We met the managers of three social accelerators to understand what is happening on the cutting edge of social change through technology in Israel
One fine day in 2013, Nir Shimony saw the light – he realized that Israeli social startups were afflicted with a bit of darkness. He knew they could become a big business success, just like Cyber or Fintech startups, but it seemed that they lacked the support and guidance they needed to get there.
Nir comes from a business development and marketing background, where he met a large number of startups in various fields. What really got to him were those entrepreneurs with talent and a passion to change the world for the better and provide a solution to social problems.
In our meeting, he told me about social entrepreneurs who were sitting in their offices with tears in their eyes, because they felt they did not fit into any defined hi-tech pigeonhole with a clear path to growth and success, and were unsure what they needed to do in order to succeed. Nir decided to team up with Omri Boral, another trained economist with experience managing social business enterprises.
They jointly founded TechforGood (TFG): a global organization aimed at helping entrepreneurs find that elusive double profit line, both helping to solve social problems and achieving business and economic success. Nir and Omri are not alone in this revolution. Within a few years, what initially seemed like the odd man out in the local startup industry has become a real movement.
The combination of a social agenda with business tactics is becoming a significant part of the economic and social fabric all over the world. For example, Google and Facebook have applied heavy economic pressure in response to the anti-LGBT law in North Carolina. This is blurring the former boundaries between the social, business, and public categories.
While this could be construed as positive or negative, depending on your outlook, such corporations are undoubtedly helping social ventures grow and improve the quality of life of people at a level that goes beyond an easier way to order a taxi or more efficient enterprise software. As of now, the efforts of all these companies may appear isolated and specialized, but when more companies are actually operating in this space, they will address more social issues needing solutions.
Here, we decided to peek into the social-tech sector, which is expanding in Israel, and to survey the activity of three key organizations: the above-mentioned TFG, The 8200 Social Program, and the new SocialTechLab accelerator in Haifa.
TFG began its operations in Israel in the framework of an accelerator, but in the belief that the accelerator program is only one aspect of an entire system that needs to develop so that technological solution for local and global social problems will be created here (and elsewhere). They work on a broader platform of support and responsiveness to entrepreneurs, and are opening doors overseas: They recently launched TFG Singapore in addition to a range of international cooperative efforts.
At the same time, TFG is taking measures to found an impact investment fund that will finance startups in the early stages. TFG has a clear vision of what the global social industry should look like and what Israel’s role in it should be.
Background: For Nir and Omri, social entrepreneurs should aspire not merely to make a living from their business; they should also aim at success, exits, and becoming millionaires, just like their counterparts in other sectors. “It should be just any other startup. No startup entrepreneur in the world develops a cyber solution because ‘It’s nice – I can make a living out of it.’ They develop it in order to make it a big success,” Omri explains.
They believe that this is the way for the field to attract the better entrepreneurs, who will not compromise on their principles or feel that they are sacrificing themselves for what they are doing, and will wholeheartedly embrace social entrepreneurship. They strongly believe that dealing with social problems in Israel is not only about helping people with disabilities or excluded population groups and minorities. This very niche-like definition of social entrepreneurship is liable to be the death of this entire industry, they assert.
Instead, they think that social entrepreneurship can also deal with issues afflicting the entire population, such as health problems, aiding senior citizens and the community that supports them, workplace safety, the effects of technology on our lives, etc. They see signs of awareness among enterprises, more from abroad than in Israel, and are trying to bring about a change in our local consciousness.
Two classes have graduated the TFG accelerator so far. The third class of the TFG Israeli accelerator is now beginning, and the program in Singapore will open soon, which is designed for startups that create a broad impact and are not necessarily focused on a specific population group or niche.
Selected startups: CureFacts makes clinical information about every existing medical treatment accessible to patients. Most people consult one or two doctors, and perhaps a few friends, and then decide on a given treatment or operation. Omri says, “It turns out that many of the medical treatments now offered are unnecessary, their cost is exorbitant, they later affect the patient’s rehabilitation, there are more errors, etc. Things frequently happen out of inertia, and there are also fixations in medicine.”
CureFacts’ solution utilizes Systematic Reviews that collect all the clinical research on a given treatment, perform analysis based on artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP), and return with clear conclusions and recommendations.
Another example from a completely different sphere is Toya. Western culture still perpetuates stereotypes of gender inequality that impact women and girls. The founders felt that the games that girls play today affect women’s careers and choices later in life. It also defines how women regard the opportunities open to them. Toya Co-founders and co-CEOs Anat Shperling and Yifat Anzelevich are developing Minecraft-based games designed mainly, but not exclusively, for girls.
The game makes stories about women scientists and women who did great and significant things accessible, and also helps develop capabilities, such as leadership, strategic thinking, initiative, and interest in technology and science.
Uniqueness: TFG believes that entrepreneurs need aid and support at all stages of life. To do so, they offer platforms for entrepreneurs who are only at the idea stage and are not ready for an accelerator, as well as those who have already finished the accelerator and need a place to work, support, networking, and access to investors. They also provide solutions that are relevant to both early and later stage startups.
