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Brian Blum

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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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.


Magazine coverThis 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 entire city of Erode – close to 7,000 people – had had come out for the funeral. All 3,000 of Samuel’s own community were in attendance as well and the pastor knew he had to deliver the sermon of his life.

Standing before them, on an already hot and humid Indian day in April 2011, tears welling up in his eyes, he held the microphone tightly in his hands and shared stories of sister Sheela’s devotion; how she never married or had children but cared for the community’s widows and orphans and secretly delivered rice to 100 needy families every day. Sheela represented everything that was good about this close-knit Christian community, Samuel said. And then, as a seeming non sequitur to the assembled mourners, he dropped an unexpected bombshell, one that had been welling up inside him for nearly ten years.

“My friends, I have to tell you something very important,” he said, facing forward. “Sunday is not the correct day of the Sabbath. The Sabbath should be kept according to the custom of the Jews, beginning on Friday night at sunset and ending Saturday when the sun goes down again.”

Samuel’s congregants from the Zion Gospel Church were stunned. What was their pastor implying? Was it just that their day of rest was wrong? Or was he suggesting something bigger about God and their religious faith as a whole? No, he must be speaking out of his sorrow, the people concluded.

But Samuel, 51, knew exactly what he was saying. Since 2001, Samuel, his wife Anne, Samuel’s two sisters and the Devasahayam’s children had all been living a secret Jewish life, keeping the laws of the Torah to the best of their limited knowledge at the time. Samuel had come to the conclusion that Judaism was the true path to God and the family had begun keeping Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and kashrut secretly. But he was too fearful to reveal his inner truth, concerned about the fallout, both personally and for his community.

And indeed, there was fallout. After the funeral was over and in the months to come, congregants approached Samuel to ask more questions. “’What do you mean by that, Pastor,’ the people would ask,” Samuel’s wife Anne recalls. “’Do you mean that Jesus is not God, Pastor?’ And he would answer yes. ‘And do you mean we should keep the Sabbath on Saturday too?’ Yes, he would say.

Eventually the people agreed. Well half did; 1,500 congregants left the church. Those who remained said, “We have known you for many years, we know your character, we see how you are with the people. So whatever you say, it must be true,” Anna continues.

Jewish star in Zion neighborhoodThe church was renamed the Zion Torah Center, mezuzot were affixed to members’ doorposts, a Torah scroll was imported, and Stars of David appeared throughout the new “Zion” neighborhood which Samuel and Anne set up after some Christians in Erode – which is known locally as “Turmeric City” – refused to continue renting to members of the Zion Torah Center.

Today the community comes together every Shabbat where Samuel leads them in a full prayer service that would be familiar to Jews anywhere else in the world. The men wear white shirts and kippot, the women sit on the floor in long white dresses and saris with their hair covered. There is Kiddush (with Samuel’s own “kosher” wine) afterward, and the community is well versed in traditional Shabbat zemirot (songs).

The adult men even took it upon themselves to get circumcised. (Their children have it easier, with a version of a brit mila at eight months. “The doctors are afraid to do it on the eighth day,” Anne explains.) Samuel and Anne send out a weekly SMS with the times for Shabbat candle lighting and havdalah at the day’s conclusion. At least one community member – Samuel and Anne’s son – wears Tefillin during weekday prayers. A giant sukka is built on the roof to celebrate the fall holiday.

The community’s long-term goal: to convert to Judaism fully and perhaps even make aliyah to Israel.

How did this remarkable community, located far inland, an eight hour twisting turning ride from Cochin deep in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, turn to a Jewish lifestyle? The story begins with Samuel’s father, a pastor himself, who in 1972 founded the church along with a club called Friends of Israel. The church was fervently Zionist from the start, with daily prayers on behalf of the State of Israel and fasting whenever Jews were in danger (for example, during the Entebbe hostage crisis or the trials of Prisoners of Zion in the USSR). The church focused almost exclusively on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament.

Samuel describes his father as a “strict disciplinarian. He’d tell me if I don’t memorize the Ten Commandments, he wouldn’t give me any food. He wouldn’t let me watch TV or read the newspaper – he said it would ‘spoil me’ – but he’d cut out clippings about Israel and put them in my lunchbox.” When Samuel’s mother wanted to send him to a Christian bible school at age 12, his father said no. “If you want to understand the bible, you have to wear ‘Jewish spectacles,’ my father would insist,” Samuel says.

(There is actually a Jewish connection in the family. Samuel’s great, great grandfather was an Iraqi Jewish man who came to India to work for the British government and married a local woman. “He had a big kippa with fur,” Anne recalls. “We kept it for a long time until the fur fell off. It was more than 100 years old, but we cherished it.”)

Samuel’s father died when Samuel was just 14-years-old. Samuel’s mother and his sisters Sheela and Wilma ran the church and the Friends of Israel club for several years. The young Samuel was not interested in following in his father’s path. “I was more interested in physics and science, or maybe becoming a musician,” Samuel says. But an accident left Samuel with a bum leg. “I thought, maybe God doesn’t want me to be a secular fellow and so he punished me. And from that day, I didn’t have any conflict in my mind. I gave all my decisions to God.”

Samuel took over the church and, a number of years later, was courting Anne. “I didn’t know much about Israel back then,” Anne says, “so he tested me with songs. He would play Ofra Haza and Shoshana Damari, to see if I enjoyed them, if the language spoke to me. I loved the music. From that day he understood that I loved Israel too.”

The Devasahayam’s see miracles everywhere. Once in a second hand bookstore, Samuel found a High Holy Days machzor (prayer book). “How can this be?” he thought to himself. A book in Hebrew in the back roads of India! The same thing happened a few years later when he found another book called The Illuminated Manuscripts of the Jewish World in a different second hand shop. “It cost ten rupees, not even a shekel,” Samuel marvels. “This was a present from God for me.”

Zion Torah CenterThe Zion Torah Center community’s connection with the Jewish world often expresses itself in surprising ways. There is a tradition that the community’s leader names newborn children. Samuel has taken to giving them names from a book he acquired of children who died during the Holocaust – names like Bella, Miriam, Hanna and Mendel. “Their teachers can’t always pronounce the names and they can’t even write it in Tamil,” Samuel says. “But we just gave them the exact names. To keep the memory alive.”

