By Abigail Adams
WESTBOROUGH – The U.S.-Israel Connected Summit that took place in Tel Aviv and Herzliya at the end of May marked the largest economic mission to Israel in United States history. Massachusetts was there in full force with a delegation of 100 business leaders representing Massachusetts’ information technology, healthcare, water and energy and cybersecurity industries. Gov. Deval Patrick delivered the keynote address that launched the event. Massachusetts’ and Israel’s blossoming economic relationship officially began with Gov. Patrick’s 2011 Massachusetts Innovation Economy Partnership Mission, which resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel designed to promote collaboration between Massachuetts and Israeli companies. The results have been impressive. A recent report prepared for the New England-Israel Business Council (NEIBC) found that Massachusetts was home to more than 200 Israeli-founded businesses that contributed $6 billion in revenue and 6,600 jobs to the state’s economy in 2012.
The benefits of Israel’s and Massachusetts’ economic relationship are only beginning to be felt. Gov. Patrick announced at the Summit new partnerships between MIT and Ben Gurion University that will fund joint research projects at the institutions, a new research and development collaboration on robotics and 3-D technology between Newton’s PTC and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and a new relationship between Brandeis University and the Tel Aviv Museum. Chelmsford’s Triton Systems and Israel’s Applied Cavitation Technologies were also announced as the winners of the Massachusetts-Israel Water Innovation Challenge. They will receive joint funding from the MA and Israeli governments to develop clean water technologies.
Steve Schuster, CEO of Rainier Communications, a Westborough-based public relations firm specializing in the hi-tech industry, served as a member of the Massachusetts delegation. Schuster was raised in an active Reform and Zionist household and is a 4th-generation Jewish leader – his great-grandfather was the founding president of Seattle’s Zionist shul. His education at Northeastern, where he earned a BSEE and MBA, brought him to Massachusetts, where he has worked for over 30 years as an engineer, designer and marketer of hi-tech products. In 1993, Schuster established Rainier Communications, which opened an office in Tel Aviv in 2007 and has helped over 50 Israeli tech companies gain exposure in the U.S. market. He remains an active member of Central MA’s Jewish community and serves as an AIPAC Massachusetts Council member and board member of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. Schuster, fresh off the plane from Israel, spoke with the Jewish Ledger about the US-Israel Connected Summit and his role in fostering MA’s economic relationship with Israel.
Q: How did you begin working with Israeli companies?
A: My sophomore year I spent at Hebrew University. It was a very cool time in Israel; it was 1979-1980. The Sinai was still completely open to us as students. One of the coolest moments of the year was when we were down in the Sinai for Chanukah and we had the candles but no menorah so we just stuck the candles in the sand and said the prayers. I didn’t return to Israel for 23 years but was brought back for a series of family events. What I began to see in Israel in the early 2000s was a very nice opportunity. There was a ton of innovation going on but there was not any marketing going on – statistically it was near zero.
I thought that this was a great combination. I wanted to be more involved in Israel and I wanted to help Israel but I couldn’t just cut big checks. I thought about that when I was pitching Israeli bonds at our shul one year. I thought, well, I can get people to buy $100 or $500 bonds or I can help Israeli companies get bought for $100-$300 million. So I set my sites on bringing $1 billion in acquisition money from the U.S. to Israel. As of today, we’re at $890 million in that process.
In 2007, I hired a full-time business development manager in Israel and she’s been setting up the relationships and doing the groundwork in networking. Our business proposition, is that our seniors in Boston do all the analysts relations and media relations work to help Israeli companies come into the U.S. market from a public relations point of view. Aside from that, being able to go to Israel every three months and become genuinely a part of the innovation economy and the innovation ecosystem in the country has been transformative for me as a businessperson, as a Jew and as a human.
Q: What have been some of the challenges in introducing Israeli companies to the U.S.?
A: They were very similar to some of the challenges that we have been facing over the last 20 years with introducing start-up companies of any kind and disruptive technologies to the U.S. market. It all comes down to story-telling and the narrative around a new technology. The technologies can be so different that you really have to get people to look at something a different way. That’s a marketer’s dilemma.
With Israeli companies, when we first started, I was doing a lot more educating about the values of public relations. There was a lot more of a chutzpah attitude of look, we built this amazing thing, we don’t have to tell the story. It tells its own story. That’s kind of a technical entrepreneur’s hubris. I’ve certainly found it outside of Israel but it was very dominant in Israel. By giving a lot of speeches in a lot of forums and by having some really good success stories, that has transformed in a lot of ways. We’re no longer really having to educate about the value of PR. It’s a real asset for a company that people understand. It’s how you add value to the balance sheet. It’s how you make your company get more sales and have a higher valuation when it comes to an IPO or a merger or acquisition.
People will talk about – and it’s true – that working with Israelis can be difficult. It’s a culture where everything is on the table. It’s so different from American culture where we’re very careful to be politically correct in our conversations. Not in terms of using prejudicial language but if you want to tell someone that they did something you don’t like professionally you’d say something like ‘hey, you’re doing a great job on this, but you could use some improvement on that.’ For Israelis it’s more like ‘I’m really disappointed in you and you did a terrible job on that’. This can be really shocking for Americans, but over time it becomes refreshingly honest. We’ve come to appreciate it as an agency because by having a totally honest feedback loop we have become better at what we do. We’ve become more demanding of ourselves and more demanding of our Israeli clients because we know that they expect it and can take it. Israelis are so good at thinking outside of the box that we’ve all become better at thinking outside the box.
