Gov. Ned Lamont and other members of a trade mission to Israel say they returned to Connecticut with investment prospects and contacts in a tiny nation that leads the world in startups and venture capital on a per-capita basis.
The U.S. is a crucial second home for Israeli companies that have limited access to markets on their borders in the Middle East, with a focus on the parts of New York and New Jersey within a 90-minute drive of JFK International Airport
“But Connecticut just wasn’t on their map,” said David Lehman, the state’s economic development commissioner. “And what we learned is … it’s still relationship business.”
Aleph and Future Meat, two biotech companies ready to establish U.S. facilities to produce cultured meat and chicken from cells, are considering sites in Connecticut, and the delegation made contacts with financial tech and other high-tech fields.
Lamont, the first Connecticut governor in a quarter-century to make a trade visit to Israel, met with the top echelons of government and business, including President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
Herzog attended Jewish summer camps in New York, and Bennett is the son of immigrants from the U.S. Lamont said Herzog made ready comparisons between his nation of 9 million and Lamont’s state of 3.5 million.
“We’re both smallish. We both punch above our weight class. We’re both innovative. There’s more that we should be doing together. That’s pretty good from the president of Israel,” Lamont said.
Lamont, the founder of a cable television company, said he joked with Bennett that starting a technology company was an ideal background for political leadership.
Bennett was a founder and co-owner of Cyota, a U.S. tech company he sold in 2005, and was the chief executive of Soluto, an Israeli cloud computing service sold in 2013.
Bennett became prime minister in July, backed by an unlikely coalition that crossed the political spectrum and includes, for the first time, an Arab Israeli political party. Under the terms of the coalition agreement, he will yield the prime minister’s post to Lapid in 2023.
The governor briefed reporters on the trip with Lehman and two other members of the trade delegation: Matthew McCoe, the chief executive of the state’s quasi-public venture capital entity, Connecticut Innovations; and Radenka Maric, the interim president of the University of Connecticut.
McCoe, who hosted the briefing at his offices in New Haven, said the trip was years in the making, conceived by Connecticut Innovations before the COVID-19 pandemic made overseas travel difficult.
“We chose Israel about four or five years ago as a place where we want to start putting more investment capital. We want to have more partnerships with the Israeli VCs, with Israeli universities. And this trip really sort of came out of that,” McCoe said.
McCoe said the face-to-face meetings were vital, as was the presence of the governor, his top economic advisor and the UConn president.
“We heard over and over the fact that the governor is here is so important. We need to see your governor, we need to see your leadership, we need to know that there’s a mutual commitment, not just the venture capital,” McCoe said.
Aleph, Future Meat and H2Pro, a startup developing hydrogen fuel produced by sustainable energy, were the prospects that seem closest to developing U.S. facilities. H2Pro’s backers include Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder.
“Israel is a startup nation,” McCoe said. “For the last 30 years, they have been on this journey from a fairly agrarian, rural society to how we all think of them today, which is: it’s a tech hub.”
Israel has become a model of research and development, drawing interest from Google and other innovators.
“And so we want to understand what it is that they’re doing. What are the models that we can bring back to Connecticut?” McCoe said.
Maric, the interim UConn president, also is the university’s vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship. UConn has had an academic relationship with Israel for a decade and recently signed a cooperative agreement with Technion, a leading science and engineering university in Haifa.
Her research background is in materials science and sustainable energy, and she said that H2Pro would be a valuable collaborator on developing energy sources that are sustainable and clean.