Israel means business: From high-tech to biotech to real estate, etc.

Bobby Lent does not have a Moses complex. He’s too preoccupied with his labyrinthine business ventures to wander the desert for 40 minutes, let alone 40 years.

Still, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist would love to see a new exodus to the Promised Land.

For years, Lent has been pitching his message to the Bay Area business community: When it comes to investing, venture capital need venture no further than Israel.

And for Jewish investors, Lent touts an additional incentive. Not only do Israeli companies offer potentially healthy returns, but investing in them strengthens Israel and the Jewish people, as well.

“There is a Zionist aspect,” Lent said of his drive to recruit Jewish investment in Israel. “To build the state, we have to end up with 20 $1 billion-plus [Israeli] independent companies. It’s the next step in building this economy.”

Currently, says Lent, there are barely a handful.

Earlier this month, Lent and Robert Blum, president of Cytokinetics (a biotech investment firm), were co-chairs of a nine-day mission to Israel. More than 80 Bay Area Jews took part, many of them local leaders in business and philanthropy, as well as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Coordinated by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Israel Center and the federation’s Business Leadership Council, the Israel@60 mission divided into three tracks: art and culture; history and archaeology; and business.

For eight days, people in the business track toured startups, attended mixers with Israeli entrepreneurs and appraised Israel’s galloping economy. They liked what they saw.

Now, Blum and Lent hope Bay Area Jewish investors will bite. Said Blum while in Israel, “What we did in 30 to 40 years [in Silicon Valley biotech] maybe can be done here in 10 to 20.”

For much of its history, Israel adopted quasi-socialist economic policies. Then, after the dot-com bubble burst several years ago, Israel struggled with debt, inflation, poverty and unemployment.

For free-market advocates, Yossi Bachar, former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Finance, was the white knight who rescued Israel’s slumping economy. As Bachar told his Bay Area visitors, he instituted Reagan-like policies of tax and entitlement cuts, privatization and budget discipline. The results:

6.1 percent economic growth last year and a still-healthy 4 percent forecast for 2008.

“Markets work,” Bachar said.

According to Bank of Israel Deputy Governor Zvi Eckstein, who also addressed the mission’s business track, the key to keeping the party going is foreign investment.

Israel has taken in $1.7 billion in foreign direct investment, more than France and Germany combined. Companies doing big business with Israel include Motorola, Intel, IBM and Yahoo, as well as scores of private equity firms and venture capitalists.

“[Investing] is not just for people who love Israel,” Eckstein said. “It’s for people who want to make money.”

What made this relatively tiny country, so plagued with political and security problems, such a player in the global economy?

The short answer: brain power.

Thanks, in part, to emigration from the former Soviet Union, Israel has the highest percentage of engineers per capita in the world. Twenty percent of Israelis are college graduates. Moreover, the Israeli military serves as a nationwide screening program, helping the intellectual cream rise to the top.

The Israel Defense Forces even has its own high-tech research and development units — which often find non-military applications for their discoveries.

“We don’t have local markets,” said Israeli venture capitalist Yahal Zilka, adding the Israeli work ethic maintains, “You can always run one more mile and lose one more hour of sleep.”

Despite rosy economic forecasts, problems remain for those considering Israeli investments, some of them

cultural. In his business dealings in Israel, for example, Blum has witnessed a jittery anxiety.

“These aren’t particularly patient people,” he said. “They look for shortcuts and in some ways they may undercapitalize companies and do things that don’t speak to long-term durability of Israeli biotech opportunities.”

Lent frets over the Israeli tendency to “exit” too quickly, reflecting the philosophy: Why wait five years to sell a company for $100 million when you can flip today and make $10 million?

“That’s the background radiation we have to deal with,” he said. “It speaks to why we need more experienced Silicon Valley people working with the Israelis.”

That impatience is particularly detrimental in the biotech sector, which usually requires years of scientific research — often including one setback after another — before any payoffs. As American-born Jerusalem-based biotech pioneer Martin Gerstel told his Bay Area visitors of the pitfalls in biotech, “The rats die.”

In addition to cultivating patience and recruiting experienced management, Blum’s prescription for Israel’s biotech future includes something else.

