Technology to prevent drowning, a project to quickly find defibrillators to save lives, and a system that helps lecturers check exams; Ben-Gurion University of the Negev decided to invest in student startups, and for that purpose a venture capital fund totaling $1 million was established, whose managers are also students.
"We are at the perfect stage in life to develop young startups, without commitments, and not afraid to dream big".
Many students dream of creating a startup and rushing to an exit.
But in the meantime, in the absence of a prince with a lot of money who will bestow the golden kiss and the dream becomes reality, there's no choice, but to focus on the daily grind - studies, work, exams, rent and employment.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev decided to help these students.
As such, last year, Roy Kimchi (29) and Danielle Hardonag (25) undergraduate students at the University received an offer that was hard to refuse: To manage a VC fund totaling $1 million which will finance student or recent graduate startups and help them to realize their successful ideas.
The fund, Cactus Capital, established a year ago, in October 2018, by BGU's Entrepreneurship Center "Yazamut 360" in collaboration with BGN Technologies, BGU's tech transfer company and fresh.fund, which specializes in investments in startups by students or new graduates. Kimchi manages the fund while Hardonag is the operations manager.
Alongside the two of them, there are another 25 students who took part in a course to train analysts, and are trained to act as scouts – always on the lookout for ideas.
They find potential startups and ideas for investment and decide together with the fund manager in which to invest.
Presently, the first round of investments has been completed. Out of 60 proposals received, investment agreements have been signed with nine startups. Each one received $20,000 and also business and marketing mentoring, along with additional focus on the startup category.
"It's not every student who gets the opportunity to establish from the ground up and manage a fund of $1 million to invest in students' creative ideas during his undergraduate degree", says Kimchi, who finished his bachelor's degree in Industrial Engineering and Management this year and is now starting a master's degree in data science.
"As a student entrepreneur at the University, you have an advantage, because not only do you have contact with the best researchers in Israel, but the most important thing for an entrepreneur: talented partners in the building next door. And we are just starting out."
Danielle Hardonag is currently in her third year of an undergraduate degree in economics and business management.
She says: "People were surprised at the University's decision to give $1 million to students so that they can invest in other students, but when you think about the big "unicorns" (a nickname for startups that have reached a worth of a billion dollars and upwards that haven’t issued shares or been sold) like Facebook and Google, you discover that they started somewhere out there on a campus lawn.
Students are at the perfect stage in their lives to develop a startup – we are young, usually without a lot of commitments, and we are not afraid to dream big. If it works throughout the world, there is no reason why it shouldn't work here at BGU."
"We Come to Work Smiling"
Kimchi was already looking around for something "beyond my academic studies" during his first year even though, according to him, his studies were enjoyable and interesting.
"I came across the 20-80 Forum – an Industrial Engineering and Management student organization at BGU, which set a goal for itself to enrich students and to give them value added, and in the middle of my second year I became the chairperson of the forum.
In parallel to my studies and volunteering as the forum chairperson, I decided to begin working in the field".
He worked at the Netafim Company as a business analyst for 18 months and from there became a data analyst at Intel in Kiryat Gat. "I thought I knew where I was headed career wise, and I had at least a two-year plan, but then I got a call from Dana Gavish, the director of BGU's "Yazamut 360°" Entrepreneurship Center.
She told me about the new fund the university was establishing and asked me what I had planned for the following year.
I was sure she was having a general conversation with me about the fund, I didn't realize she was offering me a very unusual job, the first of its kind in Israel.
I think the suddenness of it all and leaving the conventional path caused me to have some doubts, but I consulted my family, friends and BGU graduates who had been part of the 20-80 Forum, and I had mentors and role models.
Opinions were varied, but when my wife threw her support behind it and pushed me to leave my comfort zone, I decided to go for it whole-heartedly".
Dana Gavish, Manager of "Yazamut 360°" Entrepreneurship Center.
Gavish: "Because we wanted the fund to speak directly with the students, it was clear that we would choose a student to manage it. We chose Roy Kimchi, who had already headed the Faculty of Engineering's Entrepreneur Club and was connected to the field.
It was important for us to create a new atmosphere on campus, that says: Students who have ideas for new initiatives can realize them during their studies. Cactus Capital is part of a whole web of new activities led by myself and Center Chairman Prof. Carmel Sofer to support and encourage technological, social and electronic trading initiatives.
As such, the course assignments become part of a larger mission: Creating new initiatives which will contribute to the development of the Negev."
They looked for a name for the fund and Kimchi explains the name they chose: "Cactus symbolizes a strong power which stands courageously against the forces of nature with little resources – just like the students.
At the same time that we dealt with the branding of the fund, making contacts and making decisions about systems and methodologies, I found myself using a lot of knowledge I had gained during my studies. Dana (Gavish) connected us with fresh.fund that brought a lot of experience and were essential partners during our establishment process.
This is where we launched our first year from."
In order to reach as many students as possible, Cactus uses social media, sets up events focusing on entrepreneurship and technology and in creating a large and active community on campus.
