Investor group banks on Israel's culture of innovation

Attending a Trendlines event in Israel earlier this year were (from left) Mr Gerald Goh, chief executive of PrimePartners Corporate Finance, and Mr Dollinger and Mr Rhodes, Trendlines' co-founders.
Attending a Trendlines event in Israel earlier this year were (from left) Mr Gerald Ong, chief executive of PrimePartners Corporate Finance, and Mr Dollinger and Mr Rhodes, Trendlines' co-founders. PHOTO: TRENDLINES GROUP

Trendlines plots growth in medical, agricultural advances in land of start-ups

Mention Israel and images dating back to biblical times come to mind but, in modern times, it has been affectionately dubbed the "start-up nation".

The term was famously popularised by a 2009 book titled Start-Up Nation: The Story Of Israel's Economic Miracle, and the small country has proven time and time again that the moniker is apt.

The Economist noted in 2014 that Israel has the world's highest concentration of high-tech start-ups per head, with almost 1,000 new firms set up each year.

 

So there is little wonder that investors flock to Israel seeking the holy grail that could one day change the world.

And the way medical and agricultural investor Trendlines Group operates, for instance, is entirely in line with the spirit of entrepreneurship the small country exudes.

The Catalist-listed firm makes early-stage investments in medical and agritech and now manages a portfolio of at least 46 companies.

These portfolio companies are physically located in Trendlines facilities and headquarters in Misgav - "a Galilean town in northern Israel surrounded by rolling green hills", as Bloomberg describes it - for at least their first two to three years, which allows them to interact with each other.

Trendlines provides support to the start-ups, including professional business and technology development, marketing and investment banking, which is a dream for new companies that have immense technical know-how but little business background.

NATION OF INNOVATION

How did Israel, a population of about eight million, become such a hotbed of creative activity?

At a Trendlines event earlier this year, Mr Oded Distel, director of the investment promotion centre at the Israeli Ministry of Economy, told The Straits Times that it all boils down to culture, driven by the proverb "necessity is the mother of invention".

"In Israel's case, various sectors have to come up with different solutions in order to make things happen - this is the case in water, agriculture, defence, homeland security, energy and many other sectors," he said.

"It's created a full culture, and now this can-do approach and the sense that there are no limits. If somebody has a good idea, they will pursue it and reach their goal."

Angel investor Eri Steimatzky, a veteran businessman whose father founded Israel's largest bookstore chain, agreed, saying Israelis like to think outside the box and everyone likes to do things differently.

He said: "At an early age, they enlist in the army and are given responsibility and become independent. So they have to look after themselves and deal with problems, and that's how they develop a mature approach to life very early on."

Industry players who spoke to The Straits Times also mentioned the Israeli military's role in shaping the start-up culture.

Israelis - men and women - enlist at the age of 18. The military is less top-heavy than traditional ones worldwide, with fewer senior officials, noted Start-Up Nation.

That means the bulk of the responsibility lies with the young soldiers while its hierarchy-free environment encourages them to speak up and make suggestions when they think it is necessary.

The Israeli army is known for being innovative and well-versed in technology, so it is no surprise Israelis embrace such a culture.

TRENDLINES AND THE NEXT BIG THING

With Israel brimming with start- ups and new ideas, investing in firms there makes sense to Trendlines. It was founded by Americans Steve Rhodes and Todd Dollinger, who moved to Israel.

It mainly invests through its incubators - Trendlines Medical and Trendlines Agtech, and also has Trendlines Labs, where it works on its own ideas, for internal development and in partnership with multinational corporations.

The firm, which listed on the Singapore Exchange last November, has invested in at least 62 firms, of which 16 have been written off, and six have made exits. This refers to firms having initial public offerings or are being acquired.

Mr Rhodes said: "If you took a snapshot, you might come to a conclusion we haven't succeeded. The percentages are not so great, but the point is we have a large portfolio of companies that are 'exits' in process and we've a very large portfolios of companies that are approaching the exit stage."

The total estimated fair market value of its 10 most valuable portfolio companies is US$59.6 million (S$80 million), including the fair value of its investments in firms.

That figure represents 69.5 per cent of its total portfolio value of about US$85.8 million as at Dec 31 .

Trendlines Medical holds a tech incubator licence from Israel's Office of the Chief Scientist, which gives strong government support and allows its portfolio companies to get higher grants, for instance.

Trendlines Agtech, however, has not had its agtech incubator licence in Israel renewed.

Mr Dollinger said: "Over the past eight years, Trendlines has enjoyed two of the 18 licences under the Office of the Chief Scientist programme, among other global renowned names in various sectors."

He said the Office of the Chief Scientist has chosen to diversify its partnership profile under the incubator programme and introduce a new licensee to the market.

TRENDLINES' PLANS

Despite the minor blimp, the questions about its earnings visibility and the long wait to see a fledgling start-up succeed, Trendlines still believes in the Israel story.

Mr Rhodes noted: "The average valuation of our portfolio companies - even including our 10 most valuable companies - is under US$1.9 million, and there is a tremendous amount of hidden value in the portfolio."

He said the company expects an increase in royalties from exits with a royalty component, which would take at least a year to kick in. Trendlines Labs also has royalties from the products it develops. Royalty revenue will help smooth out the earnings profile over time.

Trendlines wants to introduce that start-up spirit to Singapore, with plans for an incubator, a move backed by Israeli industry players.

Former government official Sharon Kedmi, who is now co-founder of Demeter-Awe Holdings, a consulting and investment firm that provides expertise to agriculture, water and energy sectors, said Singapore has the right factors.

He said: "There's a lot of mutual potential between Singapore and Israel; both use their small size to achieve more.

"From what I've seen, in Singapore there's an innovative ecosystem. People are educated, there's a good base, and that's rare in South-east Asia."


Correction note: An earlier version of the story's photo caption stated that Mr Gerald Goh is the chief executive of PrimePartners Corporate Finance. This is incorrect. It should be Mr Gerald Ong. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Investor group banks on Israel's culture of innovation'. Print Edition | Subscribe