Israel's technology scene has recently spawned several global sensations, and the Chinese are getting in on the action.
In an interview, Israeli Chief Scientist Avi Hasson said his office worked with China on dozens of joint technology projects last year. Three years ago, there were none. Chinese billionaire Li Ka-Shing — an investor in Waze before Google bought the Israel-rooted company for about $1 billion — is now the most active foreign investor in Israel, Hasson said.
"We are seeing more and more Chinese activity in Israeli high tech," Hasson said. "Investment in venture capital by strategic and institutional Chinese investors, direct investments in companies and also acquisitions. This is very welcome."
The latest collaboration between the tech nations comes from WBP Venture Partners, which will offer financing and business aid to Israeli companies in China. The firm is in the process of raising a $50 million fund for investing in Israeli tech startups that are looking to break into China.
WBP won't just throw money at companies it likes. The firm is teaming up with the Wujin Economic Zone, an emerging tech center in China, to help startups plant roots in a country that's notoriously daunting for foreign businesses.
Zvi Shalgo, a partner at the WBP fund, has experience helping outsiders from various industries gain a foothold in China. He's also the head of the PTL Group in China, which helped the Israeli chemical company Makhteshim Agan Industries build a manufacturing plant in China. The WBP fund hopes to eventually take its portfolio companies public in Shanghai and on other exchanges, said David Fuchs, a managing partner. However, Chinese law currently prohibits foreign companies from listing.
"Rather than providing financing for companies, we are getting them started by giving them the infrastructure to succeed," Fuchs said.
Israel's population of about 8 million isn't enough to sustain most lofty technology ventures. So the country's entrepreneurs often find themselves shipping their inventions to other countries, especially the U.S. and Europe.
The economic slowdown in Europe and the U.S. has impacted Israeli exports, which make up about a third of Israel's gross domestic product, spurring the country to look elsewhere for growth. With 1.4 billion residents, China is more than quadruple the size of the U.S. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited China last year, and Hasson said he was in Hong Kong last week to sign a funding agreement for Israeli and Chinese companies.
Han's Laser Technology, a Chinese supplier to Apple, bought Israel's Nextec Technologies last year to expand in the market for laser measurement devices used in the auto and aircraft industries. Outside of the tech world, Bright Food Group, the dairy and consumer-products company backed by the Shanghai government, is working with Citigroup on a planned purchase of Israel's Tnuva Food Industries, a person with knowledge of the matter said this month.
The increased interest from China is important beyond the financing because it helps Israeli executives learn how to do business there, Hasson said. "Today in Israeli board rooms, there aren't any people who know the [Chinese] market intimately like they know Europe and the U.S.," he said.
Hasson said one reason for the strengthening of Israel-China business ties is that the economies complement each other well, particularly in the tech industry.
"What China needs, we have to offer," Hasson said. "We are good at innovation and technology transfer, and they can scale up manufacturing and beyond."