Winners walked away with $100,000 prizes. Meanwhile, we got the scoop from top U.S. and Israeli defense officials about what tech they are most interested in
After months of entries and a long selection process, Israeli defense and security startups gathered on Monday for the now annual Combating Terrorism Technology Conference, held next to the Tel Aviv University campus.
Sponsored by the United States Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO), Israel’s Ministry of Defense Directorate of Defense Research and Development (DDR&D / MAFAAT), and the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel, the competition sought out the most innovative technologies for deployment with US security and military forces.
As with last year’s event, a $100,000 prize was hanging in the balance for the security related startup with the winning ideas. Additionally this year, a new mobile apps category was added with another $100,000 for the taking.
Over 120 different startups sent entries, which were reviewed by panels of experts in different fields that could sort through the fray of different technologies, ranging from hardware, personnel tracking, computer vision and image matching, cyber security, and many others. In the end, Gideon Miller of the MIT Enterprise Forum who helped make this day happen told Geektime that ten companies made it into the general competition while another nine came to the mobile section.
At the end of the day Duke Robotic Systems, which developed a stabilization system that allows for drones of all sorts to carry different forms of peripheral add-ons, including firearms, won first place and a nice chunk of change in their pockets. The runners up Imagry and Lirhot Systems received $5,000 each for their effort and recognition of their innovation.
In the mobile category, software development solutions startup Spectory took first place with $40,000, while Navin, Cinema2Go, and Tukuoro the three runners up each, received checks for $20,000.
The checks and certificates were presented to the participants by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro who spoke about the importance of mutual work on developing important technologies for defense, including the detection of tunnels from the Gaza Strip, interception of rockets like with the Iron Dome system, and other advances in technology that benefit both Israeli and American forces. The ambassador told the crowd that he was “impressed by the range of ideas that are making the world a safer place.”
In attendance at the event were CTTSO’s Chief of Staff Adam Tarsi and MAFAAT’s Chief Scientist Dov Oster who spoke to the audience about their impressions of this year’s crop of companies.
Tarsi, who has been coming to Israel for over a decade seeking out great technologies to integrate into the U.S. defense space, told Geektime that, “The overall level of the contestants rose dramatically this year. There were a couple of really good ones last year and some that needed a lot of work. This year there was much more polish and the general level of applicability and innovation was two steps of where it was last year. So we went from having on a scale of one to ten a lot of threes, fours, and fives to having sevens and eights and things that we really had to struggle with to get for first and second place.”
With the stiff competition of great startups came some difficult decisions. Tarsi says that in choosing their winner, they wanted to see real innovation.
“We’re looking for things that are really novel, but it’s hard to find bolts of lightning. Not everything is coming out of nowhere and game changing technology,” he said to Geektime.
Unlike other sorts of tech investors that can play a long game on an interesting idea, Tarsi is representing the American security establishment and is pressed to find solutions that will directly address the needs of his people in the field.
“We looked at how can I see an operator using this technology in the near future,” he explains, pointing to Duke as an example of the types of solutions that appeal to him.
“It was ready to go in an application that we thought that our tactical users, our guys in the field, would be able to utilize in the near term,” explains Tarsi, adding that, “Lirhot had excellent technology, very innovative, but I think it was a little further down the road and less specific applicability for my customers. So we recognize their innovation but thought that Duke really had the confluence of innovation and applicability.”
So while only a select few walked away today with checks, Tarsi made the point that for companies taking part in the competition, this was just the start of his relationship with them.
“We put our money where our mouths are,” he says, explaining that, “We’ve taken a number of the technologies that were finalists last year, whether or not they won, and done demonstrations and further development bilaterally or individually with those companies. We intend to do the same thing this year.”
After he returns to Washington DC, he says that he intends to follow up with the companies that piqued his interest and create ways to keep working with them to further develop their products and help them become applicable to the defense market.
Stand out startups from the day
Alongside the competition, small startups set up shop in the main hall, taking the opportunity to introduce themselves to the security community. Here are some of the stand outs to keep an eye out for down the road.
While not an early stage company per say, Reporty offers one of the more interesting safety related apps on the market. Working with local emergency services, users can call for help, opening up live video calls with operators offering a wealth of important information that can help save time and lives. They also have a great feature that allows for your friends to track you for a set period of time. Say you’re walking home at night from a party: You invite a couple of friends to have access to your location and an alert is sent if you don’t check in by the end of the set time.
Fringefy was founded by two Israeli Air Force helicopter pilots who as navigators understand the importance of being able to recognize images. Their technology is able to seek out unknown locations with new images, matching them with known ones. This can be an important tool, drawing data from social media and other open platforms like Google Maps’ street view, for tracking down people or places based on minimal amounts of information.
As an infantryman, these two companies have developed technology that is very close to my heart. TreckAce and Amit have both built devices that can alert commanders in the field if one of their soldiers has been cut off from the force. Using wearables and short range communication, these devices are able to send vibrations to a commander to alert them that someone is no longer in the proper range and might be missing. Amit is the creation of two Technion masters students, Israel Goldshtein and Alexander Dozortsev, and is still in early stage development, though they do have a working prototype and are looking for seed funding.
TreckAce was co-founded by CEO Ronen Gabby and Eliaz Hashdi, and is already being used by Israeli special forces. Their device can also help others navigate in silence, sending directional vibrations about where and when to make turns, using a preset route stored on a device. I have more than a few past commanders that I wish would have had this one, and saved me a lot of walking.
Warriors of the future
In looking down the road, it is clear that technology will continue to play a key role in the field of defense, giving Israel and the U.S. their edge in conflicts.
While Tarsi cites technologies like advanced analytics that help his “customers” tackle the massive amounts of collected data that they are inundated with as one of their most important areas of interest, he points to standoff explosive detection, used for finding hidden improvised explosive devices, as a hard problem to solve. He adds that physical security is not going away anytime soon either.
He thinks that machine learning and neural networks are going to be the big breakthroughs in the next three to five years, hopefully paying dividends.
Oster says that he is “interested on the one hand in psychology, bringing the soldier to the enemy territory, and intimidate them, while at the same time, bringing our soldiers in with minimum casualties and maximum efficiencies.”
In hopes of reducing the risk to soldiers, he says that he is looking towards removing the human factor, replacing them with robots. For his part Tarsi appeared skeptical that people could ever truly be removed from the arena of combat and operations.
As one person in the crowd asked, “Who do you blame for a failure when things go wrong? The QA guy?”