Samuel and Anne were quick to take on the custom for themselves. Their children are named Moshe, Jerusha (from Jerusalem) and Rivka, who was born on November 26, the same day that Chabad emissary to Mumbai Rivka Holzberg was murdered in that city’s horrific 2008 terror attack. “We wrote to Chabad and they were very happy that there was a little Indian girl named after their Rivka,” Anne says.

One reason the Zion Torah Center community took to Jewish practice so quickly, Samuel says, is that nearly 60 percent of them were already keeping “some kind of Jewish ritual” as members of the Chettiar caste.

A mercantile caste in southern India, the Chettiars have a number of “Jewish” customs, Samuel explains. “They light candles on Friday night and keep a kind of Shabbat. On Friday afternoons they wash the whole house. On Hanukah, they light clay oil lamps. When a woman niddah [that is, she has her period], she sits in a different part of the house, outside under a portico, for seven days and must take a bath in the well before re-entering the home. Teenage Chettiar boys go through a rite of passage into manhood that includes donning a shawl and “sacred thread” before proceeding to conduct a festive ceremony at the local temple..

A year ago an archaeologist working in Chennai found Jewish graves inside a Chettiar cemetery, Samuel adds. “That’s just not possible! Cemeteries in India are strictly divided according to caste.” He speculates that, as businessmen and travelers, the Chettiars may have had closer links with other Jewish Indians and adopted some of their customs over time. He isn’t suggesting that the Chettiars have actual Jewish ancestry.

When Samuel made his bombshell announcement at his sister’s funeral, there was another prompt: his son Moshe was approaching the age when it was expected he’d be baptized. But Moshe was increasingly uncomfortable. He finally blurted out to his father, “Abba, I can’t be baptized. I’m Jewish!” That gave Samuel the courage to finally reveal his truth.

Samuel’s dream for the future of his community is to make mass aliyah…to Israel’s Negev desert. He cites Isaiah’s prophesy (Isaiah 35:1) that the children of Israel would help make the desert bloom. He knows that Israelis have been doing just that for decades. “Still, there’s a lot of desert area, so let our community be part of the dream,” he implores.

There’s only one problem: Erode is not a farming community. “We are mostly textile workers, doctors, engineers,” Samuel concedes.

Coconut farmSo the Devasahayams purchased 100 acres of land and planted 3,500 coconut trees. “Every month, we invite people from the community to come and work in our farm, to get hands on experience with agriculture, to be ready to work in the Negev,” Samuel explains. And just to be extra prepared, the farm is watered by Israeli-made drip irrigation.

The coconut farm is part of Samuel and Anne’s income, which also includes running a local printing press. A Jewish calendar with all the holidays – written in Tamil – is one of their prized products. Samuel also prints small booklets for every Jewish festival, including their own Passover Haggadah. Their son Moshe serves as book designer and editor. Several hundred copies of each have been printed.

Samuel and Anne are under no illusions that converting to Judaism, let alone immigrating to Israel, will be easy. The members of the Zion Torah Center have no formal Jewish roots. They are not in the same category as the Bnei Menashe, the Indian tribe that claims descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes, but are rather more like Uganda’s Abayudaya, whose Christian leader Semei Kakungulu adopted Judaism in 1919.

“But God can do wonders, there could be another Exodus,” Samuel says. “You would never have believed the Hebrews could get out of Egypt. But when God wanted to bring them to Israel, nothing could stop Him, not even the Red Sea. God will definitely bring us, I’m sure of it.”

That would allow the community to realize another dream: “To contribute 100 new IDF soldiers,” says Anne. “If you ask a child here what he wants to become when he grows up, he will say a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces.”

Meanwhile they have to contend with bureaucracy back home. For example, they don’t yet call the Zion Torah Center a “synagogue,” even though it acts like one. “We need to get permission to build our own cemetery first,” Anne says. “Otherwise if we move too fast, we’ll lose permission to bury our dead in the Christian cemeteries. And the alternative [the Hindu custom of burning the dead] is against the Torah!”

We caught up with Samuel and Anne on the tail end of a three-month visit to Israel – the longest of Samuel’s five trips to the Holy Land (Anne has made three) – where they were studying Judaism and taking a daily Hebrew ulpan. “We do everything according to what we know from the Torah,” Anne explains, “but there are so many more rules in the Mishna. We have simple kosher, we know not to cook milk and meat together, but we didn’t know what to do when, say, some meat falls into a milk pot. Every time we come, we learn a little bit more.”

Michael Freund, the chairman of Shavei Israel, a non-profit organization which works with “lost” tribes and “hidden” Jewish communities around the world, including India’s Bnei Menashe, has met with the Devashayams several times during their visits to Israel. They have invited him to visit Erode later this year.

“Samuel and Anne are two very sincere seekers of spiritual truth who have made enormous personal and professional sacrifices in order to embrace Judaism,” Freund says. While emphasizing that contemporary Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, Freund adds that if the Devashayams “have taken the first step of their own volition and sincerely wish to join the Jewish people and live a Jewish life, then I believe we should assist them. They clearly have a thirst for Jewish knowledge and are anxious to deepen their familiarity with Jewish history and tradition.”

India in general moves at a slower pace than the frenetic West, but there is one clock that’s ticking fast in the Devasahayam household: 15-year-old Moshe is considering his options in the next few years. “More than anything, he wants to learn in an Israeli yeshiva,” Anne says.

Will it be possible? More improbable things have happened in the small town of Erode, with its ever-present Jewish Stars and the sound of Hebrew mixed with Tamil on a muggy Saturday morning.

Sidebar: Bnei Ephraim also want to join the Jewish people

Erode’s Zion Torah Center is not the only community in India without formal Jewish roots that is eager to join the Jewish people. Some 750 kilometers to the north, in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh, 120 families call themselves the Bnei Ephraim, claiming descent from the biblical tribe of Ephraim, one of Joseph’s two sons.

