Pfizer, AstraZeneca chosen for lab to foster Israel biotech startups

Consortium of pharma and tech giants, including Merck, Teva, Amazon, will run new innovation lab to develop ecosystem, tap into new tech

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Doses of the Pfizer-Biontech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Magdeburg, eastern Germany, on December 27, 2020. (Ronny Hartmann / POOL / AFP)
Doses of the Pfizer-Biontech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Magdeburg, eastern Germany, on December 27, 2020. (Ronny Hartmann / POOL / AFP)

Pharma heavyweights Pfizer Inc, AstraZeneca Plc, Merck and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., together with tech giant Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the Israel Biotech Fund, have been chosen by the Israel Innovation Authority to set up an innovation lab to foster the creation of new startups developing cutting edge AI-based computational technologies that will help find personalized drugs and treatments for patients.

The establishment of the lab comes as the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how big pharma firms can benefit from tapping into new technologies. The rapid development of vaccines for the COVID-19 virus owes its success in large part to the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities deployed by Pfizer and Moderna, which have been the first to market with their COVID-19 vaccines, the Innovation Authority said in a statement. These areas are expected to become even more significant over the coming years, the Authority said.

Pfizer was the first pharma firm to get the green light from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its coronavirus vaccine, which is now being injected in Israel and globally. AstraZeneca, the British drug group, said on Sunday that the COVID-19 vaccine it is developing together with the University of Oxford provides “100 percent protection” against severe cases requiring hospitalization.

Amazon Web Services is the cloud computing arm of tech giant Amazon, and the Rehovot-based Israel Biotech Fund is a VC fund that invests exclusively in drug-developing biotech firms.

Aharon Aharon, CEO of the Israel Innovation Authority (Courtesy)

The lab is scheduled to open in 2021, and will be part of the innovation labs program set up by the Innovation Authority in 2017. The program seeks to prod international corporations into setting up these labs to support startups in their field of interest and to take part in the Israeli ecosystem by gaining exposure to a variety of innovative developments. For startup entrepreneurs, the labs present an opportunity to access technological infrastructure, market insights and industry expertise.

The consortium of the global pharma firms was selected via a competitive process held by the Innovation Authority together with the National Digital Ministry.

As part of the plan, the winning group will set up a “wet” lab at the Rehovot Science Park and invest in building a computational lab infrastructure to assist early-stage entrepreneurs and startups in their work, from the ideation stage to reaching proof of concept, the Innovation Authority said in a statement earlier this week. A wet lab is a carefully designed space, constructed and controlled to avoid spillage of potentially wet hazards and contamination.

The group has been awarded a five-year operational franchise, during which the Innovation Authority, together with the National Digital Ministry, will finance 85% of a total NIS 3 million ($934,000) budget for each startup that joins the lab. This will enable the startups “to reach significant milestones in their technological development,”‘ the statement said.

The Innovation Authority and National Digital Ministry will also participate in the operating costs and in setting up the lab’s infrastructure.

The lab will help the startups it works with to get access to the unique scientific knowhow of the pharma giants and to leading experts in the field, the statement said.

“This last year proved that the healthcare sector is rapidly transitioning to development and use of advanced technologies integrating engineering and biology, which has already led to more accurate results within a shorter time framework,” said Aharon Aharon, the CEO of the Innovation Authority, in the statement. The lab is also part of the “Bio-convergence Strategy” promoted by the Innovation Authority over the last year, aimed at establishing an ecosystem of startups working at the intersection of biology with engineering.

“The expertise and vast experience of the lab partners will enable these companies to establish a significant, trailblazing industry in Israel,” Aharon said.

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