Unit 9900: Secretive IDF intelligence division may produce next wave of Israeli startups

Not so long ago the alumnae of Unit 9900 couldn’t talk about their army service. But as the technologies they work with find ever more civilian applications, it’s their time to shine.

By David Isaac, World Israel News

Unit 9900 is an Israeli Intelligence Corps shrouded in secrecy, so much so that up to five years ago its veterans weren’t allowed to say they’d served in it. That the secrecy has been lifted is notable given that the unit has existed for 70 years and over 25,000 people have passed through it.

Its more famous sister, Unit 8200, the Israeli Army’s cyber and code-breaking unit, has been described as Israel’s ears.

If so, then Unit 9900 is Israel’s eyes. It runs the intelligence agency’s satellites – a job that requires expertise in a wide range of visual technologies.

As these technologies enter the civilian world, there is hope that Unit 9900’s alumnae will spawn the next great wave of Israeli startups.

World Israel News recently spoke with the co-founder of Unit 9900’s alumnae group, Shir Agassi, to learn more about Israel’s ‘Unit 9900: Terrain Analysis, Accurate Mapping, Visual Collection and Interpretation Agency.’

Q: Many have heard of Unit 8200,  but  fewer have heard of Unit 9900. What does the unit do?

Agassi: In essence, we work with everything that deals with geo-visual intelligence. This includes anything connected with mapping, base location technologies, AR/VR [augmented reality/virtual reality], satellites, computer vision, remote sensing, photo analysis – really that whole world.

Shir Agassi

Shir Agassi (Courtesy)

Q: The secrecy surrounding Unit 9900 and its activities  was  lifted only five years ago. Why was it finally lifted?

Agassi: Because they understood the benefit it will give to expose a little more of what we do.  It gives a much broader picture of Israeli intelligence. And it helped us a great deal as alumnae to say what we do. One of our challenges is to tell our story.

Now more people know, but only a few years ago people never heard of  image processing. These weren’t everyday terms people talked about. Everything connected to mapping and the technology behind it and satellites – really only a few knew about  it.  Now industry knows a lot and works a lot with these technologies.

Suddenly, people understand that here is a large group of people that know how to do many things that are definitely beyond average, that are out-of-the-ordinary.

Q: What is happening in the world of technology that has made Unit 9900 and its alumnae more relevant in the civilian world?

Agassi: What happened in recent years is that much of industry and technology and startups moved into computer vision and location-based technologies like Waze, Moovit and Gett. That’s all location technology – mapping technology, in fact.

Suddenly we have a huge amount to offer the civilian world.

Q: Your unit deals with satellites and terrain analysis for the military. Its connection to something like GPS is easy to understand. But explain for our readers what the connection is to technologies like autonomous cars, agritech, smart cities, and virtual reality?

Agassi: All those things use sensors and those sensors photograph something, take in data that needs to be extracted, interpreted, analyzed.

There are many kinds of visual sensors. There’s star, lidar, thermal, electro-optical. And all of them are used in automatic vehicles. Because in the end in order to identify what happens on the way under different conditions, for example, at night, or in fog or in rain, you need to use different sensors.

We used those sensors in intelligence. Here we use the intelligence so the vehicle knows how to drive, where it’s going and what dangers to expect along the way. The tools are the same in both cases. It’s analyzing data that comes from some visual sensor.

Also in the world of agritech. Take a large forested area, for example. You need to identify disease, or pests, or where to plant – or any kind of problem – you do all that with satellite pictures, drone images and the science of how to analyze them. All of that, in fact, is technology that we used already in the army. Not everyone can look at a location and say, here the forest suffers from blight.

Q: Can you name a civilian field on which Unit 9900 alumnae are most having an impact right now?

We’re strong in remote sensing. We’re strong in the world of computer vision. AR/VR. Satellites. Our alumnae join the biggest companies in the industry. Air industry and places like that. They also found startups.