Like the Zion Torah Center community, the Bnei Ephraim was founded by a Christian preacher. Pastor Shmuel Yacobi was living in the small village of Kottareddipalem when he visited Israel as a tourist in the early 1980s and became convinced that his ancestors were actually Jews who, after being exiled from the Land of Israel, traveled through Afghanistan and northern India before settling in an area called Nandial. Known locally as Telegu Jews, Yacobi says that the Bnei Ephraim always had certain mysterious customs that can be found in Judaism, including burial, marriage, coming of age (bar mitzvah) and family purity laws.

Shavei Israel has helped the Bnei Ephraim as well, sending teachers to India, arranging for members of the community to visit Israel, and translating books about Jewish practice into the Telugu language.

The Bnei Ephraim today keep Shabbat and kashrut and take off from work on major Jewish holidays. Several small synagogues have been established. Moreover, Shmuel Yacobi’s son Yehoshua managed to immigrate to Israel in 1993, where he served in the IDF and worked at the Hebrew University library. He lives in Ramat Gan today.


Yoni Riskin and Avichai Yosef

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 criminal crowd in his hometown of Rehovot, increasingly under the influence of drugs, and never far from an undercurrent of violence that had, in this final conviction, involved a knife attack with another teen, Rafael, now 19, was out of options. He chose the youth village and the judge assigned him to a program run by the non-profit organization “Lachan.”

Lachan operates three youth villages for troubled young adults, from ages 12-18, in the north, center and south of Israel, as well as a program for college students. The organization was founded by Yoni Riskin and Avichai Yosef in 2001. Riskin is no stranger to social entrepreneurship; his father, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, was one of the founders of the town of Efrat and Lachan got its start in the community, taking over a couple of broken down and unused caravans to create an alternative educational program for troubled teens.

For Rafafel, the three years he spent living at Lachan’s “Yedidut” youth village on a quiet moshav near the city of Lod were nothing short of transformative. Today he is off drugs, out of jail and volunteering as a counselor for similar at-risk kids while waiting to enlist in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces. Entering the army is an achievement on its own: for teens with a criminal record, the IDF essentially prevents them from signing up and receiving all the significant social and financial benefits that military service in Israel provides.

Rafael says his experience at Lachan wasn’t smooth sailing from day one. “I was still involved with violence and taking drugs when I would come home for the weekends,” he says. “I didn’t believe I could make a change and I didn’t really want to. I just wanted to go back to what I knew; a life without any rules.”

But the counselors and therapists at Lachan were not so fast to give up. “They believed in me, they saw I had a spark in my eyes and potential,” he continues. “Moreover, they provided important personal examples. For the first time, I found role models I could aspire to.”

38-year-old Yoni Riskin was one of those role models. He says his interest in working with this population started while he was in the army. “I was a sergeant and was assigned some new recruits who had very difficult home and social lives,” Riskin says. “My heart just went out to them. I began speaking with their families, trying to help them with the personal difficulties they were going through. That’s when I realized I wanted to devote my professional life to working with teens at risk.”

When he finished his IDF service, Riskin trained to become a counselor with a program that helps teens at risk in one of Jerusalem’s poorer neighborhoods. His childhood friend, Avichai Yosef, now 38 as well, was similarly engaged in non-formal education as the project director of a prestigious pre-army academy. The two decided to join forces and opened the first incarnation of Lachan.

“At the beginning, we didn’t have a shekel,” Yosef says. “We just had a dream and a group of kids that had nowhere else to go.” Riskin and Yosef shnorred a table here and a chair there, and assembled a team of volunteers to tutor students in math, Bible, English, Hebrew grammar and history. What started as classes three days a week quickly morphed into a full-time, live-in program. The caravans were converted to dormitories.

“We realized that, in order to straighten these kids out, we needed to not only change their days but their nights too. You can’t get kids to come in the mornings if they’re out all night getting into trouble. But if they’re with us, it’s lights out at 11:00 PM and up at 7:00 AM,” Riskin says.

After its initial years in Efrat, Lachan continued to grow and, in 2007, moved to a more spacious location at Kibbutz Ein Tsurim. Before long, Lachan was on the road again, this time, renovating a former psychiatric facility for children into a fully equipped youth village, adding classrooms, dormitories, offices and communal spaces. With additional funding from Rabbi Yechiel Ekstein’s International Fellowship of Christian and Jews Federation, Lachan invested nearly $200,000 into renovating the village and the organization’s “Yedidut” campus became operational. Today, 24 teens between the ages of 14-18 study and live there.

It was at this point, in 2009, that the Israeli Ministry of Social Welfare recognized the Lachan program and began to fund a portion of its activities. The Education Ministry also granted accreditation to the Lachan high school within the “Yedidut” campus. In conjunction with financial support, the ministry began sending to Lachan teenagers who were referred by the courts as part of the Youth Protection Authority, putting their trust in Lachan to handle students at the highest risk. It was a real eye opener for Riskin and Yosef.

If the teens were tough in Lachan’s first years, these new arrivals were on an entirely different level, coming from severe backgrounds of neglect, lack of parents at home, endemic violence, drug addiction, sexual abuse and trauma. They hailed from some of the lowest socioeconomic classes in the country. Today, 90 percent of Lachan students come to the program after an arrest.

Lachan brought on new social workers and therapists to cope with the changes, and developed special classes including art therapy; sports and martial arts; gardening; photography; and army fitness and survival training, the latter in cooperation with the “Acharei!” (Follow Me!) Association. A computer lab was opened as well as a training and employment center, which offers several vocational courses including one in professional hairdressing. “If we see that a kid has a certain interest, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen,” Yosef says.

Lachan’s overarching emphasis combines Jewish values, social pluralism and contribution to society in general, and to the community in particular. While Lachan started in the religious community of Efrat, today it takes students of all backgrounds, from entirely secular to strictly Orthodox.

Lachan Beit Yedidut

Lachan Beit “Yedidut”

As Lachan “Yedidut” was opening, the organization got tapped by the Ministry of Social Welfare a second time to start a youth village in the north of the country, between the cities of Hadera and Afula. Lachan’s “Tal Menashe” youth village is for a younger population, starting at age 12 and going through age 15, and can take up to 36 children.

