Spanish telecom giant Telefónica is exploring Israeli startups in search of disruptive technologies in a variety of areas, such as digital health, education, smart homes and mobility, through its Wayra X innovation division.
These sectors may seem outside the interests of a major telecom operator, one of Europe’s largest and one of the top 10 worldwide with around 350 million customers, but Wayra X’s president, Luisa Rubio, told The Times of Israel in a video interview from Madrid. It states that the department was created with a mission to “pursue Telefónica’s footprints” and discover innovation in all areas and countries.
She said Israel’s tech ecosystem was one of the first to be considered for Wayra X because of its “strong entrepreneurial spirit” and the application of “real technology to real problems.”
The Investment Center, which was established in late 2020 to support early-stage digital startups as part of Telefónica’s broader innovation division, Wayra, has made its first investment in an Israeli startup in its first year of operations. Wayra X made an initial investment of $1.6 million in Upword, a Tel Aviv-based group that has developed an AI-powered summary and reading productivity tool. The investment was one of the few startups Wayra X has backed in less than two years.
While Wayra acts as an accelerator, working with more than 800 startups in 30 countries that have generated nearly $300 million in revenue since 2011 when the innovation arm was established, Wayra X was set up to move Telefónica to the B2C (business-to-consumer)” markets collective”. In areas such as “5G, e-health, e-learning, smart home, entertainment, mobility, and the future of work.”
With its seven hubs in 10 countries, including Brazil, Germany, the UK, Mexico and Spain, Wayra X seeks to support entrepreneurs and companies hoping to solve complex challenges and “improve people’s lives by incorporating the latest technology into their daily routines”.
In B2C markets, Rubio said, “Innovation and technology are not always obvious, there are many markets with interfaces, for example, but no real technology.”
He said Wayra X wants to “make a real impact for end customers.”
With Upword, Rubio said, “It’s true that it’s a different area to invest in, but education is a complete focus for Telefónica and a key area we have to explore.”
Upword, formerly known as Erudite, was founded in 2019 as a platform that leverages artificial intelligence to create summaries or short summaries of long texts to boost reading and productivity. The platform is currently in private beta, but in the meantime, potential users can sign up for the queue and access the company’s free extension on Google’s Chrome browser.
Upword says its technology can reduce long texts by up to 80% and has a collaborative component where notes and comments can be added.
Rubio said Upword is “more than just a learning tool for students, it’s for everyone. We loved that it added value and a tool for everyday use.”
He explained that Telefónica’s customers “expect new surprises and solutions that they hadn’t thought of.”
“We always keep in mind that we are a telecommunications company, but we also want to deliver value to customers in areas such as gaming, entertainment, health and education,” Rubio added.
These solutions can be implemented for clients and/or used internally by more than 110,000 Telefónica employees worldwide. Rubio said Wayra X is also helping the companies it supports do business directly with Telefónica.
The Wayra X chief recently concluded a four-day trip to Israel, meeting with entrepreneurs and tech stakeholders in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as the center looks to deepen its relationships across the country and stay in touch with new projects.
Rubio said he works closely with Start-Up Nation Central, a non-profit organization that connects businesses, governments and global ecosystems to Israel, and has partnered with the Azrieli School of Engineering in Jerusalem (JCE) in an innovation competition in which Israeli students will travel to Israel. Madrid next month for the 2022 South Summit, Innovation Day for Entrepreneurs and Investors.
These collaborations aim to identify new ideas for consideration and projects to invest in.
Rubio said, referring to the world of interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work and play using a variety of devices such as virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses and smartphone apps. Several Israeli companies are already working in this field.
“Israel is one of the most competitive ecosystems in the world, it is on the same level as the United States…but smaller where the level of conversation and the quality of the startups are interesting,” Rubio said.
To get to top-tier deals, he admits, Wayra X and Telefónica have to “act quickly and not act like a typical co-player”.
ecosystem speed [in Israel] “It’s crazy,” he said with a laugh, adding that he had heard of deals that expire in less than 72 hours.
“We will have to adapt the way we operate,” Rubio said.
He noted that Wayra X is now looking to add two or three Israeli startups to its investment portfolio by the end of the year.