Hebrew U tech chief seeks balance between academia and industry
Fighting the odds

Hebrew U tech chief seeks balance between academia and industry

Yaron Daniely, the new head of Hebrew University’s tech transfer unit, wants technology created in the academic world to get a fair chance to market

Yaron Daniely, president and CEO of Yissum, the technology transfer institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Courtesy)
Yaron Daniely, president and CEO of Yissum, the technology transfer institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Courtesy)

Yaron Daniely, the Hebrew University’s newest pick to spearhead the commercialization of technologies developed within its ivory towers, is taking the reins at a delicate time.

Israeli academia has come under public scrutiny for missing out on royalties on technologies developed by their researchers: earlier this month, the Israeli press reported that Amnon Shashua, the chief executive officer of Mobileye, which was sold to Intel Corp. for a whopping $15 billion, convinced Hebrew University officials to forgo any monetary claims to the technology developed within its walls; and the Weizmann Institute will only get a small amount of money from the $12 billion sale of Kite Pharma to Gilead Sciences Inc., TheMarker financial website said. The key technology behind Kite Pharma’s developments was created in the Weizmann Institute labs.

Daniely, almost 42, declined to discuss the issues in an interview with The Times of Israel last week. He deferred to the laconic statement the university issued to the Hebrew press which said: “The settlement between Mobileye and Hebrew University originates in an agreement signed in 2002. The university did not, and does not, demand any additional royalties following the Intel transaction. A letter from the university’s management dated March 2017 confirms this. Relations between the university and Mobileye are making a great contribution to research at the university.”

However, Daniely’s vision for leading Yissum, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University, is interesting. Instead of jealously holding on to patents and technologies for fear of losing royalties, he wants to make the interaction between his researchers and the industry closer, and become what he calls “a bridge” or a “facilitator” for technologies to realize their potentially global mission of bettering the world.

Mobileye provides technology in the area of software algorithms that could enable autonomous cars. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

“We need to be the ones that make sure that every single technology that is invented in academia gets a fair chance in the world,” said Daniely, speaking from the Tel Aviv offices of pharmaceutical firm Alcobra Ltd, where he served as president and chief executive officer since March 2010 until his appointment as CEO of Yissum a few months ago.

“If it gets a fair chance in the world, we are going to benefit from that. And so, we are actually going to be able to make more discoveries and better innovations,” he said. “So, instead of being the safeguards of university technologies,” he sees his role as becoming a “facilitator.”

Daniely is following the example of other international universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard, and Stanford, which have implemented similar policies, he said.

The idea is to “open up the gates. We believe the mission is not to protect university intellectual property (IP) but to make sure that both the university and the community enjoy the fruits of the academic research — and for that we need to be the bridge,” he said.

“The sum total benefit, if I push out 100 technologies, is greater than if I keep all of them to myself just because I am scared one of them will run away,” he added.

Unlike some of his predecessors at the job, Daniely does not have a legal background, but hails from the industry. He headed NanoCyte, Inc., an Israeli firm that develops transdermal delivery technologies, as well as Gamida Cell, a developer of cell therapy products. The son of an Israeli kindergarten teacher and a diamond cutter, Daniely, who grew up in Florida, holds a BSc degree in Biological Sciences from Florida International University, and a PhD from the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at the New York University School of Medicine. He served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute and has an Executive MBA from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology.

“I feel I can speak to investigators at eye level — I am extremely curious and fascinated by what they do in the lab,” he said. His friends, however, warned him that taking the job “was nuts” and a “horrible decision,” he said with a laugh.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Wikimedia Commons)

The reason is that Technology Transfer Institutes (TTIs) are perceived as being “kind of closed minded, almost adversarial to both sides of the equation,” he said. To the industry, TTIs are perceived as jealously preserving the university’s rights, even creating artificial barriers and difficulties to the commercialization of technologies. To the academia, TTIs are frowned upon as being too industry focused, too bent on making a buck out of hard-work research.

“It wasn’t a trivial decision, but it was based on the fact that I truly believe that on one hand it (the job) requires a mix of industry and academic experience to be able to make the required change in this organization,” he said.

Founded in 1964 to protect and commercialize the intellectual property of Hebrew University, Yissum has registered over the years more than 10,100 patents, covering 2,850 inventions, according to data provided by the TTI. It has licensed out some 880 technologies and has spun off some 110 companies. Products that are based on Hebrew University technologies, and were commercialized by Yissum, today generate over $2 billion in annual sales.

Among its blockbuster successes that are based on technologies developed at the university are pharmaceutical giant Novartis’s Exelon drug for dementia and Johnson & Johnson’s chemotherapy drug Doxil; Mobileye, of course, and seed technology — developed by the university’s agriculture faculty in Rehovot, that helps farmers around the world develop cherry tomatoes and baby peppers, for example.

Working against the odds

Data compiled by Columbia University — which has a world-leading tech transfer company, shows that just three out of 10 patents registered have a chance of getting licensed by firms, and the chances of that happening drop to 20 percent after 5 years.

Costs of filing a patent however, have surged to about $100,000 per patent, per country, Daniely said. “So now you have seven patents that you are maintaining that are never going to be licensed and three which may by licensed, but you are covering the entire 10,” he said. And even if you do license a patent, he said, the chances of it making money are slim. Based on the Columbia data, Daniely said, only one in 200 licenses “will make any kind of meaningful money.”

In addition, because the tech environment changes so quickly, discoveries today may actually be completely irrelevant by the time they are ready to make money. And that is a challenge, Daniely said.

That is why it is important to have a continuous flow of ideas and developments from the academia making their way to the industry.

“These are the kinds of things we are going to be doing over the next months and years,” he said. “We are going to make sure that we partner with industry and with our faculty to really transfer significantly more technology to the hands of entrepreneurs and industry and create significantly more innovation that is multidisciplinary and industry driven.”

Through collaboration, faculty members will know what the industry needs, while industry heads will get access to the best and brightest minds offered by the university, in a whole variety of disciplines.

An undated image of a farmer in the western Negev town of Kadesh Barnea inspecting a crop of cherry tomatoes. (Gili Yaari / Flash 90)

“I am the only single employer of computer scientists, philosophers, linguists, chemists, biologists, physicians, agricultural experts,” Daniely said. “I am in a unique position to facilitate exactly the type of multidisciplinary innovation that everyone is after.”

He believes the focus of Yissum will be in the field of life sciences, but also in agriculture — especially the fusion between agriculture and digital technology, which is something in which Israel can take a global lead, Daniely said.

Israel and Hebrew University can also lead in the intersection between healthcare and digitalization, he said, which is an area in which products make their way more quickly to the market and are cheaper than developing drugs.

“Yissum is going to serve its role in building the resources arenas the infrastructure to make sure that we generate innovations in those areas,” he said.

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