In late 2013, Lachan added a third youth village campus in the Negev desert, fulfilling a pledge Riskin and Yosef made early on to bring Lachan’s approach to youth wherever they are in the country. Dubbed “Wings of Love,” this southern-most village got its start helping kids deal with their problems by caring for birds. The focus has since shifted to include agricultural work with animals, but the name has remained. In addition to the “usual” at risk issues Lachan students come with, the students at “Wings” have also suffered trauma from the years of missiles raining down from the nearby Gaza Strip.

All told, Lachan now employs some 90 paid staff (gone are the days when the organization operated with just volunteers) with an annual budget of more than $3.2 million. The government covers 75 percent of that, but for extracurricular activities, renovations, overtime (there are no vacation days at Lachan; that means 150 percent overtime for staff on holidays like Yom Kippur), scholarships and specialized healthcare, Lachan is on its own to cover the gap and must seek outside contributions. Last year, Riskin and Yosef personally stepped in for six to twelve months each to fill the roles of directors of the “Yedidut” and Tal Menashe youth villages.

How does Lachan do it – turn kids like Rafael around? “We take a two-handed approach,” Riskin explains. “On the one hand, we are filled with love, warmth, understanding and support for the teens, while on the other hand, we enforce strict borders, discipline and rules. This is what sets the students in the right direction.”

“These kids need surveillance 24/7,” Yosef says. “We had one student who was a professional burglar before he came to us. He broke into our offices and stole money and cell phones.” But Lachan stuck with him and today that young man is a high school graduate on his way to the army.

Sometimes Lachan’s therapeutic programs evolve out of opportunity. “We have a counselor who has a background in gardening,” Riskin says. “We have a lot of gardens in our ‘Yedidut’ campus. So we thought, instead of hiring a gardener, lets teach gardening to our students. They can learn a life skill, and it will make the village nicer to look at!” The hairdresser course came about because a student asked for it. “Today he’s a certified barber,” Yosef says proudly. “If it wasn’t for this course, he’d probably have gone back to jail by now.”

Another former student found that art spoke to him; today, through Lachan, he finished his high school matriculation exams and is now studying for his bachelor’s degree at Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. “Lachan’s ultimate goal is to transform youth at risk into ‘normative’ members of society,” Riskin says.

Beyond working with teens, Lachan also operates a program called “Migdalim” for college students who want to volunteer in a community. Although the program is not specifically for at-risk students, the vision is that this will allow Lachan graduates to continue within a therapeutic framework after the army. The program grants a full scholarship to its 30 participants. Some 560 young people have taken part in activities organized by the Migdalim students.

Lachan has clearly come a long way from the caravans in which it started over a decade ago. But buildings and staff are only a means to an end. It is Lachan’s graduates, like Rafael, who tell the real story. Rafael, who once was on the verge of prison, today is tutoring elementary school kids with learning disabilities in one of the harshest neighborhoods of Beersheva in the mornings, and spending his afternoons volunteering in a clubhouse for teens. He is also volunteering with the “Acharei!” program through connections he made while at Lachan.

Why did Rafael want to spend a year volunteering rather than going straight into the army? “I felt that after I took so much from the country, I wanted to give back. I wanted to fix the damage.” Does he feel like he’s been able to influence anyone from the hardscrabble communities he’s now serving? “Every day that I walk around, free in the streets and not in a jail cell, proudly wearing my staff t-shirt, I know that I’m setting a personal example. I know that I’m a leader.”

“You know, I envy him,” Riskin adds. “Not everyone is willing to look at him or herself and make a serious change. Whether that’s someone at risk, or just an ‘ordinary’ person, to be able to make that step, that leap, is truly unbelievable.”


PICO image from JPostGalya 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 companies in Israel and the UK.

So when the entrepreneurial bug inevitably bit her and she decided to open her own venture, the most logical location for the 40-year-old Harish would probably have been central Tel Aviv or Herzliya, with their wealth of founders in similar situations. But the Jerusalem-born entrepreneur chose to buck the trends of the last 15 years – which has seen start-ups fleeing the capital for the Center of the country – and opened up shop as one of the inaugural tenants at PICO, a new co-working space in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood.

PICO – an acronym for “people, ideas, community and opportunities” – is at the vanguard of a growing worldwide movement for entrepreneurs at the start of their business journeys to set up shop together and cut costs by sharing desks, equipment, phone lines and Internet access, all in an open-plan space. For a single entrepreneur, or even a small start-up with one or two employees, the price is appealing: PICO charges NIS 800 per month per workspace.

And if you only need to sit there a day or two a week, the price drops to as low as NIS 300.

Co-working spaces exist in the Tel Aviv area, but PICO is the first in Jerusalem. Its founder Eli Wurtman hopes it’s not the last.

Wurtman sees PICO as more than just a friendly place for entrepreneurs to park their laptops and cellphones. He believes that by creating similarly welcoming environments for students and start-ups, Jerusalem can reclaim its place as the country’s creative capital.

He should know. In 1996 he cofounded DeltaThree, one of the first companies to deliver voice-over-IP calls from a regular telephone. The business grew to 300 employees and was the poster child for start-up Jerusalem, which, at the time, was home to hundreds of small to medium-sized hi-tech ventures.

But then came the second intifada and the bust of 2000.

“The industry got snapped almost overnight,” Wurtman recalls. “And with it, sadly, most of the people who were working here left Jerusalem.”

He did, too, eventually commuting to Herzliya as a general partner for Benchmark Capital, a leading VC firm. His career thrived, he says, but “I knew I wanted to get back to Jerusalem.”

Within the last few years, co-working spaces have started to take off big-time.

Wurtman teamed with fellow investor Isaac Hassan and began designing what he called a New York SoHo-style “loft” space in Jerusalem.

It’s clear from the moment you walk into PICO – located in a grimy, nondescript industrial building, on the same floor as the offices of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) – that there has been an incredible amount of attention to detail without spending a lot of money.

“We didn’t want it to feel like Har Hotzvim or Malha,” Hassan says, referring to two of Jerusalem’s more popular hi-tech areas. “It needed to be functional, in sync with the area.”

