Arab Woman Blazes Trail in Israel’s High Tech Sector

Amal Ayoub’s biotech startup Metallo Therapy has raised $1.2 million and completed pre-clinical studies.

Yuval Tebol

Israel is proud to call itself a “start-up nation,” with more tech firms listed on Nasdaq than any other country outside the United States and China. But two elements are often missing from that success story: women and Arabs.

Amal Ayoub is hoping to change that.

An Israeli Arab from Nazareth, Ayoub is the founder and CEO of Metallo Therapy, a biomedical startup that has developed technology to better monitor the development of malignant tumors.

She has brought her company to the brink of commercial success with pre-clinical safety studies and plans for regulatory approval underway, thanks to investment from the Office of the Chief Scientist, from health-technology investment fund Arkin Holdings and from NGT3, an incubator helping Israeli Arabs.

But it has not been a straightforward path for the 38-year-old mother of two, who got a bachelor’s degree in physics at Technion Israel Institute of Technology and her doctorate in biomedical engineering from Ben-Gurion University.

“It is difficult for Arabs to be accepted at Israeli organizations,” said Ayoub.”It’s difficult to be integrated into Israel’s high-tech and biotech society.”

One of the biggest hurdles she faced was the fact that the country’s leading hotbed of innovation is the Israeli army, where relationships built up during military service can form the basis for future success. But very few Israeli Arabs, especially not women, do army service.

“Networking is not efficient in Arab society,” Ayoub said, referring to the lack of any similar structure to bring Arab entrepreneurs together for years at a time and develop lasting bonds.

She also had to overcome poor odds relating to employment for Israeli Arab women. Only 30% of those aged 25-64 are working, compared to 75% of people nationwide, figures from the Economy Ministry show.

Another problem was the difficulty of trying to build a network of biotech and financial contacts among the country’s small Arab population, which makes up about a fifth of the overall population of Israel.

Nizar Mishael, the chief financial officer of the NGT3 fund, said one factor holding back the community was its risk aversion. With Israeli Arabs finding it harder to secure good jobs and generally earning less than the average salary, holding down a decent job is preferable to taking risks on a startup, Mishael said.

Ayoub managed to raise $1.2 million to get Metallo Therapy off the ground and is in the process of raising another $2 million to complete safety studies in animals and start full clinical trials. She aims to expand the company to the point that it becomes an attractive acquisition target for a large drug company.

While the United States and Europe are likely to be the main markets for her technology, Ayoub hopes the 400-million-strong Arab world — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are both active in biomedical research — will also be interested.

“I know that some Arab countries don’t like to work with Israeli companies, but I hope that might be different for a company started by an Arab woman,” she said.

In the hope of encouraging other Israeli Arab entrepreneurs not to give up on their dreams, Ayoub meets them regularly to share advice and guidance.

“This is part of my agenda. There are not that many Arab entrepreneurs, but the number has been growing rapidly,” she said, pointing out that venture capitalists were “missing a huge opportunity” by not investing more in the sector.