A lot of people have been asking John Churchill lately if he’s Jewish. It’s not a question engendered by his patrician-sounding last name, but rather the fact that the 28-year-old is working for the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia.
For the record, he’s not Jewish. Yet the Chester County native has long had an affinity with Israel and has worked as a fundraiser for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby. He is now able to combine his interests in business and the Jewish state as the consulate’s director of economic affairs, a newly created position.
“Israel is such an amazing opportunity. As an investor, it is a new frontier,” said Churchill.
“They had to work hard to fund this position,” Churchill added, referring to how Consul General Yaron Sideman and Deputy Consul General Elad Strohmayer lobbied their superiors. “They have a vision, they fought for the budget — and here I am.”
Churchill started work over the summer, at about the same time that marketing specialist Vered Nohi-Becker took over from Debbie Buchwald as executive director of the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce.
Now, Churchill and Nohi-Becker are in touch almost daily, working to foster collaboration between local and Israeli companies, spreading the word about opportunities to invest in Israeli start-ups and trying to entice growing Israeli firms to set up shop here.
With Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter all but officially set to lead an economic mission to Israel later this year, advocates and activists hope that the Philly-Israel business connection might be set to get to the next level. (Nutter recently said he plans to go although his office hasn’t confirmed any dates.)
Meanwhile, on a more grassroots level, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is planning to soon roll out its Buy Israel Goods (B.I.G.) campaign. The idea is to help Philadelphians establish more personal economic ties to the Jewish state while counteracting the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS, that seeks to use economics to isolate the Jewish state.
The convergence of activity promoting Israel-Philadelphia ties is “fortuitous. It also means there is some momentum,” said Richard Bendit, president of the board of the Philadelphia-Israel chamber, a nonprofit organization. “Those ties we have had are going to be even stronger now. There is a greater opportunity for collaboration.”
Israeli firms already make an impact in the Philadelphia region — and vice versa. A 2012 Temple University study commissioned by the chamber found that 59 local companies have binational operations in the United States and Israel, the most well-known of which is Teva Pharmaceuticals. All told, these firms account for between 2,175 and 2,565 jobs, including 1,700 at Teva.
The study reported that 5.32 percent of all trade via Philadelphia area airports is going to or from Israel and 1.4 percent of all seaport trade is from or going to the Jewish state. Medicines currently account for 64 percent of Israeli imports to the region.
Churchill first became aware of the Israeli economy through his father, Winston John Churchill, of Wayne, who has been involved in Israel’s venture capital market since the 1980s.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was a partner in Churchill’s investment firm, SCP Partners, from 2001 to 2007, when he was out of government. A decade ago, the younger Churchill accompanied his father on a tour of Israel and had the chance to have dinner with Barak, an experience that stuck with him.
Now he views himself as “a resource, a matchmaker for businesses,” he said. “I’m sort of laying the train track for business to grab onto.”
The consulate, he said, doesn’t “specifically endorse a company or anything like that. What we do is we get the right people together.”
One of the consulate’s goals, Churchill said, is to establish a business memorandum of understanding between Israel and Pennsylvania, similar to an agreement that exists between Massachusetts and the Jewish state that cuts red tape and provides funding for businesses to collaborate and build innovative technologies.
For Nohi-Becker, the new director of the Philadelphia-Israel chamber, her job is not so much to ensure that deals get inked as it is to make introductions and make Americans and Israelis aware of potential business opportunities.
She occupies a one-woman office in Center City, sharing space with trade representatives of other nations, including Chile, Britain, Italy and Japan. The mother of three, who most recently worked at the Port of Wilmington, Del., grew up in Tel Aviv and currently lives in Delaware.
Part of her role, she added, is to market the Philadelphia region — and its many universities and hospitals — to Israeli companies looking to expand in the United States. For now, Israeli firms are more likely to look to Silicon Valley, New York or Boston.
“If companies reach out to me and want to know how they can reach investors, how they can reach accountants, how they can establish themselves here, we can help them make the connections,” she said.
One of the chamber’s primary functions is to serve as the local representative of the BIRD Foundation, the organization that was founded in 1977 as part of a bilateral agreement between the United States and Israel. The foundation awards millions in grants every year to Israeli and American companies that collaborate on innovative technology that will have commercial applications. Philadelphia companies receive a grant nearly every year, said Nohi-Becker. One awarded in June went to the Israeli firm Freshpoint Quality Assurance Ltd. and the Exton-based West Pharmaceutical Services to develop a product for monitoring pharmaceuticals.
So far this year, the foundation has awarded a total of $10.5 million.
“It really stimulates the development of businesses on both sides of the ocean,” Nohi-Becker said.
Another major function of the chamber is to organize events and conferences that bring together investors and entrepreneurs in niche areas such as clean technology, defense contracting and biomedical research.
On Sept. 12, for example, the group is sponsoring a lunch program in Center City focusing on “Innovative Water Solutions for the Food Industry.”
The consulate and the chamber have also assisted in the planning of an Israeli innovation and technology fair to be held on Oct. 6 at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. The program is serving as a fundraiser for the synagogue but is being marketed to the broader community.
It will include a keynote address from Dan Senor, co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, a book that brought awareness of Israel’s vibrant economy to a wide readership. It will also feature a showcase of Israeli firms in varying stages of development: Some are looking for seed investors, while others have a product ready for distribution.
One firm planning to take part has received key seed funding from local investors. Visual Domains is expected to show its new tablet/smartphone/laptop/television operating system for the first time in the United States.
According to event co-chair Mark Cohen, the system, known as Venus, creates an infinite, three-dimensional plane and offers new opportunities for advertising. The idea is that manufacturers of devices might be able to compete with Google for advertising dollars on the web.
“We want people to be more educated about what is going on in Israel — and all that Israel contributes to the world,” said Cohen.
Organizers, he said, don’t want people to think of Israel “simply as a place of religion and history and conflict but also as a home of innovation and a great contribution to world society.”