Researchers at Israel’s nine universities excel in developing everything from sensors, solar power and robotics to 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and cancer therapies – to name just a few of the many fields where Israeli breakthroughs have made an impact in recent years. However, it’s one thing to invent something new and something else entirely to make that invention available to the world.
“We’re the bridge between academic research, the manufacturing industry and the market,” says Dr. Aviv Zeevi, who heads the Israel Innovation Authority’s Technological Infrastructure Division. “We provide tools and funding platforms for the entire ecosystem – the early-stage entrepreneurs, business leaders, mature companies who are developing new products and processes, traditional factories seeking to incorporate innovative and advanced manufacturing practices, academic groups looking to transform their ideas into reality, Israeli companies in search of markets abroad, and global corporations who want to collaborate with Israeli technology.”
At one end of the bridge, Dr. Zeevi continues, are research institutes and universities, which provide fertile soil for research and innovation. Taxpayer-funded, they give researchers freedom to explore new ideas and develop basic knowledge. Israel is ranked fifth in the world in patents per capita and fourth for research personnel.
At the bridge’s other end are industry and the private sector, continually looking to upgrade and innovate – but, with their eyes closely on the bottom line, preferring to buy and validate new knowledge rather than sponsor generic R&D whose return is, at an optimistic best, years down the line.
The Innovation Authority bridges between the two through its Knowledge Commercialization program. “We work from both ends,” says Dr. Zeevi. “We encourage academia to find the solutions which the market needs by pushing them to cooperate with an Israeli company that might embrace the knowledge, and to focus their research on joint mature proof of concept outside the lab. We lower the commercial risk undertaken by industry with a toolbox of funding and expert guidance for validation of the knowledge and adapting it to the company's needs while training its workforce to embrace the new knowledge.”
The story of HIL Applied Medical is a case in point. Based on research at Hebrew University, HIL Applied Medical is developing a new class of radiation treatment that uses protons at high energy to destroy cancer cells. It combines nanotechnology with high-intensity lasers and ultra-fast magnets to pave the way to easy, cost-effective proton therapy in the doctor’s office. The researchers patented the unique particle acceleration and ultra-high-intensity beam delivery they developed. The next stage was adding the advanced magnetics that will reduce the size, complexity and enormous cost of proton therapy systems, without compromising their clinical utility.
“This was where they ran into a serious problem,” says Dr. Zeevi. “The technology for the magnet design doesn’t exist in Israel. We connected HIL Applied with a CERN team in Europe (European Organization for Nuclear Research), uncertain whether they would be open to joining the project. They were, and, together with HIL, were able to prove the concept. Development of these new, ultra-compact, high-performance proton therapy systems, which promise so much, has begun.”
Necessity, despite being the mother of invention, is not the only reason that Israel makes such a profound and disproportionate contribution to global innovation. Nor can its impact be exclusively laid at the feet of its creative academics, daring entrepreneurs or even the technologically-trained Russian immigrants of the 1990s, although each plays a role in its success. Israel is a world player because these factors and more are brought together into a unique economic ecosystem – a synthesis accomplished and led by the Israel Innovation Authority, an independent, impartial, publicly funded agency.
Streamlining a range of government efforts to boost Israel’s technological economy since the 1970s, the Authority is invested with an annual budget of some $400 million, and responsibility for the country’s innovation policy, strengthening the infrastructure of its knowledge industry, and orchestrating the essential collaboration between academia and private initiative. The Innovation Authority is not only supporting the mature knowledge ‘on the shelf’ but also making sure to create a sustainable and innovative deal flow of academic applied knowledge.
Last year, researchers in Israeli academia applied to the Authority to receive support for 411 projects, of which 138 of them were approved for up to 90% of their program costs – a total of NIS 67 million. It allocated a further NIS 178 million to 15 consortia of experts from academia and industry. “We’re open to anything that serves as a growth engine to Israel’s economy,” says Dr. Zeevi.
Smart transportation, Natural Language Processing and more
The successful products and services which started as funded projects of academic knowledge transfer cover a large range of fields, including electro-optical thermal sensors which protect aircrafts; economic storage technology of solar energy and its conversion into electricity; smart transportation which makes driving safer, gives green solutions to transport logistics and even finds parking spaces; more secure communications and vast computing power; and biotechnological innovations such as cancer therapies, cell-free DNA diagnosis, smart wound-dressing, therapeutic antibodies and biological adhesives, among others. “Particular fields in high demand at the moment are bio-convergence and artificial intelligence (AI), which are likely to become as important as electricity or the steam engine,” notes Dr. Zeevi.
