Houston mayor seeks direct flights, stronger business ties with Israel

Sylvester Turner sees collaboration opportunities in energy, smart cities and medical R&D

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, left, Nadav Tamir and Michael Kubosh at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, June 11, 2017 (Courtesy)
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, left, Nadav Tamir and Michael Kubosh at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, June 11, 2017 (Courtesy)

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is visiting Israel this week, heading a delegation of his city’s top executives to drum up business and create collaborations in the fields of energy, life sciences, and smart cities.

“It has been a very productive and successful trip, packed with meetings,” Turner said in a phone interview with The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Israel and Houston can collaborate “on many different fronts,” he said, including on developing new technologies for the oil and gas industries and doing joint research and development in the medical field.

Turner, 62, an attorney and politician, has been mayor since 2016 of a city said to be on track to becoming America’s third-largest city after New York and Los Angeles.

To encourage greater collaboration between Israel and his city, Turner is pushing for direct flights from Houston to Tel Aviv, and he raised the subject in his meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Natural Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources Yuval Steinitz.

Mayor Sylvester Turner (Courtesy)
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (Courtesy)

“There are direct flights on the West Coast of the US and on the East Coast and I know that Israel is resuming a direct flight to Miami,” he said. “But when you look at the city of Houston and all that the city has to offer and the synergies with Israel, we think there are tremendous opportunities if we can establish a direct flight between the two.”

Houston is known as the energy capital of the world and is home to the largest players of the oil and gas industry. The city is also the base of Noble Energy Inc., which together with its Israeli partner Delek Group Ltd. has been instrumental in discovering Israel’s offshore natural gas reserves. The discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan fields, which hold enough fuel to allow for decades of energy self-sufficiency and exports, have been a game-changer for Israel, a nation that has been traditionally starved of natural resources.

“There is plenty of intellectual capital right here in Israel with high tech, and Houston has a number of energy companies,” Turner said. As global energy companies are looking to cut costs in light of the drop in oil prices, “there is plenty of opportunity” to merge Israel’s high-tech prowess with the needs of these companies to come up with “digital technologies and some other things that can help them,” he said.

Israel’s natural gas discoveries will encourage additional energy companies to come and to take a closer look at investing in the area, including Houston-based energy firms and investors, Turner said.

Noble’s activity in Israel is “only the beginning,” he said. He would “encourage energy companies to take a much deeper look at investing in Israel,” he said.

The Israeli government has in the past come come under sharp criticism from Noble executives for its unstable regulatory policies in the natural gas sector.

“We did not have specific conversations in respect to the regulatory environment,” Turner said. “But I would say that the more you can streamline the operation and make it easier for these companies, the more they are inclined to do business. But it is a delicate balance in the US and also a delicate balance anywhere you go. But you certainly have to make it attractive for them.”

Turner said Houston is looking to learn from Israel’s startup ecosystem and its inroads into smart city technologies. Collaborations between hospitals in research and development is also a key point of potential collaboration, given that Houston is home to the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner with Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem in June 2017 (Courtesy)
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (left) with Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, June 2017 (Courtesy)

“When it comes to technology and innovation there is no question that Israel has done a phenomenal job with its startups,” Turner said. “Houston has all of the necessary ingredients, but we have not come at it with as much of a focus as has been done here in Israel. So, we are learning from what you all have done, and transporting some of those ideas back.”

Houston has also not focused until now on using technologies to make the city smarter, he said. But “we are going to be focusing on that and looking at creating an institute of data science in the city of Houston and so we are learning as much as we can.”

The delegation, which includes executives from the Texas Medical Center, Noble Energy, Braun Enterprises, Kinder Institute, Visit Houston and the Houston Airport System, has met with Israeli mayors, including those of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and with leaders of Israel’s high-tech and biotechnology firms.

Israel is Houston’s 46th-largest international trade partner.

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