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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

"After 22 years, I'm still recognized as Yitzhak Rabin's son"

After raising $150 million in China for marine investment fund Blueconomy Center, Yuval Rabin is looking for startups able to make profits from the sea.

It is not always easy for Yuval Rabin to bear his name, mostly due to the event that echoed around the world. "I'm 62, it will soon be 22 years since the murder, and when I get into a taxi, I'm still recognized as his son. Both before and after the murder, there were long periods of time in which it was better for me to live outside Israel with some degree of anonymity. It's not that somebody says, 'You look familiar to me' everywhere I go. We're all people, and everyone has his moments. Being nice to everyone who thinks he knows you and is trying to remember where he remembers you from isn't always easy. On the other hand, you have to be pleasant."
Even Rabin, however, has to admit that his name frequently helps open doors and get close to people. For example, he and his partner, old high-tech warhorse Shalom Daskal, have now completed the technical details for raising $150 million from Chinese governmental agencies for the venture capital fund they founded. "I have to say that it's amazing how the name Rabin speaks to them," he admits. "I've been to China four times in the past year, and each time, I encounter people who appreciate, know, and are familiar with the story, and these aren't necessarily people who were briefed before the meeting with us."
"Globes": So you could say that your father's name helps you?
Yuval Rabin: "I assume it does no harm."
The ambivalence of this half burden, half asset permeates Yuval Rabin's conversation. On the one hand, it can be assumed that it has constituted a point in his favor in his various business ventures, in the invitations he received to joint ventures and give them some of his family luster. On the other hand, the name puts him in an impossibly strong spotlight, a target for gossip over trouble, or economic problem he encounters, for which others would receive a short mention in the press, if that.
In China, with its culture of great respect for heritage, the name Yitzhak Rabin is associated not only with his aspiration for peace and the heavy price it exacted, but the fact that "My father was the first prime minister to visit China. Although diplomatic relations between Israel and China were instituted already when Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister, the realization and development of these relations took place during my father's term," Rabin says.
"They regard Yitzhak Rabin as the founder of relations between China and Israel," adds Daskal, who among other things was CEO and a partner in Formula Computer Technologies (Matrix IT Ltd. (TASE:MTRX), Sapiens International NV (Nasdaq: SPNS; TASE: SPNS) VP Europe, and CEO of Emultek and Shellcase. "Then, when we meet and his name is mentioned, it's mentioned in the context of the establishment of relations, and they give it a lot of respect. That's the help that the name gives us, a continuation of the heritage, because the heritage proved that it's possible to do business, and that it was the right decision."
Is that what you had in mind when you proposed that Yuval join the fund?
Daskal: "No. We're simply used to working together. He takes the technological side and goes deeply into all the details, because he likes it and is good at it, and I take care of the business side. As soon as I realized that we needed a partner in the business to assess the technologies, it was clear to me that it would be Yuval, and when I offered him the job, he accepted immediately."
The fund of Shandong Province
Rabin and Daskal have been working for a year on establishing the fund. They still have no income from it, because it is not yet producing any profits or management fees. For Rabin, who is still in the process of repaying debts, although nearing the end of it, it was not an easy matter. "This is our problem," Rabin says, and Daskal adds, "Each of us is living on his savings, and some of the funding for the operational parts comes from me, but both of us, and later the three of us (Jacob Kaplan was added to the fund as a third partner and financial manager) decided that it would that way until the fund starts yielding income."
The fund itself was initiated by Daskal, whose son completed marine science studies at Ruppin Academic Center, and who "tried to understand what someone with a BA could do," Rabin remembers. What he found out was that startups related to the sea, which they call the blue economy, after which they named the fund they founded, had no special place from which they could raise money. As a result, they had to pursue general venture capital funds or funds dealing in biotech.
On the other hand, there is money on the table waiting for suitable investments. In January, the current Chinese government began a five-year program aimed at moving China from the traditionally dominant manufacturing economy - the world's sweatshops - towards a knowledge economy. "We singled out targets for raising money," Rabin says. "We did two or three roadshows, and we succeeded. The idea was apparently just right, and fitted in well with the Chinese idea."
The fund's main investor is Shandong Province, which has the most marine activity in China and provides 60% of the country's marine food. In addition to investing in startups, the fund will open a Chinese company, with local cooperation, for each company in the fund's portfolio. The company will market and commercialize products. Up until now, they have examined about 100 companies, presented more than 10 companies to the Chinese partners, and intend to close the first two or three investments within three months.
"This is the first time that the Chinese government has invested in this type of fund model - totally backed and carried out by government and governmental agencies," Daskal says. "They studied the Yozma Venture Capital model very well (the Israeli government venture capital fund that got the Israeli high-tech industry started at the time), and adopted and perfected it in order to promote their high-tech industry. That's what's special about our fund. We're the first ones, and they intend to use this model for other funds."
