Israeli investor has eye on agricultural advances

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Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2013 12:00 am

Steve Rhodes is a Midwesterner, from Chicago, but lately a northerner, as in northern Israel.

His roots brought him back to Omaha, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Des Moines and Minneapolis recently in a bid to connect the two parts of the world.

Specifically, Rhodes is chairman and CEO of TrendLines Agtech of Tel Aviv, and his goal is to create and expand businesses in high-tech agriculture and medicine.

His tour aims at connecting hardworking, innovative, ag-oriented, business-savvy U.S. Midwesterners with Israel’s penchant for trying new things and developing agriculture under difficult conditions.

“The Midwest is known for ag technology,” Rhodes said in Omaha. “We’re sort of making the circuit. Omaha was viewed as an important stopping point.”

With Harlan Jacobs from the Minnesota office of the American Israel Chamber of Commerce, Rhodes hopes to attract people to Agrivest, a four-day conference in Tel Aviv co-sponsored by TrendLines and the Israeli government.

The first conference last year attracted about 200 people from the U.S., China, Europe and elsewhere. The goal this year is 400 attendees. The conference is a starting point for investors, entrepreneurs, university researchers and others who can turn ag-related ideas into businesses.

Rhodes has spent 28 years in Israel. He said some Israelis are good at coming up with advances in agriculture but not at seeing those innovations through to the worldwide markets that a small country like Israel needs.

Israel’s limited natural resources mean it had to develop a high-tech culture in many fields, he said.

The Israeli government used to operate business incubators to boost the nation’s economy but has privatized the operations, which still are licensed by the government.

Israel has advanced technology in water management, crop protection from insects and disease, dairy barn management, veterinary health, precision agriculture, aquaculture and post-harvest food technologies, Rhodes said.

For example, Israelis have developed dairy robots to clean cows’ udders, apply milking equipment, remove the equipment and clean the cattle.

Bringing such innovations together with people who can make the transition to viable businesses is a goal of TrendLines, a private company with 75 shareholders. Its two business incubators, one aimed at agriculture and the other at medicine, house about 25 companies, and another two dozen have moved out on their own.

The companies have raised more than $130 million in investor support.

“We’re just at the beginning,” Rhodes said.

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