Israeli start-up takes on ‘grand challenge’ of beating Zika

Biofeed, which targets disease-spreading mosquitoes, is one of 10 Israeli start-ups recognized for revolutionary technologies

Dr. Nimrod Israeli, CEO of Biofeed, next to one of the company's decoys (Courtesy)
Dr. Nimrod Israeli, CEO of Biofeed, next to one of the company's decoys (Courtesy)

An Israeli start-up called Biofeed has been awarded half a million shekels to advance its solution in the fight against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, carrier of the Zika virus.

Biofeed, along with nine other start-ups, was awarded the prize last week as part of the Grand Challenges Israel contest. Modeled on government-sponsored programs in the US, Canada, India, Brazil, China and others, the program invites entrepreneurs with innovative technology that could help solve problems in Africa, Asia, South America, and even poverty-stricken areas in the West to submit their ideas and projects. Last week, the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Economy Ministry, along with the Mashav international development division of the Foreign Ministry, chose the winners.

“Much of the world’s population is suffering from lack of food and access to clean water and exposure to diseases. Israeli entrepreneurs have developed technologies that will improve the quality of life for billions around the world.” said Mashav director Gil Haskel.

Count among those companies Biofeed, which uses odor to attract insects to the poison that will eventually wipe them and their colonies out. After isolating odors that attract insects like fruit flies or mosquitoes, the Biofeed tech slow-releases such an odor that mimics their mating partners or other attractions and gets them to feed on a poison-laden decoy, which they spread among others of their kind when they go home. The result is the elimination of an infestation without the need to spray pesticides on crops, since the pests in the area will be naturally attracted to the decoy.

“We bring the pest to the lethal substance and eliminate it, and the environment remains clean and safe. In the same way, we can also draw and exterminate disease-spreading pests like flies and mosquitoes, including the Aedes aegypti mosquito, carrier of the Zika virus,” according to CEO and founder Dr. Nimrod Israeli. “The breakthrough we made and winning Grand Challenges Israel opens up markets of hundreds of millions of dollars for us and has brought investors and companies from around the world.”

This is the second year Israel is sponsoring a Grand Challenges contest, part of a worldwide movement kicked off in 2003 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Originally aimed at developing treatments and cures for diseases plaguing the developing world (such as malaria), the scope of the Grand Challenge “movement” has expanded to encompass a wide range of needs and problems.

The ten companies chosen address such grand challenges. Among them: Amaizz, which is developing, along with a coalition of farmers in Kenya, a grain storage system that, via air flow mechanisms, anti bacterial and anti fungicide materials, will protect grains from pests, rodents, and theft; AseptoRay, which has developed a pasteurization solution that uses ultraviolet rays instead of heat to kill bacteria in liquids, reducing energy consumption by 73% and preserving vitamins; FIT, which has created an adjustable, custom-made prosthetic leg that “grows” with children, adjusting to height and leg size to allow continued use; and Sesomorex, which is researching small molecule compounds that have been shown to successfully battle cancer in mice.

While most Israeli start-ups are focused on developing tech solutions to solve advanced problems in advanced societies – such as speeding up networks, using big data to enhance medical care, and more – there is a growing movement of start-ups that are focusing on solving the “grand challenges” faced by the some 4 billion people who live in developing and poor countries. Among the groups that work with these start-ups is Tel Aviv University’s Pears Challenge for Innovation and International Development, where entrepreneurs develop new ideas that will help raise the incomes and living standards of small farmers in Africa.

“Africa is clearly the future of agriculture in the world,” said Dr. Aliza Belman-Inbal, who chairs the program. “It has 60% of the available uncultivated arable land in the world, and with the world set to double its population in the coming decades, we are going to have to produce a lot more food than we do now. Israel has a lot of experience and knowledge in these areas, and we believe that we can contribute a great deal to improving the situation in Africa.”

Economy Ministry Chief Scientist Avi Hasson would like to see more of those kinds of start-ups. The Grand Challenges program “brings to the fore Israel’s capabilities in technological innovation together with the well-known Israeli entrepreneurial spirit. A combination of doing good, contributing to global challenges and penetrating new markets, while gaining experience with initiatives aimed at atypical audiences with unusual challenges for Israeli industry, may bring Israeli entrepreneurs to vast new business opportunities.”

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