Bringing Israeli life science talent back to its roots

Shmuel Hess: From MIT to Israel.Like so many other Israeli life science majors, the moment Shmuel Hess graduated from Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a doctorate in pharmacology, he packed his bags and set off for MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts …

Shmuel Hess: From MIT to Israel.Like so many other Israeli life science majors, the moment Shmuel Hess graduated from Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a doctorate in pharmacology, he packed his bags and set off for MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts to pursue post-doctoral studies.

He’s not unusual. There are currently an estimated 2,500 Israeli life scientists and doctors living in the US, and every year another 100 Israeli post-doctorates arrive there, along with a similar number of newly graduated doctors, seeking expertise in a specialty area.

“For anyone considering an academic career in the life sciences in Israel it’s more or less compulsory that you do post-doctoral studies overseas,” Hess tells ISRAEL21c. He points out that Israeli universities believe that it is important for budding life scientists to gain first-hand exposure to the workings of top-class labs and research institutes outside the country before seeking a position in Israel.

“The problem is that when the post-docs want to return there often aren’t positions available,” he adds.

An extended stay

Consequently, many post-docs end up extending their stay in the US for lengthy periods, if not permanently.

In 2006, Hess, together with another post-doctorate student, Gil Blander, and business development consultant Rami Lotem founded BioAbroad. The goal of the volunteer organization is to assist Israeli scientists, physicians and entrepreneurs living abroad to return to Israel, or to use their knowledge and skills to enhance Israel’s life sciences industry.

“We started out as a networking forum organizing social events in places like Boston and Washington with high concentrations of Israeli researchers and then we spread out across the US,” recalls Lotem, who serves as CEO.

To strengthen ties, BioAbroad invites guest speakers from Israeli universities as well as biotech and drug companies and organizes job fairs.

Today the organization has more than 530 members and its efforts have begun to bear fruit. “A recent BioAbroad-organized job fair resulted in Teva Pharmaceuticals recruiting 14 staff members from BioAbroad for its Israeli operations,” says Lotem.

BioAbroad has also started to tap into the entrepreneurial potential of its members.

“We found out that there was a shortage of new technologies for development in the incubators back in Israel,” says Lotem referring to Israel’s network of technology incubators, which provide infrastructure and business support for start-ups.

Tapping into Israeli potential

It was at a BioAbroad event that Hess first met Zvi Rubenstein and Etty Pirak, who head the Meytav Technological Incubator in Kiryat Shmona. Hess was excited to find out that Meytav could help him establish a start-up to develop a new technology he was working on.

This past August Hess returned to Israel and founded Active P in the Meytav incubator. The start-up, which aims to make it possible to take certain drugs orally, has raised NIS 2.4 million in funding.

Similarly, Pini Auerbach, an Israeli who previously worked at Epix Pharmaceuticals in Boston, recently decided to start his own company at the Meytav incubator. Today Auerbach heads Cyto D, which is developing anti-inflammatory drugs.

Lotem points out that while it is not realistic to expect the majority of Israeli researchers to return to Israel, “many may yet serve as consultants to Israeli companies, others may find other ways to get involved with Israeli businesses,” he observes, adding that he hopes that BioAbroad’s activities will lead to new ventures that will result in more positions being available for returning scientists.

BioAbroad’s next US event will take place on December 4 in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the headquarters of Genzyme, a leading biotechnology company. The guest speaker will be Zeev Zelig, the head of Genzyme’s Israel office.