The Israeli life sciences needs a leader, someone who can unify the biotech research efforts being done by universities, government, multinationals, and startups, says Regine Shevach,
Managing Director of Inter-lab, the local R&D facility of worldwide pharma giant Merck Serono. “Each institution sees a small piece of the pie and is concerned with its own issues, but it’s inefficient. We are losing out on some great innovation that way.”
Shevach spoke to Times of Israel on the sidelines of the BioMed 2013, conference sponsored by IATA, Israel Advanced Technology Industries, a high-tech industry group that promotes start-ups and established companies in the tech and life sciences industries. The 12th annual BioMed show, being held in Tel Aviv this week, has grown to be one of Europe’s premier medical conferences, with speakers from industry and academia – including pharmaceuticals, medical devices, research labs, and others – coming to discuss industry issues. In addition, nearly 200 companies, from multinationals (like Merck Serono) to just-seeded startups, were displaying their latest technologies at the show’s large exhibition area. Some 6,000 visitors from dozens of countries are expected to come hear presentations by top corporate, academic, and government officials from 17 countries around the world.
Israel has in recent years turned into a life sciences powerhouse — the world leader in the number of medical device patents per capita, and second in biopharmaceuticals. In the coming weeks, the Office of the Chief Scientist will close a $5 billion tender for establishment of a biopharma incubator. In addition, of course, Israel is home to Teva, the world’s largest generic drug maker.
So it’s natural, said Shevach, that Merck would take a deep interest in Israel. Merck’s roots in Israel hark back to 1978, when the company the Swiss giant would eventually buy, Serono, ran a development program with the Weizmann Institute that broke important ground in the development of interferon-associated drugs. The R&D center established by Serono remained, and became the Merck Serono R&D lab when Merck acquired Serono in 2007. Since then, said Shevach, the Israeli facility has been working on a number of technologies, such as protein engineering.
Merck Serono is very interested in technologies developed by Israeli startups — so much so that the company runs its own incubator program here, said Shevach. The incubator is for very early stage companies. “We work with them for two to three years, at which point they are either ready to operate independently, or to work with another company in the industry.” Merck, said Shevach, was more interested in cooperation and collaboration than in competition with its sister pharma companies. “We have found this to be of great benefit for everyone involved,” she added.
The new world of pharma — created by government regulation, patent expiration, and the need to maintain profitability in the wake of political pressure around the world — is, indeed, much more collaborative, so much so that one of the hottest areas for startups is the development of platforms, research and otherwise, for pharma. In such platforms, standards are developed for the creation of drugs, research systems, and other aspects of life science work. For example, if a researcher determines what the optimal amount of inactive ingredients needs to be for a class of drugs, those same ingredients (called excipients) can be used by other researchers, just changing the active ingredient. Such platforms save a great deal of time and money, and many of the start-ups that Shevach sees, she said, are working on such platforms.
In addition, said Shevach, startups in Israel are working on preventive technologies. “For example, one of the startups we are working with is developing a system for pharmaceutical toxicity. Often, tests will show that a pharmaceutical is toxic to humans only at a late stage of development, requiring either a major reworking of the formula, or abandonment of the project. By detecting possible toxins at a very early stage of development,” said Shevach, “companies can save a great deal of time and money.”
Breakthroughs like that will benefit everyone in the industry — if they get to everyone in the industry, which they often do not. “We are very inefficient in the way we share information,” said Shevach. “We have so much information today, so many research projects. If all institutions would share that information with others, we in Israel would be far more advanced in the life sciences. We need a leader to marshal our forces in life sciences.”