St. Louis and Israel ag tech connection grows stronger
Two years ago BioSTL set out to put St. Louis on Israel’s radar.
The non-profit, founded in 2001, helped develop the support system for St. Louis bioscience startups. Then, a few years ago, president and CEO Donn Rubin started hearing that Israeli startups were expanding into other U.S. cities.
“I looked a little more deeply into that and realized that St. Louis and Israel have some real shared strengths and areas where we excel,” Rubin said. “Both St. Louis and Israel are leaders world-wide in plant science or ag tech.”
So in 2014 he decided to launch an initiative to attract Israeli startups to put their U.S. headquarters in St. Louis.
What became GlobalSTL far exceeded Rubin’s initial expectations. Within days of the team’s first trip, the ag startup Kaiima announced it would put a presence in St. Louis.
“That blew me away and gave me much more confidence that our story can really resonate when we have the opportunity to tell it,” he said.
Since then, three more Israeli ag tech startups have expanded into the city. St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman recently accompanied a St. Louis delegation to Israel, where she had the chance to speak with officials with all four startups:
Kaiima Bio-Agritech is a genetics and breeding technology company. Vice president of business development Doron Faibish said St. Louis’ ecosystem of biotech scientists, universities, Monsanto and other industry, as well as the Danforth Plant Science Center made St. Louis attractive.
“The second thing was the great support we saw from BioSTL and from additional organizations, including the Jewish community in St. Louis,” Faibish said. “So all the puzzle pieces fell pretty well for us.”
Kaiima currently has four employees in St. Louis, including the head of the company’s breeding program. Faibish said they expect that number to remain steady over the next year.
“Probably by end of next season we’ll be at a decision point. And we believe at that point we will grow,” he said.
Evogene is a genomics company with more than 100 employees. It’s also a partner of Monsanto, and CEO Ofer Haviv said because of that, they were very familiar with St. Louis.
“Probably this is one of the reasons we decided to open our first site in the U.S. in St. Louis, because we know the area, it’s close to Monsanto, but more than this, this area is a hub for agriculture,” he said.
Haviv said at first he was nervous about the expansion into St. Louis, but he’s been pleased with the employees they’ve recruited and the support system for startups.
Today Evogene has 10 employees locally. Haviv said they’re looking at expanding their activities in the U.S. and that could mean more employees in St. Louis.
“I can easily see how it could increase to 20, maybe more in the next few years,” he said.
Forrest Innovations is a biotech startup that uses Ribonucleic Acid Interference (RNAi) technology to address two major areas: disease vectoring mosquitoes and “Citrus Greening,” a bacterial disease that’s devastating the orange industry.
Shaul Ilan, Forrest Innovation’s vice president of business development, said while the startup could have put a presence in Florida, it made more sense to be in an ag tech center such as St. Louis.
“We’ve found a very open community, very advanced and one of top two places for ag tech in the United States, the second only being Davis, California," Ilan said.
Roy Borochov, who is the site lead in the U.S., said he visited several other places before St. Louis was chosen.
“St. Louis gives you a value for money that’s much bigger than any other place, but it’s not only money. The quality of the people is amazing," he said. "The ecosystem in St. Louis is very embracing; helping you in every step you make, assisting everywhere they can.”
Currently Forrest Innovations has three employees based at the Danforth Plant Science Center’s BRDG Park in St. Louis.
NRGene is a genomic big data company that develops advanced computational tools and algorithmic models to help both seed companies and animal breeders.
CEO Gil Ronen said the Midwest was a destination for NRGene from the beginning because the startup was focused on field crops, but St. Louis stood out.
“There are very big companies, there are leading technology companies in agro; farmers, field stations, everything is happening in St. Louis,” Ronen said. “It was a very natural choice for us.”
NRGene is the most recent startup to expand into St. Louis, opening a space here in April. The startup has one full-time employee in St. Louis, but Ronen said they expect to hire four more by the end of the year. All the current positions are in sales, but Ronen said as the startup lands more projects they will need more technical personnel.
“We also expect major deals that will happen soon, and we’ll need technical people and the R&D people…” he said. “We expect to grow from project to project and from customer to customer.”
St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman accompanied an ag tech delegation from St. Louis to both Ireland and Israel. Her trip was funded by donations from the Silk Foundation and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.
Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman