State seeking ties with Israel through new business outreach
For the first time in years, the state has decided to employ a foreign agent to drum up new business overseas.
The idea, said state Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith last week, came out of a trip to Israel more than a year ago during which she and others heard that many Israeli companies were looking to get a foothold in the United States.
Connecticut, halfway between New York City and Boston, seemed like a perfect location for many of these companies. So DECD asked the Connecticut Economic Resource Center to solicit bids from business consultants with Israeli ties, and about two months ago Chaim Oren of The Oren Group was hired to represent the state.
"It's a pilot," Smith said. "We're going to see how it goes."
If all goes well, she added, a revitalized strategic plan to enhance the state's economy by reaching out internationally could result in other foreign agents being employed by Connecticut. Brazil, Germany, northern Europe and the Far East are other areas of the world being considered in the future, officials said. China, once considered another possibility, has been put on the back burner lately, Smith said, because of difficulties associated with breaking into the market.
"We don't have a rich budget for this," Smith acknowledged.
Oren has been told to concentrate on six business areas in Israel: aeronautics, bioscience, advanced manufacturing, green technologies, insurance and digital media, said Bob Santy, president and chief executive of CERC, a public-private partnership to market the state and promote business recruitment.
Santy, former deputy commissioner of the predecessor agency to DECD, said the state has hired agents in the past — about a quarter century ago and opened offices in Japan and Germany. But in the past few years the state has relied on so-called "one-on" events such as the annual international air show in Paris to introduce foreigners to opportunities in Connecticut, he said.
Santy said CERC and other agencies including the DECD plan monthly teleconference calls with Oren to get updates on his progress and expect by the end of the one-year contract he will have identified at least 12 serious prospects among Israeli businesses looking to relocate to the United States who would at least consider coming to Connecticut.
Santy said most Israeli companies are looking to make a move to Silicon Valley in California or the East Coast.
"We need to promote New York and Boston as assets of Connecticut," Santy said.
Santy said both startups and medium-sized Israeli companies are being targeted by Connecticut. Firms seeking help from the state to move here have to agree to a physical presence in Connecticut and at least a few employees, officials said.
"We've got lots of incubation space," Santy said, "both at UConn and private space."
Santy said the state is hoping to be able to offer funding assistance to Israeli companies through the quasi-public Connecticut Innovations, though the agency's current regulations prohibit it from helping companies outside the state. It's possible the state will look to loosen restrictions on CI funding, Santy said.
"We haven't quite figured that one out," he said.
Smith said Israel, often referred to as Startup Nation because of its surplus of entrepreneurs, is a good fit for Connecticut because many of its strengths mesh with expertise among companies already thriving in the state. Israeli companies often feel constrained by the small size of markets at home and seek continued growth by reaching overseas, she said.
Price is part of the pitch for Connecticut, Smith added, because companies can usually locate in state for far less than the cost of space in New York and Boston. The hope is that an initial sales-and-service office in Connecticut could eventually morph into new manufacturing space in the state somewhere down the line, officials said.
Smith reported two Israeli companies already have relocated to Connecticut in recent months based on previous contacts with these firms. Santy said Israeli firms encouraged to move into the state would be complementary to businesses already here rather than direct competitors, such as companies that provide parts for airplane maker Pratt & Whitney.
"It's a new effort to try to be more global," Santy said.