By Tova Cohen
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Leading Chinese companies are looking for investments in Israeli technology to help boost their growth and development, similar to what U.S. companies have done in the past two decades.
A delegation of senior Chinese business leaders visited Israel last month in search of opportunities, pressing ahead with the trip despite rockets that fell in the commercial centre of the country during fighting with Gaza militants.
The delegation, led by Ronnie Chan, chairman of investment holding company Hang Lung Group, included the heads of Lenovo Group, China's top grains trader COFCO, investment banking and private equity firm Hina Group, China Merchants Bank and JP Morgan Chase in China.
Chan noted that many technologies in applications and products from companies such as Google and Intel originated in Israel, and Chinese companies would like to explore similar ventures.
"The sky is the limit," Chan told Reuters. "Some companies can set up research and development centers here, some can bring Israeli companies to China, some can open up the Chinese market for Israeli companies. I have no idea where this will lead."
Chan, a property magnate, said his family business owns technology companies around the world but has no investments in Israel.
Lenovo's operations in Israel had been limited to sales and support, but the company recently made its first technology investment, for an undisclosed amount, in venture capital firm Vertex.
"Definitely we are interested in Israel's technology, to grow our company, to grow our business," Chief Executive Yang Yuanqing said, adding that the investment in Vertex was just a first step.
Lenovo, which is on track to become the world's No. 1 PC maker, is interested in information and mobile technology.
Bilateral trade between China and Israel totaled $8 billion in 2011, according to Israel's Foreign Ministry.
Chinese have invested $3 billion in Israeli companies to date. The biggest investment was the $1.4 billion acquisition of 60 percent of MA Industries, the world's largest maker of generic crop protection chemicals, by China National Chemical Corp (ChemChina) in late 2011.
"Since 2010, we saw for the first time significant Chinese investments in the real economy in Israel - in traditional industries like MA Industries and also in the high-tech sector, in biotechnology and agrotechnology," Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters.
Edouard Cukierman, managing partner of private equity funds Catalyst Investments, which organized the delegation's trip to Israel with the Foreign Ministry, said the visit by the Chinese companies could lead to acquisitions, investments in research and development centers and even the establishment of their own local operations.
"We are following up with each one of them, preparing specific action plans for each one of them," Cukierman said. "They believe they can benefit from innovation in Israel more than the Americans did."
Catalyst Partners is establishing a $100 million China-Israel technology fund that is expected to close in the first half of 2013. Cukierman hopes to eventually reach $200 million.
(Additional reporting by Steven Scheer)