Georgia on Thursday signed an agreement with the government of Israel that will result in $2 million in grants for joint research and development projects between firms in the state and the so-called “Startup Nation.”
Atlanta-based Southern Co., the Southeast-wide power utility, has supplied $1 million toward the initiative, with the Israel Innovation Authority, the government agency formerly called the Chief Scientist’s Office, offering matching the funds in the first year.
The program will be administered on the Georgia side by the Georgia Centers of Innovation, which are run by the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Pat Wilson, the department’s commissioner, signed the memorandum of understanding underpinning the program with Israeli Consul General Judith Varnai Shorer at the department’s Midtown offices.
“We’ve had a presence (in Israel) now for 25-plus years, and we’ve had a lot of benefit that has come from that, not only from investments like Caesarstone, but with a trade relationship that is second to none,” Mr. Wilson said, sitting across a conference table from Ms. Shorer.
Southern Co. Chairman Thomas Fanning will sign the first official request for proposals while visiting Israel to speak at a conference this month, kicking off an application period during which Georgia firms can submit ideas.
The latest Georgia delegation to Israel is returning this week after another trip focused on cybersecurity. A concerted effort to connect Georgia’s growing cyber ecosystem with Israel’s innovative security scene intensified in 2014 with a visit by Gov. Nathan Deal. The governor’s trip came after Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., was chosen as the headquarters of U.S. Cyber Command in late 2013. Mr. Fanning of Southern Co. also is a nationally recognized voice on cybersecurity, especially in the realm of protecting critical infrastructure.
For the new joint program, proposals are to be sought in advanced technology sectors including:
- Vehicle automation, electrification, safety systems, and related areas
- Advanced materials
- Sustainable energy/water/agricultural systems
- Public safety and homeland security
- Smart home/energy efficiency/aging in place
- Data collection and analytics
- Systems to improve utility operations and maintenance
- Distributed energy resource management,
- Marketing and customer relations systems
The funding is to be doled out in grants, likely between $125,000 and $400,000. No repayment will be required, and companies won’t be required to surrender any equity. In other words, it’s a no-strings-attached cash infusion directed toward the completion of the proposed project.
Companies that win in the first year can reapply if they need more funds to finish a project, said Oded Shorer, economic and trade affairs at the consulate, who noted that the hope is to attract more seed money next year that Israel can match.
“We hope that during 2018 we will be able to get more cooperation,“ he told Global Atlanta, mentioning that any Georgia funder would be welcome.
The laser focus on a particular state and the lack of a payback clause makes this grant different from others designed to promote joint U.S.-Israel innovation, Mr. Shorer added.
“It’s a grant — if they lose, they lose. If they make good, that’s fine with us,” Mr. Shorer said.
The BIRD Foundation, an endowment run by the government of Israel (and whose representatives recently met with companies in Atlanta), is also geared toward binational collaboration, but in BIRD’s case the initial outlays are bigger, and successful partnerships have to pay back the seed funding.
Georgia companies aren’t asked to pick an Israeli partner upfront. The IIA can provide matching services during the review process, putting them in touch with appropriate Israeli partners. Southern Co. can do the same with its business contacts on this end.
The utility, which has been a key backer of the Georgia-Israel relationship through its subsidiary Georgia Power, saw this as an opportunity to help enhance the state’s role in transformative sectors by tapping into world-leading Israeli innovations in areas like desalinization, agriculture technology and smart cities, said Michael Britt, vice president in charge of the Southern Co. Energy Innovation Center at Technology Square.
“We are struck by the unique nature of the Israeli ‘Startup Nation’ ethos. It’s really unparalleled,” said Mr. Britt, who visited Israel on an intense weeklong delegation in 2017.
While Southern Co. has never funded a project like this before, Mr. Britt said it’s not too far-fetched for a utility company that sees its growth tied to the fate of the economies where it operates.
“We have an aligned vision with the states we serve,” he said.
This project in particular took two years from conception to fruition. Ms. Shorer, the consul general, likened the process to nurturing a baby that needed constant pampering. She and Mr. Shorer, who happens to be her husband, would sometimes talk about the project at home at night.
“It always came back — this and fintech — these are the two babies,” she said, giving credit to Mr. Shorer’s persistence. “I was the encourager.”
When Ms. Shorer sent the proposal back for review at the foreign ministry, she said her superiors were “very impressed” at the ambitious plan, leading to the ultimate approval of the MOU.
Florida and South Carolina have launched similar collaborations with the Israel Innovation Authority in the last few years.