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The gateway to Asia stretches beyond China for Israeli innovators

In recent years, debates surrounding investments in Israeli start-ups from East Asia have focused heavily on one nation: China.

While the mammoth Chinese market offers lucrative revenues and investment opportunities for ambitious start-ups looking to scale up, matters have become complicated in recent years.

The bruising US-China trade war has largely transformed investments from the two economic giants into an either-or situation. Complaints regarding intellectual property (IP) theft, and heavy American pressure on authorities to limit Chinese investments in Israeli projects have further complicated the relationship.

Yet opportunities for Israeli start-ups in East Asia far exceed the borders of the once-sleeping giant, even if the many possibilities for fruitful collaboration happen to make far less noise. For Israeli entrepreneurs, new opportunities are emerging across the region. Alternative landing pads for start-ups in Asia range from Japan and South Korea to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

According to a recent report published by Harel-Hertz Investment House, Japanese investments in Israeli companies have soared in recent years.

The past decade saw the number of investments almost triple from 62 between 2001 and 2009 to 170 between 2010 and 2019. Last year alone, Israeli companies recorded 52 investments from Japanese firms.

In volume, the increase is far more impressive. Between 2001 and 2009, Japanese investors injected approximately $372 million in Israeli companies, compared to almost $6.8 billion during the following decade.

Leading investments included the acquisition of Alliance Tire Group by Yokohama Rubber for $1.2b. in 2016 and the $1.1b. purchase of drug firm Neuroderm by Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corporation.

“The United States is still, and will probably keep its role as, the No. 1 destination for Israeli start-ups – but who is next?” asks Gilad Majerowicz, cohead of Herzog, Fox & Neeman law firm’s Asia practice.

“If it is more difficult to do business with China but acknowledge that Asia is a huge market, then you need to find a new partner to team up with to penetrate the Asian markets. Asia is a much bigger market than the United States.”

Commercial relations have soared, Majerowicz says, since Israel and Japan expressed their intentions in 2014 to form a comprehensive partnership. Key areas of recent interest for investors have been automotive technologies, digital healthcare, cybersecurity, fintech and agro-technologies. Many leading Japanese carmakers have already established a permanent innovation presence inTel Aviv.

“The whole phenomenon of Japanese companies investing in start-ups outside of Japan is new, dating back only a few years under the ‘Abenomics’ agenda to create growth,” said Majerowicz.

“Today, about 10% of the investments are going to Israel, and almost nothing is going to Europe,” he said, adding that the launch of a nonstop flight connecting Israel and Tokyo is “crucial” to expanding the scope of investments.

Majerowicz highlights the importance of patience when doing business with Japanese companies, with very thorough due diligence a feature of establishing a strategic partnership. Should Israeli start-ups bide their time and gain the trust of a Japanese company, he says, they can “get to places that they could not imagine.”

JUST ACROSS the Korea Strait, in South Korea, enthusiasm is also growing over Israeli technologies. While the scope of investments currently does not match its Japanese neighbors, Seoul also hopes that its hi-tech hub can serve as Israel’s springboard to the giant Asian market.

Amid increasing trade between the countries, Israel and South Korea concluded talks on a free trade agreement in August 2019. Bilateral trade reached a total of $2.5b. in 2018, including approximately $1b. in Israeli exports and increasing by 15% since the previous year.

For Haan Junn, director of overseas business at Seoul-headquartered Yozma Group Asia, the Asian branch of the venture capital firm founded in 1993 by renowned Israeli investors Yigal Erlich and Boaz Goldschmidt, collaboration between Israeli start-ups and South Korean businesses is a win-win situation that is yet to be truly discovered.

“We feel that the Start-Up Nation is unaware of the business opportunities that they can have in Korea,” Junn told The Jerusalem Post. “We want to let it be known that there is an alternative to China as a source of capital and a better manufacturer to their technology and solution.”

Highlighting numerous similarities between the histories and societies of the two countries, established just three months apart, Junn believes that Israel’s status as the Start-Up Nation and South Korea’s range of global conglomerates could form a fruitful combination.

“Through this relationship, Israel’s offerings in technology can be sent deep into the Asian markets while having a guaranteed quality to the end product that incorporates the technology,” Junn said.

“On the flip side,” he continued, “Korea’s manufacturing capabilities can be stretched to its full potential to provide the end users with the best products that incorporate the best technology. Israel is a start-up nation and Korea is a scale-up nation.”

Recent investments in Israel made by Yozma Group Asia include deals with air purification technology developer Salamandra Zone, automated ultrasound start-up On-Sight Medical and novel semiconductor-based digital X-ray device maker Nanox.

Yozma Group Asia has also been granted exclusive technology transfer rights in Korea by Yeda, the commercial arm of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“By combining Israel’s innovation in technology with Korea’s manufacturing capabilities of conglomerates with global brand names, both nations can find uncapped success,” said Junn.

RISING EAST ASIAN interest in Israeli technologies was underlined in recent weeks as government-backed Taiwanese tech firm Innovation to Industry (i2i) announced that it would allocate up to $70m. for investment in Israeli start-ups.

While official data value annual investments from Taiwan at approximately $150m., unofficial estimates suggest that the scope of investments is closer to $500m. Key areas of innovation interest in Israel are said to be cybersecurity and digital health technologies.

i2i, established by the Taipei City-based Institute for Information Industry, launched the IP² LaunchPad to assist Israeli start-ups penetrate the East Asia market and grant access to investments up to $3m. The program will be managed in Israel by local consulting firm Healthier Globe.

“The strength of Israeli innovation is early stage, out-of-the-box, and international, and the strength of Taiwan innovation is technical engineering and development,” i2i chairman Dr. Gary Gong told the Post.

“I think there are opportunities to combine both strengths together and then explore the business opportunities in new markets, especially markets like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or even China, where Taiwan has already established business networks and is actually familiar with the infrastructure.”

Ultimately, Gong says, more needs to be done to unlock the potential relationship between Israel and Taiwan, which has enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent decades. That process, he adds, will only start with improved understanding of each other’s capabilities.

“The Taiwanese need to stop thinking that Israel is always a battlefield, and Israel needs to start thinking of Taiwan as a go-to market option. Then we can start to discover the possibilities.”

While the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak will inevitably lead to a temporary drop in start-up investments in Israel and worldwide, growing interest from East Asia in Israeli innovation is certain to continue. For entrepreneurs, new gateways to the Asian market will continue to open.

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