Can Tech Solve Israel’s ‘Biologist Problem’?

Israel is banking on ‘bioconvergence’ and wants to more scientists working in bio and health tech

Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen
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A researcher observes a CRISPR/Cas9 process through a stereomicroscope
A researcher observes a CRISPR/Cas9 process through a stereomicroscope Credit: Gregor Fischer / dpa Picture-All
Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen

The Israeli government plans to launch a new national program in health technology in the hope of increasing the number of companies in the field and foster the growth of heath-tech Israel, which now often goes by the name “bioconvergence.”

The goal is to encourage the formation of companies that combine engineering, hardware and software to develop biological and health technology.

For example, formulating new drugs using AI and 3D printing of human tissue and organs, nanorobotics that transport drugs through the body, genetic bio-engineering (for example, CAR-T, in which immune systems undergo genetic engineering to attack cancer cells) and others.

Last year, the Innovation Authority budgeted 200 million shekels ($61 million) for various projects in the field, including grants, calls for international collaboration, practical research and establishing dedicated technology incubators.

Anya Eldan, who heads the Innovation Authority’s startup and business development division, told Haaretz that the “goal is that in another 10 years we’ll have here a critical mass of winning companies in medical technology in order to avoid seeing Israel lag behind the world.”

Anya Eldan: 'In high-tech, there’s a shortage of personnel, in the life sciences there’s an excess of human capital'Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Eldan explained that “while in high-tech, there’s a shortage of personnel, in the life sciences there’s an excess of human capital. Biologists with master’s degrees and doctorates work for ridiculous pay. The idea is to build a new growth engine based on manpower that is currently wasted.”

The Innovation Authority believes that bioconvergence companies, for which there is typically one engineer for every 4-5 biologists, will solve this problem of market failure. Because today Israelis with biology degrees so rarely get exposure to other high-tech disciplines or to programming, one of the key recommendations expected to be included in the new program is to include that kind of training into a biology degree

The aim is two-fold –  to enable biologists and engineers to work together efficiently in bioconvergence and speak the same language and to make biology graduates relevant to the high-tech industry, which today is suffering a labor shortage.

“We’re a small country with little money, and the company that we do have is invested in growing internet companies and not in companies with the double risk of engineering and biology. There’s a risk that we’ll wake up in a few years to discover that the leading centers in the field were created in other places around the world,” she said.

One of the main issues the committee must grapple with is the imbalance of human resources in Israel in biology. The Innovation Authority notes that Israel has a “biologist problem,” namely that the country has a large number of quality biologists but that they are not put to good use or even end up working in the field.

Figures from Sagi Dagan, head of the Innovation Authority’s growth division, show that some 1,500 men and women begin degrees in biology every year, equivalent to the number pursuing law, economics and engineering degrees. But, in contrast to programs such as computer science or the engineering professions, there isn’t a lot of work for people with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Moreover, pay for them is 20 percent to 50 percent less than the average for engineering, law and economics graduates with a BA.

As a result, 77% of those getting a BA in biology continue to their masters and 45% to a doctorate. At any given time, there are 3,000 Israeli doctoral candidates in biology, which creates a strong foundation for an industry in theory; in practice, only a third of biology PhDs actually work in their field. Only about 12,000 biology graduates work in the field, compared with 37,500 who were awarded degrees in the discipline over the last 25 years. That is one of the poorest ratios between a field of study and profession in Israel.

The committee recently named by the TELEM Forum, which comprises the Council for Higher Education, the Israel Innovation Authority, defense, science and finance ministries, and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, is expected to recommend later this year launching the biology program. 

The director of the program, which will be similar to other national undertakings Israel has launched in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, will then be tasked with assembling the resources to move forward with the plan.

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