RIIC Celebrates Three Years Connecting the Ocean State to the Start Up Nation of Israel
When the Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative (RIIC) launched as an independent Chamber of Commerce three years ago, founder Avi Nevel expected the group to hold a few events a year, the perfect project after a career spent leveraging relationships into successful international business partnerships.
Instead, RIIC, a volunteer, 501(c)6 not-for-profit organization, has become far more than a meetings venue, facilitating business deals between leading Israeli and Rhode Island academic institutions and technology and healthcare companies, and helping to organize a groundbreaking and fruitful mission to Israel by Governor Gina Raimondo — the first such visit by a sitting Rhode Island governor.
“Israel is a global leader in research and technology, and I was honored to have the opportunity last year to visit Israel and see this innovation firsthand,” said Gov. Raimondo. “Rhode Island is stronger thanks to the economic and academic partnerships we have built with Israel, and the Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative has been instrumental to that work. I want to thank Avi Nevel and the entire team at the RIIC for your steadfast leadership over these past three years.”
Governor Gina Raimondo with Israel President, Reuven Rivlin middle of first row
Second row, center, Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor
and Israel Consul General Ambassador Zeev Boker
At first, the nation’s smallest state and the Jewish state seem to be an unusual match. Other similar business groups exist in the U.S., but they’re generally located in big cities, like New York and Boston.
Rhode Island is home to a thriving Jewish community of about 18,000 residents, and the state’s history includes the founding of the oldest synagogue in the U.S., Touro Synagogue, in Newport in 1763. In 1860, Judah Touro bequeathed $50,000 — a huge sum at the time — to support the establishment of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish community outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. “That’s a really nice connection between Rhode Island and Israel,” said Nevel.
Moreover, Rhode Island brings some real strengths to the table, being strategically located between New York and Boston, culturally diverse, and — thanks to its small size — a place where savvy business people don’t have to wade through endless layers of bureaucracy to build relationships with decision-makers at the highest levels of government.
“We have excellent access in Rhode Island and can reach people with one phone call,” said Nevel. “In a big state or city it’s much more complicated.”
Inon Elroy, Israel’s Economic and Industry Minister to North America, agreed. “The advantage is the intimacy of Rhode Island,” he said. “You can truly connect with people.”
Connecting the Ocean State with the “Startup Nation”
Israel, for its part, is an attractive partner as one of the top innovation hubs in the world, with particular strengths in cyber and digital healthcare, said Elroy.
“Since its inception, RIIC has been a key player in fostering and strengthening relationships between government officials, business leaders, and academic institutions, from linking IBM Alpha Zone Israel with Rhode Island Commerce for the launch of a new Innovation Hub to participating in the Governor’s official visit to Israel in 2019, where introductions translated to partnerships to combat COVID-19,” added Zeev Boker, the current Consul General of Israel to New England.
“Rhode Island is definitely punching above its weight because of a group of very dedicated and creative people led by Avi Nevel who was my amazing partner in forging connections between Israel and Rhode Island,” said Nadav Tamir, former Israeli Counsel General to New England. “These connections benefited the two economies and became a model of collaboration with Israel for many other states in America.”
The development of the Rhode Island COVID-19 Self Checker, a web-based app that includes diagnostic and personalized risk-assessment tools, was a direct result of Raimondo’s visit, along with Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, to Israel in November 2019. During the visit, the governor met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and leaders from Israel’s healthcare industry, including the Jerusalem-based AI firm Diagnostic Robotics, which developed the COVID-19 diagnostic app.
“By making it easier for people to make decisions about how to protect themselves and when to seek care and testing, we’re helping to slow the spread of COVID-19, support our healthcare system, and save lives,” said Raimondo.
Historic Trip Yields Fruit
Other meetings were conducted with different companies and industries. During the trip, the state of Rhode Island also signed a collaboration agreement with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), including links between BGU’s Advance Technologies Park and the state-funded business accelerator RI Hub, run by IBM Alpha Zone, Brown University, and Mass Challenge URI.
“Three years ago, an innocent invitation from the RIIC to come to Rhode Island and give a blockchain lecture opened the door to meet the wonderful people of Rhode Island and their innovation plans for the state,” said Uri Hayik, chief technology officer for IBM Israel. “The team of IBM Alpha Zone from Israel took the challenge and together with friends from Brown, URI, Mass Challenge and others we were honored to open the RI Hub accelerator and empower by it the innovation spirit and business growth engines in Rhode Island. From then we opened more and more channels of collaboration between IBM, Israeli startups, academia, and the state of Rhode Island. All of this couldn't happen without the RIIC, the wonderful leadership and friendship of Avi Nevel, and the support of Governor Raimondo and her team.”
Professor Daniel Chamovitz, president of Ben Gurion University, said the collaboration between his school and Brown in the fields of public health, entrepreneurship, and robotics is now in the advanced stages. “We are confident that planned faculty and student exchanges will go forward in alternative forms despite the new challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “The RIIC was instrumental in setting up that pivotal meeting and continues to shepherd the process in its later stages.”
