ProPlus-36-High-3_NEW_LOGO“Sitting is the new smoking,” says South African physical therapist and entrepreneur Gary Arenson. He’s quoting an expression originally coined by researchers at the Mayo Clinic to describe the serious health risks – including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis – connected with prolonged sitting, whether in front of the television or, in particular, at an office desk hunched over the computer.

The data coming in is shocking. A study by the American Cancer Society which tracked 123,000 Americans over a 14-year period found that women who sat for 6 or more hours a day were 40 percent more likely to die within the study period compared with women who sat for less than 3 hours. For men it was “just” 20 percent more.

Another study from the Kaiser Permanente HMO in California following 80,000 men aged 45 and above revealed that those who spent the most time sitting were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who sat the least.

Exercise doesn’t seem to reverse the effects, either.

The dangers associated with excessive sitting have led increasing numbers of office workers to buy or build their own standing desks – raised platforms for their computer screens and keyboards. But standing only desks are quickly abandoned – workers get tired of being on their feet all day and go back to their original sitting situation.

As a result, sitting-standing hybrid desks that can be raised or lowered with the flip of a switch and a quick tug have become increasingly popular. Some are entire standalone pieces of furniture; others sit on top of one’s existing desk.

Now, the leading manufacturer of the hybrid approach, Varidesk, is making aliyah, courtesy of Arenson and his business partner Issy Zimmerman who have obtained the distribution rights to sell Varidesk in Israel.

For Arenson and Zimmerman, it’s a kind of immigration by proxy. While both are staunch Zionists, they have built their professional and personal lives in South Africa and are staying put. “So, as a religious Jew, the opportunity to invest in Israel and at the same time do something incredible health-wise for the Israeli market really motivated me,” Arenson tells The Jerusalem Post.

Arenson will also be selling Varidesk in South Africa, through his company Ergotherapy, which develops and sells its own line or ergonomic chairs and is built off of Arenson’s medical experience helping people with some serious aches and pains.

“Statistically, 80 percent of people will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives,” Arenson says. “It’s far more prevalent than people realize, and not just with older people. The average age of an office worker using a Varidesk is 40-55.”

Varidesk, whose motto is “Work elevated,” isn’t the first sitting-standing hybrid desk to enter the Israeli market, but it’s the easiest to use, which is a big selling point. The units – which come in a variety of sizes from 30 to 48 inches – come fully assembled. You just hoist them onto your desk and you’re ready to go.

Each Varidesk unit has two tiers – one for your keyboard and another for the monitor. The design eliminates the need to place the screen on a pile of books or a ream of paper, although it’s not ideal for all-in-one computer systems like Apple’s iMac which has a built-in stand leading to neck strain. A smaller Varidesk version is designed for laptops. In all units, a simple quick release grip moves both tiers smoothly into one of a dozen positions in seconds.

The desks are heavy – the 36-inch version we tried weighs 35 pounds – which makes them feel sturdy, an important quality (you don’t want to feel like your expensive computer could topple over at any second if you lean on the desk the wrong way).

Arenson says the Varidesk’s user-friendly design is critical to ensuring “patient” compliance. “If you have to move your computer to one side, then put something on your desk, then move your monitor on top of that, your compliance will be less,” he says. It was something he learned from his 15 years as a physical therapist. “It doesn’t do any good if I tell people to do all these fancy stretches that they won’t do. People don’t want to change their work habits and patterns too much.”

Another key is “balance,” Arenson says. You want to split your day half and half between sitting and standing. People who work mostly out of the office probably don’t need a sitting-standing desk.

Not everyone will take to a Varidesk, Arenson concedes, which is why the company offers a 30-day trial with a money back guarantee. Since Arenson and Zimmerman aren’t relocating, their local representative, another South African Stanley Behrman, will be making house and office calls to make sure new Varidesk owners are comfortable and setting their desks at the right height.

Offices with many workers will be able to get a few units to try out at no cost, giving employees a chance to test drive the sitting-standing experience, before deciding if they want their own.

