Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica is currently seeking Israeli startups for disruptive technologies in a range of areas including digital health, education, smart homes and mobility, through its innovation division, Wayra X.
These sectors may seem beyond the interests of a large telecommunications company – one of the largest in Europe and among the top 10 in the world with around 350 million customers – but Luisa Rubio, head of Wayra X, said to The Times of Israel in a videoconference interview from Madrid that the division was created with a mission to “look beyond Telefonica’s footprints” and discover innovation in all fields and countries.
Israel’s tech ecosystem, she said, was one of the first Wayra X turned to because of its “strong entrepreneurial spirit” and application of “real technology to the real problems”.
The Investment Center, established in late 2020 to support early-stage digital startups as part of Telefonica’s broader innovation division, Wayra, made its first investment in an Israeli startup during its first year of operation. Wayra X participated in a $1.6 million pre-seed investment in Upword, a Tel Aviv company that has developed an AI-powered reading summary and productivity tool. The investment was one of two handfuls of startups that Wayra X has backed in less than two years.
While Wayra operated as an accelerator program – working with over 800 startups in 30 countries that have generated revenues of around $300 million since 2011 when the innovation arm was created – Wayra X was set up to move Telefonica into 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 in 10 countries, including Brazil, Germany, the UK, Mexico and Spain, Wayra X seeks to support entrepreneurs and businesses that hope to solve complex challenges “and improve lives people by integrating advanced technologies into their daily routines”.
Rubio said that in B2C markets, “Innovation and technology are not always obvious; there are lots of marketplaces with interfaces, for example, but no real technology.
Wayra X wants to “have a real impact on end customers,” she said.
With Upword, Rubio said, “it’s true that it’s a different area of investment, but education is a top priority for Telefonica and a key area for us when scouting.”
Formerly known as Erudite, Upword was founded in 2019 as a platform that leverages artificial intelligence to create short summaries or long text summaries to boost reading and productivity. The platform is currently in private beta, but potential users can join the waitlist and access the company’s free extension on Google’s Chrome browser while they wait.
Upword says its technology can reduce long texts by up to 80% and has a collaborative element where notes and comments can be added.
Rubio said Upword is “more than just an educational tool for students, it’s for everyone. We loved its added value and it’s a tool for everyday use.
Telefonica customers “expect surprises and new solutions they haven’t thought of,” she explained.
“We always keep in mind that we are a telecommunications company, but we also want to bring value to customers in areas such as games, entertainment, health 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 companies it supports do business directly with Telefonica, Rubio said.
The Wayra X manager recently completed a four-day trip to Israel, where she met with entrepreneurs and tech players in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as the hub seeks to deepen its connections across the country and stay plugged into new businesses.
Rubio said she works closely with Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit that connects global businesses, governments and ecosystems to Israel, and has partnered with Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem (JCE) for an innovation competition that will see Israeli students fly to Madrid next month for the South Summit 2022, an innovation conference for entrepreneurs and investors.
These collaborations aim to identify new ideas to explore and companies to invest in.
“Right now we’re looking to detect new areas for new divides, like the metaverse,” Rubio said in reference to the world of interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work and play, using a range of devices like virtual reality headsets. , augmented reality glasses and smartphone applications. A number of Israeli companies are already operating in this space.
“Israel is one of the most competitive ecosystems in the world, it’s on the same level as the United States… but smaller where the level of conversation and the quality of startups are interesting,” Rubio said.
To access top-tier deals, she acknowledges that Wayra X and Telefonica will have to “move quickly and not behave like a typical corporate player.”
“The speed of the ecosystem [in Israel] is crazy,” she said with a quick laugh, adding that she had heard of deals being completed in as little as 72 hours.
“We will have to adapt the way we work,” Rubio said.
Wayra X is now looking to add two to three Israeli startups to its investment portfolio by the end of the year, she said.