Once upon a time a three-story home in Philadelphia's Navy Yard — with views of the Delaware River and a few decommissioned naval vessels — was home to officers in the United States Marine Corps.
Now, that same house, with its spacious rooms of hardwood floors, sits largely empty — save for one room filled with computers, a couple of desks and a waiting-to-be-hung diploma. A local entrepreneur, one with a palpable love of the Jewish state, envisions the South Philadelphia property as a hub for Israeli start-up, clean-technology firms looking to do business here.
Randy Schulz, a 31-year-old who grew up in Fort Washington, took a step toward making that happen last month by officially launching the American Israel Business Lab. The goal is to help Israeli firms turn ideas into profits and even be a base for their American operations.
It remains to be seen whether he'll sign on enough Israeli companies that haven't already entered the American market, have enough capital to do so and possess a groundbreaking idea.
Israel is considered a global leader in the clean-tech sector, which includes wind power, solar thermal energy, water recycling and purification, and the conversion of waste into power. The goal is to provide energy solutions that reduce costs and environmental waste.
"I think the fact that there are social benefits to this type of business has great appeal to me," said Schulz, who now lives in Center City.
Unlike other industries in which Israel excels, such as software development, clean-tech firms need a presence on the ground to conduct business in the United States, said Schulz.
The idea of making a shidduch between the Keystone state and the Jewish state isn't exactly new. For the past two years, the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce's Central Atlantic Region has organized local conferences that brought together representatives of Israeli clean-tech firms with American investors and power brokers.
But, according to Debbie Buchwald, executive director of the chamber who has also advised the entrepreneur, Schulz is doing something very different.
While the chamber, a membership organization, introduces Israeli firms to potential investors and partners, Schulz is seeking to turn a profit by assisting Israeli clients as they set up shop here. That could include helping with marketing, negotiating contracts, lobbying the government and securing intellectual property rights.
"It's the business model that's the innovation we are bringing to the market," said Schulz.
Currently, about 30 Israeli companies, engaged in all kinds of business, have offices or operations in the region, said Buchwald.
Schulz has always been the entrepreneurial type. At 16, he left a summer janitorial job to start an outdoor deck power-washing business — a venture that's still going.
He graduated from Penn State in 2002 and, two years later, earned a master's degree in political communication from George Washington University.
In 2006, he made his first trip to the Jewish state through Birthright Israel. He was exposed to Israel's clean-tech industry on several subsequent visits. As he was considering making aliyah, he sought to learn more about business opportunities there.
In recent years, he's worked as a Democratic political consultant. But during that period, Schulz said, he's been thinking about ways to get into the Israeli clean-tech sector. He honed his idea by working with the Wharton Small Business Development Center at the University of Pennsylvania and further built his contacts through the Tribe 12 Social Entrepreneur Fellowship, a new project that cultivates innovation in the Jewish community.
When it came time to choose a location, Schulz said that the 1,200-acre Navy Yard — the nation's first shipyard, which was decommissioned in 1995 — seemed like the perfect fit. It has become known as a hub for green technology. The U.S. Department of Energy has invested more than $100 million to make the Navy Yard an "Energy Innovation" hub, which is being overseen by Penn State.
The recently married Schulz said he's still looking for funding for his ideas, including his goal to create an on-site media lab to help firms craft their audio and visual pitches.
On June 29, several dozen people, including some state and city officials, turned out for the group's kickoff event, which was co-sponsored by the Israeli Consulate. An American and Israeli flag adorned the building.
After the program, Shultz reiterated that "this is an opportunity for the Philadelphia region to position itself on a global stage and emerge as a center for clean technology."
"We are essentially privatizing the business attraction function," he added. "It's a good place to be, right now, in the private sector. It's an emerging market."