Dr. Vicki Rabenou was an OB-GYN juggling motherhood in the 1990s and her very demanding profession. One day she got a life-changing wakeup call: Her two young children were talking to her in the native language of their nanny, a Filipino.
“I felt so guilty,” she recalls. “I took one year leave of absence.”
That was the end of her career as a physician. Instead the Jerusalem native discovered her love of helping entrepreneurs. She migrated from Israel to the United States, and eventually landed in Tampa.
“I really fell in love with Tampa. This is a great place,” she says. “Everybody is so welcoming and happy to work with you.”
Today Rabenou is co-Founder, President and CEO of StartUp Nation Ventures, an Orlando-based company with offices in Tampa and Tel Aviv. She is positioned to change attitudes when Israeli companies view Florida as a place for tourism and agriculture, not tech.
“I believe that our solution is a complete solution that really takes care of 360 degrees of the needs of companies that are looking to reach out to the U.S. market,” she says. “It’s for the long run.”
SUNV is partnering with the Israel Innovation Authority to spur the growth of Israeli companies that want to locate their U.S. headquarters in Florida. It will be investing up to $500,000 in select, innovative Israeli companies -- who are eligible for a 50 percent match from the Israeli government -- through the Israel-Florida Innovation Alliance, a cooperative initiative, says SUNV co-Founder A.J. Ripin.
The government money is a loan to be repaid when a company has sales.
“Startup nation is a nickname that Israel has been called in the business marketplace, because of the success that Israeli companies have had,” he explains.
“Memorializing” the SUNV agreement was part of a Florida trade mission to Israel earlier this month that included Florida Gov. Rick Scott and an entourage of nearly 70, he says.
“This collaboration that I’ve signed with the Israeli Innovation Authority is all about going to market,” Rabenou explains. “Most times Israeli Innovation will only finance research and development that is done, and stays in, Israel.”
“The idea is that we will do it by [industrial] cluster. We will choose clusters that we have strength with here in Florida,” she adds.
Israeli companies are interested in economic opportunities abroad because of limited opportunities at home in the state about the size of New Jersey, Ripin points out.
“The Israeli companies are really advanced. They just don’t have the opportunities because of the small size of the state,” he explains. “Their natural place for that is the U.S. ... Once their product and solution work in the U.S. market, then they’re able to compete in the global market.”
The initiative gives Florida access to a pipeline of innovation for industry clusters throughout the state. It will focus on two to four areas in 2018; possible areas include cybersecurity, hotel technology, agriculture technology, automated vehicles, smart city, smart city innovation, and medical technology.
SUNV leaders point out Israeli innovation already is having a positive impact in the United States. A 2016 economic impact study shows Israeli innovation is a major driver of the Massachusetts economy. It indicates more 200 Israeli businesses made the greater Boston area home in 2015, bringing in more than $9 billion that year.
“This is the right time to reach out to these Israeli startups,” Rabenou asserts. “I believe we can duplicate what they have in Massachusetts. This is the first step.”
During the trade mission to strengthen its economic development/trading partnership with Israel, Gov. Scott also recognized the first class of graduates from the Tampa-based Florida-Israel Business Accelerator. In addition, FIBA attracted the attention of the Israeli media.
Rachel Marks Feinman, FIBA’s executive director, who made the trip, says the mission gave FIBA an opportunity to cultivate both relationships with Florida leaders as well as people in the Israeli startup community. “If we can have a critical mass of Israeli companies that call Florida their U.S. home, or even their international headquarters, that can really set Florida apart,” she says.
“I’m pleased that there is this effort to support Israeli companies,” she says of SUNV. “I think the FIBA program has its own way of achieving its goals.”
FIBA, a technology accelerator launched in 2016 by the Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation, is preparing for another cohort of eight companies to begin arriving by mid-February. It will be choosing from a pool of at least 40 applicants.
“There’s a lot of work to do in a short period of time,” she says.