Brand Israel: a dynamic matchmaker for Jewish states business interests

The companies taking part in a huge cybersecurity conference in San Francisco last month tried all the usual trade convention tricks: free Skittles, free sunglasses, attractive young women handing out brochures.

But the real action at the annual RSA Conference — “where the world talks security” is its slogan — was not at the booths in the Moscone Center, but across the street at the W Hotel.

There, representatives from nearly 30 Israeli companies, from new startups to mature enterprises, held scores of quick, get-to-know-us meetings with representatives of U.S.-based cybertech companies.

The purpose of the speed-dating-style scenario? The U.S. companies wanted to hear pitches from companies located in the “Start-Up Nation,” as the 2011 book calls Israel. Some sought investment, some were seeking ways to generate new customers, others hoped to be acquired.

Gili Ovadia
Gili Ovadia

Overseeing it all was Gili Ovadia, a human live wire who bounced from table to table, shaking hands, making introductions and hoping to see a shidduch or two come out of the sessions.

Were there any connections? Was there a Waze — the Israeli startup purchased by Google for nearly $1 billion last year — in the bunch?

While it’s too early to report any concrete results, Ovadia has been working the phones since the end of the conference, fostering follow-up between the parties. It’s a slow process, but Ovadia is a long-haul kind of guy.

“Our mission is business development for Israeli companies,” he says. “We help them get to the right people. I personally think business is a channel to a new kind of diplomacy.”

Ovadia, 33, is the consul for economic affairs at the Israel Economic Mission to the West Coast. He and his staff of four are responsible for enhancing trade relations between Israel and a dozen Western states, from Alaska to Colorado to Arizona. There are four other such missions in the United States, 41 around the world.

The West is a big region, but the nerve center for binational trade is in Silicon Valley. Today, tens of thousands of Israelis live in the Bay Area, many of them working in high-tech, biotech and green tech.

In 2013, U.S.-based companies paid more than $6 billion to acquire Israeli companies. One of the most prominent deals was Google’s purchase of Waze, the mobile phone app, for a whopping $966 million. Also making headlines was Apple’s acquisition of the Israeli 3-D sensor company Prime Sense, a $350 million deal.

According to the California governor’s office, trade between Israel and California alone tops $4 billion. In the third quarter of 2013, Israeli companies raised $660 million in venture capital, the largest quarterly figure since 2000, according to data supplied by the Israel Economic Mission.

To be closer to the pumping heart of the tech world, two years ago Israel’s Ministry of the Economy had Ovadia’s predecessor, Sigal Admony-Ravid, move the mission’s West Coast headquarters to San Francisco from Los Angeles, where it had been based for more than a decade. Last October, Ovadia opened the mission’s new office in the Financial District, two months after he replaced Admony-Ravid.

Located in the same building, but not on the same floor, as the S.F.-based Israeli Consulate, the mission serves two main functions: helping Israeli companies gain a stronger foothold in the United States, and helping American companies make connections in Israel.

Gili Ovadia in his office photo/cathleen maclearie

Ovadia will help any Israeli company, from brand new startups in search of that first investor, to seasoned companies in search of new customers.

With the Transamerica Pyramid only two blocks away, Ovadia has an amazing view out his 10th floor window. “I find I have the easiest job,” he says, “trying to promote a very good product with very good branding. Israeli innovation is well known.”

Getting potential partners to meet is the easy part. Ovadia admits getting them to follow up is his greatest challenge. “I need to have 10,000 [contacts] in my network [list of contacts] to really fulfill my mission here,” he said.

While it may sound daunting, it would be a mistake to bet against Ovadia. Admirers in the business community swear by him, largely because he is not afraid to dream big.

“He is very active in promoting Israel high-tech,” says Oded Hermoni, an Israeli-born partner with the venture capital firm Rhodium, which has offices in Israel and Silicon Valley. “From clean-tech and life science to security, basically from every aspect, you see his footprint.”

The Israel Economic Mission just wrapped one of its highest profile projects to date.

