When Israeli business people, researchers, and economic emissaries think of America, the first places that come to mind are New York, California, and Massachusetts.  After those, maybe Chicago and Miami, and Atlanta, but certainly not South Carolina!  Yet amazingly, South Carolina was the growth engine in the Southeast as I concluded my 22-year career as head of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce last September.  It was especially surprising since, of the 6 states in our region, South Carolina had been at the bottom rung of our economic development activities.

It all began serendipitously in October 2010 when I was invited to give the keynote speech at a Technology Summit organized by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.  I accepted on the condition that I be introduced by Anita Zucker, CEO of The InterTech Group, who was also one of the state’s leading philanthropists for both Jewish and public causes.  Anita loved my address on “The Start-Up Nation:  Partner for South Carolina”.   After my speech, she and I had a private meeting in her Cadillac where we brainstormed about the potential economic development partnership with Israel that had been a dream of her late husband, Jerry.

Anita encouraged me to speak with the president of the Medical University of South Carolina who also was enthusiastic about the idea and followed up by organizing a January 2011 meeting in the state’s capital, Columbia, with his counterparts at the University of South Carolina and Clemson University.  Also participating in that meeting was SCRA—the South Carolina Research Authority, Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast, and The InterTech Group.

The outcome of this 3-hour brainstorming session was that I was asked to draft a program of work with strategies and details to develop a meaningful partnership, and the result is the South Carolina-Israel Collaboration whose mission is to “Stimulate business and research partnerships between companies and universities in South Carolina and Israel as a way to generate economic development, jobs, and investments to the benefit of all.”  The Collaboration was to be built around six identified clusters of strength in South Carolina and Israel where there is strong potential of synergy and relevance: Biomedical, Advanced Materials, Sustainable Systems, Transportation, Defense / Security, and Insurance / Health IT.

Before moving ahead, I made it clear that the Collaboration would need strong financial support and leadership in order to succeed.  Agreeing, Anita offered a meaningful grant for our chamber to manage the program and the ideal leader, her son Jonathan Zucker, president of The InterTech Group.  Then just 32, Jonathan had the perfect combination of passion for Israel, a successful business background, and relationships with the key players throughout the state.  And representing the next generation, he became the ideal lay leader who both “talks the talk”and “walks the walk”.

Just three years later, the results have been nothing short of spectacular, catapulting South Carolina into the minds of many Israelis as a “go to” state in America for investment, partnership, joint research, and customers.  Consider the following:

  • MUSC and Technion signed an MOU for stem cell research.
  • The Collaboration has organized 3 business and research missions to Israel, bringing almost 70 participants to explore relationships.
  • 9 Israeli companies now call South Carolina “home” for their US or regional headquarters.
  • Milliken and Curapipe were awarded a BIRD Foundation grant to support joint venture R&D to bring to market Israeli water technology.
  • The US-Israel Neurotechnology Business Exchange brought 7 Israeli companies to Charleston to meet South Carolina counterparts.
  • NeuroQuest received support from 2 South Carolina investors, and just announced the establishment of their new U.S. subsidiary in Charleston.
  • Roper St. Francis Healthcare has formed an official relationship with Trendlines Group for the development of new medical device inventions and lower-cost solutions for known clinical problems.
  • South Carolina was the featured US state at the 2013 Globes International Business Conference in Tel Aviv.

And now, with the encouragement of the Israel Economic Mission, a financial mechanism has been established by SCRA and MATIMOP to support joint venture R&D projects between South Carolina and Israel companies.  RFPs were published last November for the first round of funding, and 4 proposals, totaling over $4 million, are being considered with the projects in 4 of the 6 priority clusters of the South Carolina-Israel Collaboration.

In my book, what South Carolina has done to foster economic relations with Israel is nothing short of amazing.  It goes to show that you don’t have to be one of the most prominent states to achieve meaningful results.  With great leadership, strong management, and cooperation, the South Carolina-Israel Collaboration is a model now being explored by the American-Israel Chamber, Southeast Region in North Carolina and Tennessee.