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St. Louis groups court next wave of Israeli companies

Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
A plantDitech employee (left) shows the product to Sam Fiorello of the Danforth Center; Vijay Chauhan and Donn Rubin, both of BioSTL. On the right are plantDitech co-founders Menachem and Keren Moshelion.

On a Sunday morning in Tel Aviv the streets are bustling. It’s the first day of the work week for Israelis.

BioSTL’s man in Israel, Uri Attir, has set up meetings with five startups companies. The first is at Hebrew University’s agriculture school in Rehovot, a southern suburb of the city.

In a small university conference room, a plant science professor and his three-member team present their business. The audience consists of three members of the non-profit BioSTL and a representative from the Danforth Plant Science Center.

This is how St. Louis is attracting Israeli businesses.

“Israel is overflowing with technology and innovation and we think St. Louis offers a lot to companies that need to get to the next level,” said Donn Rubin, BioSTL’s president and CEO. “It’s hard to tell that story from thousands of miles away.”

BioSTL began an initiative about 18 months ago to help convince Israeli companies to put a U.S. presence in St. Louis. So far four have done so, including Kaiima, Evogene, NRGene, and Forrest Innovations. The effort, now called GlobalSTL, has also expanded into Ireland.

He said the startups often are surprised to learn that St. Louis is home to major agricultural companies, research universities and a world-class plant science center. St. Louis now bills itself as having more Ph.D. plant scientists than anywhere in the world.

While the message is beginning to get out in places like Israel and Ireland, in-person visits are important, according to Sam Fiorello, COO of the Danforth Center and president of BRDG Park.

“Being out here and communicating what we do in our innovation ecosystem helps to build the brand and to send the message that St. Louis has built something special and you should look at it,” he said.

A visit 18 months ago, much like this one, helped attract the four Israeli companies that now have offices in St. Louis, some of them into BRDG Park. Fiorello said he expects more will follow, especially because the St. Louis ecosystem can give early stage startups access to markets, funding and strategic partners such as Monsanto.

“There are a lot of things we can offer,” Fiorello said, “and the nice thing is the alignment of what they need and what we can offer means we can really add value and help bring jobs and companies to our region.”

The first startup to present to BioSTL and the Danforth Center on Sunday morning was plantDitech. The company focuses on phenotyping, or measuring a plant’s growth in very controlled environment that can create drought or flooding conditions.

Co-founder Menachem Moshelion, a professor of plant physiology in Hebrew University’s agriculture department, took the delegation into a greenhouse to demonstrate the technology. He said sensors measure various things about the plant more than 400 times a day and collect data that will help researchers choose the best plant to breed more quickly.

“If I can give you an analogy, if you want to know which horse is going to win in the race you have to put them in the race and that’s what we do here,” Moshelion said as he stood among rows of plants.

The delegation asked questions and exchanged business cards. Then they headed off to Tel Aviv to hear from more startups.

St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman is accompanying the delegation in Israel. Follow her on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.