The resulting look, which was meticulously planned to appear decidedly down-rent, includes bare concrete walls and exposed piping, natural wood floors, lots of metal and glass and even a large tube in the center of the office “to bring in fresh Jerusalem air,” Hassan says. (There is air conditioning, too – Jerusalem, like Tel Aviv, can get hot during the summer.) Windows open from two sides to let in plenty of light.

“We want the space to be copied [by future co-working spaces in Jerusalem].

So we didn’t spend a lot of money on things like plaster,” Wurtman says, only half joking.

He sees the Talpiot area as the center of a renewed start-up Jerusalem, calling it “the city’s garage district,” like lower Manhattan or Herzliya originally were in their respective environs. Many of the people who have been commuting from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv live near Talpiot, so it’s walkable. And it’s right on the new bike path that runs from the Old Railway Station in the German Colony.”

Plus, adds Hassan, “you need to have a good coffee shop nearby, and we have [popular bakery] Lehem Shel Tomer downstairs. The smell of fresh-baked bread liberally comes up through the window of my office.”

Also nearby is the private studio of Bezalel industrial design faculty head Haim Parnas, adding an artistic vibe to the neighborhood.

There is room for 18 entrepreneurs to sit in PICO’s central shared space. Use of a large conference room is included in the price, and there are couches for more casual working and conversation.

Occupancy rate since PICO opened at the beginning of this year has ranged from 40 percent to 60%, and Wurtman says it is already breaking even.

There are also six private offices, where Wurtman, Hassan and several other more established investors sit.

That’s part of the design, too. The vision is that the entrepreneurs can feel free to ask business questions of the more experienced professionals, as well as the other way around: It gives Wurtman and Hassan the opportunity to identify potential investments up close.

Harish says the ability to brainstorm easily with the PICO partners and other entrepreneurs is a key reason she chose to start there.

Her company, Wear My Prayer, creates custom jewelry with a written prayer inside.

“People unconsciously touch their necklaces all during the day,” she explains. “Each time they touch it, there’s a meaning to it. They may think about what note is inside, what the message is.”

Harish describes a problem she had with the Wear My Prayer website.

“We were getting a large bounce rate,” she says, referring to when visitors surf away without buying anything. “So we called an impromptu meeting, and everyone in the office came over to look at the page and make suggestions as to where the problem was.”

She admits that it’s not easy being an entrepreneur in Jerusalem, far from most of her start-up peers. “But the fact that there is something like PICO changes things. People come here and they’re surprised. They say that they’d expect this in Tel Aviv or New York, not in Jerusalem.”

Harish, who has several part-time employees, says that even when her company gets big enough and needs to “graduate” from PICO, she plans to find a space close by and visit at least once a week.

Sean Lewin is also renting shared space at PICO. A recent graduate of the Jerusalem College of Technology, the fast-talking 23-year-old made quite a splash when he raised over $30,000 on the Kickstarter “crowd funding” website to build an LED light for the iPhone that indicates when a message, email or text has arrived.

The light fits into the phone’s headphone jack and changes color and blinking frequency depending on the type of message. It’s something that BlackBerry users have had for years but that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs summarily banned from the iPhone.

Lewin – who has business partners in Italy, the UK and the US – had been working at home, but found he was not being productive enough.

“I find I can be more focused and concentrated here,” he says, despite the noise from other people. “And if I have a question, I can ask my mates. If I’m building an Excel spreadsheet, I can speak to a VC. That’s not something I could get in my own living room. There’s just a good vibe here.”

He also enjoys the free beer.

“I usually stay until 7 or 8 p.m.,” he says with a smile.

The beer is available at what is perhaps the most striking element of the PICO design: a blue neon-lit bar and kitchen, which is stocked with all-youcan- drink soft drinks and brew. This plays a role in the regular networking events PICO hosts.

Indeed, PICO buzzes after hours often as much as during the day. A series of intimate lectures have taken place at night; so far, the founders of hi-tech darlings Waze and Fiverr have spoken to a young, invitation-only crowd of no more than 30. Executives from Bira Shapira, a Jerusalem-area microbrewery, have also come to speak.

And city council member Rachel Azaria, head of the Yerushalmim faction, brought her whole team to hold one of its weekly meetings at PICO.

Hassan has been active in outreach, too: one notable partnership is with Siftech, an initiative that the Hebrew University’s student union founded last year to promote Jerusalem as a place to stay after getting one’s degree. Ten student start-ups have participated in Siftech’s four-month intensive technological entrepreneurship workshop. PICO offered a couple of months of free rent to the top two winners of Siftech’s most recent competition.

PICO also has close ties with Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit), another student organization promoting Jerusalem.

Clearly, having one cool place to work won’t solve all of Jerusalem’s problems with retaining the tens of thousands of college students who study in the city every year (including more than half of all art students in the country). Overall employment options and the availability of affordable housing top graduates’ concerns.

But, insists Wurtman, “we have the opportunity to be a force of change.

There’s an energy that’s required to change the working reality of a city; to give it more of an aspirational nature.

If there were 10 more places like PICO, more entrepreneurs would come out of their basements and stay.”

Adds Hassan, “Entrepreneurs are special people. They can change industries. It’s not just about PICO, it’s about changing the underlying aspect of the city.”

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post.


Cat memes will become less prominent on Facebook

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 paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content…what this means is that you may start to notice links to articles a little more often (particularly on mobile). Why are we doing this? Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to [these kinds of] articles…to the latest meme” about dancing cats or photos marked up with funny captions (as in the example to the left).

The bottom line: “high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.”

Facebook’s move is not a surprise. Traffic from Facebook to news sites tripled in the past year. Facebook is being increasingly used as a news source (much as Twitter has also evolved). So why shouldn’t Facebook’s algorithm promote original news articles? Facebook hasn’t revealed the secret formula for how it will recognize “high quality content” but the Kacholia and Ji’s promise is clear: uninformative over-shared links and tired memes will be demoted.

