Meet the liquor distributor who is funding Israeli start-ups

Gefen Capital has evaluated 600 businesses, made 10 investments in less than a year.

SHELDON STEIN (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite a bare-bones website, hundreds of fledgling Israeli start-ups contact Gefen Capital Investments LLP, and what makes the US-Israel investment group unique is that its team of 16 private investors are pooling money to invest in local start-ups.
“We have access to tremendous amounts of money,” said Sheldon Stein, who is a general partner at the Texas-centered Gefen Capital, along with David Wiessman and Limor Ganot. “It’s a diverse group of fabulously wealthy investors who are excited about investing in start-up Israeli hi-tech companies, who believe in what’s going on in Israel, and who look at it as an alternative to Silicon Valley. The valuations are better and the technology is just as good.”
With major investors and businessmen such as Ross Perot Jr. – whose father, Ross Perot, was a two-time US presidential candidate and founder of once-industry behemoth Electronic Data Systems – their involvement sounds like a ringing endorsement of the Israeli hi-tech ecosystem.
“A lot of these people are very aware of what’s happening in Israel. They saw this as an opportunity to invest in Israel with group of people who they trusted. They think that what’s going on in Israel is phenomenal and they understand all the technology coming from there,” said Stein.
Most of the investors are not Jewish and hail from either secular or evangelical Christian backgrounds. They are based primarily in Dallas and New York, and their cumulative worth is north of $20 billion, according to the fund.
Gefen Capital invests $1 million to $2m. in early-stage seed funding for each Israeli start-up, without requiring that the Israeli firms prove they have revenue. It already has made some 10 investments ranging from medical devices to agricultural-technology and cybersecurity, and wants to invest further in disruptive products such as artificial intelligence, big-data analysis and financial-technology – three burgeoning hi-tech fields in Israel.
The fund’s executives meet with four to 10 start-ups a week, and the firm has screened more than 600 companies since its official founding in December 2016. The well-networked fund can connect with experts across a wide array of industries, including investment banks, and specifically researches how the selected start-ups can crack the US market.
“We’ve been going deal-by-deal. We screen them and then, when we see one we like, we take a proportionate share,” Stein said. “We have people tied into whole different industries – tech, private equity, banking – so we can do due diligence and can understand the investment.”
Stein is president of Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits – the largest US wine and spirits distributor, and former vice-chairman at Bank of America. Gefen’s co-founder, Wiessman, has lived in Israel and is chairman of Alon USA Partners. Both Stein and Wiessman’s sons are working with Gefen Capital, along with Ganot, who helps run the fund’s day-to-day operations.
Investors who agreed to be named publicly include John Muse, the former co-owner of soft drinks Dr. Pepper and 7 Up; Peter Deutsch, of Deutsch Family Wines and Spirits; Alan Schwartz, executive chairman of the multi-billion dollar Wall Street firm, Guggenheim Partners; George Ackert, senior managing director at boutique Evercore Partners; Michael Brickman of the law firm Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook & Brickman LLC; Ike Brown, vice chairman of NFI Industries; and the Deason family, which sold Affiliated Computer Services Inc. to Xerox for $6.4b. in 2010.
Other Gefen investors include a former NFL star quarterback, who declined to be identified, who was a Super Bowl most valuable player.
A quick Google query of donations indicates that many of the listed businessmen are quite active in Republican- party politics.
Gefen is arranging a trip to Israel for the investors in a few months time, some of whom have never been to the Holy Land.