by Trevor Williams | January 30, 2013
Israel has been lauded for its emergence as the "startup nation," where capital floods into innovative companies that eventually sell out to foreign giants like Google Inc. and Intel Corp., but a central question for the country's future is whether it can create more homegrown multinationals, a prominent Israeli economist said in Atlanta.
So far, a "take the money and run" approach has prevailed, with Israeli firms cashing out instead of growing their companies, said Pinchas Landau, an independent expert who writes for Israeli and international media and also publishes the Landau Report, his own monthly newsletter.
"Foreign investment is still coming in for the last couple of years at a very good pace, but that model is finished," Mr. Landau said, noting that since the financial crisis, it has been more difficult to float a company on Nasdaq or attract venture capital from the United States.
Israel has only one company like TEVA Pharmaceuticals Ltd., a multinational that was able to singlehandedly skew the country's foreign investment statistics with a major deal in 2006.
"Why is there only one TEVA in Israel? Why do we have only one company which is global-sized in its field? Why don't we grow bigger companies?" Mr. Landau asked, repeating questions he said have been floating around Israel for years.
The Southeast U.S. has benefited from the current system, with large Georgia-based firms like NCR Corp. and Arris Group Inc. announcing deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars to capitalize on Israeli technology in the past two years. Alpharetta-based EndoChoice Inc. earlier this month bought Israel's Peer Medical Ltd. for $43 million and is keeping its research arm in Caesarea, Israel. Even more deals are in the works, said Tom Glaser, president of the American Israel Chamber of Commerce Southeast, which hosted Mr. Landau along with other partners.
But the country's reliance on high-tech is shifting, and the diversification could be good for Israel over the long haul, Mr. Landau said.
Much has been made of the "chutzpah" of Israeli entrepreneurs, especially in the "Startup Nation" book that tells the story of Israel's economic miracle over the past two decades. But Mr. Landau said the software-fueled boom that started the Israeli economic explosion in the 1990s can be attributed to a broader array of factors.
A strong defense sector and the influx of a half-million Russian Jews after the fall of the Soviet Union (including engineers comprising the superpower's technological elite) fused with American capital to create an unrivaled ecosystem for software development and innovation that continues to this day.
But if the country is to take advantage of its arguably stronger position in biotechnology - where the action is for the future, according to Mr. Landau - the model will have to change. For starters, biotech investors will have to take a much longer time horizon than typical tech investors.
Beyond biotechnology, energy is also key for a country that has developed its culture of innovation largely because it lacked natural resources. The discovery of offshore oil in the Mediterranean Sea will lead to even larger budget surpluses, but the challenge when drilling begins will be to invest the ensuing windfall properly.
"Thank God we didn't discover it 20 years ago," Mr. Landau said, noting that developed economies are more equipped to fight "Dutch disease," a condition in which an economy receives huge amounts of foreign investment in natural resources, driving up the value of its currency and harming the competitiveness of its other industries.
Mr. Landau's visit was sponsored by Israel Bonds, which exposes the portfolios of investors (including the state of Georgia and SunTrust Banks Inc.) to Israeli infrastructure and other state-funded projects. The repayment rate so far is 100 percent, said Bradley Young, who represents the organization in Atlanta.
The event was held at the Midtown offices of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP.
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