TEL AVIV, ISRAEL – Empathy is the last thing that comes to mind when any mention is made of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Death, on the other hand, is closely associated with the apartheid regime’s military and a veritable area of expertise for many of its conscripts, who have been killing Palestinians for decades. 12-year old Mohammad al-Alaami’s murder at the hands of Israeli soldiers in July underscored the brutality of the ongoing tragedy in Gaza and the West Bank, which has been coming under increased international scrutiny, prompting damage control statements by the IDF itself.
“We think that death is the single largest consumer sector that is still untouched by innovation,” Ron Gura, co-founder of Empathy Project Ltd, told an Israeli tech news publication in May. Described as “downloadable mobile applications for helping with the arrangement and management of end-of-life directives, namely estate, financial and legal planning, […] as well as grief support” in a trademark application filed with the USPTO last year, the former Israeli Airforce Lieutenant, along with former IDF software developer Yon Bergman, launched their iOS and Android bereavement management app in April.
It’s hard to quantify how many actual deaths of Palestinians Gura and Bergman may have contributed to in their nine and a half years of combined experience with the IDF. But, whether they occurred from direct missile strikes from any one of the war planes under Gura’s “various command positions” during his time in the Israeli Air Force or Bergman’s tech savvy applied to the IDF’s multiple Palestinian surveillance and targeting algorithms, the fact is that both men saw the value proposition of death’s aftermarket.
Bergman was Gura’s senior software engineer for the latter’s first start-up, The Gifts Project, which was acquired by eBay for $20 million in 2011 and transformed into the Israel Social Center – a “social shopping platform” –, by the online-shopping giant, which Gura would lead along with his sister, Maya and a founding investment by older brother Eyal.
It is at this point where we can start to see the convergence between AI technologies deployed across social media, digital payments and the healthcare industry, which themselves were operating in parallel to the emerging impact investment models promoted by Sir Ronald Cohen’s Social Finance Israel (SIF), founded the same year that eBay inaugurated its incubator in Tel Aviv to develop start-ups merging “ecommerce, social networks and big data“.
Ron and Yon would work together at the eBay Innovation Center, while Eyal Gura founded an AI “deep learning” cloud-based, medical imaging platform called Zebra Medical Vision, backed by Johnson & Johnson’s and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff. The elder Gura’s role in the introduction of facial recognition technology to social media was critical, as well. One of his previous companies, Picscout, built the largest facial image database in the world, serving as a pivotal resource for the subsequent development of the technology and its roll out on social media through the viral “my celeb twin” meme.
The Founding Funders
After eBay, Yonatan would spend a year at PayPal, where he would work on the mobile payment app’s first rebuild since the company’s inception. Meanwhile, Ron would join forces with a former Unit 8200 officer at the co-working start-up WeWork’s Tel Aviv headquarters, where they would lead an accelerator project called the WeWork Labs program to develop Israeli “proptech” (property tech) startups in partnership with Livestone, an Israeli proptech VC firm.
Gura would bring Yon Bergman on board at WeWork in 2019, one year before the duo launched head-first into the telehealth industry with Empathy and a seed investment from one of WeWork’s earliest investors, Michael Eisenberg, whose venture capital company Aleph counts at least one former Unit 8200 member among its partners and has backed several of the infamous IDF Unit spin offs, such as the drag-and-drop website builder, Wix.
General Catalyst, a Silicon Valley investment company with a massive stake in the American healthcare industry, also provided initial funding. Just two months ago, General Catalyst announced a strategic partnership with HCA Healthcare, one of the largest for-profit hospital chains in the world with almost 190 hospitals and multiple clinics and “care sites” in the United States and the UK. In May, HCA entered into an agreement with Google to “develop healthcare algorithms using patient records”.
Sir Ronald Cohen, SIF founder and the father of impact investment, was one of the seed round’s angel investors, along with Micha Kaufman, founder of the largest insurance-tech company, Lemonade and former New York Life president, John Kim.
Describing the app as a “GPS for loss“, Empathy’s Gura is certain that his company has a huge potential market in the United States, in particular, where the “process of arranging a funeral, validating a will, closing bank accounts, dealing with an estate, claiming benefits, etc., can take families in the United States over 500 hours on average”.
From Afterlife to Aftermarket
The race is on to fold every single aspect of human life into the data-driven economy. Not even death is to be left untouched by the hands of the seemingly unquenchable thirst of tech entrepreneurs for new markets. Gura worries that we have forgotten “how to grieve” as humans, claiming that “we are not giving it enough space in modern society”.
Empathy’s sales pitch revolves around the idea that a tool, which can manage the death certificates, bank statements, executor approvals and other “technical procedures” surrounding the death of a family member, will allow those left behind to better deal with the emotional toll, leaving his company to “handle the bureaucracy and tedious task[s]”.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one can represent one of the most vulnerable points in a person’s life, which can – and often does – leave people at the mercy of unscrupulous and mercenary interests. In August, the start-up inked a partnership with New York Life to offer the app as a part of the insurance company’s “bereavement resources” and plans to “expand its reach through strategic partnerships” with “leading brands, hospice chains, and funeral homes” to make sure that a confronting the aftermath of a loved ones’ passing becomes “as easy as one click”.
The ultimate irony of an app called Empathy is that it leaves us with none. If “navigating grief” has become such a burden, it might be worth considering that it is because we have devalued life to such a degree that almost anything else seems more important. Where Ron and Yon come from, for instance, the life of Palestinians is worth less than a parcel of dirt. In such a world, perhaps we should think twice before we bury our dead too quickly.