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Breakthrough Dividend: Chapter 1 - What's In This Report?

An Introduction

This report seeks to provide an introduction to the Israeli biotechnology community, Israeli biotechnology R&D and its potential for meeting both Israeli and American needs. There are four major sections. This first introductory section, As We Start, defines terms, discusses methodology and provides a brief overview of the status of U.S. and Israeli biotechnology and its commercialization. The second, Meet the Players, introduces the main organized players participating in shaping Israeli biotechnology: academia, government, government-supported industry support groups and industry.

The third main section, What's New?, summarizes representative Israeli advances in human health (Chapters 11-16) and agriculture (Chapter 17-19). Readers already familiar with the Israeli R&D system and its environment may wish to turn directly to this section. Each chapter includes introductory comments, a description of the full set of commercializable opportunities currently available at a major Israeli university (plus some additional ones), a brief review of Israeli biotechnology companies active in the area and a partial list of North Carolina biotechnology companies active in the same area (the North Carolina Biotechnology Center is a sponsor of this report). One unwritten theme of this report is that in assessing biotechnology, a field often accompanied by hype, high hopes and rapidly-shifting facts, it is essential to deal with specific cases rather than broad generalities to gain clearer ideas of what Israel can and cannot offer. Thus, this section, while not comprehensive, is particularly long, detailed and important.

The fourth section, Special Constraints, deals with several specific constraints and opportunities uncovered during researching this report, and recommendations for the future. The appendices include an introduction to biotechnology and biotech terminology (Appendix A) for those unfamiliar with the field. When mentioned, interviewees are often referred to by their last names; anonymity was provided when requested. Full names and titles are provided in Appendix B.

This report does not pretend to be comprehensive or to provide an original in-depth analysis of present or future trends (although I couldn't resist a few comments); rather, it seeks to bring together a variety of uncollated information to introduce the reader to: (1) Israeli biotechnology and the actors, interactions and forces that affect it, and (2) illustrative examples of what Israeli biotechnology can (and can't) do to contribute to shared U.S. and Israeli goals.


In writing this report I drew on three main types of sources:

(1) Interviews with representative senior Israelis involved in various phases of Israel's biotechnology efforts, from academic research to industry and marketing.

(2) Large amounts of written materials -- lectures, articles, books, catalogs, annual reports, project summaries, lists, directories, abstracts, etc. -- provided by interviewees, respondents to a mass mailing, participants at a recent Israeli biotechnology conference, personal contacts and others. Written sources also include official reports and draft reports of the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Commission, Katzir Committee, Israel National Committee for Biotechnology and others.

(3) My own previous reports and analyses of Israeli science, undertaken for the Israel Ministry of Science, Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the Jerusalem Post and others.

The amount of information gathered, especially uncollated written materials, swiftly outpaced the time and space limitations -- and intent -- of this report, and I soon had to be highly selective, choosing representative examples to illustrate important details, interactions and synergies in the overall system, while avoiding an overly cumbersome encyclopedic approach.

In particular, although Israel's institutions of higher education (IHE) are few, their output is prodigious. For example, in reviewing the ~150 projects in the most recent YISSUM catalog of opportunities for commercial partnerships with Hebrew University, I found 45 that would be classified as biotechnology under the definition of Chapter 2. In general, I would estimate that of some 450-600 Israeli IHE R&D opportunities looking for partners at any time, some 150-200 are in biotechnology. Despite their intrinsic interest, a full description of all of them is neither feasible nor useful for our purposes.

Instead, to give an idea of how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together, while giving a representative sampling of all fields of biotechnology, we chose the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU, Chapter 6) as a test case. The Hebrew University was chosen for several reasons. It is Israel's oldest university (founded in 1925) and one of her two largest (the other is Tel Aviv University, TAU). It includes a particularly broad range of disciplines, has a major affiliated hospital (Hadassah Medical Center) and Israel's only full-scale agricultural school (in Rehovot). Furthermore, an important practical matter, the project abstracts of their commercialization unit, YISSUM, are particularly thorough and technically detailed. The HU is also the predominant player (in terms of quantity) on the Israeli scene. It grants 30 percent of all Israeli Ph.D.'s and 32 percent of all Israeli IHE degrees in the life sciences.

In a recent national survey, HU had roughly twice as many biotechnologists as its closest competitors (TAU and the Weizmann Institute), and five times as many biotechnology agriculturists. This is not to imply that equivalent or even better work is not being done elsewhere (examples from other institutes -- too good to miss -- are also cited); rather, it emphasizes the importance of seeing at least one functioning Israeli University Research Authority/commercialization unit complex acting as an integrated system, instead of a collection of miscellaneous dismembered parts from different locales. This tight integration is a salient feature of the Israeli system.

One advantage of this approach is its resistance to "aging." Although the particular projects at any given stage of the R&D continuum will change with time, the structure itself, and the general character of the activity and interactions at each stage will change far more slowly.

In preparation for our field-by-field mini-survey (Chapters 11-19), I reviewed a wide variety of materials from the Hebrew University and other sources, including 45 YISSUM project descriptions for current opportunities in biotechnology. To give a balanced view of where Israel stands in this field, all 45 are included here. Though initially intended to prevent giving a biased view -- which merely leads to overexpectation and equally overstated disillusion -- I found most projects were quite good.

I also interviewed the Hebrew University's Vice-President for R&D, the Director of the HU Research Authority, the HU Coordinator for U.S. Research Grants, the Managing Director and Marketing Manager of YISSUM, the HU's commercialization unit, and their counterparts at Hadasit, the commercialization unit of HU-affiliated Hadassah Hospital.

Still, most information is inevitably taken from written secondary sources. Most useful are the various compilations and directories of the National Committee for Biotechnology (NBI). Writers are trying to describe a rapidly moving target, therefore, the material is often contradictory and considerable judgement is required.

Readers should also be aware that biotechnology is a controversial field. Opinions differ over basic issues, such as the definition of biotechnology (see next chapter), and whether such matters should even be debated. It's not that biotechnologists are a particularly cantankerous lot, but that the field, a new one in its present form, is still trying to define itself and to develop the traditions, norms and guidelines typical of more established fields.

Back to the Future

Israeli biotechnology is a fast-moving field. In picking representative examples for readers who may be interested in actively participating, it is important to emphasize projects far enough along the R&D continuum (Figure 1) to appear feasible and commercializable. On the other hand, projects already en route to market may be "old hat," and "all sewed up," without an opportunity for further external participation at a particularly profitable early stage by the time this report is read. Consequently, an intermediate point on the R&D continuum was chosen for emphasis.

In this report, we will pay particular attention to the R&D opportunities advertised by university commercialization units (YISSUM unless otherwise specified). Why? To choose a physical analogy, the light we receive today from a galaxy a million light years away, apparently left on its journey a million years ago. Thus, when astronomers look at galaxies further and further away, they are also looking further and further back in time. In Israel, in contrast to the United States, 80 percent of all civilian basic research is done in Israel's eight major institutes of higher education (Chapter 6). Industrial basic research laboratories, similar to America's IBM and Bell Labs, and large government research institutes, similar to the National Institutes of Health, are virtually nonexistent in Israel. That means when we look backward from industrial products to industrial R&D, to commercialization unit opportunities, to university applied research, to university basic research (Figure 1), we are also peering forward into Israel's likely biotechnological future. Conversely, many research projects in Israel's academic laboratories today will go through the long-winding path of Figure 1 to become Israel's biotechnological products, patents and licenses tomorrow.

Figure 1. The Israeli Research Continuum

Basic research is the locomotive that
pushes the R&D train in biotechnology