Abba David Poliakoff has a catch phrase about the Maryland/Israel Development Center that he’s practically known for.
“The mission of the MIDC is to facilitate the soft landing of the Israeli company in the U.S. through Maryland,” he said. “And we implement this mission by utilizing what we call our ‘instant infrastructure.’”
Poliakoff, 62, is referring to the MIDC’s network of high-tech companies throughout Maryland that serve as ambassadors to Israeli businesses by offering their expertise and connecting them with potential customers, vendors and collaborators. This system has vastly expanded and flourished under Poliakoff, who is retiring from his position as the MIDC’s chairman after seven years.
The MIDC now has more than 300 members, an active Southern Maryland branch, academic collaborations between Israeli companies and the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University and its own venture capital fund, while about 30 Israeli companies have opened American offices in Maryland.
“I think I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to change this from a project and a grant-based program to a real live organization with people, with a mission, with goals and with accomplishments, and I think we’ve done that,” said Poliakoff.
Poliakoff was honored at a reception at the Woodholme Country Club on Thursday, April 3, which was attended by representatives of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, local elected officials and Gov. Martin O’Malley. The governor, who has gone on three missions to Israel, including two as governor, with Poliakoff, spoke at the reception about the work of MIDC and its outgoing chair.
“Your work on the Maryland/Israel Development [Center] has really shone the light on what is possible if our communities who call Maryland home realize that they are also able to provide entré to Maryland businesses and entrepreneurs in places all around the world, and in our case the great state of Israel,” O’Malley said at the reception.
Israel is Maryland’s 19th largest trading partner with $114 million in exports in 2013, the governor said, representing an increase of more than $73 million since 2009.
Last year, Roboteam, which manufactures unmanned vehicles and controllers for law enforcement, defense and public safety, opened its U.S. headquarters in Bethesda, and Shekel Scales, which makes scales for retail sales, opened in Owings Mills. The company that makes Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, ELTA North America, has called Howard County home since 2012.
Poliakoff, chairman of law firm Gordon Feinblatt LLC’s securities practice and Israel practice groups, was first tapped by MIDC executive director Barry Bogage to head a strategic planning committee to determine the future of the MIDC. When the plan was approved, Poliakoff was told to implement it by chairing the organization.
Under his leadership, the organization has grown to five employees, one of whom is in Israel, and started a venture capital fund, a nontypical and somewhat difficult undertaking for a nonprofit.
“Abba knew that the best way to support Israel, to support the start-up nation and the future of Israel was to create a structure and provide that early funding to the youngest of companies,” Bogage said at the reception.
While it was tough to find investors for a fund with no track record, the Maryland/Israel Trendlines Fund is now fully invested in 12 Israeli companies.
Members of the MIDC in Maryland find great value in the organization.
Sage Growth Partners helps make growing companies “bigger and better,” said vice president of research and planning Chris DeMarco.
“Our organization is health care, information technology and marketing,” he said. “And we have a venture arm, which helps get other companies established. So [MIDC] fits right in with our mission.”
Steven Brooks, the company’s chief innovation officer, said his unpaid internship with MIDC redefined his career path. Through Poliakoff and the MIDC, Brooks learned about high-tech start-ups, and found a job with Sage that allows him to help these kinds of companies.
Michael Rosen, senior vice president of new business development for Forest City, has gone on mission trips to Israel to learn about how his company can better structure activities with Israeli companies. Forest City is building a science and technology park at Johns Hopkins, and Rosen hopes Israeli companies looking to work with Hopkins will move to the new space.
“Israel is as good as it gets for innovation, especially medical innovation, but the market is tiny,” said Rosen.
With so many moving parts to the MIDC, the organization’s new chair is someone who has been involved for a decade and knows the organization’s ins and outs. Rob Frier, president of electronic product testing lab MET Laboratories, speaks Hebrew, was in the Israel Defense Forces and has Israeli customers.
“I want to build on the solid foundation that Abba has started,” he said.