We are facing a new era of building relationships between Chinese companies and private investors, on the one side, and companies in the Israeli high-tech industry, on the other side. The Chinese-Israeli connection burgeoning these days calls to mind the first days of the strategic relationship that has developed over the decades between the United States and Israel.
In the coming decade, joint [Chinese-Israeli] economic activity is expected to grow and expand along the “food chain” in the spheres of know-how and technology. This collaboration is reflected in the increase in Chinese investments in venture capital funds; the rise in direct investments in Israeli high-tech companies; the growth in acquisitions of Israeli high-tech companies by the Chinese and the establishment of Chinese research and development centers in Israel, and in joint academic projects, as observed this week [Sept. 29 ], upon the announcement of the huge donation made by the Li Ka Shing in support of the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.
Might that cannot be ignored
Anyone who visited China in recent years could not ignore the might exhibited by the Chinese economy, as evidenced in the momentum of growth, construction and implementation of technological solutions on an unprecedented scale. China seems to have skipped several technology generations toward the center stage of state-of-the-art technology. The urbanization processes, involving the concentration of hundreds of millions of Chinese in swiftly built and fast-growing cities, are bound to require technological solutions in transportation, communications, energy and water supply and health services. Within a short period, China has established itself as the second economic power in the world after the United States, threatening Western economic hegemony. The times when China was part of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China, countries at a similar stage of economic growth) have long since gone by, and it is now a league of its own.
Israeli visitors to China cannot help but notice the tremendous respect and esteem the Chinese feel for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. They perceive Israelis as a highly intelligent people with numerous achievements, from whom they can learn and with whom they can cooperate. Quite a number of Chinese delegations have been visiting Israel. They come here ever more frequently, seeking innovation in various fields, such as agriculture, energy, communications and medicine.
However, the clear potential for collaboration has not yet been realized. Past attempts at cooperation were, for the most part, directed by the Chinese toward forming joint ventures, which so far have not borne fruit.
Recently, we see privately controlled Chinese companies (although still dependent on government support) seeking to enter the global markets on the basis of a business model similar to that employed by the Americans — by means of dollar investments outside China. The Chinese government is increasingly allowing private ownership of businesses and properties, and enabling overseas investments. Yet, such investments have to be officially approved first, and are often subject to various scope conditions and limitations. Anyway, the process, slow as it may be, is radically reshaping Chinese business management.
This newly adopted global orientation of the Chinese economy (as against the domestic business activity, conducted in the local currency of China) opens a new opportunity for strengthening Chinese-Israeli cooperation. After all, taken together, Israel and China account for a quarter of humanity.
The United States is still the key partner of Israeli startups
All the same, the United States is, at present, and will be, in the future, and perhaps forever, the major strategic partner of the Israeli high-tech industry. It is also still a source of innovation and global entrepreneurship. It has a huge and dynamic market and the ability to incorporate advanced technology, and its academic world is open to international exchange. In addition, the mergers and acquisitions activity is primarily carried out by American companies, while the New York stock exchanges and the associated financial industry serve as a lodestone for companies issuing shares to the public.
Most of the capital invested in technological innovation in Israel has its origins in giant American corporations. American companies (Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco and others) are investing a fortune in fostering innovation through 250 research and development centers in Israel, and, at the same time, financial institutions in the United States funnel huge sums of money to Israeli and American venture capital funds that are invested in thousands of Israeli startups. There are currently some 5,000 startups in Israel, in various stages of development. And more than 90% of the capital invested each year in Israeli technology has its origins in the United States.
The balance of power will change in the coming decade
The close American-Israeli collaboration is manifest at all levels — the government, academia, industry and capital markets. However, the world is changing. And as it has become more open and global, it seems that the Israeli-American model may be relevant to other global powers as well. China is a potentially significant player in this arena, and may well adopt a similar model, given its recent investments in venture capital funds in Israel, the trend of acquisition of Israeli companies, such as Makhteshim Agan Industries and Alma Lasers, and its realization of the importance of establishing development centers in Israel. Two research and development centers of Chinese companies are already operating in Israel under the radar, as the Chinese would rather not publicize their presence here for the time being.
It appears that in the coming decade, we are going to witness a growing presence in Israel of companies from the Far East and Asia, in general, and from China, in particular. At this stage, such activity calls for special government attention on both sides, as well as for promotion and cultivation of these processes on the various diplomatic levels. At any event, more and more businessmen and private companies will eventually set the tone. It’s time to look eastward ever more attentively.
The author is managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango Venture Capital.
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