Israel is at the forefront of cutting-edge technology, and there is ample opportunity for Alabama and Birmingham businesses to join forces with entrepreneurs from the country to collaborate.
That’s according to a robust group of speakers at “Doing Business with Israel: Opportunities for Alabama-Israel Technology Partnerships,” an event held this week at Alabama Power Co. and sponsored by the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA), Conexx, the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation and Alabama Power Co.
U.S. Senator Doug Jones, Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield and others discussed both Israel and Alabama’s tech ecosystem and how the two entities can partner to foster innovation and further the growth of jobs in the state.
Israel, a country of only 8.5 million people – less than the population of New York City – has become a hotbed for technology in recent years. Major corporations like Apple, Google, Microsoft and IBM have key research and development centers in the country, and inventions like Waze, a GPS navigation software app now owned by Google, and Mobileye, which was purchased by Intel for $15.3 billion in 2017, were created in Israel.
Groups like BIRD and Conexx work to connect Israel to the U.S. – and, in Conexx’s case, the Southeast specifically – through mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures and alliances because of a common denominator between the two countries: A desire to innovate.
“We connect companies to each other and initiate strategic partnerships,” said Andrea Yonah, director of business development at BIRD. “The U.S. and Israel have a common goal – promoting innovation.”
BIRD invests up to 50 percent of R&D for each project it supports and has so far approved over 800 projects and generated over $10 billion in product sales since its inception in 1977. If the project – made up of one U.S. company and one Israeli company – generates commercial revenue, the companies pay BIRD back. If a project fails, BIRD does not ask for repayment. This model is attractive because it offers funding, risk sharing in high-risk tech that takes a longer time to market and, via BIRD’s network, a stamp of approval by external organizations that vet the products, Yonah said. BIRD is currently accepting executive summaries for U.S. and Israeli companies looking to partner.
Conexx works specifically to connect Israeli companies to the Southeastern region, which is home to over 140 Israeli companies, said Vice President Barry Swartz. One of those companies is Joonko, which is co-headquartered in Birmingham and Tel Aviv and chose the Magic City as its second headquarters after receiving an investment from the Alabama Futures Fund.
“Joonko visited San Francisco and Austin, and the cost of living was too high,” said Josh Carpenter, director of economic development for the City of Birmingham, speaking on a panel at the event. “They asked ‘Where can I go where there is a low cost of living?’ and Birmingham emerged as a top option.”
The company, which uses technology to find and hire candidates that reflect a more diverse workforce, will hopefully be one of many companies with roots in Israel that headquarters in Birmingham, Carpenter said.
“There is a real opportunity for growth in the city,” he said. “We don’t want Joonko to be the last Israeli company in Birmingham.”
Secretary Canfield, who sat on a panel moderated by BBA Interim President and CEO Fred McCallum, said the State of Alabama will take part in a trip to Israel this spring to explore potential business opportunities in the country.
Fostering a relationship between Alabama and Israel is vital, said Sen. Jones, who keynoted the event. He said he could think of no better U.S. ally over the last half-century than Israel, and that maintaining that strong relationship is critical.
“I support partnerships between Alabama and Israel,” he said. “It’s not only good for business, but through it we can find solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems.”