Ovadia and his staff helped prepare the meetings and the talking points for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visited Silicon Valley on March 5, meeting with high-tech leaders and signing a memo of understanding with Gov. Jerry Brown. Among other things, the agreement will allow Israeli companies greater and easier access to scientific and high-tech information from a network of hubs across the state.

“The visit was great,” notes Desiree Matloob, one of the mission’s directors of trade and business development, and Ovadia’s point person for the Netanyahu visit. “It allowed us to reach a lot of people we wouldn’t have reached before. If Israeli companies take advantage, it could provide an easier segue from the Israeli marketplace to the Silicon Valley marketplace than there was before.”

Ovadia recently sent his other S.F.-based director of trade and business development, Michael Harroch, to the Mobile World Congress, a telecom industry convention held every February in Barcelona.

In the past, the mission organized a dozen or so meetings at that event. This year, Ovadia upped the ante. He and Harroch set a goal of facilitating 100 face-to-face meetings between Israeli and West Coast companies. They exceeded their target, with large-cap companies such as Amazon, Cisco and Verizon Wireless meeting with Israeli companies.

One measurable result: Ovadia is facilitating a trip by an Amazon delegation to Tel Aviv in June. The short-term goal is to spur alliances between the Internet retail giant and Israeli companies. Longer term, Ovadia wants to see Amazon open its own research and development center in Israel.

Ovadia says he cannot do the job alone.

In addition to getting assistance from the S.F.-based consulate, he also relies on Silicon Valley–based trade organizations such as the 15-year-old California Israel Chamber of Commerce and the 5-year-old Israeli Executives and Founders Forum. Both serve to strengthen business ties between Israel and California.

Ovadia says he and these organizations “share the same goals,” and he works closely with them. For example, for the RSA convention, his office partnered with the CICC.

It should come as no surprise that members of the Israeli community in the Bay Area help each other out.

“There’s a strong pay-it-forward culture in the community,” says Moshik Raccah, a successful entrepreneur and co-director of the IEFF. “At the core of it are Gili and the [S.F.-based Israeli] consulate. They have engaged every organization and individual who is able to help.”

Ovadia (right) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu March 5 in Silicon Valley

And it’s not always about bringing Israeli companies to the Bay Area — as Ovadia and the mission often send U.S. business leaders to Israel. In January, for example, he arranged to send a delegation of Technicolor executives to Israel. There, Technicolor officials met with several companies and venture capital firms, including Lool Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, DFJ Capital and the Tel Aviv branch of Microsoft Ventures.

Some were pure Israeli, some were U.S. firms with a solid Israeli presence. The point was to expose Technicolor to Israel’s diverse business climate and the sorts of opportunities available to large American companies in the Holy Land.

Vince Pizzica is the San Francisco-based senior executive vice president of corporate partnerships and ventures for Technicolor. He went on that five-day trip, and credits Ovadia and the mission for its success.

“We’ve long recognized the ecosystem of innovation in Israel,” Pizzica says. “We had our eye on expanding in key innovation places around the world. To do it properly, we knew we had to get a feel for what it’s like on the ground. We’re aware of the Israeli strengths in hardware engineering, mathematics and the core engineering skills that allow video services to be delivered efficiently.”

Pizzica told Ovadia he wanted “to be driven hard.” In other words, he wanted a nonstop barrage of meetings — and that’s exactly what he got.

Net result: Technicolor has followed through with at least three of the companies, Pizzica says. “We’ve taken steps to partner with them. We’re committed to establishing a full-time presence in Israel.”

Paran, Ovadia’s hometown in Israel, is mentioned in “Lonely Planet” guides. But it also has a much-earlier citation: the Bible.

Genesis mentions Paran, calling it hamidbar, “the wilderness.” It lies about as close to the middle of nowhere as one can get in Israel, and Ovadia grew up on a moshav there, Moshav Paran.

An hour from Eilat, 90 minutes from Beersheva, the moshav is located in the Arava Desert, one of Israel’s hottest, driest and most remote regions. Yet the moshav typifies the Israeli determination to make the desert bloom.

