Itzik Malka (38) wanted to be a musician. After a decade as an officer in Yahalom, the special combat engineering unit of the IDF Engineering Corps, he left for civilian life in pursuit of his next goal: a musical career. The media loved him ("The Warrior Who Understood His True Destiny", they wrote about his first single "Rani"; calling him "Sderot’s Newest Star.") But life had other plans. When he decided to get married and start a family, Malka realized he would need a more stable source of income.
"As in orienteering, I went back to the last checkpoint, and decided to do the last thing I knew how to do," he says. "Our unit did offensive sabotage missions, so I reverse engineered that." In other words, in his commando unit, Malka specialized in preparing explosives. He adopted an ambitious, peace-seeking goal: removing the threat of land mines from Israel and the world.
Malka brought in army buddy Nir Cohen, who left a promising position at Elbit Systems, and the two set up a mine clearance contracting company. "We started with a pickup truck, three workers and a dog, but we knew that there was a pool of the highest quality people, with professionals in all aspects of explosive ordnance. So, there was no reason we shouldn’t become something significant," says Cohen (37). "At first, we worked as a subcontractor on special missions in unconventional areas, until we became the main contractor of the Ministry of Defense and turned into a company turning over tens of millions of shekels a year." Malka, once the next big thing from Sderot in the south, even moved north to the Golan Heights, close to the action.
Despite the success, something kept bothering him. "Mine clearance is done entirely manually in a never-ending, dangerous way, digging up kilometers of terrain where there’s mostly nothing ," he explains. "I believed that it was possible to develop a technological engine that would guide mine clearance precisely." To accomplish this idea, Malka retired from running his company and came to the Kinneret Innovation Center (KIC) to start - once again - from scratch. "I still didn’t understand I was doing a startup or what a startup was," he admits. "The Kinneret Center specializes in agricultural and water technologies, and when I got there they asked me how we were related to that. I told them we were farmers too, harvesting mines someone else had planted."
Malka had a technological concept based on his years of experience, but he was looking for someone who could help implement it. Through an acquaintance, he met Yoav Cohen (48), the recently demobilized head of Unit 9900, the IDF's geographical intelligence gathering system.
"The first piece of advice you get as a veteran is to take your time and not jump at the first job offer you get. I did the opposite," Cohen laughs. "I'm not a technologist and I never thought I would found a start-up, but the land mines idea sounded like a humanitarian contribution. I thought, ‘I was on the other side, so now let's help the world a little.’"
"I started using aerial and satellite imagery to separate green mine-free areas from dangerous red zones with mines," Malka explains the first steps en-route to establishing 4M Analytics. "I did this manually but we wanted to convert it into an automatic algorithm. Of course, you can't see mines from a satellite, but there are many other identifying markers. In places where there are mines you see richer vegetation, because someone dug into the ground and worked the soil, and because no one has gone in there for years. You’ll also see blast pits in the area and all sorts of other signs that tell you where there may be mines and where there aren’t any."
The challenge was quite ambitious. "It’s been estimated that clearing all land mines from the Golan Heights would take s hundred years and cost more than a billion dollars," says Malka. "But we believed we could do it in just five years for $80 million."
With great faith in their hearts and a technological solution in hand, the three set out to raise capital. They invested a million and a half shekels of their own money, but that was insufficient; they looked for additional investors to join the adventure. "We met with 20 venture capital funds, and that’s just the ones we had meetings with - it doesn’t include all the inquiries we sent with no response at all," Malka laughs. "What we heard was that our target market was small, our field wasn’t sexy, was too risky, and not suitable for venture capital funds," Yoav Cohen recalled. "We were told repeatedly that we look liked good guys, and were probably on to something, but that it was an idea you couldn’t invest in."
They kept on trying, until one day the penny dropped. On the stairs, on the way to a meeting with the Haifa Foundation, Yoav showed Malka some correspondence he’d had with a venture capitalist on LinkedIn. "This was someone who knew me, and I sent him an article about our venture from The Jerusalem Post. In under a second, he answered back that he wasn’t interested in investing. I was surprised, but when I looked at the article again, I suddenly realized that it opened with a very large photo of a sign reading ‘Warning! Land Mines!'".
