Israeli startups set down roots in St. Louis

Ori Ben Herzel (left), David Neuman and Guy Weitzman have moved to St. Louis in recent years with Israeli start-ups that opened offices here. They met Nov. 17 at the Clayton offices of BioSTL, a nonprofit organization that focuses on Israeli start-ups and helped bring their companies here. Photo: Eric Berger


Guy Weitzman, CEO of Atomation, a startup that uses “smart technology” to connect physical items to the internet, became interested in opening an office in St. Louis more than a year ago. The Israeli native said he saw the good infrastructure that existed in the Cortex technology district, and the Fortune 500 companies such as Monsanto and Express Scripts.

But after 6 p.m., he would look around St. Louis and think, “Where are the people?” Coming from Tel Aviv, he was used to a lively downtown that pulsated every night of the week.

Actually, Weitzman wasn’t so much criticizing the lack of activity in downtown St. Louis after business people go home. He was talking about the energy in offices. He agrees with the book author who described Israel as “Start-up Nation” and says that people involved with the young companies there work 24/7. 

“Coming from Tel Aviv to St. Louis was a big change,” said Weitzman.

But he saw the potential in the city and in October, he opened an office here with five employees. 

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Atomation is the fifth Israeli company to come to St. Louis in the past three years.

GlobalSTL, a nonprofit initiative that lured Atomation here, is trying to turn St. Louis into a midwestern Silicon Valley, with a primary focus on Israeli startups interested in establishing a U.S. presence.

“St. Louis is a slow, easy” place “compared to Tel Aviv,” said Donn Rubin, president and CEO of BioSTL, the parent organization of GlobalSTL, who recently sat down for an interview with representatives of three Israeli startups at the organization’s offices in Clayton. 

In Israel, “the entrepreneurs are in their labs, in their offices all night long,” he said. “We don’t quite have that culture here in St. Louis. But we’re changing that. These guys are changing that.”

Others are taking notice of the emerging startup culture. Last year, Business Insider described St. Louis as the fastest growing startup scene in the nation. That momentum has occurred despite negative headlines about racism and crime in St. Louis.

Rubin started St. Louis-Israel Innovation Connection in 2014 with a vision of attracting bioscience companies. The focus made sense to Rubin in part because the suburb of Creve Coeur already had Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology company, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

The group eventually changed its name to GlobalSTL and has attracted companies such as Atomation from outside the bioscience world.

“For St. Louis to reach its potential as an innovation hub, we need to be a cosmopolitan, global innovation community,” Rubin said.


St. Louis as the ‘Midwest Start-up Nation’

Rubin and other representatives from BioSTL made connections with startups at conferences in Israel and St. Louis and in less formal settings. For example, Brian Rosenzweig, a managing partner of JANVEST, a Chicago venture capital firm that invests in Israeli startups, married a Jewish woman from St. Louis. At the wedding, a guest heard about Rosenzweig’s career and recommended that he talk with Rubin.

The two discussed Atomation. Rubin said they initially thought about agricultural and health care applications. In building connections, BioSTL tries to take a “demand driven” approach, Rubin said.

“We start with our St. Louis companies and health care systems and understand through our relationships with them what kind of innovation they are looking for,” Rubin said. “Then we go out and try to find something that will solve their problems, as opposed to just trying to find a company and saying, ‘Does anyone in St. Louis want to talk to these guys?’ ” 

He learned about the power company Ameren’s desire to connect utility poles to the internet, and another BioSTL employee suggested Atomation. The company has since developed a sensor network that will help it more quickly respond to issues at poles. 

Weitzman could have chosen to open Atomation offices in more robust markets such as New York or San Francisco. But he liked the welcoming attitude of Rubin and others and “saw a lot of business opportunities in St. Louis.”

“I couldn’t get Ameren without BioSTL,” said Weitzman, 42. “I really got aligned with their vision to make St. Louis the Midwest Start-up Nation.” 


‘This Was the Place’

BioSTL is a nonprofit and gets some funding from private donors including, former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth but also acts in a similar fashion to venture capital firms in that it invests in startups. When those companies are acquired, rather than keep the profits, the money goes back into BioSTL.

In 2014, the organization established the root system between St. Louis and Israel when it recruited Kaiima Bio Agritech, a plant genetics and breeding technology firm based in Sharona, in the northern part of the country.

“This is the main part of the world for agriculture. All the seed companies are here just around the corner,” said Ori Ben Herzel, a plant scientist who leads the company’s breeding project in St. Louis. 

Employees like Ben Herzel could either continue to constantly fly back and forth from Israel to the Corn Belt or open an office in St. Louis. 

“It was very obvious that this was the place,” Ben Herzel said.

BioSTL is not alone in trying to help Israeli entrepreneurs. Around the High Holidays last year, Ben Herzel received an invitation to attend services at Temple Emanuel from Betsy Cohen, executive director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, a group that aims to bring foreign talent to St. Louis. Ben Herzel had previously just viewed Judaism through a binary lens: You were either Orthodox or secular. He grew up on a kibbutz and avoided synagogues. 

“It was amazing,” said Ben Herzel, 39. “It was our first time to get more close to the culture. It’s a great place to raise a family. It’s so convenient and everything is very close. Almost every Sunday, we are taking our kids to the [St. Louis Art Museum]. There are so many parks within a 30-minute drive.”

Still, between the time BioSTL and Kaiima first made contact and announced the St. Louis office, a Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown. That’s when much of the United States turned its attention to protests around St. Louis. 

Ben Herzel arrived here for the first time on the day a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in  the shooting. Ben Herzel told a colleague that his mother had been nervous about him coming to St. Louis amid the unrest. The colleague, in turn, said his mother had been nervous about him going to Israel.

“It’s funny, because everything is perspective,” Ben Herzel said. 

Rubin recalls not getting any media coverage for the Kaiima welcoming event on that day because all cameras were on Ferguson. 

“People around the world think our town is burning,” Rubin said. “If I didn’t turn on the TV, I wouldn’t even know that anything was happening. That’s exactly what Israelis go through. There is some incident that happens, and TV stations around the world explode it into this huge thing.”

 Issues need to be addressed

Even if the city’s reputation is not an impediment in recruiting Israeli companies to St. Louis, there are other issues. As to the relatively laid-back workplace culture, Weitzman thinks that the fevered pace of startup activity in Israel will infect St. Louis as companies here expand their global reach and talk more with people in different time zones. 

There is also the fact that there are no international flights from St. Louis. 

Rami Cohen, founder of Telesofia, said: “It’s faster for me to get from Tel Aviv to San Francisco than to St. Louis. If you look at a map, it doesn’t make any sense. But there are no direct flights.” 

Telesofia produces individualized videos for patients with instructions for medicines and care and is considering opening an office here. The firm is in discussion with five health care and pharmaceutical companies based here about establishing pilot programs, Cohen said.

St. Louis also does not have the same number of large venture capital firms as either of the coasts. 

“And, sometimes, those firms want you to be close to them,” said Cohen, whose St. Louis office could employ five to 10 people. 

He has enjoyed his visits to St. Louis. He was here for the total solar eclipse in August “and it was really amazing,” he said. He had dinner with Israeli families who have relocated here and told him “about the life and the community.” 

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens also met with Cohen during his recent trip to Israel and was “very sharp. I thought I was going to present what Telesofia does, but he already knew everything about us.”

On Cohen’s first visit, a representative from BioSTL took him to see “people working in the coffeeshops, and it kind of reminded me of the atmosphere we have in Tel Aviv.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the new name of the St. Louis-Israel Innovation Connection. It is GlobalSTL.