Israelis flocking to Bay Area for some high-tech networking

As a young boy in Israel, Zvi Alon had no illusions about the function of the synagogue.

"My parents would force me to go," said Alon, now chief executive officer of the Cupertino-based Netmanage.

"Presumably, I was to listen to what the rabbi had to say. But what was really going on was networking," he said of the hubbub that can drown a well-intentioned sermon.

"It was conducting business in the old days. You see what's going on with people and create some new opportunity."

The Israeli techie got a dose of his own medicine last week at TechVentures, an invitation-only event in Santa Clara. The event precedes a gathering of the same name to be held in Santa Clara in May, at which more than 100 Israeli high-tech companies are to explore joint ventures with Silicon Valley.

At last week's conference, Alon was one of a handful of speakers who strained to be heard over the din of vigorous networking between Israeli high-tech representatives and Silicon Valley investors.

Over California wine and boutique beer, the group shmoozed about semiconductors, business solutions and who knew whom. The networking was so intense that several pleas from the moderator for quiet went unheeded.

The industry-sponsored event, promoted as part of Israel's 50th anniversary, was designed to help high-tech startups in Israel enter the global market.

"High tech will be the number-one future priority of the Israeli economy," Daniel Shek, Israel's consul general in San Francisco, told the group.

However, the future may have arrived already.

Whereas high tech was essentially nonexistent in Israel some five years ago, an estimated 1,000 new companies have appeared since then that specialize in electronic security, software, semiconductors and medical instruments, the panelists reported.

The explosion of Holy Land high tech and the state's high per capita number of engineers has caught the fancy of U.S. investors, who view Israel as the next Silicon Valley.

Speaker Donna Jensen, director of marketing for the investment firm VentureOne, said American investors are equally impressed by Israel's economic culture.

"Israelis are tolerant and encouraging of risk. They have familiar legal and accounting practices" and most speak English, Jensen said. Such a profile has inspired one in five U.S. venture capitalists to invest in Israel.

Deborah Triant, CEO of Check Point of Israel, shared with the Group her company's rags-to-riches story. The U.S. businesswoman agreed to help six young Israelis seek capital and enter their small software company into the world market.

That was three years ago. Today, the company is worth $1.6 billion and has U.S.-based business operations, she said.

Such stories are no longer uncommon, said Ed Paisley, editor of the forthcoming magazine Global Tech Ventures.

"Suddenly, everyone's discovered Israel, where they never [before] would look abroad."

The career business writer had been tracking institutional investment for years when he noticed a quiet phenomenon developing: American investment capital was beginning to go global in a mainstream way. Much of it was going to Israel, he said.

The Israeli high-tech boom, combined with the new ease of doing business electronically, has opened investors' eyes to other potential investments in Great Britain, Australia, Brazil and Southeast Asia.

Paisley and his publisher, Miller Freeman, decided the trend was too big to ignore and decided to track it in the pages of Global Tech Ventures. They established bureaus in each of the markets and have prepared for a spring launch date.

"This is leading-edge. It's capturing a market and branding it."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.