All of this is great news for Blum Interactive Media clients that have engaged us to create original content to publish on their websites, Facebook pages, email newsletters and other social sharing services. Original content already ranked high in Google’s organic listings; now Facebook is joining the party. Take a look at the home page from one of our clients, Shavei Israel: they treat their website as a mini-newspaper, publishing 2-3 original stories (which we write) every week. The result has been dramatic – on Facebook alone, Shavei Israel and its related pages now have more than 60,000 “likes” and web traffic is up as well.

There’s a sidebar take away here too: trying to create “viral” material online just got harder…and easier. You can spend less time over-thinking and crazy planning what you hope will become the next mega-video hit. Instead, write the best quality content and the social networks will help you out on their own terms.

Facebook - Related articles exampleFacebook will also be showing “related articles” directly below the news feed post. Although you can’t control which articles will appear, our experience using similar products on our own websites indicates that at least some of the time, these will be articles that your organization or company has published. The more content you have out there, the more likely it will appear in this new Facebook section. See the example from Facebook on the right.

If you’re thinking about how to get going with your own original content strategy, keep in mind that it’s not a one-time thing. To stand out on Facebook, Google – really, anywhere online – your organization or company needs a regular stream of innovative articles and multimedia material. The aim is to turn your website and social media presence into a destination; a trusted source of compelling content that make readers want to come back – to subscribe to your newsletter, to like your Facebook page, and to share and forward what they receive.

Now more than ever, you can’t do this with a couple of lines and a cute picture in a blog post here or a press release there. You need to publish new material on a continuing basis. As your content appears more frequently in your followers’ news feeds and in search engine results, your supporters will know who and what you are about, so that when it’s time to ask for donations, or to sell a new product, they’ll already be primed.


Hello Doctor co-founders, from left, Ziv Meltzer, Maayan Cohen and Eran Keisar.

(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 at Tel Aviv Strategic Consulting.

Midway through what would stretch into a two-year ordeal, Cohen realized there might be a better way of managing the process.

Her new mobile app, Hello Doctor, launched for Apple devices in August. The app allows patients and their case managers (like Cohen) to digitize and organize all the paperwork they currently carry in a binder. Results from blood tests, ER visits, surgeries, CT scans and more can be organized into “smart lists.”

Patients can then easily call up the right records and never succumb to what Cohen says is the case manager’s greatest nightmare: missing the one document your doctor needs to decide on the spot if you should go for more chemo, surgery or an alternative treatment … and your few minutes of precious face time are up and it’s on to the next patient.

The idea of patients carrying their medical records with them in electronic form is nothing new. More than a decade ago, technologies putting patient data on a chip embedded into their HMO card or on a USB thumb drive abounded, but they never gained traction. Cohen isn’t surprised.

“The execution wasn’t connected to reality,” she says. “Doctors won’t take the risk of putting a USB key into their computer. And many are techno-phobic even with websites. You can’t ask a senior oncologist in a top hospital to go to your personal medical portal and enter your password. Most doctors want you to bring in a paper copy.”

Tablet computers, however, are another matter. “We haven’t heard any objections to patients bringing in their records on an iPad,” Cohen continues. “85 percent of US doctors own a tablet. They’re not afraid of them. Rather, it saves them time. And perhaps most important, it doesn’t force the doctor to open his or her computer.”

Free for patients

There are several ways to get records into Hello Doctor. You can use the camera in your iPad to take a picture of a document. Or, if it’s already on your computer, you can copy it to Hello Doctor using the Dropbox file transfer application. Exporting test results directly from an HMO’s patient portal is in the pipeline.

Another feature, which Hello Doctor users have requested that’s also in development, is the ability to take notes using the app. “It’s our most requested feature,” Cohen says. The idea is to allow patients to write down questions about a test result or medication dosage, for example, right on the appropriate electronic record.

Once data is input into Hello Doctor, it’s stored locally on the patient’s iPad. “In another two months, we’ll release a version that will back up that information on the cloud and that will synch it to another device, such as the patient’s iPhone,” Cohen says. All data will be transferred using the industry-standard SSL security protocol.


The backup and synchronization is key. If your iPad is stolen, your data is gone (just as if you lose your physical paperwork). Once the synch is in place, users will be able to instruct Hello Doctor to delete all the data from their mobile device via a Web interface. The app always requires a password, in order to keep your records as private as possible.

Still, some data does get sent beyond your iPad and the cloud. That forms the basis of the company’s business model. In the same way that Google scans your Gmail messages for keywords to serve up ads, Hello Doctor will look through your records (“anonymously and aggregated,” Cohen insists) to check on how a patient is responding to specific treatments – for example, is a particular medication causing nausea or vomiting? Hello Doctor will then sell that data to pharmaceutical companies “so they can make better decisions about future drug development,” Cohen says.

This is par for the course in the Internet age. Facebook is free because it owns your data and can provide it in the same non-identifiable way to advertisers. Hello Doctor’s success will hinge, in part, on whether users find enough value in the app to ignore any concerns about what’s being done with their records behind the scenes.

“It’s a win-win model,” Cohen stresses. “Patients don’t have to pay anything, they get a full integrated solution that will grow over time, and it helps pharmaceutical companies build better drugs.”

Cohen started Hello Doctor with two Israeli co-founders, Eran Keisar and Ziv Meltzer. The company has a staff of eight and works in Tel Aviv.

Hello Doctor competes most directly with Microsoft’s HealthVault, which is available for the Web and tablet devices, including the iPhone. A variety of other mobile apps allow you to input emergency information such as your allergies, which vaccinations you’ve taken and emergency contacts, but don’t sport the broader vision Cohen and her team have for Hello Doctor.

As for Cohen’s partner, there’s good news at the end of this story: After multiple surgeries and rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, he is now “100% cancer free,” Cohen says.

This article appeared originally on Israel21c.

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Parko logoTomer 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 stopped the car briefly on the sidewalk, ran upstairs, got his family settled and returned to his vehicle only to find … a NIS 500 ticket on the windshield.

