Spanish giant Telefonica seeks innovative high-tech Israeli startups

Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica is currently looking for Israeli start-ups with disruptive technologies in various fields such as digital health, education, smart home and mobility, through its innovation division, Wayra X.

These sectors may seem far from the interests of a large telecommunications company – one of the largest in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world with around 350 million customers – but Luisa Rubio, director of Wayra X, declared Israel times in a videoconference interview from Madrid that the division had been created with the mission to “look beyond Telefonica’s core business” and open up to innovation in other areas and other countries.

Israel’s tech ecosystem, she said, was one of the first to turn to Wayra X because of its “strong entrepreneurial spirit” and application of “technology to concrete problems.”

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The Investment Center, established in late 2020 as part of Telefonica’s Innovation Division to support early-stage digital-focused startups, Wayra made its first investment in an Israeli startup during its first year of operation. Wayra X participated in a $2 million pre-seed investment in Upword, a Tel Aviv company that developed an AI-powered productivity and reading summary tool. This investment is one of the few start-ups supported by Wayra X for less than two years.

While Wayra operated as an accelerator program – working with over 800 start-ups in 30 countries, generating approximately US$300 million in revenue since the innovation arm was established – Wayra X was created to bring Telefonica to B2C ( business-to-consumer) “mass markets” in areas such as “5G, e-health, e-learning, smart home, entertainment, mobility and the future of work”.

Through its seven hubs located in 10 countries, including Brazil, Germany, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Spain, Wayra X is aimed at entrepreneurs and companies that want to solve complex challenges “and improve people’s lives, integrating cutting-edge technology in your everyday.

Telefonica’s Wayra X investment center in Madrid. (Credit: Courtesy)

Rubio said that in B2C markets, “Innovation and technology are not always obvious; there are a lot of marketplaces with interfaces, for example, but no real technology.”

Wayra X wants to “make a real impact on end customers,” she said.

With Upword, Rubio said, “it is true that it is a different area of ​​investment, but education is a goal in itself for Telefonica and a key area for us in the scouting phase”.

Formerly known as Erudite, Upword was founded in 2020 as an AI-powered platform to create short summaries or long text summaries to improve reading and productivity. The platform is currently in private beta, but potential users can now join the waitlist and access the company’s free extension on Google’s Chrome browser.

Upword claims its tool can summarize texts by up to 80%, but it offers much more than that.

Upword co-founder and CEO Roee Barak told Israel times that while the company is “building the world’s best synthesis tool” as its flagship product, its long-term ambition is to “build the next generation of personal knowledge technologies”.

For this, the company uses “state-of-the-art technology in the areas of NLP [traitement du langage naturel] and machine learning to help people capture, learn, read, consume and manage their knowledge throughout their daily lives,” Barak said, adding that it serves to optimize “what we do with our personal knowledge.”

The main problem that Upword addresses is that of
“too much information, [différents] content formats and new ways of consuming content and knowledge”, he explained. “These are crucial questions for knowledge workers who are students, lawyers, doctors, analysts, journalists, marketers and so many others,” he said. “It’s our market. »

Barak also pointed to Upword’s collaboration elements between AI and humans, where the tool “saves a lot of time and effort by extracting key pieces of content and generating outlines” of text and tests before the user intervenes.

Users can “add their own notes and rephrase or paraphrase what the AI ​​has extracted and eventually morphs into something new. It is therefore a collaboration between AI-powered notes and abstracts and the user’s work to create a new abstract or a new essay, which can be published, shared and worked on collaboratively with others,” he said.

The work is then indexed and saved in the user’s library on the platform for future access and use. The idea, added Barak, is to positively impact “people’s productivity with their own knowledge, helping them to grow, acquire knowledge and use it”.

Rubio said Upword is more “than just an educational tool for students, it’s for everyone. We like it to have added value and be a daily use tool.”

Telefonica’s customers “expect surprises and new solutions they don’t even know they have,” she explained.

“We always keep in mind that we are a telecommunications company, but we also want to offer other things to our customers in areas such as gaming, entertainment, healthcare and education,” added Rubio.

Such solutions can be implemented for the benefit of customers and/or used internally by Telefonica’s more than 110,000 employees worldwide. Wayra X also helps the companies it supports to do business directly with Telefonica, Rubio said.

Telefonica headquarters in Madrid, Spain, January 1, 2022. (JJFarquitectos via iStock by Getty Images)

The Wayra X manager recently wrapped up a four-day trip to Israel, where she met with entrepreneurs and tech players in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as the hub looks to deepen its relationship with Israel and stay connected with these new businesses.

Rubio said he works closely with Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit that connects businesses, governments and global ecosystems with Israel, and has partnered with the Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem (JCE) as part of a competition that will see Israeli students fly to Madrid next month for South Summit 2022, an innovation conference for entrepreneurs and investors.

These collaborations aim to identify new ideas and companies to invest in.

“We are currently looking to detect new areas for new divisions, such as the metaverse,” Rubio said in reference to the world of interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work and play, using a variety of devices such as virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses and smartphone apps. Several Israeli companies are already operating in this area.

“Israel is one of the most competitive ecosystems in the world, it is on the same level as the United States… but smaller, with the ease of contact and the most interesting quality of start-ups”, assured Rubio.

To access the premium offerings, she acknowledges that Wayra X and Telefonica will have to “move fast and not behave like traditional companies.”

“The speed of the ecosystem [israélien] it’s amazing,” she said with a laugh, adding that she’d heard of deals that were done in 72 hours.

“We have to adapt the way we work,” said Rubio. Wayra X wants to add two or three Israeli start-ups to its investment portfolio by the end of the year, he concluded.

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