BOSTON – The migration of Israeli scientists to other countries has been called an “existential threat” to Israel, but not everyone sees the situation in zero-sum terms. For some of the Boston-area’s top Israeli scientists and medical entrepreneurs, the alleged brain drain is really much ado about nothing.
Thousands of Israelis live in the Boston area, and many of them study or work in biomedical fields. Some return to Israel after completing advanced degrees, while others find work in the city’s world-renowned universities, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
“I’ve been in this industry for 20 years, and I don’t think things are getting out of hand,” said Oved Amitay, an executive at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, based outside Boston in Cambridge.
“There is a steady status quo of Israelis coming to study or work in Boston,” he said. “Some of them go back, some stay. This is part of the globalization of science and business.”
Amitay and his wife, Dalia Cahana-Amitay, share a career trajectory in common with many local Israelis. After completing undergraduate studies in Israel, they moved to Boston for advanced degrees. The couple returned to Israel, where it was difficult to find steady work, much less a tenured position or significant research funding.
Within a few years, they moved back to the US – now with children – in search of greener professional pastures.
“My husband and I went back to Israel after getting our degrees, but I kind of had to find 17 jobs there,” said Cahana-Amitay, a neurolinguist who manages a lab at Boston University.
“In the US you have quantity working to your advantage, so I feel like returning to Israel would be sort of professional suicide for me,” she said.
In recent years, Cahana-Amitay has presented at two-dozen medical conferences, and published in many academic journals. These opportunities would be severely curtailed in Israel, she said, as would access to funding.
“In today’s day and age, people roam free in the world,” said Ido Schoenberg, chairman and CEO of American Well.
After founding two medical technology companies in Israel, Schoenberg and his brother – Roy Schoenberg – launched American Well to connect doctors and patients through mobile and web technology. Though based in Boston, American Well’s partners include Israeli companies like Vidyo, creator of “telehealth” visual communication platforms.
“Not everything can be made in one location or by one company,” said Schoenberg. “A brain drain implies something goes out of one place and into another. I don’t see this as a brain drain, as much as normal change and growth to be embraced, not rejected,” he said.
As evidenced by Schoenberg’s company, Israel’s brain drain is multi-faceted, and far from being a one-way street.
“Israel should be proud it has such a problem as a brain drain, because we have a lot of brains there,” said Moshe Pritsker, co-founder and CEO of the Journal of Visualized Experiments (or “JoVE”), based in Cambridge.
“It’s like an unwritten requirement for post-doctoral students in Israel that you have to go abroad for some time,” said Pritsker, who completed a PhD in biology at Princeton University. “Among those who stay abroad, many of them open branches of Israeli companies, or bring their connections back to Israel while they are abroad,” he said.
Through his company, Pritsker publishes scientific research in video formats, with more than 500 institutions around the world as customers. Among JoVE’s subscribers are Israeli universities, which also rank high among content contributors, he said.
“In May of next year, we will have a big publishing conference in Israel,” said Pritsker. “I am proud of Israel and want to help it grow. This is a question of acknowledging the migration, but then asking what we can do within that to help Israel.”
Not all Israeli scientists working in Boston view the brain drain as detrimental, but all of those interviewed want the Israeli government to increase funding for universities and research.
Earlier this month, the deterioration of Israeli academia was decried by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, with Israel shown to have the West’s worst brain drain. Critics said Israel was further embarrassed just days later, when two Israeli scientists won this year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry – for research completed during decades of living in the US.
According to pharmaceutical executive Amitay, factors other than reduced government funding and a small Israeli market can affect the brain drain. Chief among them are the skill-set and temperament of typical Israeli researchers, he said, and a business culture that favors easy payoffs over long-term, collaborative endeavors.
“Israelis don’t do very well in an environment that is very rigorous from a regulatory perspective, or with very long-term development timelines, like in biotech,” said Amitay. “Israelis do well with creativity, and innovation. So [biotech] is not where I expect Israelis to make large contributions,” he said.
‘It is difficult to start from zero in Israel’
According to neurolinguist Cahana-Amitay, medical science researchers in Israel are more dependent on outside resources than colleagues in high-tech. The situation has forced scientists to look abroad if they want to advance their careers, she said. As it turns out, the start-up nation’s entrepreneurial climate is better suited for growing Google apps than new medical treatments.