The 8200 Social Program
Uria Lin, Guy Katsovich (8200 EISP accelerator’s managing director) and Natalie Kataev founded the program in 2013. The first class opened in 2014. Current Social Program Managing Director Neta-Li Meiri began as a volunteer in the program. She ran the organization’s social media, and organized gatherings and events while at the same time working as a lawyer at M. Firon & Co. Although she comes from a marketing background as head of foreign relations for Unit 8200 and worked at two startups, she chose a different professional path for a while. With time, she sensed a yawning gap between what she was doing on a daily basis as a lawyer and what really excited her. In 2016, she severed her connections with the legal field, and became managing director of the program.
Background: The program sprang from a wish to harness the human capital of Unit 8200 alumni, Israel’s prestigious military intelligence unit, and invest them back into Israeli society. Despite the program’s name, being a Unit 8200 alumnus is not a requirement for taking part in the program.
Over the five-month program, the ventures receive a stream of services – business and legal counseling, devising a marketing and business plan, guidance in specification and design, understanding the user experience, etc. The 8200 Alumni Association is a non-profit organization – it does not claim ownership of the participating ventures and their Intellectual Property.
For the first two classes of the program, 10-15 ventures were selected, and the search and screening stages for the third class are currently taking place. Registration for the third class began on July 3 and will continue until the end of August. The screening itself will take place in September, and program will get underway in October.
The accelerator is geared at social entrepreneurs aiming to solve social problems through technological means. Its graduates work in broad areas, and are of all ages – the youngest is 25, and the oldest is in his late 60s. They also come from varying business and entrepreneurial backgrounds: engineers, physiotherapists, sociology students, marketing personnel, industrial designers and managers at various levels. Some are first-time entrepreneurs, others are serial entrepreneurs, and some have already had exits.
Selected startups: Mazu is a company that devises technological means to prevent children from drowning in East Asia. Another company is EyeControl, which develops innovative spectacles that enable ALS patients and people who are locked-in to communicate with their surroundings. The startup recently made a big splash by beating out 3,000 startups to reach the finals of The Venture competition by Chivas.
A different communications solution is offered by Voiceitt, a startup that has raised more than $2 million to date and has won over five international competitions. Voiceitt has developed TalkItt, an app that enables people with impaired speech to communicate with their voices through simultaneous translation of their impaired speech into comprehensible words.
Insight Sparks is developing a mobile game and network to help heighten awareness and change negative phenomena like racism, discrimination, and inequality. Rounding out the list is Vitalitix, which has developed an app that facilitates the creation of extensive communal and professional support circles for older parents.
Uniqueness: The program obviously takes pride in Unit 8200’s ramified chain of connections and human capital, to which it has unique access. In addition to startups, the accelerator also accepts both nonprofit organizations and social businesses. The program accepts only startups that have already reached proof of concept/prototype stage, not those that are still at the idea stage.
The SocialTechLab accelerator, the youngest of the three, officially opened only in April in Haifa. Founder and Program Manager Yaniv Assas has an MBA and a background in entrepreneurship and technology. He previously managed complex information systems projects at the Rafael Armament Development Authority. After working at Rafael for 10 years, he switched to entrepreneurship, becoming a founding partner in a startup named NiNiSpeech, which offered digital solutions for communications disorders. Yaniv felt that even the best foreign development centers did not offer a broad enough ecosystem for entrepreneurs, and certainly not for social-technological entrepreneurs, and decided to do something about it.
Background: SocialTechLab’s goal is also to provide technological solutions for social problems. The focus in the first class was on health, education, the elderly, safe personal space, the environment, and shared economy ventures. The year-long program is divided into three principal stages: training in devising a business plan and building a prototype, testing it and developing the finished product, and advice in preparing for capital raising and presenting the venture to investors. SocialTechLab does not take equity, and emphasizes the organization of communal gatherings and events for the purpose of developing the local ecosystem. Of the 90 ventures that submitted their candidacy, 11 were chosen for the first class, which is currently taking place.
Selected startups: Of the 11 startups, seven are in the medical and the quality of life sectors. For example, FerriFree develops novel disposable products that provide high efficiency for non-invasive iron removal from human blood. HugHeart is developing a special gamma camera for bypass operations, Gradio is a support system for analyzing imaging test results, and PapaYona is a small wearable device that helps patients with hand tremors. Education and business are represented in the accelerator by Steach, which is developing an application that employs a unique method for bringing together private teachers and students, and EcoFinSim, which is developing a simulation system for building businesses.
Uniqueness: The accelerator has created connections and cooperative efforts with many entities in the city, such as hospitals, schools and other educational institutions, such as the Technion, University of Haifa, and other local colleges. Although it is not a municipal accelerator, SocialTechLab aims to make social-technological entrepreneurship a growth engine in Haifa.
Besides these three accelerators, however, there are more than a few efforts helping to promote social-technological entrepreneurship: PresenTense operates various accelerators dispersed throughout Israel, and encourages social entrepreneurship in various communities and population groups in Israel society. Among other things, it supports , an accelerator aimed at developing helpful technologies for people with disabilities. A number of impact funds have sprung up in Israel for the purpose of investing in social-technological startups, among them Impact First Investments and 2B-Community. There are also government and public institutions, local authorities, philanthropic organizations, and corporate social responsibility departments in companies that have taken upon themselves to promote social-technological entrepreneurship in Israel by investing in the advancement of social goals.
Let us know what you think about social entrepreneurship in the comments below.