Israeli military intelligence unit drives country's hi-tech boomAug. 14, 2013
Few people would connect the drab olive green of an Israeli army uniform with the cutting edge of fashion. And most fans of Stylit, a website where a virtual personal stylist matches clothes and accessories to suit your taste, are unaware that it uses technology adapted from algorithms originally developed to track and prevent suicide bombings.
Stylit was one of 19 young tech companies displaying their wares in Tel Aviv recently at the end of a five-month entrepreneurship programme run by alumni of an Israeli intelligence unit that has spawned more tech millionaires than many business schools.
Similar to Britain's GCHQ, Unit 8200 manages Israel's army signals intelligence, sucking in and analysing vast amounts of electronic data, from wiretapped phone calls and emails to microwave and satellite broadcasts. On the new hi-tech battlefield, 8200 is now the largest unit in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
Demobbed geeks once overshadowed by gun-toting commandos have made the most of their expertise in cybersecurity, data storage, mobile communications and analytical algorithms to help transform the basis of Israel's economy from orange groves to mobile-phone apps. Israeli inventions include instant messaging, the USB memory stick, the firewall and the secure data links that enable most of the world's banking transactions and TV signal decoders.
Israeli tech firms Nice, Comverse and Check Point were all created by 8200 alumni or based on technology originally developed by the unit. With the emergence of consumer apps based on crunching vast amounts of information known as "big data", Israel is a decade ahead of the US and Europe – and all because of the military.
Three years ago, 8200 alumni decided to emerge from the shadows and offer their expertise to other young Israeli entrepreneurs.
The result was the 8200 entrepreneurship and innovation support program (EISP), a five-month hi-tech incubator in which unit alumni volunteer to mentor early-stage startups. So far, 22 of them have received funding totalling $21m (£13.5m) and employ 200 people, joining the 230,000 employees of Israel's 5,000 tech companies that earn $25bn a year – a quarter of Israel's total exports.
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