There’s high-tech – and then there’s “Tech for Good,” an Israeli organization that promotes technology development to solve social problems. To actualize its goals, the group last week inaugurated The Rally, Israel’s first “social tech” accelerator that, said director Larry Akerman, aims to turn solving social issues like obesity, cyber-bullying, teen pregnancy, and much more from a niche effort by conscientious do-gooders to a mainstream business activity “that can have a widespread impact on society, while providing a good return on investment (ROI) for investors, just like a successful mobile app would.”
“We have a lot of great technology in Israel, but it has not really been applied specifically to addressing social issues,” said Akerman, even if many of the technologies and products developed in Israel – like drip irrigation – have had a major social impact. Many of those technologies have indeed contributed to making life better for billions around the world, but The Rally has something else in mind. “Our accelerator program focuses specifically on technologies to solve social problems, the vast majority of which will probably not be addressed by developers working on their own.”
The Rally wants entrepreneurs to concentrate on solving problems – and the program will show them how to make it worth their while, said Akerman.
Located at Hub-TLV, a well-known Tel Aviv accelerator space, The Rally will accept 15 start-ups (applications accepted through December 15) that “imaginatively use technology to tackle social issues,” Akerman said. The program will include lectures and discussions on marketing, presentation skills, how to approach investors, and “selling themselves” – perhaps the most important skill of all – as well as mentoring sessions with industry professionals on how to fine-tune their projects to meet the needs of both those in need, and of investors. Participants will not get a stipend, but they will get introductions to some of the top people in the Israeli business and investment world – and, in addition, said Akerman, The Rally will not be taking equity from participants, at least for this first round of training.
The Rally’s social-tech approach is new in Israel, but similar accelerators have been around for several years in the US and Britain. It’s about time, said Akerman, that Israel had one too, considering the level of innovation here. There are a number of Israeli organizations that have sponsored hackathons or even more extended programs where participants have built apps and products to help those in need, but The Rally is the first social-tech entity to be integrated in the Israeli tech community.
“We have a long list of corporate partners, from Bezeq to Ernst and Young to Bank Hapoalim to Tnuva, and many more,” said Akerman.
That latter partner – Israel’s largest dairy concern, a totally for-profit concern – wouldn’t seem to be a candidate for investing in a social-tech idea, but Akerman said that Tnuva management was very enthusiastic about the project. “One of Tnuva’s concerns – based on a business point of view – is encouraging better nutrition among kids, and they are interested in developing tech solutions that will help educate students, as well as adults, on ways to eat more nutritiously.”
Bank Hapoalim, meanwhile, is interested in apps and technologies to help the elderly. “As the population in Israel – many of them Bank Hapoalim’s customers – get older, they are seeking ways to provide more services to the elderly.” Other partners, like investment firm Excellence, are interested in developing apps to educated consumers on financial choices; Bezeq is looking at, among others, cyber-bullying solutions.
So impressed are The Rally’s corporate partners, said Akerman, that “they insisted on sending us their top people – CEOs, CTOs, marketing directors – to be mentors.”
Those partners may very well be looking for ways to monetize the tech that The Rally’s entrepreneurs develop. But that, said Akerman, is the whole point. “For them and for the venture capital firms and angels we are reaching out to, it’s an investment, not a charity.” That, he said, is the most sustainable way to do social-tech, because for a corporation or investor, the profit motive is the greatest incentive there is.
Akerman and his partner Nir Shimony are themselves well-acquainted with the Israeli tech community – meaning that they know how the business works, and what investors want. Akerman has been working in the Israeli corporate world for over two decades, and is former chief financial officer of Pelephone Communications, one of Israel’s leading cellular companies. Shimony, who founded Tech for Good with Akerman two years ago, worked in the telecom industry for over a decade, and is a former official with the Israel Antitrust Authority.
As investments go, Akerman believes that social-tech is safer – and potentially more profitable – than many other areas. “Many developers come up with an app or technology and then try to find a need it can fulfill, and base their marketing on that. But the need to solve a social problem is clear to everyone, and anyone who can find a good solution to a problem will not have any trouble finding a market.”
That market, of course, will not be restricted to Israel. “Obviously we are going to concentrate on projects that can solve problems that are common to many societies,” said Akerman. “The world today is a flat place, and what afflicts one society afflicts many others. Israel is known as a center of technology, and people and companies from around the world flock here to benefit from the solutions we have developed. We want them to flock here for solutions not just to their technology problems, but to their social problems as well.”