“They need not only great science, but they need to combine that with a great regional medical center,” said Blum. “Science in the absence of a continuous feedback loop with doctors is not going to prosper. You have to ensure you don’t rely strictly on your therapeutic hypothesis without the ability to test it in a reliable way.”

Some on the federation mission examined Israel’s real estate market. Led by East Bay developer Barry Cohn, the real estate track looked at commercial and residential projects throughout Israel, as well as the points of departure between Israeli and American real estate regulations.

Cohn’s Israel-based partner, builder Raffi Aharonson, says investing in Israeli real estate is not for the faint of heart.

“No reasonable mind goes into the real estate business here,” joked Aharonson, a third-generation developer whose grandfather helped build early Tel Aviv landmarks. “Unless you’re a Jewish meshugganah who loves Israel.”

For one thing, Israel still has real estate regulations on the books held over from the days of the British Mandate and even the Ottoman Empire.

For another, the nation’s tax laws pose a hurdle. “Nowhere in the world is it like this,” Aharonson added. “We have about 35 percent paid to tax authorities. Real estate is one of the main sources for the government of Israel to pay its bills. Unless you know how to control that, you will never make money here.”

While Israel’s high-tech and biotech fields tend to make headlines, some of the country’s economic success springs from traditional industry.

Ormat Technologies is a 40-year-old publicly traded company based in Yavne. Green before there was a green movement, Ormat builds geothermal power plants around the world.

The Israel@60 business track toured Ormat’s plant one sunny Sunday. For a modern green-tech enterprise, the plant looked as if it was a set from Charlie Chaplain’s “Modern Times.”

Gigantic turbines, generators and containment vessels, all crafted by workers in hard hats wielding acetylene torches, lay about the shipping docks ready for transport to the Philippines or Nicaragua.

Ormat pioneered recovered energy generation, a technology that taps otherwise wasted energy from unlikely sources (think escaping heat from a cement factory).

With 2007 revenues topping $295 million, Ormat would appear to be cruising along. But Lent, as he toured the plant, thought the company’s revenues could — and should — grow to $1 billion or more.

Lent has been dividing his time between his Hillsborough and Jerusalem homes for two years. A co-founder of the enormously successful Silicon Valley software company Ariba, Lent has since been an active investor and consultant, with a focus on sheperding along Israeli companies.

As an example, he cites his involvement with Traiana, an Israeli company that makes software products for financial and prime brokerage institutions.

Five years ago, Traiana’s young visionaries came to Lent with a proposed business model. “It sounded like a terrible idea,” said Lent. “I was right. They didn’t do well for two years, but they kept coming back.”

Eventually Lent joined the board and went on to become chairman. He also upped his personal investment in the company, bringing in venture capital from major Silicon Valley players. In 2007, Traiana was sold for $250 million, with Lent and other investors netting a 400 to 500 percent return on their investments.

Real estate developer Ahronson says for Jewish investors especially, investing in Israel offers payoffs beyond the mere monetary. “The reason we only invest in Israel is we need to do something for the soul,” he said. “We are here because we believe in this country.”

The same could be said for participants in the Israel@60 mission. One of them, Piedmont businessman Ephraim Greenwall, had been to Israel years before, and was stunned by the changes he saw.

“I expected this was a completely closed society, that it was impossible to do business the way I know it in the U.S.,” he said. “I was 100 percent wrong. All business starts with personal relationships. I have met people here I will stay in touch with.”

Lent knows how Greenwall feels. As an observant Jew with a huge personal stake in Israel, Lent feels his connection to the Holy Land goes beyond any balance sheet or profit/loss statement.

“We are not just a religion or a nation, but actually family,” he said. “I’m invested in international companies, but the relationships I have here are nothing like the relationships I have with American companies. This instant capability of communication, the shorthand that exists between us here, you can’t get through any other way of doing business. That’s the secret sauce to doing this.”

Will this mission bear fruit? Will more local Jewish business leaders bank on a bright future for Israel? Will the financial ties between the Bay Area and Israel grow as Lent and Blum hope they will? It’s too early to tell.

But Lent considers the mission a complete success, if for no other reason than the beginning of new dialogues and new friendships.

“I actually had five business meetings in Israel,” Hugh Douglas said after returning home to Kensington. “They all will lead to something. Pretty amazing, I think. I can’t wait to go back.”

cover design | cathleen macclearie

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.