Another important emerging field, although at an earlier stage of development, is CRISPR technology. “CRISPR is about genetic editing,” explains Dr. Zeevi. “A consortium of bioinformatics, biotechnology and plant and animal agriculture expertise is developing a generic, AI-based solution to increase its accuracy and safety. The aim is to enable the repair and/or disabling of genes involved in disease – in people, livestock and crops – to improve health, wellbeing and agricultural produce. We believe this will be a breakthrough project, and we’ve allocated it NIS 80 million over the next three years.”
A developing technology which suffers from a market failure in Israel is Natural Language Processing (NLP): programming computers to ‘understand’ vast amounts of information in Hebrew and Arabic down to their contexts and nuances, to extract information and insights from it, and to categorize and organize the material. The English-based NLP tools are very advanced while the tools able to retrieve insights for Hebrew-based data are far behind. With the Innovation Authority covering 66% of the cost of designing and establishing the project’s infrastructure, some 20 companies of computer scientists, language technology recognition specialists, AI experts and developers are modeling the structural elements of Hebrew and Arabic linguistics and mapping how they are used. Clients waiting for these computerized systems of Hebrew and Arabic come from the worlds of high-tech, banking, insurance, communications, health, education, tourism, government, security systems and intelligence.
Thriving despite the pandemic
Whereas CRISPR is still in its early stage, this past year – the year of Covid-19 – has seen nine Authority-supported projects sufficiently advanced to launch as new companies. Spring Biomed Vision is making good progress: it is an inexpensive, easy-to-implement way of mapping the oxidative state of biological tissue – at this stage, the retina. Its technology uses algorithms to turn a multi-spectral image (an image comprised of data collected across the electromagnetic spectrum) into a tissue oxidation map, similar to a topographic map, enabling diagnosis of eye and systemic disease far earlier than now possible.
Prof. Boaz Mizrahi of the Technion has developed a novel technology for biodegradable sealants for human tissue that is being commercialized by Nurami Medical thanks to the Innovation Authority’s MAGNETON knowledge transfer program. Nurami Medical’s expertise lies in producing sheets of nano/microfibers through electrospinning for the soft tissue substitute market. The MAGNETON-funded project uses these technologies to create a synthetic post-surgery sealant that attaches to the patient’s tissues during surgery and remains inside the body. The sealant is made of material that is resilient to extreme physiologic conditions and is biodegradable.
The birth of nine new companies based on knowledge funded by MAGNETON projects, indeed the continued flourishing of high-tech in Israel during this past year, did not happen of its own accord. “With nothing anywhere escaping the fallout of the coronavirus crisis, Israel’s high-tech ecosystem had to rethink and adjust to the changed demands and circumstances of the new reality,” Dr. Zeevi explains. “Along with everything and everyone else, it faced infection, fear, uncertainty and lockdowns. We helped the country’s high-tech sector demonstrate agility, out-of-the-box thinking and multidisciplinary perspectives, which enabled many companies and start-ups to adjust their technologies, developments and products. We attuned the Authority’s toolset to give tech companies the necessary financial runway not only to survive but also to thrive and to be well prepared for the technologies yet to come in the next few years.”
To do this, he continues, the Authority took a multi-pronged approach. One was addressing the health crisis itself by helping companies find solutions to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Second was providing tools to help the tech industry weather the financial crisis, and the liquidity difficulties it brought. “To do this, we launched a Fast-Track Program to get grants rapidly to innovative young companies facing a cash-flow crunch,” he explains. “We also developed a special initiative to encourage the institutional capital market to invest in local high-tech in Israeli growth companies. The third prong was about the high-tech human capital crisis. For this, we introduced re-training and on-the-job training programs, with job placement for their graduates.” And the last one is to create a generic knowledge base for the next 3-8 years.
“We’re standing at the forefront of a new era,” believes Dr. Zeevi. “Its technologies – sensors, communications, low-cost transferring and processing massive amounts of data, quantum technologies and the development of artificial intelligence – will predict and produce quality insights in virtually every field. Nations which understand these technologies, harness them and apply machine wisdom to solving crucial problems will flourish. Israel is among them.”
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