The first Israeli Varidesks are “on their way to port of Ashdod now,” Arenson says and he will keep with Varidesk’s U.S. policy of always having enough in stock so there’s never a waiting list.

One thing that won’t be the same as the U.S. – the price. The starting price for a Varidesk in Israel is NIS 2,500. That’s at least 40 percent more than it would be in North America.

There’s no way around it: the cost of shipping, VAT and customs all take their toll. “It’s the same price we sell them for in South Africa,” Arenson says, trying to blunt the sticker shock. And it’s less than the NIS 3,400 starting price for competitor Ergotron’s Workfit, which is currently the leader in the Israeli market.

Is Arenson worried that Israelis will balk at the price? Not at all, he says. In fact he expects typical Israeli negotiation. “We’ll need to work hard to substantiate both our product and our price point.” That said, there will certainly be volume discounts for offices buying more than one Varidesk at once.

Arenson and his team plan to sell in Israel exclusively via the web and through direct face-to-face sales, so don’t expect to pick one up at your local office supplies store. (Although if they do, Arenson’s partner Zimmerman should be able to offer some expertise: he ran the Toys R Us franchise in South Africa for many years before going into business with Arenson.)

Standing desks are gaining popularity in the U.S. and Europe, particularly in Scandinavia. Slingsby, a U.K.-based workplace equipment provider, estimated that 80 percent of office workers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland now have adjustable desks.

“Recommendations suggest that workers should aim to stand for at least two hours each day which they can increase once they’re used to it,” says Lee Wright, group sales and marketing director at Slingsby. “Standing on a soft floor surface is [also] more preferable than a hard floor.”

“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting,” says Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative. “We are sitting ourselves to death.”

Standing desks have a couple more advantages – both somewhat surprising. People who suffer from ADHD have reported that they find it easier to focus while standing than sitting, Arenson says. And if you stand a few hours every day while you power through those PowerPoint presentations, you’ll burn an extra 600-700 calories a week, Arenson says.

It may not be enough to quit the gym, but it’s still a nice bonus to the already demonstrated health benefits of getting off your tush while you work.

I originally wrote about Varidesk for The Jerusalem Post.

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Tech picks from the 2016 OurCrowd Summit

by Brian Blum on June 25, 2016

Jon Medved on stageAt the opening of equity crowdfunding platform OurCrowd’s second annual investor’s summit in Jerusalem last week, CEO Jon Medved told the 2,000 assembled attendees that military software maker mPrest had just raised $20 million through OurCrowd, the largest investment ever via crowdfunding and a significant Series A round for mPrest, which built the “command and control” component to Israel’s Iron Dome system. mPrest will use the new round to bring its software into the burgeoning “Internet of Things” arena – to control not just missile systems but everything from the electrical utility grid to home appliances.

mPrest was just one of dozens of startups to present at the conference. The Jerusalem Post takes a look at some of the most exciting companies who braved last week’s snowy weather to take to the stage.

When Israeli startup Consumer Physics demo’d at last year’s OurCrowd Summit, the Apple Watch, with its tiny sensors to measure all manner of changes in the physical world, had just been announced. That made Consumer Physics’ sales pitch that much easier: the company wants to put its SCiO molecular scanner into the next version of the iPhone or Apple Watch. The SCiO scanner uses light waves to analyze the chemical properties of everything from food to pharmaceuticals, then matches the results with an online database. Want to know what’s in that bag of Bamba or whether a certain pill is what its manufacturer claims it to be? Now you can. CEO Dror Sharon showed off the latest SCiO scanner – it’s the size of a smart phone camera.

Speaking of cameras, Core Photonics aims to vastly improve the quality of the photos you take with your smart phone, inching ever closer to much more expensive DLSR cameras. Core Photonics’ technology is complex, combining “computational photography” and “magnetic reluctance actuators,” but the bottom line is that the demo shown by CEO Eran Kali was so far beyond what an iPhone 6S can take today as to remind one of the difference between VHS and Blue-ray in video. Kali says we can expect to see Core Photonics integrated into phones in 2018.

