SAN FRANCISCO – Israel is home to a vibrant startup ecosystem stocked with technical talent, entrepreneurial spirit, and venture capital. For these reasons, Microsoft chose Israel as the location of its first ever startup accelerator program which started last year and just graduated its second class.
I visited Microsoft’s office in San Francisco yesterday to meet with some of these startups and learn more about the program and its progress.
(Also, so I could tell my Bubby I met some nice Israelis.)
Hanan Lavy is the accelerator director in Israel. He measures the program’s success based on how many startups get funding within a year, the average amount raised, and how many members of the current class refer startups to the next class. By these standards, Microsoft’s program is doing well. The second class graduated two weeks ago and 10 of the 13 companies have already raised funds. The average raise of the first class is around $900,000 and the number of applications has tripled.
“This was a new model for Microsoft to operate an accelerator fully owned and run by Microsoft,” he said. “We make sure the companies have a big vision, the entrepreneurs can execute, that a strong tech person is part of the core team, and that the participants are coachable and open-minded. Many startups get involved with what they think is a pain point, but it isn’t really.”
The program lasts for four months where the startups get out and talk to customers, iterate and develop the product, interact with mentors, and hone their pitch. At the end of it all, they come to the U.S. for marketing, fundraising, and publicity. While Israel has an active startup scene, a strong presence in the U.S. market is still important for growth.
Kitchenbug wants to tell the true story behind food. The startup uses natural language processing to analyze recipes and generate full nutritional data, as well as helpful clues to understanding what that data means.
Understanding the health impact of a dish is not as simple as checking calorie, fat and sugar content. A number of other factors are at play and people without extensive knowledge of nutrition may not be aware of the consequences of certain meals. Kitchenbug addresses this issue by attaching green or red icons to each dish that say things like “not very heart healthy” or “good for feeling full” or “bad choice for weight loss.” That way, instead of parsing through various dishes and nutrition resources, you can instantly know if a recipe is right for you.
The founders have known each other for 25 years and live close together in Israel. COO Dror Daliot said that they used to be “chin-up champions” who were fit, slim, and strong, and then “life happened.”
“I love my daughters but they are terrible for my diet,” he said during a demo. “Pancake mornings and evening pizzas are not the healthiest. At a BBQ, I looked at my friends and our crumbling frames and said ‘guys, we have to do something about this.’ We decided to develop technology that takes any online recipe from any website and instantly provides dietary information you need.”
60 percent of the Western world is overweight and 25 percent is obese, with weight-related diseases and allergies on the rise. According to Daliot, recipes are the second biggest search category on the web with 2 billion searches a month, and almost 50 percent of Americans search for info about health food. The Kitchenbug founders are not alone in their efforts to prepare healthy, home-cooked meals.
Kitchenbug has a bookmarking button that collect recipes into an online recipe box. Clicking into an ingredient will yield a description and serving sizes can be easily adapted. The app is social so people can share recipes, follow others, and discover new recipes. The company launched a WordPress plugin in January for food bloggers and over 2,500 recipes have been published so far, receiving 40 million views in 100 days. In the pipeline for Kitchenbug are icons and filters for ideological, allergy, and religious constraints. The data is based on nutritional information from the USDA database, as well as food manufacturers and brands, Wikipedia, and FDA regulations.
The team has raised $650,000 to date.
Askem is a mobile application that prompts you to “question everything.”
Founder Itai Herman said that people are constantly asking questions and trying to get feedback from their social networks, but the options are mostly limited to yes-or-no polls or open commenting. Users can snap a photo on Askem and enter multiple answer options for their friends to choose from. For example, a pair of shoes could have “sexy” “cute” “ugly” and “out of style” as options. People respond on Facebook or Twitter (even if they don’t have the app) and that data is collected and displayed in pie chart form to show all the segmentations.
“We are trying to change the paradigm from binary questions to allow people to ask any questions that comes to their mind, freely and creatively,” Herman said. “This is about self-expression for consumers, but will be huge for providing real-time consumer insights for brands. People regularly their cell phones in stores for to make purchasing decisions. Brands have a blind spot here, they have no idea what people are asking and what the answers are. Askem is a window into their decision making process, their doubts, and other influencing factors.”
Askem’s patent-pending technology creates a persona profile for each user based on their interaction with the app. Brands like H&M could pose questions to their social media audience about the new Spring line, and break the feedback down by location, age etc… Herman said the company plans to do collaborations with brands and influencers across multiple industries and while the app is free for consumers, it will operate on a fermium model for brands who want to use a more complex dashboard.
Askem has raised $560,000 in seed funding from a group of international investors.
W.S.C. Sports Technologies
I know enough about sports to know that it is a massively lucrative industry. Fans are highly engaged and willing to pay for premium content, and broadcasters are willing to pay huge amounts of money for exclusive rights to show it to them.
W.S.C. Technologies has built an application that helps broadcasters get as much out of this investment as possible. Founder Daniel Shichman said broadcasters like Direct TV and Sky in the UK pay $1 billion a year for the exclusive rights to football and football, respectively. Advancements in online media challenge this exclusivity however, because people can now find the content elsewhere.
“Eyeballs are shifting to digital platforms and fans are consuming content everywhere,” he said. “The whole experience of the digital world is more interactive and personalized, and media rights owners are losing viewers to online sources like YouTube where they don’t make money. We help media rights owners create the best possible, personalized experiences to make the most off of video views.”
The startup’s Playmaker platform automatically creates personalized clips based on a fans’ criteria, like a specific team, player, game, or even action like touchdown (that’s when you kick it in the goal, right?). The database will pull up all the relevant clips and string them together in a unique reel. Fans can add in a soundtrack, add effects, provide commentary, and then share it across social networks which directs traffic to the broadcaster’s site, and keeps people off YouTube.
W.S.C. Technologies conducted a case study with a soccer league in Israel. Shichman implementing Playmaker doubled the number of video views and significantly increased the average time per user. Media rights owners pay a basic set up fee and then W.S.C. takes a piece of the revenue generated as a result. The company has raised $1 million and is currently touring the US. to meet with broadcasters and media rights owners here, including ESPN.