Broadening ties abroad, Israeli businesses continue to deepen contacts both with emerging markets in India and Eastern Europe as well as with established economies in Western Europe. The Israel Export Institute said Monday that 111 Israeli companies began operations in India over the past year, bringing the current total to 929. India is one of the leading destinations for Israeli exports in Asia, coming in fourth after China, Japan and Taiwan, the institute noted. Yet, despite the resulting 14 percent growth in the number of businesses active in the country, Israeli industrial exports to India (excluding diamonds) came to only $87.5 million in the first quarter, fully 28% less than during the first quarter of 2005. Further widening the trade gap with India was an 8.5% rise in imports from the country over the same period, bringing the total to $117m. Nonetheless, the institute expects that Israeli industrial exports to India would advance 5% to $465m. by the end of 2006, following last year's 31% growth. Factors easing the entry of Israeli exporters include narrowing gaps of culture and communication as companies gain more experience working in India; collaboration with local professionals boasting wide contacts within the country and proven experience; quick effective local marketing studies on a product's viability within India; and particularly low costs of business planning and office services, the institute said. Exporters can rely on a support center jointly established by the export institute and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor through an India company, Corporate Catalyst (India), which has offices in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. The center will be launched at a special event Wednesday at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv, which will include a discussion on doing business in India. Separately, the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce said that trade (excluding diamonds) between Israel and 10 non-EU countries in Eastern Europe grew an "impressive" 73% from 2002, to $1.27 billion at the end of 2005. The federation expects trade between Israel and the countries to advance a further 12% in 2006 to about $1.4b., despite a drop in volume in the first quarter. "The development of trade with these countries reflects the influence of the European Union's expansion on states that are not members but are located in proximity to [EU] member states, such as Poland," the federation said. An 88% leap over the same period in Israeli exports to Ukraine, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Belarus, Yugoslavia, Moldova, Macedonia, Croatia, Romania and Russia brought the total to $721m., while imports to Israel from those countries rose 56% to $545m. by the end of last year. In 2005 alone, the trade surplus was widened by a 22% rise in Israeli exports alongside a 2% rise in imports from the Eastern European nations. Between 2002 and 2005, exports to Russia more than doubled to $203m., while exports to Romania rose 61% to $58m. Israel exports primarily machinery and electrical equipment and chemical industry products, as well as plastic, rubber and metal products. Imports from Eastern Europe consist mostly of the same kinds of products, in addition to food and drink. While Israeli exports to Eastern Europe rose 1% to $180m. in the first quarter of 2006, imports from the 10 non-EU countries sank 8.5% to $125m., further expanding Israel's trade surplus with the region. Solidifying links with established economies of Western Europe, the Israel Industry Center for Research and Development has signed an agreement to promote cooperation on research and development with the Province of Milan, Italy. Joint projects between Israeli and Milanese companies will receive funding from both the Israeli Chief Scientist's Office and its Italian counterpart, according to the pact. The Milan region is home to Italy's greatest concentration of biotech companies, in a country boasting developed medical equipment and pharmaceutical industries. More than $1b. are set to be invested in pharmaceutical R&D, in which investment grows 10% each year, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry said. Ever-growing economic ties between Israel and Italy were reflected in a 9% rise in trade last year, said Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai, who noted that both countries enjoy industrial and academic research infrastructures "among the most advanced in the world." Meanwhile, a delegation of 50 German business people, including representatives of Siemens and Deutsche Telekom, will arrive Wednesday to investigate opportunities to expand cooperation with Israeli companies. The group, to be headed by German Economy Minister Michael Glos, will participate in the launch of a German-Israeli business council whose activity is expected to help boost bilateral trade by 30% to 40% within five years, the Manufacturers Association of Israel and Israel Export Institute said. Sectors that could benefit from the increased cooperation with German companies include telecommunications and programming, biotech, safety and security, automotive equipment, water treatment and other infrastructure-related fields. In the past year, 187 Israeli companies entered the German market, bringing the total number operating in that country to 2,363.