3:25pm

Thu May 17, 2012
Startups

Israeli startup comes to Syracuse in chase of a dream, and funding

It was his 22-year-old niece that gave Amir Cohen the inspiration to quit his job working in Israel's tech sector and start his own company.

Every time she gets in a taxicab in Israel she has her cell phone in-hand, ready to call her father in case of an emergency.

"This was the original trigger," Cohen recalls. "Letting people feel safer and be safer on their daily routine - when they're going to a party, getting in a taxi, whatever."

The end product: a smartphone app called Guard My Angel that allows users to pre-program a list of emergency contacts. If you feel threatened or are in an accident, an alert is sent out with your location.

Jumping in

Cohen teamed up with another former coworker looking for a career change, Hagar Romach.

Together they launched a version of Guard My Angel for Android phones in January. A version for iPhones is in the works.

When Romach met one of the mentors involved in Syracuse's StartFast Venture Accelerator at a tech event in Israel, she knew she and Cohen had to apply.

But once they were accepted, it was a tough decision to leave their families for three months, Romach says. Ultimately they knew coming to central New York was the right choice.

"When you're an entrepreneur you need to make these steps in order to succeed," Romach says. "It's not easy, but we jumped into the water. Sometimes it's cold, but we're doing it."

Far from home

Startup accelerators bring in a group of budding tech companies and give them seed money, free workspace and access to dozens of mentors - all in return for a small stake in the company.

Cohen and Romach flew to Syracuse and got settled this week along with eight other startups - all from the U.S. - in office space downtown.

That free office space, surrounded by other startups, is what has Cohen most excited.

Back home he and Romach would bounce around between coffee shops trying to get work done.

"So it was very hard to get a full working day," says Cohen. "This is an opportunity. We have a desk, we have a working environment and we'd like to make it happen faster."

On the other hand, they haven't been able to find a decent cup of coffee in Syracuse yet, Romach complains with a smile.

Goals

The StartFast program is 100 days long and consists of meetings, presentations, programming and product development.

It all culminates in August with "Investor Day."

Securing funding is a big part of why Cohen and Romach are here. But they're also hoping to roll out more features over the summer.

The app currently sends out alerts in one of three ways:

  1. The user hits the S.O.S. button.
  2. A preset safety timer runs out without action by the user.
  3. The phone is jolted hard enough - say, in a car crash.

Cohen says the alerts will still be sent out if the phone's battery dies - or even if it's submerged in water.

By the end of summer, the Guard My Angel team wants the app to be able to notify trusted friends nearby - even if they're not programmed into the user's emergency contacts list.

"You would never say, 'I wish I knew,' " Cohen says of his app's ultimate goal. "If something happens to a friend of yours nearby, you may want to know."

That's a feature that has StartFast mentor Elisa Miller-Out interested. She just thinks Cohen and Romach have to be careful to not bite off more than they can chew.

"What they're struggling with right now, I think, is just trying to focus the product and figure out which path is going to provide the most traction with real users," Miller-Out says.

Immersion

Those real users are people like Cohen's 22-year-old niece.

With that in mind, the pair behind Guard My Angel is renting a house for the summer in the student neighborhood near Syracuse University.

They hope being close to prospective customers will help them get feedback and fresh ideas.

It's too early to tell just how much time Cohen and Romach will be spending in that house.

With StartFast's busy schedule, Guard My Angel - and the eight other teams - are planning on some pretty long days.