By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Against the backdrop of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, it may be difficult to notice positive developments when they happen. But for the past five years, Connecticut has been at the forefront of economic cooperation with Israel, fostered by a unique collaboration between the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and state entities.
The initial collaborative between the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and MetroHartford Alliance was launched at a boardroom table in 2011, and quickly grew into the Connecticut-Israel Technology Initiative. The following year saw the first of three annual technology summits that attracted representatives from hundreds of regional businesses who came to meet visiting entrepreneurs from Israeli start-up companies.
In 2013, MetroHartford Alliance, Jewish Federation, and community leaders participated in a trade mission to Israel, led by Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Commissioner Catherine Smith. As a result, the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Economic Resource Center each engaged a consultant in Israel to “sell” Connecticut to Israeli companies looking to expand in the U.S.
After that trip, the partner organizations realized that they had accomplished their initial goal of bringing Israeli innovation to the attention of the Connecticut business community, and decided to concentrate on a specific industry. Last May, JCRC and MetroHartford Alliance’s International Business Council took the lead, organizing the Connecticut-Israel Innovations Showcase at UConn Health Center in Farmington.
Currently, Israeli companies that move to Connecticut are provided funds through the State’s Department of Economic and Community Development and through its investment arm, Connecticut Innovations. These state funds must be matched by private investment, a need that inspired the just-launched Connecticut Israel Opportunity Fund.
Seeds of the fund were planted after the 2013 DECD trade mission. “When I talked to some of the Israeli companies at the Connecticut-Israel Technology Summits, it was clear that one of their big needs was capital and equity investment,” says Brad Mondschein, a Hartford-based attorney and Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford board member who had helped organize the annual technology summits.
Mondschein, who lives in Glastonbury, convened a meeting of representatives from DECD and Connecticut Innovations, along with equity investment specialists and other interested members of the Greater Hartford business community. Alan Mendelson, founder and managing general partner of the Hartford-based Axiom Venture Partners, offered to lead the effort to raise the essential capital.
Mendelson, who lives in West Hartford, stepped up for both personal and professional reasons. “There is the Jewish connection and the love for Israel,” he says. “I also saw that there was a need and thought I could help raise the capital, given my financial background and track record.”
Mendelson was brought together with longtime acquaintance David Audibert, founder and principal of the Farmington-based Succession Equity Partners, which concentrates on early-stage investments in healthcare, advertising, and financial-technology companies.
“We have a focus on inclusive investing through crowd funding, where other accredited investors can co-invest alongside the fund,” says Audibert, a resident of Wolcott. “This inclusive democratization of investing is a synergistic match with the strong and welcoming Jewish community here in Connecticut.”
To that end, Mendelson and Audibert formed the Connecticut Israel Opportunity Fund and serve as its principals. A $15 million to $25 million limited partnership, the fund is also be guided by an advisory board. The goal is to induce Israeli companies to locate facilities primarily, but not necessarily, within Connecticut, and to act as a catalyst for their development and growth. The fund will focus on healthcare, cyber-security, IT/enterprise software, advertising technology, and financial technology companies – industries considered the strong suits of the Israeli start-up culture.
The initiative is supported by the state consultants on the ground in Israel, and by a Hartford-based representative of the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, who helps Israeli companies navigate state regulations and find suitable space to set up operations.
Earlier this month, Mendelson and Audibert met with the owner of an Israeli solar-energy company preparing to move with his family to West Hartford – in part, because of the area’s Jewish day schools.
A robust Jewish community and relatively low cost of living are just two compelling reasons for Israeli companies to consider Connecticut, Mendelson says. The state is centrally located along “Silicon Alley,” the corridor between Cambridge, Mass. and New York City, and the second largest and most active venture-capital ecosystem in the world.
The companies coming to Connecticut will not be in the early-stage funding phase but will have completed product development and, in many cases, already have enjoyed early sales. “So they’re less risky than pure start-ups,” Mendelson says.
The Connecticut Israel Opportunity Fund will be able to co-invest with Connecticut Innovations and also expects many private venture funds to invest in its deals, Mendelson says.
Connecticut is the U.S. corporate “beachhead” of a handful of Israeli companies, including business-software developer Applango in Stamford, life-science product manufacturer Biological Industries in Cromwell, and Growponics automated hydroponic-greenhouse systems in Guilford.
CAP: Alan Mendelson & David Audibert