What are you offering Israeli startups, other than capital?
Rabin: "The model we're offering first of all provides them with protection, because the main thing that Israel companies are concerned about in China is their intellectual property. But China today is defining itself as a knowledge-based and value-added economy, and that has generated a complete change with respect to intellectual property and copyright violations. Furthermore, the very fact that we are partners with government agencies provides additional protection. Of course, we also offer an Israeli company access to the world's largest market, where penetration costs are enormous. In this context, I have to express my appreciation for the representatives of the economic department in the embassy in China for the real help they give Israeli businesspeople."
From the IDF Central Data Processing Unit to Germany and the US
The night of November 5, 1995, when Yuval Rabin's father was murdered, changed the life of the nation and Yuval Rabin's own life. Even before then, however, it is a little surprising to hear him describe his childhood as the son of the IDF Chief of Staff in the Six-Day War, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, and the prime minister in the 1970s as "fairly standard, a childhood in Tzahala, except for three and a half years when we lived in the US, when my father was the ambassador there."
During his army services, Yuval Rabin joined the IDF Central Data Processing Unit (Mamram), but did not do so in the usual way - he joined only after serving three and a half years in the Armored Corps. He first met Daskal at Mamram: they both handled the salary calculation system – Daskal took care of the army system, and Rabin handled the Prime Minister's Office system and the rest of "those classified things," as he puts it.
Rabin then worked for four and a half years at the Digital computer company, then the second largest in Israel, after which he combined with many friends from his days at Mamram, including Daskal, in Sapiens International NV (Nasdaq: SPNS; TASE: SPNS). Rabin went to work in Germany for two years, during which the flagship project was working with a government company named Deutsche Airbus, whose main function was to hold the government's shares in the German aviation industry. "To put it less politely, it was the instrument that Germany used to give crazy subsidies to this industry.
"Every stereotype I had about Germans was destroyed then," he adds. "They were disorderly, uncreative, and unproductive. Actually, it was a collection of wastrels, and with our impudence, we burrowed our way in and did groundbreaking things, which generated a lot of revenue for Sapiens at the time."
Yuval Rabin's next phase was in the US in the framework of Sapiens' operating agreement with IBM, "which was then at a low point, and we exploited the crisis there to achieve very nice results. It was a period of really strenuous work; I spent weeks away from home."
When he returned to Israel in 1994, his work together with Daskal really began, when the latter was managing Sapiens Europe and Rabin was responsible for technology in the division. They then moved to Emultek, a company that designed software for smartphones, and later folded. "But the truth is that we left it quite quickly," says Daskal, who also managed the company. "When the vesting period ended, we sold our options and left. We didn't believe in the company, and it turned out that we were right."
That was the era of the boom, and Rabin was involved in founding a startup - BeyondGuide. "The buzzword of that period was location-based services," says Rabin, who joined forces with Yechiam Halevy, the technology developer of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, to turn the smartphone into the museum's personal guide for the tourist, instead of the awkward devices rented at the entrance to the museum. "In the spirit of the times, we also managed to raise a lot of money, and to reach a working product," he says, "but the bubble then deflated, and September 11 happened. We made several heroic efforts to survive, merged with a German company owned by the Bertelsmann publishing firm, and like the poor excuse given by every startup, we were ahead of our time."
"Meaning that in 2001, to talk to mobile carriers about value-added services was worse than talking to the wall."
With the military people in Nigeria
The next chapter in Yuval Rabin's resume was different. From a technologist, he switched to being an overseas business promoter for Israeli companies, with the founding of RSLB, a consultant company, with former Israeli economic attached in Washington Gil Birger, Shimon Sheves (former Prime Minister's Office director general under Yitzhak Rabin), and late IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
"It wasn't such a big change," says Rabin. "At that time, I felt quite confident in business development, entrepreneurship, and business promotion. The company originated in my conversations with Gil Birger, who worked with me at BeyondGuide, and Sheves and I were always in touch. We learned there the hard way what bureaucracy was. For example, we established a consortium with Alvarion Ltd. (Nasdaq: ALVR; TASE: ALVR), Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd. (Nasdaq: GILT; TASE: GILT), and Sagron to compete for a communications project in Guyana in South America – a project that never went through."
And for projects that did go through, you later sued Gilat, a lawsuit that was settled out of court.
"Because it unfortunately did not fulfill its agreements. This is an example of a company on the verge of disintegration, and it took our services in order to cope with a crisis when it lost two big contracts in Colombia and Brazil because of the crisis it was going through (bond payments, which later led to a debt arrangement). Actually, the two contracts, worth about $100 million, were regained, and even if we weren't the decisive factor in the company's success, we certainly helped it, because what helped them get that debt arrangement was their orders backlog."
