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VALK_logoIn the land of startups, there’s a unique contest that helps push nascent ideas from the realm of the imagination to reality – the only one in the world, says UK oleh Be Hirsch, one of the principals behind Exit2010, to award winners the princely sum of NIS 1 million. It’s an impressive number, and at current exchange rates a bit more than the $250,000 that the winner of Exit’09 got. But last year’s winner. Penina First, isn’t complaining: Even though last year’s prize was smaller, the company that the Exit’09 prize package helped her set up, Today Job, is a growing concern, and she was recently awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Young Entrepreneurship.

It’s an accomplishment that the winners of this year’s million shekel prize, Itamar Koren and Ma’ayan Kimhi, who to be able to duplicate with their own project, called Valk (formerly Uvid), “a combination of Chatroullete and speed dating,” says Kimhi. “The idea is to expand your on-line contact base. Those of us who spend a lot of time communicating with friends on social networks, we believe, are missing out on meeting new and interesting people who have the same interests as us. Valk is a plaform that can be applied in many settings that will enable users to quickly find people with whom we can work, travel or just make friends with.”

Right now, Valk, as a commercial venture (if not as a well-developed idea and product) is just a dream, but it won’t be much longer. As the winners of Exit2010, Koren and Kimhi will now have the cash they need to set up shop, hire programmers, send out for pizza, and do whatever else hi-tech companies need to do in order to succeed.

But they’ll have something much more valuable than cash; they’ll have the guiding hand of experienced hi-tech partners who will be giving them all the help they need in a variety of areas – from programming to branding to accounting to patents, to anything else they need to gear up for a product launch (Kimhi hopes that she and Koren will be ready for the internet within several months).

That help comes courtesy of a host of companies, law and accounting firms, and strategic help from a host of companies, led by Israeli software developer Sergata. In addition to $100,000 cash, Exit2010′s prize package consists of, among other things: Software development from Sergata, Marketing support and product design from Promarket, Patent advice and support from Luzzatto & Luzzatto, One-on-One SEM training by Google, transaction processing from Plimus, Middleware and worldwide introductions from IBM – and the list goes on.

Of course, they don’t just give that stuff out to anyone; you have to prove yourself, to the public and to the judges, a tough bunch that includes folks from Google and Microsoft. Valk was chosen out of 119 other entries over a grueling five week competition. Entrepreneurs uploaded a short video to the contest website, and viewers voted for their favorite on a weekly basis. High scorers advanced to the next round, while lower scorers tried again. After five weeks, the five weekly winners moved on to the finals, with the judges choosing another five (to make it more interesting). After presenting officially to the judges and audience, the two best ideas are chosen – and they duke it out during “reality week,” where they do their best to impress the judges that their ideas are really viable. At that point, the winner is named – and then the real work, in which the winning team learns how to wisely grow a business, begins.

It’s an only-in-Israel experience, says Hirsch. “I’ve researched these kinds of contests and I haven’t found one even remotely like it anywhere else. Most contests give the winners a certificate or a trophy, and winners might even get a grant of $20,000. But nowhere else can an entrepreneur get the kind of help they can get in the Exit contests.”

This is the second year he has been running the contest (together with Sergata and Sandy Hammer of PR and marketing firm conferenceART), and Hirsch says he was astounded by the quality of the ideas presented by entrepreneurs in this year’s race. “We had internet applications, of course, but also a healthy number of cellphone applications, and even some hardware projects.” Among the runners-up, he says, were VerData, which lets shoppers receive and manage store receipts directly on their cellphones (“less fuss for the consumer, and more friendly for the environment,” says Hirsch), ClickOn, which lets viewers go shopping from inside videos, and Backtag, providing an easier way to tag photos.

They’re all great ideas, but only one can win – but, Hirsch says, he has no doubt some of the non-winners will get their chance too. For now, he’s happy he was able to provide the folks behind Valk opportunity to realize their dream. “We’re providing contestants a chance to experience what it’s really like in the hi-tech world, and the winner gets the opportunity to develop their great idea, hopefully using the help and advice they get to avoid the pitfalls many startups face,” Hirsch says, adding that he is very happy to be able to do this work here in Israel. “When I made aliyah in 2007, I came with a rich background, but it took me time to learn the business and make contacts here,” he says, adding that if it was difficult for a seasoned veteran like him (Hirsch worked in the cellphone industry in Europe for over a decade), it must really be difficult for newbies. “The more entrepreneurs we can help,” he says, “the better for them, and for Israel.

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