AudienceYour phone is only good if you can find it. If you’re prone to misplacing items, Pixie has got your covered. Pixie makes a small plastic tracking tag that you attach to your keys, your luggage, even your child. Pixie’s smart phone app then guides you to the missing item using arrows, audio feedback and even an augmented reality view that superimposes where you’ve left your wallet onto a moving image of your living room. “Other solutions just tell you, it’s on the left side of the room, good luck,” Pixie’s Amir Bassan-Eskenazi told the room to applause. The Pixie Point goes for $17.50 each (in packs of four), with the price dropping “to single digits” by 2017.

VocalZoom demonstated how its revolutionary noise filtering technology might work in a car. On stage with Honda, which announced its entrance into Israel’s tech market at the conference, VocalZoom CEO Tal Bakish compared the remarkable difference in sound quality from a speakerphone with and without VocalZoom’s voice recognition system, which uses lasers to detect vibrations from the speaker’s vocal cords. Bakish says it works even while riding a motorcycle. VocalZoom should begin rolling with Honda and other car manufacturers by 2018.

Engie also has its sights set on the “connected car” of the future. Engie’s software plugs into a car’s diagnostic system, monitors when the car needs repairs – say, a brake replacement – and sends a message to your smart phone. The Engie app will then bring up a list of nearby mechanics, which you can click on to get quick service at a clear price. It’s like Uber, but for the inside of your car. Engie could be especially useful if you’re on a road trip and far from your regular auto shop.

In addition to Coca-Cola’s iconic Bnei Brak bottling plant, the company also runs a hi-tech operation in Israel – an accelerator called The Bridge. One of the companies that has been through the six month program is Cimagine which allows shoppers to place a 3D picture of a piece of furniture from a Cimagine-enabled website into an “augmented reality” version of, say, your living room so you can see how it will look before you take it home. What does that have to do with Coke? As Cimagine’s CEO Nir Daube demonstrated, Coke can use it to show movie theaters and restaurants how Coca-Cola vending machines and tables with Coke branded umbrellas will appear there – without having to lug the equipment itself.

Jerusalem-based serial entrepreneur Bob Rosenschein is best known for, the company he founded and subsequently sold in 2011 for $127 million. let users ask questions and receive answers from the crowd. Curiyo does more or less the same thing with a twist: you don’t have to leave the website you’re on to get the information you seek. There’s no user download required; Curiyo allows users to click or tap on a word and the information pops up in an overlay window. With Curiyo being served up on 3.75 million page views a day already – USA Today is a client – Rosenschein’s third startup may have the real answers.

home-screen-iphoneIn 2012, Zula came up with a great app to consolidate all of a team’s communications in one place – emails, files, video, audio. Then along came Slack, a nearly identical product that caught on like wildfire and it was “game over” for Zula, explained the company’s chief marketing officer Hilel Fuld. Zula had raised $4 million – enough money to keep going – but no longer had a market. But one component of its product suite had legs enough to stand on its own. Nine months later, ZCast was born – an iPhone app for instant podcasting. More than that, when you start your live “groupcast,” you can invite friends to join you, creating an on-the-fly talk radio show that anyone with a Twitter account can listen to.

If instant podcasting seems like fun, making it easier to move freight from door to ship to door sounds like the polar opposite. But in the deadly dull, Zvi Schreiber saw opportunity. His startup, Freightos, addresses a problem that anyone who has ever made aliyah has encountered: while you can book a plane ticket online in seconds, it takes an average of 91 hours to get a quote for sending a container from one country to another. That’s because, when Freightos got started, some 90 percent of the systems to manage freight were handled by Excel spreadsheets and the occasional email. So in order to build what Schreiber calls the “Kayak for international freight,” with transparency, speed and fixed prices, he first had to work with the freight forwarders to put software in place to automate the quotation process. The company is four years into its mission and has raised an impressive $23 million to date.