Q: What was your role in the Massachusetts delegation?
A: When it came time for the Governor to assemble the delegation, he was really looking for people to drive the goal of the economic innovation mission, which is economic cooperation between Israel and MA. This was the second round of the effort that began in 2011. A lot had been learned and a lot had been accomplished in the previous mission that was now being applied. I was kind of a carpetbagger on that trip in 2011 because I happened to be in Israel at the time and I was invited to a couple of the events. This time I was onboard as a full-on delegate.
I helped with some of the planning and became the de facto social media expert on the trip. I’m really excited and proud of the social media effort. A lot of the people on that level aren’t doing social media themselves. I basically got up in front of the room at the beginning of the conference and said, ‘Look, we can be 120 people here and have an amazing 3-day experience or we can do all that and let the world participate in it if we tweet using two hashtags: #MAIsrael and #US-IsraelConnected.’
In two minutes, I explained to them what to do and how to do it and got everyone really pumped up. At the end, our analytics showed that we reached 750,000 people through tweeting. From 120 people to three-quarters of a million people. People saw an important story going on around Israel that had nothing to do with conflict or the failed peace process, nothing to do with some of the negative brand aspects that people so often associate with Israel, but instead saw that we were involved with cooperation and became aware of a wide range of amazing things going on.
Q: What were some of the highlights of the Summit?
A: It was one of the most thrilling and fulfilling and interesting times I’ve spent in Israel and this was my 38th trip there…The highlights were three-fold. The simplest one I think was that everyone was really surprised about how much business is going to come out of the Summit. The quality of the meetings across the board was, I think, beyond anybody’s expectations.
The second was watching people who had never been to Israel come to some stunning realizations about their experience. Israel has, unfortunately, a very well-established brand image around keywords like violence and danger and conflict and the heavily charged politicization of the region, so people came with a certain predisposed idea or notion of what Israel is. Somebody actually said that they thought it was going to be one big desert full of camels and they were amazed at how green and varied it is and how diverse the people are. Then visiting places like Jerusalem, there were people who said that they hadn’t really thought about their own spirituality but said they suddenly felt an energy come to them and needed to think about it a little bit. People said they were affected in ways that they absolutely didn’t expect to be affected.
The third was really one of the highlights of my life. The Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv is a beautiful center that is completely dedicated to the ideals that Rabin stood for – justice and peace. The American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Boston raised over $1 million to dedicate a room there to Governor Patrick. People felt that Governor Patrick and his emphasis on social justice is very much in support of what Rabin stood for. The whole center is Rabin except for this one room that now has a plaque in it dedicated to Deval Patrick. So the whole delegation went there for the dedication ceremony. It was an emotionally charged event. I hope that it’s not revealing a secret but he was in tears, he was so moved. We were all blubbering. It was one of the most amazing moments of anything I had ever participated in.
Q: What do you expect or hope for the follow-up to the Summit?
A: I already know from our little circle that in the health care field there was at least one new relationship where the Israeli side was already coming to Boston the next week. It was unplanned before the Summit and the guy was already getting on the plane to seal the deal to the new relationship. I think in general people in both of these communities don’t sit around and wait for good ideas to solidify themselves. They know they need to make it happen. This was a very entrepreneurial set of people on this mission and we entrepreneurs know that we can’t wait around. We need to put one foot in front of the other, put all the details in place, knock down all the obstacles and make deals happen.
Q: What impact will the economic partnership with Israel have on Western and Central MA?
A: I guess I would have to say that outside of myself there was not a lot of representation of Central MA [at the Summit]. I talk about my success living and working in Central MA vis-a-vis Israel a lot. We’re bringing AIPAC events to Central MA a lot, including talking about the economic relationship. The Secretary of Economic Development and Housing and the Governor – they feel that their administration covers the entire Commonwealth. I think there’s a real genuine opportunity for real estate brokers to begin to connect with this incoming Israeli community to tell them that they can set up shop in Westborough or Framingham or Worcester and have access to some really good talent like the engineers from the Worcester education ecosystem and experienced technology professionals too. I think it’s still a nascent potential opportunity as opposed to one that’s already taking off.
The U.S.-Israel Connected Summit in Israel in May was Gov. Deval Patrick’s second economic mission to Israel. Last week, he explained the important partnership between Israel and Massachusetts to the Jewish Ledger.
Ledger: What prompted the initial economic partnership with Israel?
Gov. Patrick: Massachusetts is an unparalleled leader in the global economy and a trailblazer for the nation. To continue to compete on an international level and create new jobs here at home we must look outward to new markets, and position Massachusetts as the North American destination for business growth.
Ledger: There seems to have been a natural economic relationship with Israeli companies that existed in Massachusetts before the 2011 trade mission. What makes the Massachusetts and Israeli economies so compatible?
Gov. Patrick: It’s abundantly clear that we have two highly complementary economies, both focused on the innovation industries and leaning forward into some exciting new industries. As you know, there are already some very close ties between Massachusetts and Israel. On this trip we worked to strengthen those ties and lay the groundwork for some new opportunities as well. Technology and innovation have brought Massachusetts and Israel increasingly close together.
Our delegation came to Israel to refresh and renew a relationship that is important to us. We established and have cultivated a number of commercial collaborations during and since our mission in 2011 that have been meaningful and beneficial on both sides, and simply want to build on that success. In particular we are looking forward to engaging on how to meet the challenges we all face in neuroscience, eHealth, medical device development and manufacture, and “the internet of things,” and we hope to share the lessons we have learned and are still learning in each of these critical fields.