That wasn’t the only time Neu-Ner has battled the parking gods who have decreed that the average Tel Aviv resident will spend 24 minutes on average looking for a parking spot. But it was the wakeup call that, if Neu-Ner’s new startup Parko succeeds, will transform life for curb-deprived drivers everywhere. Investors seem to agree: the new Israeli “crowd-funding” site OurCrowd recently invested in the company.

Neu-Ner teamed up with his cousin Itai David, a Technion graduate whom he describes as an “algorithm geek.” Together they created a smartphone app that almost magically senses when a parking spot will become available – even before the car’s driver opens the door.

The technology is based on the same principles that have made fellow Israeli tech startup Waze such a darling of the roads, but there is no connection between the companies.

Waze informs drivers where traffic is heavy and suggests alternative routes, all without requiring any active input by users. The app uses GPS to sense when cars with the open app are slowing down and from there it extrapolates that data into traffic alerts.

Parko also uses GPS to sense the user’s speed. Once the vehicle has stopped and the speed at which the phone is moving has slowed to a comfortable “walking pace,” Parko assumes the user has parked. When Parko senses the user returning in the direction of the parked car, the app sends a message to other users that a spot may soon open up.

Neu-Ner and David built the app so that it minimizes access to the phone’s GPS, a critical feature given how quickly location service usage drains a mobile device’s battery.

A different approach

Parko is not alone in the parking alert business. The elephant in the room, as it so often is, is Google, whose OpenSpot app for Android phones does much the same thing as Parko with one pachyderm-sized difference: OpenSpot requires drivers to tap the app to alert other users that they’re leaving their parking space.

This is also an option for Parko users. However, Neu-Ner says, it is not ideal because by the time the alert hits the cloud, the space will almost always be long gone.

A very different approach is being taken by ParkSF in the San Francisco area, which involves sensors buried under the street that will alert drivers when a spot is being vacated in real time. Neu-Ner says there is talk in Tel Aviv about deploying something similar, although he believes the entirely crowd-sourced approach has more mileage, so to speak.

After Parko’s October, 2012 launch in Tel Aviv, Neu-Ner has his eyes set on Paris and New York. Statistics for both those cities put the average time someone looks for a parking space at 40 minutes, nearly double Tel Aviv’s.

There’s no database to be updated before a city is ready for Parko. It’s more a matter of promotion and marketing, something that’s been tough on a shoestring budget of money from friends and family. Parko’s recently fundraising from OurCrowd should help keep keep the parking brake off.

Neu-Ner is taking the “give it away, charge later when you’ve built a huge user base” approach common to startups (remember Facebook?). At that point, “location-based advertising and the sale of data will be worth so much more.” He also anticipates that freemium (paid) features and “demand-based pricing will become very interesting options for revenue models.”

Won Israeli Mobile Challenge

The 30-year-old Neu-Ner grew up in South Africa with Israeli parents. He returned to Israel four years ago and worked as a product manager at a startup creating software for options trading on Wall Street. He has degrees in economics and math from the “old country” and, more recently, an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

While Parko users stand to benefit when they search for a spot, we wondered what kind of incentive would entice users to leave the Parko app open once they found parking. Neu-Ner has a quick answer: prizes. For example, after you’ve just shared your 20th parking spot, you might get a free carwash from a Parko partner, or a coffee at a nearby Aroma.

Regardless of prizes, Parko needs a critical mass of users to function effectively. Thousands of Tel Aviv residents already know about the app, in part due to Parko’s win of the top prize at the Google-sponsored Israeli Mobile Challenge competition in June, 2012.


Jody and Brian meeting with "Brian of London" at the Better Place customer event

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 Australian who replaced Israeli founder Shai Agassi in October, concede that the company had set unrealistically aggressive expectations and that too many target dates had not been met, but his CFO, Alan Gelman, who’s also the CEO of Better Place Israel, went so far as to give out his personal cell phone number and email address. Talk about transparency.

“I know you’re frustrated that we didn’t fight back enough,” Thornley told the audience, referring to the blitz of negative media coverage the company received last year when Agassi was ousted, layoffs were announced, sales dried up, and cash ran dangerously low. “The truth is, what was said in the media initially was basically correct. We had to make some very big changes fast.”

The backlash against the company, Thornley suggested, actually came about, davka, because so many people wanted Better Place to succeed. When it looked like that might not be the case, the public and the press turned. That said, Thornley assured the crowd that Better Place is beyond the crisis and now it was time “to return to the sense where people want us to win again.”

Despite the problems, Thornley said he believes that “the business strategy of the company is fundamentally sound. It’s just that when things don’t go right, it’s easier to blame the strategy rather than the execution of the strategy.”

Thornley may have spoken too fast. This morning, the Israeli press reported that Thornley has resigned, citing disagreements with Better Place’s investors over exactly that: strategy. We’ll provide an update later once we know better what’s now going on (assuming the company continues to come clean).

Despite this latest news, Thornley’s examples still make sense. He cited Better Place’s lackluster sales to date of less than 1,000 all-electric cars currently on our roads but insisted that Israelis will eventually flock to electric vehicles. It’s just that it was unrealistic to expect that they’d do that before the infrastructure was all in place, and that’s just happened now.

So while the media deemed Better Place a failure for sluggish sales, Thornley believes “we are now only at the beginning, not the end.” Current car owners should be seen for what they are: tech-savvy, risk-taking early adopters; the beta testers of the electric car industry, if you will. 2013 will be the make it or break it year, he stated, understanding the risks.

To get the word out, Better Place has hired a new Chief Marketing Officer, Peter Economides (a native English-speaker like Thornley, originally from South Africa but more recently living in Greece where he’s had an even more daunting task: re-branding an entire country that’s gone nearly belly up),

Economides, who will be leading a renewed marketing campaign in Israel, has an impressive pedigree. He worked directly with Steve Jobs on the “Think Different” campaign that turned Apple around from the verge of bankruptcy in 1997. And he headed up Coca Cola’s international marketing while living in New York.

“You are the heroes,” he cheered the crowed on. “You’re the people with the vision and courage and belief to say yes. This is where the ball starts rolling.”

Economides has been at Better Place all of three weeks but he was sold in less than ten minutes, he said, when he took a ride in his first electric car on a visit to Israel. He flew back home and got in his gas-powered car. “I thought I was driving ‘yesterday,’” he quipped. That car, he added almost as an aside, was a Porsche.

