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On March 6, 12 AgTech companies from Israel landed in St. Louis for a day-long dive into all things startup. The delegation was organized by Global STL, a project of BioSTL, in partnership with the Government of Israel Economic Mission and BIRD Foundation (the Israel‐U.S. Binational Research & Development Fund). The goal? To impress upon these innovative companies the opportunities available to them in the Midwest.
The delegates spent the day meeting with corporate and community leaders, hearing about the St. Louis’ startup ecosystem and touring facilities (the majority of the day’s events took place at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center). It was a busy visit–and a successful one. We caught up with GlobalSTL Lead Vijay Chauhan and a few of the delegates after the visit to hear what the companies and St. Louis stand to gain from it.
Making the Case for the Midwest
For tech companies based in Israel, which has earned a label of “Startup Nation,” one of the benchmarks of success is entering the U.S. market—whether that means securing a corporate partnership, developing a more robust R&D department or establishing a physical office stateside. With this in mind, The Ministry of Economic Affairs in Israel routinely sends delegations of companies to the United States to aid in that effort. But up until this year, “the United States” had primarily meant California.
One notable exception is that since 2014, five Israeli AgTech companies decided to base their U.S. headquarters or R&D operations in St. Louis. It seems the city by the river has suddenly caught people’s attention—and with good reason.
“St. Louis offers Israeli companies an ideal landing site in the U.S.,” says Guy Cohen, Consul, Head of Economic and Trade Mission to the Midwest for Israel’s Ministry of Economy and Industry. “The city provides a wide array of corporate strategic partners, research facilities, and organizations such as GlobalSTL offering assistance and guidance to newcomers.”
So when the opportunity arose to include St. Louis as the first stop in an upcoming trip for Israeli companies—the group would then continue on to California—GlobalSTL jumped at the chance to host the group.
“Before, we would bring one company at a time. Here we were bringing a whole delegation. It had the potential to really increase the scale of our recruitment activities and our brand both here and in Israel,” says Chauhan.
Selling St. Louis
The delegation, made up of companies specializing in areas such as crop protection, crop nutrition, plant genetics and breeding, irrigation, and decision support tech began the day with a presentation by Monsanto. The delegation met with senior leadership about the company’s innovation priorities, its approach to innovation as well as its active involvement within the St. Louis community. Monsanto also offered the opportunity for each company to meet with a team of employees who had expertise in each of their respective areas.
“It’s one thing to have all of these great corporations and farming community around,” says Chauhan. “It’s another to actually have access to them, to have business opportunity. You can come and see Monsanto’s beautiful facilities, have a presentation by one or two people and then nothing else. But what they got was significant meetings and interest, with Monsanto committing 25 people from their company to meet with these companies, all of that planning and effort. Nothing like that took place in any other city for them.”
The delegation then heard from KWS, a German seed company that moved to St. Louis three years ago, before a lunch featuring keynote speakers including the Director of Agriculture for the State of Missouri, Chris Chinn, and Dr. Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, the MSMC Endowed Chair of Agribusiness Strategy at the University of Missouri.
“[Ms. Chin] herself is a farmer, and a very innovative, young farmer,” says Chauhan. “She was really impressive in making the case for innovation in Missouri and welcoming the delegation to the state.”
Next up was an opportunity for the Israeli companies to pitch to members of the community including investors, accelerators/incubators, corporate executives, nonprofit organizations and consultants. The visiting companies were nervous that the crowd would be relatively small, but their presentations packed the Danforth atrium, significantly exceeding their audience expectations, according to Chauhan.
Following their pitches, each company received one-on-one meetings with key people in St. Louis, from venture capital to corporate partners and even growers. Like the Monsanto consultations that morning, these groups were highly customized, but unlike the Monsanto meetings, they were community wide.
Before heading to an evening reception at the Jewel Box in Forest Park, the delegation met with some of the Israeli AgTech companies now working in St. Louis out of BRDG Park.
“[It] was very helpful to meet and hear from the experience of Israeli companies that recently set up their U.S. base in St Louis, to understand how practical and what kind of support a company can expect,” said Ofir Schlam, Co-founder and CEO of Taranis, the first scalable predictive analytics solution to predict crop diseases and one of the companies on the trip.
“This was their opportunity to have a free-ranging discussion on why these Israeli companies came here: What was the promise? What is the reality? What’s working and what’s not?” says Chauhan. “And that was a fantastic and authentic conversation. These are highly creditable companies. It speaks to our city’s relationship building; they aren’t just sitting out there on an island, they are involved and part of the St. Louis community.”
So it was a packed day, and the St. Louis AgTech community rallied around the event; but what happens now?
“We brought a very broad group of Israeli companies, looking for a variety of different partners,” says Cohen, who counted the quantity and quality of meetings as well as the diversity of strategic relationships forged as markers of success for the trip.
Another marker of success? Companies making the decision to plant roots, so to speak, in St. Louis.
“St. Louis never ceases to amaze you with its focus on agriculture and the depth of the Ag ecosystem. Before visiting St. Louis, I was sure it [was] important ag-hub, Now I know it’s the global Ag hub,” says Tal Amram Head of Business Development for SMART!Fertilizer. SMART!Fertilizer is a unique SAAS platform to optimize fertilizer use in agriculture.
Chauhan says there are other companies that have revisited St. Louis since the trip, looking for space at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and even hiring team members from the St. Louis community.
“The turnout of guests at our public event was a solid indication that we’d chosen a city that is both interested in and relevant for the AgTech companies, as well as a city that is extremely open to innovation on a global scale,” says Cohen. “This was our first major delegation to St. Louis during my tenure, and due to the value it brought to the participating Israeli companies, as well as, hopefully, to the St. Louis companies, it will not be our last.”
The Israeli delegation included representatives from the following companies: AgriTask, AutoAgronom, BIODALIA Microbiological Technologies, BreedIT, Future Tense, Groundwork BioAg, Pimi Agro Cleantech, Prospera, Saturas, SMART!Fertilizer, Taranis, Tevatronic, and Israel Cleantech Venture (ICV).
Read more about GlobalSTL on EQ here.