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Israel Innovation Authority forms synthetic biology R&D company with $5m funding

New firm to facilitate ‘the future of industry’ by transferring knowledge from academia to startups in health, agriculture, energy, food tech, defense

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Startups and Business editor and reporter.

HyLabs' laboratories in Rehovot, Israel. (Courtesy)
HyLabs' laboratories in Rehovot, Israel. (Courtesy)

The Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) has formed a company that will provide synthetic biology research and services to emerging Israeli startups and established firms in the fields of healthcare, agriculture, energy, food tech, and defense and security.

Synthetic biology is a multidisciplinary scientific field that involves creating new biological entities and systems or redesigning existing ones to offer new capabilities. The technology is being used across industries to develop solutions such as new pharmaceutical drugs, vaccinations, diagnostic tools, food ingredients such as flavorings, bio-sensors, industrial materials, and biofuels, among many other applications.

The new (as-yet unnamed) company, announced last week by the IIA, will work to develop the technological infrastructure to allow Israeli companies to harness synthetic biology abilities, with initial funding of NIS 18 million ($5.5 million) for the first year.

The total budget for the initiative is expected to reach NIS 40 million ($12.38 million) subject to pre-defined targets, Aviv Zeevi, vice president of Technological Infrastructure Division at the IIA, told The Times of Israel. These include signing work contracts with Israeli companies and organizations, acquiring equipment and recruiting scientists and engineering professionals.

Zeevi said the endeavor was part of the IIA’s “strategy to develop advanced research facilities and bring together Israeli academia and industry” more efficiently.

“There are currently hardly any companies using synthetic biology technologies, a field that is much more developed in academia. We’re looking to connect that knowledge between the two sectors,” Zeevi explained, foreseeing “many more Israeli startups in this field in the coming 10-20 years.”

An illustrative image provided by Israeli diagnostics company HyLabs. (Courtesy)

To that end, the IIA’s new company was established in cooperation with Hy Laboratories (HyLabs), a Rehovot-based diagnostics company that develops tools to detect and identify microorganisms, and the new Innovation Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya (IDC) headed by Prof. Noam Lemelshtrich Latar.

“Synthetic biology combined with artificial intelligence is the future of industry in Israel,” said Lemelshtrich Latar in a phone interview, adding that these technologies touch upon fields like sustainability and agriculture where capabilities for better detecting air pollution, for example, could be advanced. “This is a great opportunity for the IDC to advance multi-disciplinary research and even expand into new areas.”

Dr. Roni Cohen, chief service laboratories officer at HyLabs and the incoming CEO of the new IIA company, told The Times of Israel that “synthetic biology can be thought of as the new industrial revolution because it can touch on every aspect of our lives.”

Dr. Roni Cohen, chief service laboratories officer at HyLabs and the incoming CEO of the new IIA company. (Courtesy)

As an example, he pointed to an exciting project currently being developed by NASA to grow a type of lettuce that could also serve as an antibiotic or painkiller for astronauts traveling to space, mitigating the need to bring along bottles of pills that may, in any case, lose effectiveness with time.

Using synthetic biology methods, scientists can also “make a type of fertilizer for the agricultural sector that uses no chemicals, only microorganisms which are less pollutant, cheaper, and faster,” Cohen said. Researchers can also produce bacteria to help detect and monitor soil contaminants, and eventually degrade them.

In the security and defense sector, synthetic biologists can produce bacteria that can help unearth mines or detect radars in enemy territory by attaching themselves to the materials and emitting fluorescents that can then be picked up by imaging technologies, he said.

And in the pharmaceuticals industry, scientists can design and engineer “smart” drugs that will target key areas in the body, depending on the condition or disease. “With cancer, think of it as the opposite of chemotherapy which can harm everything. It would be much more targeted therapy,” he said.

Professor Noam Lemestrich Latar, head of the Innovation Center at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). (Courtesy)

The possibilities, Cohen posited, are endless “even if they do sound like science fiction.”

The idea, said Zeevi of the IIA, is that Israeli and foreign firms will hire the new company to develop various applications based on their specific needs.

Zeevi added that the partnerships with the IDC and HyLabs presented two benefits. First, HyLabs is an established private company with nearly 50 years of experience providing microbiology and molecular biology products and services to a roster of clients. And second, the IDC is a relatively small university that will invest all its efforts in making the endeavor a success.

He indicated that a number of strategic partners have already expressed interest in the company’s services including two of Israel’s most prominent defense companies, Rafael and Elbit, as well as Ginkgo Bioworks, a private US biotech company founded by scientists from MIT.

The IIA company’s activities will be divided between HyLabs’ headquarters in Rehovot and the IDC campus in Herzliya.

“Everything starts with computational and bioinformatical biology, so the IDC will start by identifying the needed genes depending on the application, after which HyLabs will build the needed organism in a wet lab,” said Cohen. The next step is the functional screening and testing of the product, also at HyLabs, followed by the production of the microorganisms to be tested in a field lab, coordinated by the IDC.

Israel Innovation Authority CEO Dror Bin said in a statement that “after a year of extensive research, the authority identified synthetic biology as an innovative infrastructural field based on broad multidisciplinary ground-breaking knowledge in academia,” which will ideally lead to a host of new Israeli companies in the field.

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