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There is a common thread running through many of Israel’s most innovative tech startups, and some of the venture-capital firms that fund them: an elite Israeli military group called Unit 8200.
Though heralded in Israel—the secretive intelligence unit came out of the shadows after being featured in the 2009 book Start-Up Nation—Unit 8200, and its global impact, are not as well known in U.S. technology circles.
Yet many high-profile tech companies originally founded in Israel, including traffic app Waze; business-software company NICE Systems; and security companies Palo Alto Networks and Check Point Software, among many others, all grew out of specific technologies developed in Unit 8200 that were later commercialized.
Gadi Mazor, the chief technology officer of well-known Israeli crowdfunding platform OurCrowd and a Unit 8200 alum, calls the group “the entrepreneur’s Harvard.”
Often compared to America’s National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, the unit is the now the largest group in the Israel Defense Forces and its fastest-growing, according to the IDF. It holds a unique position in the army, operating as part boot camp, part intelligence/security service and part tech incubator. Unit 8200 manages the army’s signals intelligence, meaning it pulls in and analyzes massive amounts of electronic data from sources ranging from phone calls and emails to microwave and satellite broadcasts. It was started in 1952, four years after Israel’s birth as a country.
The commercial applications for some of the technologies developed in the unit are obvious, particularly in fast-growing markets such as “big data”, wireless applications and business analytics. Members of the unit develop sophisticated technology systems including predictive algorithms and data-mining tools.
“If you put the best, most creative people together and they work together, really good things happen,” says Amnon Mishor, the co-founder and current CTO of Leadspace*, a company that builds analytics technology for sales and marketing professionals. When recruits ultimately leave the army, “then they have networks,” and often start companies together, as Mishor did with one of his Unit 8200 colleagues.
And after their sometimes stressful and very high-stakes army experience, “you’re ready for the intensity, and the ups and downs, and the pace of startups,” he says.
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