Malka understood the problem. "I realized we were asking investors to give us money while we’d posted an actual warning sign, and there was no way they’d invest in something risky that could literally explode and kill the entire investment," he recalled.
One investor they’d approached was Rami Beracha, who lost a hand and a foot when he stepped on a mine during an operation in Lebanon. Beracha was a managing partner at Pitango Venture Capital until 2018, but left after a television news investigation into allegations of sexual harassment on his part. Today, he is an active angel investor. "Beracha told us that he appreciated our dream, and that someone like him would certainly want this thing, but there was nothing here that a venture capital investment company could build on," says Malka.
"Through him, and the negative responses we received, we began to understand how venture capital works and that funds are looking for technology that can grow rapidly and exponentially. The humanitarian market we’d targeted is very bureaucratic; the process of signing contracts with countries takes a long time. Venture capital expects you to not only solve a problem but to explain how you’ll make money, and prove you can reach your target market quickly. So, we went back to the drawing board."
Mapping the entire US infrastructure in three years
Then, they finally came up with something. About a year ago, 4M Analytics changed direction and decided to apply the same technology it developed for a new use. Instead of land mines, it is currently developing a smart system for mapping underground infrastructure such as gas, oil, sewage, electricity and communications pipelines. This information is essential for construction companies that want to plan routes for projects such as paving roads or building residential neighborhoods, and need to decide where to start digging.
"We knew we provided data about the upper layer of substructure, the first few meters below ground. Aside from land mines, we thought about what else was of interest underground and arrived at infrastructure," says Yoav. "Some companies map what’s happening above ground and there are mineral companies that map deep underground, but no one had focused on that top layer. You could say we went out looking for the trees and found the forest."
As former military personnel, the three maintain an appropriate measure of discretion when it comes to their current technology. What can be understood is that the new product integrates data from existing maps and blueprints, which are usually inaccurate or insufficiently up-to-date, with data from satellite images and aerial photographs. In infrastructure, as with land mines, 4M is also looking for patterns and markers on the ground that reveal what lies beneath. This should save construction companies long months of exploratory excavations at the pre-planning stage and prevent dangerous encounters with existing infrastructure.
In Israel, 4M is already working with companies like Denya Cebus, Electra and Israel Electric Corporation. Abroad, it has conducted pilots with large infrastructure companies. "Our advantage is in mapping large areas quickly," says Nir. "We were contacted by an American company building a 1,000 km highway. The standard method that uses all kinds of ground-penetrating tools maps a few meters a day and costs a lot. It could take four years and tens of millions of dollars. But today, we can do it in three months and at under a million dollars."
The company currently offers customized infrastructure mapping, but the three partners have a much bigger plan. "Our goal is to map all the infrastructure in the United States in less than three years and turn it into the underground Google Maps, centralizing all available data about the subsurface," says Malka. "If a customer wants to know the best route for relocating a project, they just need to access us, and within 60 seconds, get an answer about where, or where not, to excavate. We identified the problem first and need to be the market leaders, the first to create this kind of map, before others close the gap. "
4M Analytics currently employs about 25 people at KIC and in Herzliya, where the company is headquartered. It has so far raised more than $3 million from angel investors, including Beracha, and Israeli venture capital fund F2, and is now poised to launch a significant funding round. "The tables have turned. Today, the world’s most reputable funds are interested in our company, asking for corporate literature, and asking when the next funding round will be," says Malka.
Still, it’s a bit sad that you had to abandon the important project of land mine clearance.
"The infrastructure sector has no less impact. In the US, people die each year from gas and oil pipeline explosions, and in Israel last year, damaged sewer pipes polluted Nahal Tsipori (the Zippori river). We can prevent these things, "says Yoav. Malka adds:" The land mines problem is something we’ll come back to when we become a big company. We won’t forget it."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 28, 2021
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