“RIIC’s roster of Israeli life sciences/healthcare technology companies, and their talented management teams, are an excellent complement to Brown’s deep subject-matter expertise across a broad span of disease targets and delivery and diagnostic modalities,” added David L. Potter, senior director of technology transfer at Brown Technology Innovations. "I believe that this partnership is ideally designed to produce significant healthcare and commercial outcomes for the population of the State of Rhode Island, and well beyond.”
RIIC Works in Many Ways
Sometimes, RIIC collaborates directly with companies and organizations, such as working with the local life sciences organizations such as RI Bio and Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce for networking and joint event sponsorship. “When we assist private companies, we connect them but it’s not always published to maintain confidentiality,” said Nevel.
Assisting ongoing exchange programs have been another big focus of RIIC’s work in its first three years, including helping to bring medical staff from Emek Medical Center in Israel to the The Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island.
"The exchange program facilitated in part by the RIIC between The Miriam Hospital and the Emek Medical Center in Israel is a wonderful opportunity to share ideas on patient care and strengthen our institutions by cultivating a relationship between to hospitals that cherish their Jewish identity,” said Arthur Sampson, president of Miriam Hospital. “Jeffrey Brier, chair of the hospital's Israel Steering Committee and a member of the RIIC, has spearheaded this exchange since its inception in 2005.”
Live meetings, workshops, and webinars on topics as diverse as food technology and the future of healthcare are among RIIC’s many other projects. “I find RIIC’s events to be outside of the box,” said Elizabeth M. Tanner, Esq., director of the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation. “I attended two events — I recall one was about medical devices, and although it has nothing to do with my area of work, it was really exceptional. It made me consider my area of expertise in a new way.”
And it’s not just big hospitals and large companies that benefit from the RIIC’s work. RIIC partnered with culinary incubator Hope & Main to bring in Israeli chefs like vegan cooking expert Avital Sebbag for a book signing, and Chef Eran Geffen for a food demo focusing on Israeli fusion cuisine in partnering with Hope & Main.
RIIC also has introduced local hospitality leaders like Evan Smith of Discover Newport to tourism officials in Israel with the goal of increasing visitation between Israel and Rhode Island, and connected cannabis experts from the state and Israel.
"RIIC brings thought-provoking programming to Rhode Island, drawing upon a vast and varied network of connections to Israel in ways that drive innovation and economic development,” said Hope & Main founder and president Lisa J. Raiola. “Avi and his team are persistent in finding ways to broker what is of mutual benefit to both the Rhode Island and Israeli community. Hope & Main has had the good fortune of bringing our cultures together through the common denominator of food, and RIIC has introduced us to Israeli makers that have had an important impact on the local food industry in Rhode Island. We so appreciate this unique and constructive partnership.”
A project with the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Mayor James Diossa from Central Falls brought Khouloud Ayuti, an Arab Israeli citizen from Jaffa and co-CEO of PresenTense.org, to take part in a series of meetings and presentations focused on diversity and entrepreneurship in underserved communities.
Oscar Mejias, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, called RIIC “a true ally and an enthusiastic partner to help the Latino community have access to innovation, technology and other opportunities to grow.”
“We hope to continue working together and increase the connection between the Latino and the Israeli communities,” he said.
People in Israel Know Rhode Island Now
Nevel counts the Ben Gurion project and facilitating the partnership between IBM Alpha Zone and the University of Rhode Island to create the Rhode Island Innovation Hub in 2018 as among RIIC’s biggest accomplishments, along with raising awareness on both sides of the Atlantic about the potential for creative, business, and educational collaboration between Rhode Island and Israel.
“They’re talking about Rhode Island in Israel now, and people in Rhode Island are thinking about Israel and how they can do business there,” said Nevel.
“I don’t think IBM Alpha Zone would be doing anything in Rhode Island if not for RIIC,” added Inon Elroy, Israel’s top economic official in the U.S. “We’re lucky to have a group of volunteers who contribute their time and energy to leveraging bonds and building bridges and getting the attention of the relevant individuals in both states.”
Despite the RIIC’s strong roots in the local Jewish community, Nevel stressed that the group is committed to working with anyone interested in creating partnerships between Israel and Rhode Island. “Our focus isn’t the Jewish community, it’s company to company and government to government. Our focus is creating jobs and helping people do business.”
Nevel encouraged other businesses and entrepreneurs to get involved in RIIC and make connections with their Israeli counterparts, a call echoed by Jay Rosenstein of the Providence accounting firm Rosenstein, Halper, and Maselli, a member of RIIC’s board who volunteers as the group’s treasurer.
“I’ve never been involved in an organization that is so without conflict,” said Rosenstein. “Everyone is there for the cause and not for themselves.”
Other members of the 12-member RIIC board — which includes both Israelis and Americans — include board vice president attorney Bob Oster of Oster Law Associates; Dr. Roey Tzezana, a Tel Aviv University researcher and future studies lecturer; Kathy Therieau, International Trade Director at Commerce RI; attorneys David Hirsch of Hinckley Allen, who provides pro-bono legal services to RIIC; Baruch Perl and Miriam Ross and Ella Hood, Dr. Katherine Gordon, and Limor Spalt.