Ovadia’s father farmed the land, pioneering the development of new varieties of bell peppers. He and his four sons, including Gili, worked the fields and greenhouses.

They also got wild. Ovadia recalled joining his brothers on nighttime motorbike rides along the Jordanian border.

“I had a great childhood,” he recalls. “We did a lot of crazy things. It was the Wild West.”

His brothers went into farming, economics and electrical engineering, but Ovadia had developed an interest in politics. After his army service, he studied law and political science, and later joined the staff of then–Defense Minister Ehud Barak as a speechwriter and public affairs aide.

After that heady experience, he served as a legal intern for a year, and then enrolled as a cadet in the Ministry of the Economy. “It combined all my interests,” Ovadia says. “Civil service, business and diplomacy merged into one.”

He served in the Ministry of the Economy for three years, learning all he could about Israeli business, economics and trade. In January 2013, he applied for the job of trade attaché somewhere in the world. He drew California, or what he calls “my biggest dream.”

Ovadia arrived in San Francisco last summer and spent time preparing the new office, which opened last fall.

The smell of fresh paint hasn’t entirely worn off yet in the 1,300-square-foot suite. On the wall of the office kitchen is a large framed photo of David Ben-Gurion kibitzing with Albert Einstein. On the other wall, a shelf lined with books, all of them with the same title: “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

Israeli high-tech businesses meet with potential investors Feb. 25 at San Francisco’s W Hotel. photos/israel economic mission

While Ovadia and his staff play matchmaker when bringing together U.S. companies or investors with Israelis seeking customers and capital, they also do their due diligence and as much pre-screening as possible.

“There’s a dimension of consulting,” Harroch notes, “where we look at what a [U.S.] company needs, what technology or solutions they’re looking for. Then we look at our networks in Israel to see how we can match them with the relevant people.”

Often those matches need time to gestate.

For example, the mission sent a delegation from Silicon Valley’s medical device industry to Israel about 15 months ago, and only three weeks ago did one of those meetings pay off: An Israeli startup received significant investment from one of those U.S. companies.

Because the deal has not been publicly announced, Ovadia will not disclose the names of the companies involved. In fact, he is reluctant to talk about any irons in the fire.

But one person the mission has assisted recently is Raphael Paz, an Israeli biotech entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley since May 2013.

Paz previously sold his first company — which created a device that monitors kidney function — to health care giant Baxter International, and now is working on developing a new company. It’s in such an early stage that he won’t reveal what it is other than to say it is also in the medical field.

The mission has arranged meetings between Paz and hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, insurance companies and representatives from the health care fields.

“When I came [to Silicon Valley], I didn’t have that many connections here,” Paz says. “Gili is giving us relevant leads and doing an amazing job. He developed a very nice network that will help startups like mine get connected to the right people.”

Paz praises the division of labor at the mission. Ovadia’s trade directors focus on particular sectors: Harroch specializes in mobile and gaming, Matloob on life sciences, medical and pharmaceuticals. Sharon Eshagian, the business development director based in Los Angeles, specializes in homeland security.

“Israeli startups are very good in technology, but not in marketing or developing a business,” Paz notes. “For a startup, [assistance from the mission] could be the difference between living or dying.”

That matters, considering there’s competition from other nations, as China, India, Ireland, South Korea and others have trade missions in the Bay Area as well.

Ovadia is always on the lookout for the next Israel-U.S. business alliance. In the months ahead, he will bring several delegations of Israeli companies to California: a new media trip in May, gaming in July and automotive in June. He is also arranging upcoming business trips to Israel for the governors of Washington and Arizona.

The BDS movement (boycott, divestment ad sanctions) against Israel may be gaining steam, but Ovadia scoffs. He says the topic never comes up in his meetings with U.S. investors and executives.

In fact, he is unabashedly excited about the future. Perhaps Ovadia’s humble moshav origins explain his agricultural metaphors when it comes to his business forecast.

“We planted the seeds in the ground,” he says of his efforts to bridge Israel and America. “Now we’re starting the harvesting.”

on the cover

photo/cathleen maclearie

Gili Ovadia in his San Francisco office

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.