And then you switched to hardcore politics.
"Yes, we became lobbyists at one stage. We worked with the Serbian Minister of Defense, who later became the president, and we worked with countries like Ivory Coast."
And you were harshly criticized for intervening in the politics of various countries.
"I have learned to take criticism in my stride."
The company terminated its activity in 2006-2007, and then came the "chapter that I prefer not to talk about - a company I founded with my cousin." In 2008, Rabin, Yiftach Yaakov (his cousin), and Koby Huberman founded a company named Galila Line Technologies for repairing mobile phones in the north. The company had 30 employees. Matters did not go well, the two cousins fell out, and Yaakov sued the company. In October 2010, Rabin announced that the company was closing down, the 30 employees were laid off, and debts were left. "It's a very painful wound," Rabin says.
Because of the employees who were left unemployed, or because of the family quarrel?
"For all of those reasons. I paid a very high price, in both money and in other ways. Most of the debts I have to repay are from that affair."
At the same time as Galila Line was founded, a company named Onida was started and operated in Nigeria "with two people who had a lot of experience in Africa, and three who did not." The "three who did not" were Rabin, himself, former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, and former Israel Security Agency senior operative Ofer Dekel. The two men with experience in Africa were Gabi Levy-Gonen and Shaul Meron. According to Rabin, they had a great deal of experience in setting up agricultural projects, marketing, and cargo airlines. "The idea was to combine their experience with the connections we had in Nigeria, and do the same thing."
And what about Onida? Why did it close down after a few years?
"Maybe it wasn't a big success, but in no way was it a failure. At a certain stage, we decided to dissolve the partnership, release the partners, and divide up the money. I chose not to continue for my own personal reasons relating to what happened with Galila Lines, and for personal reasons of overload. There were years in which I spent 90-100 days in Nigeria, and that's not easy. Gabi and Shaul continued, were very successful, and today they're a company regarded as one of the leading and best-known companies in Africa, and I'm glad about their success."
"We didn't believe what we had"
In the next stage, Rabin went back to his natural habitat - high tech - and combined with a US partner - Ned Segal. Together, they came to a company named on the verge of bankruptcy – Exaudios Technologies, which had an interesting invention in identifying emotions according to voice. They considered an investment in the company , and joined forces with another group interested in it. Together, they founded Beyond Verbal, a company often listed as one of Israel's promising startups.
"It was the type of story that happen maybe twice in a lifetime," Rabin remembers. "We wanted to buy the asset from the liquidator for Exaudios, which went bankrupt, and it turned out that some things move very quickly in Israel. The decision was taken, and we had to bring money immediately. We started running around like madmen. My US partner raised the initial money, and we had to raise more money to continue the company's activity and buy the assets from the court. Completely coincidentally, a Jew I knew in Florida put me in touch with Kenges Rakishev (a Kazakh businessman who invests in high tech), and he told me, 'You can come to Almaty (in Kazakhstan) next week, or meet me the following week in Switzerland.'
I first told myself, 'Flying to Almaty is expensive, and we've all traveled innumerable times chasing after money, and come back with promises at best and nothing in most cases.' So we set a meeting in Lugano, Switzerland. At 10 in the morning, we sat down, and at four in the afternoon, we shook hands on $20 million. I remember how we sat in the cafe at Lugano Airport - I, the CEO, and the deputy CEO - on a beautiful summer's day, looked at each other, and didn't believe what we had."
A little less than a year ago, the company raised $3 million in another financing round led by Chinese technology giant Kuang Chi Science. "This investment gave it both the cash and the route in the direction that it chose to go, mainly the ability to distinguish through sound the probability that the speaker is undergoing a cardiac event - a trial that we are conducting with the Mayo Clinic in the US," says Rabin, who was chairman of Beyond Verbal until the end of December, and resigned following the entry of the Chinese fund, which appointed its own chairman.
The acquaintance with Rakishev, however, also brought Rabin disappointment. Several months after the investment in Beyond Verbal, an idea was proposed that since it was Rakishev's first investment in Israel (he also invested in Mobli, a picture sharing app that closed down its development center in Israel nine months ago, and in other companies), and reached an investment of around $30 million, "He thought that as long as he was investing on this scale, he might as well do it regularly through a fund."
The romance between Rabin and the fund founded, Singulariteam, managed by Moshe Hogeg, did not last. He joined it as an advisor, worked in that capacity for two years, "and that was all."
"At a certain stage, they were looking for a chairman, and I put them in touch with Ehud Olmert (before he was put on trial, obviously). When they parted from him, the parted from me as well as a package deal."