Q: How did you use AR/VR in the unit?

Agassi: In fact, everything connected to AR/VR is connected to mapping and 3-D… Think of simulators for the Air Force. All those kinds of things.

Q: It’s amazing to think of 18-year-olds operating satellites. Do they leave the unit and need to go to university to get a basic degree or are they considered to already have a degree when they exit the Army? Do they head straight into a master’s or PhD program? What’s the process?

Agassi: No, unfortunately, some of them already have their first degree but the majority have to learn from the beginning. They go to engineering departments, computers. But they enter with a very strong background.

And, certainly, afterwards when they need to enter industry, they have this background operating satellites and analyzing images.

The moment you come to work you need to know how to work with your hands. They already know the practical work. They already experienced these things. That gives them the advantage.

Q: When people think about space they think about the exciting things – like launching rockets. Does a small country like Israel have the resources to create a private space company like SpaceX?

Agassi: There is no question that our people are capable of such things. However, I don’t think the market is large enough. I wish it was. Launching rockets demands a lot of resources and big budgets. And even though we have talented people I don’t see how the industry here can create things like that – at least not yet.

Where we can contribute is the technology that supports those things.

Also nanosatellites – there we have something to contribute. It’s new. It’s still a decade off until we’ll know how strong we will be in that field. I know that in the world of research, in academia, we’re contributing. If it will take hold in industry, too, I don’t know.

Q: What are a few startups begun by Unit 9900 members? And what do they do?

Agassi: There’s a startup that deals with computer vision and A.I. for figuring out types of cancer. You have to look at types of cells to diagnose cancer. You need to decipher them. It’s not so far away from what we did in the army. It’s like photo analyzing. It’s a different industry but the same idea. The name of that company is Nucleai.

There’s a nanosatellites startup that takes biological experiments into space. It’s called SpacePharma. Basically it brings nanosatellites into the world of research and medicine. You can take your experiment and control it from afar. You don’t need to wait until someone launches a satellite to a large space station with astronauts to do your experiments.

It’s very accessible. It’s cheaper. It creates many more opportunities.

We have a startup that deals with AR/VR for the world of human resources. Normally, when you come to a job interview you fill out a form, a kind of curriculum. You fill in questions. But it’s difficult to know how the candidate will do in actual situations.

Here, they mimic all kinds of situations to create a different kind of job interview via virtual reality to understand how you cope with all kinds of things.  It’s really good news for the world of human resources. They’re called ActiView.

They took something they learned in the Army and converted it to something completely new. But what lies behind it, the background is the same.

Q: How hard is it to get into Unit 9900?

Agassi: That’s really a matter for the army, which decides if you’re suitable for intelligence or not. I deal with that less. I deal with the day after you’re released from the army.

You go through different tests. You have to be a creative person, someone capable of dealing with pressure, capable of working with a team in many cases. You need high intelligence to look at the big picture.

Q: What percentage of women are in the unit?

Agassi: Fifty percent when you talk about soldiers and young officers. The tasks are so varied it gives girls more of an opportunity to get in. You don’t need 10 points in computers in the Bagrut [Israel’s official matriculation exams].

We know that girls in school – the percentage in computer science and technology isn’t high. But that’s not the condition to be in the unit.  Of course, you need analytical ability, high ability to analyze data, high attention to detail.

If you’re a self-learner and can learn on the job – that’s more important in many instances than if you did four units in math. And if you know how to deal with pressure, that’s more important than four units in English.

Q: You’re having your first alumnae event in September. What do you hope will have come out of that?

Agassi: First of all, it’s to bring all the alumnae – hundreds of alumnae – in one room… To make all sorts of connections and create opportunities. To meet leading companies in the industry.

It will create opportunities and connections and we’ll do bigger things.  Suddenly, you realize the strength you have when everyone comes together.

We’re in a very good place given that we only started the group a year and a half ago . It means something now when you say you’re a 9900 alumnus.