As medicine converges with technology, Israel faces ‘tremendous opportunity’

Healthtech chiefs explain why Startup Nation can benefit from the push toward digitalized and personalized medicine that is changing the pharma landscape

Illustrative: A medical team performs surgery in a modern operating room. (gorodenkoff; iStock by Getty Images)

The shifting landscape of the global pharma industry, in which medicine is becoming more personalized as well as digitized, represents a huge opportunity for Israel, as the nation is a hotbed for life sciences research which can now be merged with the country’s strong digital technologies and machine learning prowess, industry leaders say in an interview.

“Israel is a treasure trove of innovation and talent across the entire continuum of the life and computer sciences,” said Iris Grossman, the chief Chief Scientific Officer of Cambridge, MA-based Camp4 Therapeutics, who was formerly in charge of setting up the personalized medicine unit of Israeli drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

“There is a unique and tremendous opportunity to marry these two domains and spiral innovation in drug discovery and development that would disrupt R&D traditional approaches,” she said in an email interview with The Times of Israel.

The country that is known for its information technologies and cyber security prowess, is also home to more than 1,400 Israeli companies in the life sciences sphere.

Iris Grossman, the chief Chief Scientific Officer of Cambridge, MA based-Camp4 Therapeutics, who was formerly in charge of setting up the personalized medicine unit of Israeli drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (Courtesy)

These include 300 pharmaceutical companies, nearly 600 medical device companies, and 450 digital health companies that are working on developments in the field of neuroscience, oncology, immunology, and stem cell research, according to data provided by the Israel Innovation Authority, in charge of setting out the nation’s policies for its high-tech sector.

Not only that. The nation is home to a trove of detailed electronic medical data records, which put the country in a unique position to push forward with the digital transformation of healthcare. This push is being encouraged by the government, which in March set up a National Digital Health plan to create a digital database of the medical files of some 9 million residents, and make them available to researchers and enterprises.

Global healthcare expenditure is forecast to reach $9.5 trillion in 2018, according to World Health Organization data, and tech giants such as Apple Inc., Intel Corp, Facebook and IBM have all started investing in the field, according to New York based data firm CB Insights.

In September, Mazor Robotics Ltd., an Israeli biotech firm that develops robotic surgical systems, said it was being acquired by Irish-American medical device company Medtronic for a sum of $1.64 billion, the biggest-ever “exit” for an Israeli biotech company. While in August last year, US biopharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences, Inc. said it had agreed to buy the Israeli-founded Kite Pharma for about $12 billion in an all-cash deal. The technology at the heart of Kite Pharma’s cell therapies was created by Prof. Zelig Eshhar from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

A back surgeon looks at an image of a 3D model of a patient’s spinal column in preparation for surgery, using the Mazor Renaissance system (Courtesy)

“Deep scientific understanding is the key to the development of personalized medicine,” said by email Gil Granot-Mayer, the CEO of Yeda Research and Development Co. Ltd, the technology transfer unit of the Weizmann Institute of Science, which commercializes technologies.

“Our ability to understand the personal drivers of diseases on a molecular level and to develop tools for diagnostic prevention and treatment are all based on that deep understanding and top-level capabilities.”

Israel has “wonderful innovation” in health technologies, Granot-Mayer said, but much of it is not developed. “If the ecosystem is not well developed, we will still face low chances of successful commercialization and value creation,” he said.

Gil Granot-Mayer, the CEO of Yeda Research and Development Co. Ltd. the technology transfer unit of the Weizmann Institute of Science (Courtesy)

And here enters the non-profit organization, 8400 The Health Network, which aims to create just that ecosystem to help Israel attain its full potential in a field that could by far be one of its biggest growth engines going forward.

“Our vision is to use the country’s intellectual and digital assets and human capital to accelerate cures for critical global health challenges, while at the same time building a powerful growth engine for Israel,” said Dapha Murvitz, the CEO and a co-founder of the non-profit organization.

The 8400 network, founded in June 2017 by billionaire Marius Nacht, the co-founder of $17 billion cybersecurity firm Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. aims to gather the brightest brains at the intersection of health and technology to boost Israel’s position as a life sciences powerhouse. Murvitz co-founded the 8400 network together with Nacht and Yair Schindel.

The idea is to set up leadership programs to create a network of 400 people over eight years, hence the NGO’s name, 8400 (it also recalls the legendary elite 8200 army intelligence unit, which has spawned many of Israel’s tech entrepreneurs).

The 8400 network has already recruited its second cohort of 66 members for its leadership program, said Murvitz.

The cohort is made up of healthtech professionals, entrepreneurs and government officials, members of the academia and local hospitals and universities tech transfer divisions, who will join forces and brainstorm on projects to help promote the industry, and help address gaps in the ecosystem in areas such as regulation, funding and collaboration in big data.

Dapha Murvitz, the CEO and a co-founder of 8400 The Health Network (Courtesy)

“The only way to capitalize on the potential of our healthtech industry is through the coalescing of all of the different stakeholders across sectors and silos, so they can learn and create solutions together to overcome the hurdles,” said Murvitz.

The idea is to get these brains together and learn the best practices of life-sciences ecosystems around the world, and map out the bottlenecks, break down silos and remove hurdles that curb the growth of the ecosystem, she said.

The new cohort members who are joining the 8400 leadership program get to work together for 18 days over eight months – 12 of them in Israel and the remaining days at Harvard Business School, to take part in a senior executive leadership program, designed together also with the Mendham Investment Group in New Jersey.

They then join the 8400 network as active members to work toward a common goal.

“There is something about the Israeli mentality that allows innovative culture: the systems, organizations, are quiet open and flexible to changes,” said Dr Nathalie Bloch, who heads the newly set up ARC-Sheba Innovation Center at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv.

The Medical Center seeks to upgrade the hospital’s healthcare system by teaming up with, investing in and developing new technologies, with a focus mainly on digital health, and specifically on areas like precision medicine; big data and predictive analytics; telemedicine; and mobile health, she said in emailed comments to The Times of Israel.

Dr Nathalie Bloch heads the ARC-Sheba Innovation Center at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv (Courtesy).

Israel has many advantages over other countries, she said. “We have an ID number to every person and this ID is being used everywhere so one can really follow a continuation of care throughout the whole cycle.”

In addition, she said, “We have only four HMOs and there is a national healthcare law where it is mandatory to have healthcare coverage. This means we can know all the medical history of every person in Israel. This is a huge advantage when one wants to develop a comprehensive data warehouse and predictive models.”

Granot-Mayer, Bloch and Grossman are today all members of the 8400 network.

There are however many challenges ahead that stand in the way of Israel reaching its potential: startups at early stages of development still have a “huge problem” to get funding, said Granot-Mayer. The nation also needs to make sure it builds up a talent pool that has the ability to both create and lead the Israeli companies that stem out of these technologies.

Regulation can also be a huge stumbling block, said Sheba’s Bloch.

“The fact we need always to protect our patients makes things slow and convoluted,” she said. “Startup companies can’t wait too long — every day costs them money and they can ‘die’ by the time we get all the necessary approvals.”

Hospitals must also be provided with programs to help them change their business models to support them build the right infrastructure for data and analytic tools, while regulation, “which is quite behind” must be updated to allow hospitals to pilot new technologies and make use of cloud infrastructure, Bloch said.

“Strategic partnerships with large pharma and IT organizations; investment in infrastructure, education and disruptive regulatory innovation — are all important factors toward realizing” the dream of Israel leading the way in healthcare going forward, said Camp4’s Grossman. “Execution, though, requires dedication, passion and true collaboration across the board.”

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