one another, exchange ideas and share experiences.”
International companies, including Google, Apple, Deutsche Telecom and Bosch, have set up research and development centers in Israel, with 278 multinationals operating a total of 327 R&D centers around the country today, compared with about 250 such centers three years ago, data compiled by Tel Aviv’s IVC Research Center shows.
The participants of the weekathon said they had all been encouraged by their team leaders to attend – and they basically took a week off to come to the Siemens offices from morning to evening to work on their social projects.
“People tend to think in a similar way, and at work you know the people,” said Saar Yaniv, a 45-year-old supply chain manager at Marvell who was working on creating a web platform for people to share simple and modular learning units for personalized learning, based on the wisdom of the masses. “Synergy is good, but you are generally not surprised. Here it is all about giving the most of yourself. And having fun too.”
The feeling it that of a “garage startup,” said Omer Etrog, 44, a web developer from Nokia, who was also working on the modular learning units website project.
The Social Buddy group was working on an app that allows children on an autistic band to understand emotions when spoken to, by creating an app that analyzes emotions and sends emojis to the smartphone of the autistic child.
The declared winner of the weekathon was the project called ChildCare, which helps parents not to forget their child in the backseat of their cars. The team created an app that interacts by Bluetooth with a $2.50 off-the-shelf tracking chip that is pinned onto the child — in his bag or on his shoe — and records when the child enters kindergarten. If the child is not recorded as being present at 8 a.m., alerts are immediately sent out to the parents and kindergarten teacher indicating that something may be amiss. Some four children a year die of suffocation and overheating in Israel because they are forgotten in the backseat of their car by their parents.