What’s gone wrong in Better Place version 1.0? Plenty, as Thornley, Economides and Gelman heard while fielding questions from their outspoken customer advocates. The swapping stations aren’t in the right places (“the algorithm for networking planning is very different for electric cars and we didn’t get it quite right,” Thornley said); the batteries themselves don’t get the range initially promised (“what works in the lab is not always achieved in the field”). One owner felt Jerusalem had been abandoned (the opening of the capital’s only swapping station was delayed for months). And parking spots with power plugs and are too often filled with gas guzzlers (“we need regulatory support from the government for this,” Thornley emphasized).

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. An equal number of Better Place customers took to the microphone to lavish praise on the company. Economides’ driving experience was roundly acknowledged (the acceleration on an all-electric vehicle, along with the spooky silence when stopped create a driving experience that’s uniquely exhilarating), and the company’s responsive Customer Service is on a level several notches higher than anything else available in Israel. Battery swapping is as fast as promised. And Idan Ofer, chairman of the Israel Corporation and Better Place’s prime investor, even made a surprise appearance, showing his commitment to the company he’s invested some $300 million in by arriving in his own Renault Fluence, which he parked in front to show off some special customizations he’d added (it was all tricked out with fully leather, electric powered seats).

All this, nevertheless, begs the question: how exactly is Better Place going to make a better go of it this time around? Here’s what Thornley said last week. Whether this plan is the reason he’s no longer the company’s CEO isn’t clear. But his vision (and that of the management consultants who worked with the company over the past months) was simple: Better Place wants to be the electric recharging network for every electric car made. That means applying its experience in building charge spots and a smart power grid that doesn’t overload when everyone plugs in at once to supply the growing number of Nissan Leaf’s and Chevy Volt’s, even if they don’t have swappable batteries.

To Israelis, that might not resonate so much because the only electric vehicles in this country are the Renault Fluence’s that Better Place sells. But in Thornley’s Australia, Better Place is already working with General Motors as the car manufacturer’s “preferred charge network.

Of course, Better Place would like all the other electric vehicle makers to offer cars with swappable batteries, which Thornley said he still believes is the future of electric and the differentiating feature between Better Place and other up and comers. That will come eventually, he insisted, once a network of swap stations similar to the ones in Israel and Denmark is built out in target countries (the U.S. and China are high on the list). That poses a not insignificant chicken and egg problem, but Thornley said that, once Israel is acknowledged as a clear “proof of concept,” the economics of electric cars will ultimately win out.

“The cost of manufacturing an all electric car is much cheaper than a hybrid,” he pointed out. “There’s only one power train versus two” as in a Toyota Prius, for example. And, he added, for many of today’s fixed battery electric cars, it would be fairly “easy to produce them in a swappable form.” Think 18-24 months for a factory to add that capability.

Better Place also wants to be more transparent with its software – so far, “a brilliant integration but a walled garden,” Thornley admitted. Why can’t Better Place’s OSCAR GPS system work with Waze, for example? It should, Thornley said.

The question remains, however: can Better Place convince the world that its Israeli “beta test” country is a success that can be applied elsewhere, before the company runs out of money again? It’s an imperative, explained Saul Singer, who gave a closing talk for the evening. Singer is the co-author of Startup Nation, the best selling book about Israeli entrepreneurship that featured Better Place in its first chapter as the poster child of the scrappy Israeli startup with global ambitions.

Better Place was Israel’s first attempt at tackling a problem affecting the entire world – reliance on a dwindling supply of oil – in the living laboratory of a small country, Singer said. The author envisions Israel doing the same now for other burning issues. “But Better Place has to succeed if we want to do it next for education,” he said, giving a perhaps improbable example. “The stakes for this are huge.”

Singer then shared a personal story. His wife, he said, hates it when they have to stop the car to swap the battery. But then his kids intervene from the back seat. “’Why are you complaining, Imma?’” they’ll say. ‘We’re the pioneers.’ Yes there are problems, but that’s the meaning of being a pioneer. We have to stick with it and win.”

This report on Better Place originally appeared on the Israelity website.

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Would Mark Zuckerberg be asked for the password to his Facebook account?

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 wasn’t just asked to “friend” the recruiter, and when he offered to show his profile on the laptop in the interview room, the recruiter insisted on receiving the password.

The article in the Star came in reaction to a flurry of reports in the U.S. and U.K. about the occasional use of this distressing practice. Asking for an applicant’s password for a job with the police seems to be the most common – Bloomberg BusinessWeek cites examples from Virginia, Montana and Maryland – while The Telegraph writes about an online retail company employee in the U.K. who was asked to hand over his login details after his employer went trolling on Facebook and couldn’t find any personal details on the worker.

Facebook itself is up in arms about the practice. The Telegraph received a response from Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, who wrote:

In recent months, we’ve seen a distressing increase in reports of employers or others seeking to gain inappropriate access to people’s Facebook profiles or private information. This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends. It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability.

The most alarming of these practices is the reported incidences of employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords. If you are a Facebook user, you should never have to share your password, let anyone access your account, or do anything that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the privacy of your friends. We have worked really hard at Facebook to give you the tools to control who sees your information. … That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.

The ACLU warns that employers or recruiters asking for social media passwords are entering a legal gray area that may potentially open them up to both privacy and discrimination lawsuits. And if the employer is the government, “they may be violating your Fourth Amendment rights,” Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU, told BusinessWeek.

Canadians may have it better than job seekers elsewhere. The Canadian publication TechVibes quotes Paul Cavaluzzo, a Toronto-based labor lawyer, who says that laws in Canada are more stringent than in the U.S. with regards to protecting private information. In an interview with CityTV he noted that, while there aren’t yet laws dealing specifically with social media, Canada has “always respected privacy rights.”

Cavaluzzo adds that “if an interviewer demands your password, feel free to call them out. Or just ask them for their house keys in exchange; the differences are negligible.”

A version of this article appeared yesterday on the AIM Group blog, a publication I write for regularly.


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