“Israelis who succeed have had the backing of a hospital abroad, or had co-investigators and contacts outside Israel,” said Cahana-Amitay. “It is difficult to start from zero in Israel. The successful scientists always have contacts outside. They have them in Israel too, but they don’t rely on them to launch their careers,” she said.
Publishing entrepreneur Pritsker said his video-based research journal would probably not have taken hold in a market as small as Israel’s. His career path and decision to live in the US grew out of local circumstances, he said.
“For my kind of business, Boston and parts of California are the best spots to be,” said Pritsker. “They have the highest concentrations of institutions which could use our videotaped experiments. I came here to study, not to immigrate, but I made a choice to found this company. Most Israeli professionals have the same considerations, and it’s not as much about abandoning Israel,” he said.
In part through the efforts of local Israelis, Boston Scientific – a leading medical device maker – bought Israeli-founded Rhythmia Medical for $265 million last year. Also in 2012, more than 100 Massachusetts companies founded by Israelis, or offering products based on Israeli technology, generated more than $2 billion in direct revenue for the state.
At this level, the brain drain looks more like a two-way street, leveraging Israeli and American assets to benefit both economies.
Though one wouldn’t know it from doomsday reports, counter-narratives about Israel’s brain drain are occasionally aired. One of them involves the ongoing slashing of medical research funding by the US government. “Congress is killing medical research” became an emblematic headline this year, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) lost $1.5 billion through federal budget sequestrations.
It is possible – according to some Israeli onlookers – that the international playing field for medical research is being equalized.
“Funding for life sciences and genetic research in the US is getting harder and harder,” said Amitay, who helped pioneer a treatment for Gaucher’s disease during his previous position at Cambridge-based Genzyme.
‘People will have to be much more innovative, which is where Israelis excel’
“In a strange way, this is putting Israelis and Americans almost on equal footing,” he said. “People will have to be much more innovative, which is where Israelis excel. If the trend continues, Israel and other countries will be able to compete effectively with people who used to benefit from those [NIH and other research] grants,” said Amitay.
Ironically, the government of Israel plays no small role in strengthening the community of Boston-area Israelis through its local diplomatic mission. The Israeli consulate organizes frequent networking conferences and social events, said Pritsker, and also helps develop business collaborations between companies in Massachusetts and Israel.
“Two years ago, I took part in a business mission to Israel with [Massachusetts] Governor Deval Patrick,” said telehealth pioneer Schoenberg. “There is a lot being done to communicate and foster relations between local and Israeli companies. If my brother and I start another company one day, I would love for it to be based in Israel,” he said.
As Israel’s deputy consul general to New England, Ronit Nudelman-Perl oversees outreach to Israelis living in the region, both temporarily and permanently.
“We are proud of both groups and view them as ambassadors for Israel,” said Nudelman-Perl. “There was an old attitude, ‘it’s wrong to live abroad,’ but now people don’t say it anymore. They see the fruits of these people living abroad. While staying here they present Israel in the best way possible,” she said.
Diplomats might remain neutral on the charged issue of emigration, but some local Israelis have worked to stem the tide of what they call a damaging brain drain.
In 2006, Boston-based Israeli researchers founded the international BioAbroad organization. Chief among its goals is the return of Israeli scientists to the Jewish state, and an end to the steady buy-out of Israeli companies by conglomerates abroad.
“From an Israeli perspective, I would love to see more companies remain local as they grow globally,” said Sagi Brink-Danan, an Israel-based medical device entrepreneur who studied in Boston.
“Teva, the world’s largest generic drug company, is the obvious success story,” said Brink-Danan, a BioAbroad representative. “Do we really have to sell every successful startup? We can find creative solutions to provide liquidity to investors and founders, while allowing the company to remain independent and in Israel as it grows,” he said.
With more than 1,000 Israeli members at institutions outside Israel, BioAbroad’s raison d’etre points to a dichotomous brain drain. Doomsday scenarios aside, thousands of Israeli scientists working abroad might also be a gain — to both science and Israel.