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Israeli Agrotech: Game Changer for Virginia

Taking life sciences as a model, Gateway USA is looking at agricultural solutions developed in Israel
A worker at the Eshkol Water Filtration Plant in Northern Israel, operated by Israel's National Water Company Mekorot (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
A worker at the Eshkol Water Filtration Plant in Northern Israel, operated by Israel's National Water Company Mekorot (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Ralph Robbins has a vision to transform southwestern Virginia, former heart of America’s now diminishing tobacco region, into a thriving agricultural center through a partnership with Israeli agro technology.  Chances are good that the long time executive director of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board—VIAB will succeed in building this legacy for both Israel and his state.  Ralph developed a model he calls “Ecosystem for Success” for Israeli companies under the brand of Gateway USA with Agro Technology as the latest sector.

The first focus sector was Bioscience, and the Gateway USA Life Science initiative was begun in 2007.  It has morphed into the Virginia Biosciences Research Center whose ecosystem includes the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park in Richmond, the VCU Medical School, and Owens & Minor, the country’s largest hospital distributor of devices and disposables.  A VIAB board member spearheaded Virginia Life Science Investments—VLSI—that has raised $18 million to support Israeli life science companies setting up operations in Virginia, typically investing half a million dollars per project.  Owens & Minor also helps in the due diligence of the Israeli companies and can be a distributor for them to the U.S. market.  There are now 10 Israeli bioscience companies participating.

With the life sciences initiative as the model, the Gateway USA programs include a small team from Virginia being recruited for a mission to Israel to interview 25 Israeli companies from a larger group of 65 companies developed by Ralph, and they choose 5 to participate in 3 days of business development meetings in Virginia.  Ralph says it takes at least 9 months to prepare for the Gateway programs, and in 2012, VIAB launched Gateway USA Defense & HLS based on the model.  Four of the Israeli companies enrolled in this program have established a U.S. presence in northern Virginia.

Gateway USA Agro Tech was launched last year using the same model to attract high quality Israeli companies with international sales looking to penetrate the U.S. market.  Starting with a database of 60 Israeli companies, a group of Virginia experts narrowed the list to 20, and a team including experts from Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Agriculture visited Israel in February 2013 to interview and select companies for participation.   The areas with highest potential for both Israel and Virginia include aquaculture, turnkey greenhouse projects, and poultry housing.  The group concluded that the aquaculture project, alone, has the potential to add about 450 new jobs to Virginia and establish the state as a national leader.   As Ralph points out, until now “The biggest export from rural southwest Virginia has been our kids.”

A great example of the agriculture potential is connected to one of VIAB’s most celebrated successes, the joint venture of Strauss/ Pepsico, Sabra Dipping Company.   After establishing a Virginia manufacturing facility in 2010, the company announced it would expand in 2013 by creating a $28 million Center of Excellence in Chesterfield, Virginia, adding 25 new jobs along with an $86 million plant expansion, bringing their total employment in the state to 600.

Not content with these amazing economic numbers, Ralph perceived an exponentially larger potential through the Virginia Chickpea Development project.  Sabra was introduced to the state’s Agriculture secretary to discuss the possibility of introducing the chickpea crop to Virginia.  Until that time, it was assumed that Virginia’s soil was too moist, but a chickpea expert from Virginia State University was confident that a quality chickpea could be developed.  Subsequently, a 6-year program was funded, and over 350 test beds have been planted throughout the state with satisfactory results.  After a full rollout, it is predicted that as many as 10,000 farmers can be employed on land once dominated by the tobacco plant!

For Robbins, the Virginia Israel Advisory Board has been a perfect career fit.  Born and raised in New Jersey, he attended the University of Vermont where he met his future wife, an Israeli who had come there for one year to perfect her English as she studied to be a teacher of English in Israel.   “I was in her class, and found that I didn’t do well with foreign languages, so the best way to graduate was to date the teacher.   When told she didn’t date her students, I dropped the course and married her at the end of the school year.”  An MBA from Wharton followed for Ralph, and the couple moved back to New Jersey.  After Ralph worked in advertising in New York City for three years, the couple decided to try Israel for one year and stayed for 23.

In Israel, Ralph built a successful career in healthcare delivery through the creation of a private hospital in Rishon LeZion that was sold to Maccabi.   As the sale of the business was completed, Ralph was approached to come back to the States to head VIAB where he has been the organization’s executive director for 13 years.  While his family stayed in Israel, Ralph has been able, through the job, to spend about half the year there.  “I ended up liking the challenge as it is both creative and entrepreneurial, and I was given a relatively free hand as long as we produced results,” he says.  He particularly likes the time spent in Israel where he enjoys volunteer consulting with Israeli companies that are prospects for Virginia.

Ralph has organized four Virginia governor missions, and expects the next one to take place in 2015.  He is the BIRD Foundation representative for Virginia, and under his leadership, VIAB has been involved with activities that have generated 1,638 new jobs in the state and $47.3 million in tax revenues.  One can assume that the job and tax creation in Israel has been equally impressive.  At age 64, Ralph can feel justly proud of these accomplishments and the enormous potential in Agrotech that is anticipated.  Congratulations, Ralph, on your significant career, and may you see your dreams through to fruition.

About the Author
Tom Glaser was president of the Southeast Region of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce (AICC) from its founding in 1992 until his retirement in October 2013 after almost 22 years of services to the organization. Glaser is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He and his wife Connie, an author and lecturer, live on Skidaway Island near Savannah, Georgia and their 2nd home in the Blue Ridge mountains.
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