Trendlines to stay focussed on medtech, agtech themes: CEO Todd Dollinger

Todd Dollinger (L) and Steve Rhodes (R), founders of Trendlines Group

Israel-based Trendlines Group that had listed on the Singapore Exchange’s Catalist board in November last year, in a move that saw the firm raise $27.5 million, said it had big plans for the city state, including launching an  an incubator here, as well as an additional one in Germany, following a corporate partnership with a large German multinational corporation (MNC).

In an interview with DEALSTREETASIA, Todd Dollinger, joint chief executive and co-chairman of Trendlines Group, shared his insights on agricultural technology, and discussed the company’s as well as what led it to list in Singapore. Edited excerpts: 

What led to the inception of Trendlines and your long-term collaboration and partnership with Steve Rhodes?

We met working at a medical device firm in Israel in 1991. Steve was working as a CFO, I was in the marketing department and responsible for part of the product. It was a startup with 60 people; producing a medical device. We developed a relationship with one of the large enterprises in the anaesthesiology business, a German firm. This was at a time when Israel had no VC funds. We raised a few million in cash from the US through private placements.

I was later appointed the CEO and Steve became head of sales & marketing for SRD Medical – producing a device for measuring the depth of anaesthesia. We had some good success and we left the company in 2003 to form Trendlines. We began as a business development firm at a fascinating time in Israel; there was substantial immigration into Israel from the former USSR. This was a wave of highly educated immigrants and part of the solution to generate employment by the government was to facilitate the technology sector. We provided consultancy services to the startup ventures and incubators.

In truth, a couple of brilliant things happened, one of them being the Yozma initiative to grow the VC industry. It worked out so well that the government profited from the whole thing. Israel has 8.4 million people and is bigger than Germany or the UK, second only to the US in VC market size.

Incubators were built as a place to shield the immigrants and grow them. There were a lot of failures but as you move out three to five years, many incubator managers grew more adept, with more companies exiting after about a decade. People started looking at the Israeli system. With very limited support, the incubator system in Israel has matured and has become highly successful. The government took them through the high-risk changes.

In the beginning, incubators were owned by non-profits but they began to privatise it in the late 90s and early 2000s. The government gave incubators three choices: sell to businesses, grant 100 per cent management control to a new investor while keeping your equity interest or cancel your licence. This move was essential to bring in private partners.

In 2007, Trendlines acquired two incubators. This was when Trendlines was the largest business development firm focused on the US in Israel. We thought that our background allowed us to understand that incubators don’t provide enough support to entrepreneurs, who often are aware of unmet market needs but lacking in business prowess. We eventually folded our consulting practice into the TrendLines Group.

As of Q1 2016, we have a portfolio of 46 firms, 10 new ventures per annum in Israel and a total of 62 companies since late 2007/2008; we’ve had six exits, with five corporate buyouts and another IPO in Tel Aviv.

What led you to list Trendlines on the Singapore Exchange (SGX), rather than a bourse closer to home like Tel Aviv or in a major Israeli trading partner like the US? Initially, Trendlines wanted to list in Toronto. What happened there that caused the deal to fail and what were the learnings from that which were implemented when Trendlines listed in Singapore?

Why Singapore? Tel Aviv is a small and shrinking market. We took two companies public in Tel Aviv, with one continuing to be traded and one that was sold. We will continue to take ventures public in Tel Aviv depending on the business model for our portfolio firms. Prior to this, we’ve never sold a share through the public markets. For developing a young company and accessing capital, if we don’t intend to exit through the public market, Tel Aviv will remain a potential channel.

I don’t imagine a dual listing in Tel Aviv as its a small market, thin trading and not appropriate to Trendlines as our focus is international. There are more Israeli firms traded on NASDAQ, after North American and Chinese firms. For many years, Israel was No 2 on that list. What was wrong with NASDAQ is that we expected to go public with a cap in the range of $120 million, which is too small for NASDAQ. You need a minimum cap of $250-$500 million cap to get attention in NASDAQ.

