Israel | News

How Israel’s tech scene is helping wounded combat veterans

Shoshi Rushnevsky, the founder of Restart, hopes "Makers for Heroes" will make the lives of wounded veterans a little easier. (Ben Sales)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – When Elad Horovitz was shot in the head during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza, his first concern was survival, not how to maintain peripheral vision while driving.

Horovitz, then 20, was shot through his left ear and right eye. Somehow he survived, losing half of his hearing and sight, and underwent two years of rehabilitation before he was able to return to normal life. Now he’s a psychology student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He has a driver’s license, but his vision problems provide obstacles: Horovitz can’t see past the right corner of the car, making it difficult to drive on the narrow streets that crisscross Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities.

That, however, changed this week.

Elad Horovitz, whose vision was affected after he was shot during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza, tests a device that will make it easier for him to drive. (Ben Sales)

At a South Tel Aviv garage, Horovitz watched as a couple of computer engineers worked on his car. One bent under the open hood while the other crowded the left side of the steering wheel with electronics. One small rectangular screen was connected to sensors on the front-left corner of the car, blinking if it got too close to anything. A camera similar to the now-common rearview cameras was for Horovitz’s blind spot.

“Today I can do almost everything, and I drive a lot, almost every day,” he said. “If I avoid going down narrow streets, it’s just because I’m a little scared. Now I’ll stop avoiding it. So these are things you can overcome, and that reduces the presence of my wound day to day.”

The Horovitz project was one of 14 showcased at “Makers for Heroes,” a Tel Aviv event that ran through Wednesday at which wounded former soldiers worked with 150 Israeli tech engineers to devise solutions to problems posed by their disabilities. After two months of prepping, the veterans and their tech teams met Monday in the basement of a WeWork office and spent much of the next 72 hours building their products with code, 3-D printers, polymers and the electronic guts of medical devices.

Some of their innovations seemed like they would be helpful to a broader clientele. One team created a wristband that could sense the advent of a panic attack by measuring the wearer’s pulse and the moisture on their skin, then playing a soothing song or providing a different distraction.

Another project aimed to prevent blood clots by wrapping a veteran’s legs in blood pressure sleeves and pushing blood back up the veins.

The teams were drawn from Tel Aviv’s fertile tech ecosystem. Some took off three days from their jobs to participate in the “make-athon,” while some local startups sent teams to participate.

“These soldiers gave us everything they can – their health, their entire life,” said Shoshi Rushnevsky, a former Israeli tech worker and the founder of Restart, an organization that aids wounded Israeli veterans and organized the event with the Reut Institute think tank. “Let’s take our connections, our knowledge, our experience, and help the wounded get out of the cycle of injury. The injury cycle can really get you stuck. That feeling of immobility is what we want to set free.”

The Israeli government funds rehabilitation for its 51,000 living wounded veterans – a population that receives public sympathy in a small country where most citizens are subject to a mandatory draft. Wounded soldiers also receive public benefits following their rehab.

Restart’s mission is to support the soldiers after the government scales back its obligations to them, providing them with benefits to ease their daily lives. One program matches 15 wounded veterans with professional mentors who can help them find jobs and burnish themselves professionally. “Makers for Heroes,” which has taken place twice, aims to bring Israeli tech prowess to bear on helping the veterans.

“There’s an inclination after the war to neglect the wounded soldiers,” said Niv Efron, an Israeli veteran who was shot in the chest and hand in the 2014 Gaza war and underwent six surgeries. Efron participated in the first iteration of “Makers for Heroes” two years ago, where his team built a device to help him do pull-ups.

“You can’t blame them,” Efron said of Israelis who stop paying attention to the wounded. “They need to go back to work. But the wounded soldiers are still there.”

The engineers brought experience ranging from biomedical tech startups to Israel’s robust security tech industry. For the most part, the veterans themselves did not take part in the tech development. They were there to test out their teams’ innovations and guide them on what would be most helpful. They also helped figure out which projects would be possible to complete within a three-day period. Horovitz, for example, decided not to pursue creating a hearing aid that would alert him when someone was speaking to his deaf ear.

“I told them my problem, we discussed it, they came up with the idea and they banged it out,” said Assaf Dory, an Israeli American who had his leg amputated after being wounded twice on police duty in Florida. His team was fashioning a cushion that would allow the ex-Israeli soldier to sit in any chair.

“It’s amazing to see all these professionals dancing, doing their thing,” he said.

None of the products will end up being licensed by a savvy tech firm. Instead, they will all be uploaded online, complete with plans and open-source code. The idea, Dory said, was to help the veterans and empower them. If someone wants to copy any of the ideas, he said, they can go ahead.

“It’s the ability to do something you couldn’t or thought you couldn’t,” Efron said. “We find a product to enable [a veteran] to do what he wants to. It will also show him that even with his limitations, he can still do things.”