Wednesday, February 23, 2011
By Peter Beland
The newly formed Oregon-Israel Business Alliance hosted around 70 people last night at the White Stag building in Old Town Portland to highlight why strengthening business ties with Israel is a natural fit. The event was intended to be non-political, but politics interceded nonetheless.
Besides similar investments in sustainable energy and agriculture, Israel is a major player in the high tech sector; as is the case with Oregon, Intel is the largest private employer there. Israel also has a strong reputation for can-do innovation. "In the U.S in software, it's 'let's create the scaffolding and then the product later.' Their mindset is 'let's build it right the first time'," said attendee Mark Lawler, co-founder of ProSight. Acquired by Primavera Systems in 2007, the Portland tech company was initially funded by three Israeli venture capital groups, one of which was headed by the current mayor of Jerusalem.
Former governor Ted Kulongoski, who led an Oregon delegation to Israel last year at the end of his tenure, spoke highly of Israel's culture of innovation in renewable technologies. "These things are born out of necessity, not design," he said, admiring Israel development of high-tech irrigation systems in light of highly contentious water disputes in the region. As such, he said, the irrigation systems are top quality and could help farmers in eastern Oregon manage their water use more efficiently. According to Yelena Giderman, Director of Business Development at the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, Israel recycles 75% of its water.
At the end of his talk, Kulongoski fielded a question from Peter Miller, president of Portland-based Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights. Miller wrote off Israel's accomplishments in water management, stating that one way Israel conserved water is by stealing it from Palestinians. Another representative from the pro-Palestine group spoke of her experience in Palestinian territory when she witnessed Israeli settlers pouring trash and cement into Palestinian wells. Both speakers were met with shouts of "Go home!" and were eventually removed from the building after a series of fiery accusations on their part. According to Miller, $286 million of Oregon's federal taxes are sent in the form of military aid to Israel.
Though Israel ranks 25th on Oregon's list of trading partners, speakers like Noah Siegel, international-affairs director for Portland Mayor Sam Adams, stressed Israel's high-value products and business approach that he feels Oregon could use to great effect. "There is undeniably a raw spirit of entrepreneurship," he said. Though Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt cautioned that "shipping material from [Oregon] to Israel is neither easy nor cheap", he was enthusiastic about the effect on trade Israeli investment in Oregon would have. "(Foreign direct investment) is trade by another name," he said, thinking back to the positive effect Japanese investment had on Oregon in the 1980's
The Oregon Israeli Business Alliance plans to meet three to five times a year, with the next meet-up to be hosted by Stephen Saltzman, director of strategic investments, of Intel capital.
Peter Beland is an associate writer for Oregon Business.