We looked at the London and Canada bourses, and we came to believe there was substantial interest. Canada is a resources market, given that it’s a commodities-driven economy. We were told that people were looking at something other than resources to invest in. We were within 24 hours of closing but cancelled it as the banks could not raise the funds. Innovation investment was not an interest of the Canadian market. We made that decision to pull the offering – people were shocked but we felt it was the right decision.

One of our friends, an investment banker, Manor Zemer of Clal Finance Underwriting, suggested Singapore as an option. We were very active in China at this time and had companies that sell products in China and we’re manufacturing in China. This strong Asian focus is part of opportunity for portfolio companies. We came to Singapore and met with attorneys, investors, accountants and banks, who made various offers. We decided to go with PrimePartners.

Singapore is a fascinating place and extremely different to Israel. The level of organisation is stunning, with the pre-IPO in June and the IPO in November. Through the entire process we looked at this when we completed the IPO one week later than projected, it shocked us. The level of diligence was extraordinary.

We are only the second Israeli firm to go public in Singapore. The first was Serene. We’re the first Israeli firm on the Catalist. When the market comes back, I fully expect that there will be meaningful demand from Israeli companies to look at Singapore

How do you see the the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) affecting the medical technologies and devices sector? Are there any interesting projects that Trendlines is currently exploring?

It affects everything with sensor technologies being the basis of IoT. Sensors and communication technologies are critical in both our investment areas. The acquisition and processing of data acquired through IoT will form the basis for new decision making in agtech and medtech.

It’s really just at the beginning. In agriculture, we are invested in a company that produces sensors for trees which allows for local monitoring. Water is a key resource and Israel is a world leader in conservation and desalination. Look for sensors technologies to be used throughout agriculture in determining more efficient water use. The same as medicine, tracking everything that’s used in a surgical procedure to the ability to acquire, process & broadcast real-time data.

With the continuing decrease in prices, I can’t imagine what won’t be monitored. In other words, everything will be monitored. There are tremendous challenges in putting that data to work. I think it’ll change the industries in which we operate it.

Do you see firms specialising in healthcare wearables playing a part in Trendlines portfolio in the future?

We already have a health wearables firm in our portfolio, Elastimed. What they have done is to bring a moderate level of technology to a major problem – Deep Vein thrombosis.

Traditionally, treating it involves taking a stocking and putting high pressure on your leg. The problem is compliance – patients tend not to comply with things that are too difficult or inconvenient for them. What happens if you can make the stocking that doesn’t take any strain and then I push a button and it provides the tension?

What Elastimed has made is a fabric that responds to an electrical signal which can be used to acquire data. This is a simple tech solution that nobody else was able to achieve.

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Are there any plans for a secondary listing of Trendlines in other stock exchanges like Tel Aviv, where there is greater brand awareness of Trendlines?

Not in the near term, but it is of interest to us. If an opportunity arose we would look at it but not right now. We’ve been traded since 26 November 2015 and we still have much to learn about Singapore For instance, how do we communicate our story to the market and partners properly. Right now, we’re working on opening an incubator in Singapore. Yes, we’d consider it but have enough going on today.

Other than agriculture and medical technology, are there other sectors and industry verticals that you see Trendlines expanding into?

We are completely focused on medtech and agtech and have no intention to expand beyond that scope. But these areas are rather broad. For instance, we have looked at drone tech for managing drones and data acquisition. In fact, in many ways you could consider them to be a sensor technology. I wouldn’t be surprised if we make investments into drone tech for agricultural use.

The co-CEO leadership model has been subject to extensive questioning and is subject to criticism. What permits the current joint leadership model of Trendlines to be sustained as it is?

In any company I wanted to evaluate for co-CEO’s, I’d evaluate and see why they are co-CEOs in the first place. I would suggest that these are guys that chose to work together and this increases their chances of success. When you have a co-CEO, you’re dealing with a partner. And in a business where partnering is crucial, it shows everyone that you know what partnering involves.

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