Asher Kotz not only recognizes the evolution of the Israel-U.S. connection in high tech, he lives it. Kotz, 57, is business development manager for the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA), covering cybersecurity and Israel for the northern Virginia-based agency. He grew up in Kibbutz Alonim (near Haifa), and graduated from Tel Aviv U. with a bachelor’s in political science.
But he left Israel in 1993 and moved to the US. Since then, he received his MBA (SF State U.) and spent some years in Silicon Valley with technology companies, including Israeli firms involved in cybersecurity and enterprise business software. He then moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where – fascinatingly – he found striking similarities between Israel and Fairfax County, Virginia, particularly when it came to the world of IT and cybersecurity.
I had a chance to catch up with Asher after his organization visited Israel in January. Given that I’ve “only” been in Israel since 2004, I wanted to hear from someone who left well before I even arrived. I hope you enjoy reading this.
GJ: It’s been 25 years. I know it’s cliche to ask, but what’s changed here since you left?
AK: Tel Aviv is nothing like it was when I attended college in the early 90s. Today, it attracts people from all over the world – people working in high-tech, investment, real estate, food, art and academia. What strikes me is how much more cutting-edge and cosmopolitan it is today, especially in terms of architecture and as a tourist destination. The city is looking to build thousands more hotel rooms.
Today you see people coming to Tel Aviv from all over. We’ve met people from South Africa, Poland, Spain, Russia, China and India. Some of these countries are only now growing their working relationships with Israel. But these people come because they want to learn about cybersecurity, what to do about water, and because of the culture. They are impressed, much the way I was the first time I visited Fairfax County.
GJ: Tel Aviv and Fairfax County? Doesn’t seem like two comparable places. Please explain …
AK: Visiting family, I saw considerable growth and a nice balance between the business community, the big city of Washington, D.C., just to the east, and suburbia. I had already been to school and had lived in California, so I also appreciated Fairfax County’s high standard of living with a much greater degree of affordability. (NOTE FROM GJ: Affordability is one area where it sounds Fairfax County is one up on Tel Aviv!)
I find that Fairfax County – at the intersection of government agencies, academia and a business ecosystem ripe for startups – offers a very similar environment to Israel when it comes to the proliferation of firms involved in technology fields such as defense, homeland security, aerospace, mobility, the cloud, data analytics and, of course, cybersecurity. That combination of high tech, government, the military and academia create a great synergy that sparks innovation.
GJ: And your agency connects the two markets, so similarity is important, no?
AK: Yes. There is also a natural affinity between Israel and businesses in northern Virginia, in part because the U.S. and Israel have a relationship that is so deeply evolved when it comes to defense, cyber, energy and water… There are MOUs between different departments of government, in academia and between the White House and the Israeli government. The development of the multi-layer US-Israeli alliances on the macro level has trickled down to business and to the local economy to the point where we can offer companies not just real cooperation, but access to grants and partnerships that help make the US accessible to Israeli companies seeking to expand.
One of the attractions to Fairfax County, in addition to the proliferation of successful high-tech firms, is its proximity to the federal government, making it a very stable and very predictable environment that is relatively recession-proof. That’s important for young companies as well as major players.
GJ: So tachlis, what do you do to help Israeli companies?
AK: Having been with the FCEDA for nearly a decade, I’m able to see those Israeli companies with a world of promise and say ‘Look, we ought to take your product or service to a new market. We can be of assistance to you.’ What I try to do is to make that personal connection, with confidentiality, to help businesses find the right partners and right customers to grow. I like to say I’m the ‘go-to-market’ guy.
GJ: How’s the trip gone?
AK: This trip has helped us make new and deeper connections, not only in our core markets such as cybersecurity and defense, but in new areas. Traveling with Nadav Zohar of the Fairfax County EDA’s Tel Aviv office, we made a January 24 visit to Drive TLV, an accelerator that hosts startups in the mobility and transportation connectivity technology fields.
We learned that there are close to 500 startups in Israel that are working in the areas of autonomous vehicles and mobility tied to smart cities. This is very compelling, in part because similar companies are growing in Fairfax County. In addition to 9,100 tech firms, the county is home to automotive, transportation, construction companies and government contractors that represent a unique go-to-market business opportunity for international companies. Fairfax County is home to numerous firms involved in various aspects of the transportation world, including Transurban, VW/Audi, LMI and Bechtel.
The next day the Fairfax County EDA, together with Tel Aviv Chamber, hosted a business roundtable to discuss business opportunities in the US market. About 30 individuals attended the event where FCEDA partnered with Holland & Knight, Deloitte and Israel Advance Technology Industry to talk about the U.S. economy and trends in sectors that maintain a strong presence in Fairfax County. Moreover, the event highlighted the new US tax reform law recently signed President Trump and potential benefits for international companies looking to invest and expand into the US market.
A highlight of the trip was Cybertech Tel Aviv 2018 – a three-day conference January 29-31, where 13,000 attendees from 65 countries, including more than 150 Israeli companies, exhibited the latest technologies in various areas in the cybersecurity space. The FCEDA team met with multiple Israeli startup companies – many of them planning expansion to the U.S. market — and highlighted the unique attractiveness of Fairfax County as a hub for 450-plus cybersecurity companies working in the commercial and government sectors.
All and all, it was a fabulous trip to Israel, a great reminder of how far my homeland has come, and a chance to help young companies explore new opportunities for success in Fairfax County.