After sending out a call for ideas and proposals come in, they are closely examined. "We try to meet with as many entrepreneurs as possible, we're also students and know ourselves how important this interaction is.
Students invest a lot of time in sending their proposals, and it's important for us to have face-to-face meetings with them, to ask questions and to understand the idea in its entirety".
After the first filtering, a process with several steps begins which ends with a meeting with the investment committee, where, here too, most of the members are students.
Hardonag was already aware of the world of hi-tech and entrepreneurship at an early age from home.
She was born in California, when her parents relocated to Silicon Valley and her father worked at one of the startups.
She says it always intrigued her. "At the end of my first year of studies I worked at WeWork as communities manager and during my second and third years I volunteered with Tech 7, whose main activities are to build communities in the field of entrepreneurship and technological innovation with the aim of helping Beer-Sheva and the entire South flourish.
In addition, I took part in a joint project between the University and the Munich Entrepreneurship Center during which I became acquainted with startups just starting out and became aware of the processes and challenges they experienced."
From her involvement with startups in Beer-Sheva, becoming part of Cactus Capital came about naturally. "I feel I was given a very special opportunity to become part of this groundbreaking project", she says. "The first year of the fund is a pilot, and it's exciting because everything is happening for the first time. Along with the responsibility, I feel that Roy and I have a lot of freedom to influence and lead significant processes and encourage talented and creative students as they launch their first startup".
Between Hardonag and Kimchi, there is a clear division of work, but they always make the important decisions, they say, together. "We work really well as a team. It's fun to work together and because we are so different, there's a feeling that the combination of our two opinions leads to a clearer picture, which allows us a better decision-making process", she says. "We come to work with a smile looking forward to the new day.
If there is a student with a brilliant idea and a strong team – we are ready to invest in him. It's clear that there won't be a return on some of the investments, but that's all part of it. Our profit is the student-entrepreneur that gained experience in the field, and his next initiative will be more successful."
One of the startups that were chosen is Deltika, established by Itzhak Shmia (28) while he was an undergraduate student in economics and psychology (he graduated this year).
Deltika develops a dynamic model to identify the amount of risk for small businesses and their ability to repay their loans.
The algorithm allows banks and other bodies to give small businesses a more exact credit rating, and as such to give them better and fairer loans. "One of the most difficult things for us was to find someone who believed in our vision at the very beginning", says Shmia. "Cactus gave us exactly the push we needed".
Another startup is Sightbit, founded by Adam Bismut (30), who is in his second year of a master's degree in business management.
While enjoying a romantic evening with his girlfriend on a hot summer night at the beach in Tel Aviv, they heard about a drowning that had taken place on the same beach a week earlier.
"We sat and watched the lifeguard, and I said to my girlfriend that I don't understand why today, with such technological progress, there still aren't any tools that can help prevent drowning", he says, "That's how the whole idea started and took off from there. We established the startup in 2018 with another three partners, Natanel Eliav, Jenia Golbstein and Minna Jacobson – in order to use AI tools to prevent drowning".
Using image recognition technology combined with machine learning, a system of cameras takes and analyzes pictures that offer lifeguards an up-to-date analysis of risk factors on the beach.
The cameras map the beach-goers' locations, warns of potential drowning situations, changes in the ocean, and offers options for general crowd control and particularly children.
Bismut: "We are at the peak of development and there is a pilot in place in Ashkelon and talks with strategic clients in Israel and the US. Soon we hope to place our systems on dangerous beaches in Israel and the US, and to prove the ability of the system in the field".
Ariel Hasidim (30), today a 4th year medical student at BGU founded "Where's Defi?" – an initiative to map defibrillators in public spaces. The app provides information on the exact places where they can be found and how to get there, in order to make them accessible to the general public and raise the chances of saving lives.
Hasidim says: "During the first aid course during my first year of medical school, one of the first things we learned was if someone collapses and has no pulse, the first thing to do is to call MADA (Magen David Adom) and to bring the nearest defibrillator.
After you're told that, the first question is where is the nearest defibrillator? We discovered that there wasn't an answer, no one knew. There are a lot placed around public spaces, but no one knows where, not the government, not the municipalities and not the first response organizations. From here, the idea was born: Let's make a map, so that everyone can find them in time".
The development began as part of a contest "Students Leading Innovation in the Public Sector", a partnership between BGU and Google.
"We later received a financing and development grant from the Chief Scientist at the Survey of Israel and we are currently excited to receive funding from Cactus.
"Where's Defi?" is the largest social platform mapping defibrillators in the world (and can be updated by anyone-TT). More than 1400 defibrillators from Dan to Eilat are mapped and are on the first response organizations' systems."
Other happy portfolio companies are SmartTest – a group of students studying Industrial Engineering and Management who have developed a system designed to provide a solution to one of the more painful issues for students – checking exams.
The team – Talia Krakauer, Ido Finder, Sveta Sokhina and Tom Harpaz, now entering their fourth year of studies, developed a platform for lecturers and teaching assistants, allowing them to check exams online quickly and accurately.