"I made a mistake, I got dragged in"
Another unpleasant affair, which also led to a bailiff's action against Rabin was his inactive partnership in a company named Zenit, a gold mining venture in Zimbabwe, in which another partner was diamond trader and Kardan partner Avner Schneur. The company took a loan guaranteed by its investors, including Rabin. After the investment failed, the investors had to sell out and repay the loan. One of the checks Rabin signed for this purpose, amounting to NIS 155,000, bounced two years ago, leading to a deluge of articles about Rabin's financial troubles.
"I made a mistake, I was dragged in. They sold me a nice story and made me lose a lot, that's all," comments Rabin, who was only a financial investor. "I was the last investor, and constantly got reports from the field what a big thing was happening there."
Did they mislead you, or mislead themselves?
"I don't think they told me anything they didn't believe in, but sometimes, when you see countries like those, and I experienced this in Nigeria, you see the demand, the need, the financial capability, and it looks like the whole world is spread out just waiting for Mr. Israeli to come and pick up the money. It took a while before I realized that this wasn't the case. In Africa, business takes patience and persistence, but above all huge financial capacity, so that you can wait until things happen."
And articles were written about how you were neck-deep in trouble, that you're naive, and that people tempt you into adventures.
"I won't say that I liked it, but I didn't read and don't read stories about myself. I try not to see my pictures in the newspaper, and I know very well where I'm all right and where I'm not all right. I don't absolve myself of responsibility for things. I try not to go for all sorts of solutions, and I intend to pay all my debts, with no write-offs.
"What I can say is that at a time like this, you find out who your real friends are – both those who were there before and those you acquire in the process. "
Peace? We don't have the privilege of despair
It is, of course, impossible to talk to Rabin without mentioning the tragic and defining event. "For me, it was unquestionably a life-changing event. I had a clear path in life, and my life suddenly changed at every level and in every respect. From being unknown, I became known, and I really disliked it. It wasn't my ambition in life. It took me to places I never thought I'd be in, such as being active in Dor Shalom (Generation of Peace) and a lot of public appearances."
Why did you do it?
"I felt a need to give some kind of meaning to this thing, to turn it into something positive in one way or another."
They said that you might even be a candidate to replace your father as a public figure. Did that occur to you?
"It's a question that pursues me - less now, but certainly at the beginning. Someone once asked me whether I wanted it, and I said, 'Never say never,' so he said, 'You want it.' But I really, really didn't want it. Had I wanted it, I assume that I could have wormed my way onto some kind of party list (his sister, Dalia, Rabin, was an MK in the Center Party, and later in the Labor Party).
"There are several reasons for my lack of desire. One is that I don't think I have the character for it. The second is that it's not a great temptation, certainly not in today's political reality. Finally, if I were to do it, it would be to in order to influence things, and in my opinion, what Shalom (Daskal) and I are doing now can contribute a lot more to Israel and its economy than if I were in some place or other on some list or other.
"It's good for me now to concentrate on what we're doing, seeing wonderful things with wonderful people. There's a very optimistic atmosphere, and compliments are also due to the prime minister, whose visit to China generated a positive atmosphere."
Have you lost your appetite for peace?
"I don't think we have the privilege of despair, even though it's very easy. I certainly share the opinion held by quite a few people that the current situation constitutes a better opportunity than ever, because there are common interests with more Arab countries than ever before, as Netanyahu himself said. I'm a partner in a group that has been active for 20 years, Israeli Peace Initiative, and when we said these things in 2008, we were the only ones, and today it is being said all the time. But we also have to listen very carefully to what we're told, from China to the US.
"We're getting more hints than ever that the Palestinian issue can't be swept under the carpet, and it's therefore impossible to settle everywhere. The solution therefore requires some kind of compromise with our neighbors. Such measures are difficult and require courage, responsibility, and taking a position, not running away from reality."
From shrimps to ecological concrete: What Blueconomy includes
1. Marine agriculture - how to improve shrimp production, for example, both quantitatively and qualitatively. How to grow microalgae in closed pools, rather than in the open sea, as it is now being done. New Israeli technologies are now making it possible to grow sea fish in closed pools, something that was previously impossible. Actually, if everything goes according to the vision, in two or three years, there will be no need to sail hundreds of kilometers at sea to fish for tuna, which now costs $20,000-30,000 per fish; they can be grown in pools on land.
2. Undersea construction, including ports, piers, and artificial islands. China, for example, is the world's largest contractor for the construction of artificial islands, due to population density and a shortage of land in certain regions. Concrete in water, however, destroys the surrounding natural life, and one of the companies being considered by Blueconomy is developing ecological concrete that allows plants to build their seed beds on the concrete almost immediately, and to continue growing undisturbed.
3. Sea-related energy, including wave energy, wind energy, and tide-generated energy.
4. Algae-based drugs and cosmetics.
Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on April 25, 2017
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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