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November 20, 2017

Hartford, state aim to build bridges with Israel's tech economy

HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon Miri Berger, co-founder of the Israeli startup 6Degrees, demonstrates an armband to enable those who have lost the use of their hands to use a computer mouse or smart phone.
HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith (left), CERC's Jason Giulietti and Upward Hartford founder Shana Schlossberg talk at a panel discussion.

Nearly two dozen Israeli startup executives and government officials, fresh off visits to New York and Philadelphia, made one last stop on their East Coast road show this month — to downtown Hartford.

It was the first visit of its kind to Connecticut by Israeli economic development officials, and the goal was to advance a relationship between a country and state/region that have spent years trying to strengthen their economic ties.

“An Israeli delegation has never stepped foot in Connecticut,” said Shana Schlossberg, founder of Hartford's new accelerator Upward Hartford, who, along with the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC), organized the gathering. “I said 'come and I'll give you a day you won't forget.' ”

And indeed, it was a production.

The Israeli companies, all of which are in the medical-technology space, pitched and were introduced to representatives from some of the region's largest employers in Upward Hartford's slick new co-working space in the Stilts Building, 20 Church St.

Local companies in attendance included Aetna, Cigna, Travelers, The Hartford, Hartford HealthCare, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, Stanley Black and Decker and United Technologies Corp., among others. The Israeli delegation also dined in downtown Hartford and was welcomed by state lawmakers and Connecticut's top economic development chief, Catherine Smith.

Connecticut, with assistance from groups like CERC, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the MetroHartford Alliance, has been trying to woo Israel — sometimes referred to as Startup Nation — for years. Those efforts have included hosting Connecticut-Israel technology summits and a 2013 trip by the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to Israel.

The courting has borne some fruit: In recent years Israeli companies Biological Industries, a stem-cell culture distributor, and software developer Applango, have opened Connecticut locations in Cromwell and Stamford, respectively.

But the delegation's recent visit was seen as a potential next step in developing the relationship.

“This has really solidified our work over the past couple of years,” said Jason Giulietti, a business recruitment vice president at CERC, which helps companies, including foreign ones, find locations, connections and incentives in the state. “It takes us out of the minor leagues and puts us in the major leagues.”

Israel, a country of 8.5 million people that nourishes its robust tech economy by doling out approximately $500 million a year in economic incentives, wants to have a closer relationship to Connecticut.

“What we're identifying here is how we can create that deal flow,” said Jonathan Cohen, North American manager for the Israeli Innovation Authority, which is the country's economic development agency.

Ultimately, Cohen said he would like Israel and Connecticut to sign a memorandum of understanding that would formalize the commitment of each government to an economic partnership and would lead to more Israeli companies coming here.

The delegation had just come from signing a memorandum of understanding with Pennsylvania state officials.

With or without that formal agreement, more Israeli startups are planting roots in Hartford — an area that has struggled to attract early stage companies, compared to New Haven and Fairfield counties.

Schlossberg, who is connected to Israel's startup community after living there from 2008 to 2012, has signed leases with four Israeli startups this year, and she expects to sign on three more from the delegation, though she wasn't yet ready to name them.

Schlossberg said signing the first company — Project Ray, which makes braille-like technology to help the visually impaired use smartphones — made it easier to attract others.

“Israelis work based on trust — they go where someone told them it works,” she said. “If you make a good experience for one, it's word of mouth.”

Schlossberg has enjoyed the support of DECD and Connecticut Innovations, which have issued joint $250,000 low-interest loans to the companies she has recruited thus far.

Cohen said Hartford's and Connecticut's well-publicized fiscal problems won't necessarily deter Israeli companies from thinking about a presence in the city or state.

“In Israel you can go and find deficits too,” he said. “I think if you invest in those companies, in those stakeholders, the economy will flourish.”

Inon Elroy, Israel's economic minister to North America who was also in Hartford, said Israeli startups, located in a tiny but dense country that largely doesn't have good relations with its neighbors, must look outward.

“Israeli companies need to have an international presence from almost the very first day,” he said.

Elroy accompanies groups of Israeli companies — organized based on industry type — on delegation trips every six weeks or so.

“This time it's digital health and big data,” Elroy said of the Hartford visit. “We're looking at doing a cyber delegation [to Connecticut] in the second part of 2018.”

Devices for all

The Israeli startups that visited Hartford are in the medical and health technology industry.

The companies ranged from AEYE Health, which is using artificial intelligence to read retinal scans to Dr. Ora L.T.D., which is using voice recognition to detect emotional stress.

Tech Innosphere is developing a medical device to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, while Myreleaf has a drug-free device to treat anxiety attacks.

Miri Berger was among the entrepreneurs who pitched during the Israeli delegation's Hartford visit. She and her husband Aryeh Katz co-founded a company called 6Degrees, which is developing an armband that enables those who have lost use of their hands to use laptops, smartphones and other gadgets.

The company's device, currently being piloted in Israel by several rehab hospitals and schools, is called Crescent.

Berger demonstrated how using subtle arm movements with the armband, which links to her laptop through Bluetooth, can replicate traditional mouse functions including left clicks, right clicks, double clicks and click-and-drag capabilities.

6Degrees' technology has received some recognition. It earned an award of 100,000 Israeli shekels (approximately $28,000) in a recent competition hosted by MassChallenge in Israel.

Currently, Berger is weighing her company's location options. After the Hartford trip, she was headed off to MassChallenge events in New York and Boston.

Berger and her husband lived in New York for seven years as they earned degrees (Berger in industrial design and Katz in engineering), but moved back to Israel over the summer.

She said she can envision 6Degrees in Hartford.

“Any place that has the capability to help launch a startup is the place I want to be in,” she said.

Correction: The original version of this story gave an incorrect amount for the award 6Degrees won from MassChallenge recently. It won 100,000 Israeli shekels, not U.S. dollars.

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