MassChallenge team rings the gong including Nir BarkatSidebar: MassChallenge brings Boston accelerator to Jerusalem

In conjunction with the OurCrowd Summit last week, a new hi-tech accelerator entered the Israeli market but, unlike similar programs that are mostly based in Tel Aviv, this one will be in Jerusalem. Boston’s MassChallenge takes the Y Combinator model of putting startups through a four-month boot camp of mentoring and networking and takes away the profit angle…for MassChallenge that is.

“We are the most startup friendly accelerator out there,” explained founder John Harthorne during a lavish launch party at Jerusalem’s First Station. “We take no equity and no percentage of revenue.” The non-profit MassChallenge aims to run 100 startups through its program in the first two years and is open to anyone with a good idea – you don’t even have to be from Israel. Leading companies compete for prize of NIS 1 million.

Israel’s capital has seen a startup surge in recent years, with approximately 120 new startups opening every year. MassChallenge aims to double that. OurCrowd and other investors will be watching closely, looking for investment opportunities when each MassChallenge cohort graduates. If even a few of these companies stay in Jerusalem, it could have a deep impact on the city’s hi-tech ecosystem.


The Sabbath is on Saturday not Sunday – the incredible story of the Zion Torah Center in India’s Turmeric City

October 5, 2015

This article was the cover story in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on Friday, September 25, 2015. Indian Pastor Samuel Devasahayam of the Zion Gospel Church was devastated: his elder sister Sheela, a Mother Theresa-like figure who had devoted her life to serving those in need – had passed away at the age of 60 and the […]

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Transforming teens at risk: How Lachan helped Rafael turn from criminal to counselor

July 27, 2014

Lachan co-founders Yoni Riskin and Avichai Yosef As Rafael stood before the juvenile court judge, he was given a stark choice: either join one of Israel’s heavily supervised “youth villages” for teenagers at risk…or go straight to jail. Before this pivotal moment, Rafael’s life was moving steadily and irreversibly in one direction. Running with a […]

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PICO: A Force of Change in Jerusalem

February 5, 2014

Galya Harish could have set up her new company anywhere. A seasoned business professional, she has both an MBA and a law degree, passed the bar exam in Israel and in the US, served as vice president of operations and finance for hi-tech incubator JVP Studios, and worked as a brand manager for several international […]

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Facebook changes mean greater need for original content

December 17, 2013

Recent changes to Facebook’s news feed algorithm mean that organizations and companies developing and publishing their own original content are now receiving a significant boost on the leading social media site. Two weeks ago, Varun Kacholia and Minwen Ji, engineering and software managers at Facebook, respectively, posted in the Facebook Newsroom that “we are now […]

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Hello Doctor app frees you from medical paperwork

November 19, 2013

(Hello Doctor co-founders, from left, Ziv Meltzer, Maayan Cohen and Eran Keisar.) When Maayan Cohen’s partner was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, she was suddenly thrust into a world of specialists, tests, recommendations and paperwork. It was overwhelming for the then 25-year-old Tel Aviv University biochemistry graduate, who was working as a senior analyst […]

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Israeli App Steers You to Parking Spots

March 21, 2013

Tomer Neu-Ner was driving home from the hospital with his wife and newborn son. As always, parking was tight near Neu-Ner’s central Tel Aviv apartment. “I was a nervous new father,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave my baby in the car more than even a minute longer than I had to.” So he […]

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Better Place new management promotes “beta test” Israel

January 17, 2013

Israelis notoriously have a hard time saying they’re sorry, let alone that they may have goofed big time. But that’s exactly what happened in an extraordinarily candid meeting last week between Better Place’s new management team and several hundred owners of the company’s Renault Fluence 100% electric vehicles. Not only did CEO Evan Thornley, the genial […]

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Want a job applicant’s social media password? Don’t try it in Canada (or anywhere!)

March 29, 2012

Here’s a trend that seems outright outrageous: asking for a job applicant’s social media passwords. It’s been in the news for the past few years, off-and-on, especially during the past few weeks. Today, the Toronto Star has an article about a candidate for a law enforcement job who was asked to share his Facebook password with the recruiter. He […]

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