Local organization works to nourish U.S.-Israel plant-science roots

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

BioSTL, a local organization seeking to bring Israeli biotechnology firms to the St. Louis area, has found early success since the launch of its St. Louis-Israel Innovation Connecting Initiative (SLIIC) this fall. The organization announced in November that the Israeli agritech firm Kaiima Bio-Agritech selected St. Louis as the location of its U.S. headquarters. 

Donn Rubin is BioSTL president and CEO and founder of SLIIC. He chairs the Jewish Community Relations Council Israel Committee and has served on the board of Jewish Federation. Rubin and his wife, Beth, are members of Kol Rinah and live in Clayton with their two sons, who attend Clayton High School. 

The Jewish Light recently asked Rubin to discuss BioSTL’s work.

What is BioSTL?

BioSTL is a regional nonprofit organization advancing the St. Louis region’s economic vitality by cultivating a strong life-science and innovation community. Since 2001, representing a coalition of top St. Louis academic, business and philanthropic leaders, we have developed a local entrepreneurial ecosystem including a pipeline of new startup companies, venture capital, physical infrastructure (labs, incubators and research districts) and public policy. We have helped start and have invested in 53 St. Louis-based medical and plant-science startups that have collectively raised more than $190 million.

How does SLIIC fit with BioSTL’s mission?

The St. Louis-Israel Innovation Connection is designed to tap into the amazing stream of innovative companies emerging in Israel, often referred to as the Startup Nation. We see it as an important complement to BioSTL’s ongoing grow-our-own efforts of starting companies in St. Louis based on discoveries and inventions from local universities, medical schools and entrepreneurs. 

There are many common areas of strength shared by Israel and St. Louis, including plant/agtech, health care and medical technologies, and financial tech/cyber-security. 

Our SLIIC approach is not to relocate entire companies from Israel. Rather, we seek to identify Israeli companies that have evolved to the point where it is critical for them to establish a North American presence to access capital, markets, research collaborations or corporate partners. To make the case that St. Louis is a better choice than perhaps more well-known locales on the East and West coasts, our team makes valuable connections to St. Louis corporations, investors, universities or other support.

How did you get introduced to Kaiima Bio-Agritech?

During an exploratory trip to Israel in May, we met with Kaiima, an exciting plant-science company based in the lower Galilee. Based on our meetings, Kaiima leadership chose St. Louis to base its U.S. operations. 

What advantages does St. Louis have over other potential locations for Kaiima’s U.S. headquarters?

St. Louis offers unparalleled plant-science research talent and facilities, including the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, proximity to major agtech corporations (especially Monsanto and German agtech company KWS), and a growing cluster of related entrepreneurial activity. When we first met, the Kaiima team was unaware of most of these assets.

What will this move mean not only for BioSTL, but for the overall St. Louis area economy?

This early success is an important validation of our approach and our decision to focus our company recruiting efforts on Israel. In contrast to most young, high-risk startups we support locally, Kaiima is a more mature company, having raised $98 million from global investors and employing over 100 workers, mostly in Israel. Kaiima will start with a small team in St. Louis, but as their U.S. operations grow, we can now anticipate that growth to take place here in St. Louis.

 What’s next with BioSTL and SLIIC?

We have eight or nine additional Israel companies we are in discussions with currently. In other international efforts, BioSTL helped recruit the U.S. R&D headquarters of KWS to St. Louis and has been nurturing China-St. Louis relationships. But because of its tremendous potential, our primary international focus is on Israel and the SLIIC initiative.