Traces of Israel's Iron Dome Can Be Found in Tech Startups

A missile is launched by an "Iron Dome" battery, a missile defence system designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on July 18, 2014. Photographer: David Buimovitch/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli-engineered Iron Dome is a complex tapestry of machinery, software and computer algorithms capable of intercepting and destroying rockets midair. An offshoot of the missile-defense technology can also be used to sell you furniture.

The online-shopping software developed by Cimagine, an Israeli startup located about 12 miles from the West Bank, allows people to walk around their homes with a mobile device, and see how a sofa or coffee table would look in each room. The system combines live imagery, taken with a smartphone or iPad, with 3-D pictures of furniture to present a realistic recreation of your living room with stuff you may or may not be able to afford.

This novel e-commerce tool—as well as other startup tech including a camera-equipped pill—shares quite a bit in common with Israel's ambitious anti-rocket project. Iron Dome, which has turned thousands of deadly Hamas missiles flying as far as 70 kilometers (44 miles) away into puffs of white smoke, was created by a state-owned company called Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. One of Cimagine’s founders is a former software engineer at Rafael, as are most of the Yokneam Ilit, Israel-based startup's engineering team.

Israel owes much of its technological prowess to the country's near-constant state of war. The nation spent $15.2 billion, or roughly 6 percent of gross domestic product, on defense last year, according to data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a U.K. think-tank. That's double the proportion of defense spending to GDP for the U.S., a longtime Israeli ally. If there’s one thing the U.S. Congress can agree on these days, it’s continued support for Israel’s defense technology. Legislators approved $225 million in emergency spending for Iron Dome on Aug. 1, and President Barack Obama signed it into law three days later.

The strength of Israel's military—ranked fourth in the world by expenditures, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook—feeds into the private sector. The country's mandatory military service acts as a training ground and networking opportunity for Israel's brightest minds, and has helped to cultivate strong cyber-security and consumer-technology industries.

Cimagine developed its furniture software in-house using computer vision and image processing that's akin to what drives guided missile and defense systems like Iron Dome, says Yoni Nevo, the chief executive officer. Similar to how a rocket can home in on a moving tank, Cimagine keeps a virtual La-Z-Boy anchored in the room on-screen regardless of the user’s movements, he says.

“We scan the environment about 60 times per second and draw it, based on movements, about 30 times per second,” Nevo says. “It looks as if it’s the real thing."

Another Rafael alum, Gavriel Iddan, invented the PillCam. Once ingested, the 26-millimeter-long capsule carries a camera that transmits images from inside the small intestine. Iddan declined to comment for this story, and Rafael didn’t respond to a request for comment. The global health-care giant Covidien spent $870 million to acquire Given Imaging, the company Iddan co-founded, earlier this year.

Jonathan Medved, a tech investor who backed Cimagine, expects the influence of Iron Dome on tech to be even stronger now that the world has witnessed what it can do.

“I’m sure you’ll see dozens of companies spinning off of Iron Dome’s technology,” says Medved, the CEO of Jerusalem-based crowdfunding site OurCrowd. “The real-time computing at the heart of that is really quite impressive.”